Altered States

You know it is election season when politicians lay out the platitudes.

You know it is election season when politicians lay out the platitudes.  Things like, "children should be in school" and "workers deserve jobs."  Statements no sane person would disagree with or contest.  Of course, any difficulties in achieving these noble goals are conveniently left by the wayside.  Children should be in school, but this presupposes that there are sufficient funds to build classrooms and hire teachers, and that the economic life of the country is sufficiently developed so that parents do not need to send their children to work in the factory or the fields to ensure survival.

It is regrettable, however, that the speeches of the President and the Democratic leadership last night failed to connect a "grand vision" for the world with actual events on the ground, and how we as Americans (and our friends and partners around the world) should reconcile that vision with problems we face in implementing it.

The President believes in the "forward scout" model of American leadership: the United States will identify the threats to world peace and stability and proceed to neutralize them.  To the extent that other nations agree with America's assessment and recommended solution, there can be said to be an "international coalition" behind the United States, but America's scouting conclusions are not open to debate by others in the rear.  (This also fits well with a view about the "laziness" of Europeans, content to let America do the heavy lifting to make the world safe while our cousins across the Atlantic continue with their projects of peaceful unification.)

There is, of course, a major problem with this approach: it assumes that threats are universal.  Put another way, that a threat to the United States is automatically a threat to other powers.  Put even a third way, that something that is not a threat to the United States is not a threat to global peace and security.  It was very interesting, for example, to hear the list of countries affected by terrorism cited by the President.  Colombia, India, and Russia, among others, did not make the list.  The implication that some will conclude is that international terrorism that does not strike U.S. interests or allies is perhaps not international terrorism.

The President also reiterated a commitment to spreading democracy.  Left unstated is the timetable and the means.  Too great of an emphasis on elections and too little on the institutions needed to support the development of genuinely open, liberal societies is a recipe for disaster.  No country or culture should be written off as "anti-democratic"; but this desire to spread freedom must not overlook the much more successful track record of evolution rather than revolution in creating sustainable democracies--one only need compare South Korea with Belarus to see the difference.

There is also an assumption that people will use "freedom" in the same way as Americans; that free Iraqis or Afghanis will be, ipso facto, aligned with American security and economic interests.  In these pages, Ray Takeyh and I have pointed out why such assumptions are flawed.  This is not to argue against pursuing democratization; but it is a call to be realistic about it--that democratization does not equal Americanization.

For their part, the Democrats work from a "safety in the pack" model.  The more that U.S. interests are enmeshed with other countries, the safer America becomes.  Consensus allows for joint action.  This, of course, suffers from a similar predicament as the Bush model.  It assumes that other states will see threats to the United States as threats to their own well-being.  More importantly, it offers no way to get around the "free rider" mentality.  I argued back in September that one of the problems in coping with the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula was that other states were prepared to "sit back" and let the U.S. "solve" the problem without much effort on their part.  This is what may stymie efforts to forge alliances and coalitions to solve some of the pressing problems faced by the world.

One troubling sign is the growth of "zero-sum" foreign policy politics on both sides of the aisle.  The president reiterated last night a theme that has been taken up in recent months by Administration representatives and supporters: that the choice lies between doing something "the Bush way" or inaction.  Democrats have shown a tendency to focus on critiquing the Bush approach without providing concrete alternatives.  (And here I mean politicians rather than thinkers; in the winter 2003/04 issue of The National Interest, Zbigniew Brzezinski, for example, proposes an "active strategic partnership" between the United States and Europe and lays out the formulation of a common agenda.)

But if last night is any indicator, there isn't going to be a substantive debate over the direction and aims of American foreign policy as we move closer to the elections. 

And the American people are the losers in this.  No matter whether you support the president's actions or not, in a republic, policies should be debated and explored by the elected representatives.  "Finishing the mission" cannot substitute for reasoned analysis of what America's fundamental interests are.  In the pages of this magazine (both virtual and actual) and in other journals and periodicals, this debate is ongoing--and limited to a small group of specialists.  But it seems the politicians are prepared to abdicate this responsibility--and so deprive the American general public of understanding what is at stake.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the editor of In the National Interest.