One Year On: Power, Purpose and Strategy in American Foreign Policy

The End of a Contradiction?

Robert W. Tucker

In 1996, I wrote a piece in this magazine on what I considered to be the great issue of American foreign policy: the contradiction between the persisting desire to remain the premier global power, with its order-sustaining role, and an ever deepening aversion to bearing the costs of this position. In the decade that followed the end of the Cold War, debate over U.S. foreign policy centered for the most part on the costs. This was the major issue in the debate over whether to intervene in Bosnia, the debate being marked even on the interventionist side by a disjunction between interests avowed and costs rejected. It was uncommon to hear the point made that the ends of foreign policy must become more modest if the means were to shrink, though the proposition borders on the self-evident. Instead, endless discussion and debate went on over the costs of a role that was largely taken for granted.

Seen from a year's distance, September 11 dramatically narrowed the contradiction between the ends, or purposes, of U.S. foreign policy and the means available to achieve them. What happened on that day refocused the American people's attention on foreign policy as few events could. A crisis had arisen in which we were seriously and directly threatened. By comparison, even the crisis leading to the Gulf War was not in the same category. September 11 has gone a long way toward restoring something resembling the pre-Vietnam consensus over foreign policy, with its deference to the judgment of the president in determining what our vital interests are and when a threat to these interests justifies the use of force. A willingness to approve the means necessary to wage the war on terrorism, as President Bush conceives the meaning of that war, is the visible result. In turn, this result cannot be easily distinguished from a readiness to grant the means necessary to pursue the larger purpose of American power, that of providing order to a fractious world. Indeed, the administration considers the two purposes inseparable, the terrorist threat simply being, in its view, the greatest threat among many to order in the world today.

Moreover, the cost in American casualties of the war on terror has to date appeared to support the optimistic expectation entertained at the time of the Gulf War that a way has been found to avoid bearing the costs normally attending the use of military power. It was this expectation that figured so importantly in the first President Bush's declaration that the nation had "kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." Many observers argued in the wake of the Gulf War that the circumstances attending that conflict were quite unusual and must account in large part for the low casualties. The campaign in Afghanistan, however, has given added credibility to earlier claims made on behalf of a new military technology. Thus the anticipation of modest casualties has been joined to what is seen as the compelling purpose of ridding the world of the evil of terrorism.

What we have today, then, is a foreign policy less beset by contradiction, but that is increasingly militarized as a result of what has become its dominating purpose. Along with this purpose go a number of recognizable traits, above all, a revived sense of mission--in this case, a mission cast in universal terms as the defeat of "every terrorist group of global reach" and a willingness to use the means considered necessary to achieve this mission. It is only in a purely formal sense, however, that the achievement of this mission resembles that of a normal war; that is, the defeat of the enemy. As the President has pointed out on more than one occasion, just because you cannot see the enemy does not mean that he is not there, in any of a number of countries, waiting to strike at you in a multitude of ways. If so, it is, in practice, a war without a readily identifiable end. It is also a war without geographical limits. And it is a war in which the will to strike first is seen as indispensable to effective defense.

All three of these characteristics make multilateral action inherently difficult, if only because they imply an open-ended commitment. It is generally recognized that one effect of September 11 has been to exaggerate this administration's disposition toward unilateralism. Faced with a choice between allies and mission, the administration has to date shown little inclination to sacrifice its view of mission; in the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: "The worst thing you can do is allow a coalition to determine what your mission is." The prospect beckons that the war on terrorism is one we may eventually have to fight alone, even if, upon reflection, we would prefer to have more active allies than we sought out in the initial stages of the Afghanistan campaign. If we cast a wide enough net, we will almost certainly have to fight it alone.