Ready, Fire, Aim: Prioritizing U.S. Interests

 In last week's "Realist", I spoke about the need for the United States to pursue targeted alliances with other powers-limited, focused arrangements that covered specific needs (intelligence-sharing, troop deployments, and so on).

 In last week's "Realist", I spoke about the need for the United States to pursue targeted alliances with other powers-limited, focused arrangements that covered specific needs (intelligence-sharing, troop deployments, and so on).  Of course, for this strategy to work, the government has to have thought out what its interests really are, creating a hierarchy of interests and priorities. 

The Cold War made prioritizing easy.  All other interests were subordinated to the first goal of stemming and rolling back the Soviet threat.  In current conditions, however, it is not so easy.  Even the lack of a clear, all-encompassing term to describe the world scene (are we still post-Cold War or now post-post-Cold War?) reflects some of the confusion we face. 

This often translates into an inability to pursue targeted goals.  In the summer issue of The National Interest, C. Ford Runge offers the example of how U.S. foreign aid to Mali, an important Muslim West African state is undercut by U.S. agricultural policy.  While Mali received $40 million in assistance, U.S. cotton subsidies to farmers has depressed the world-wide price of cotton, causing Mali to lose over $30 million in revenue.  Thus, by working at cross ends, the United States is "effectively wiping out three quarters of the value of U.S. aid." 

U.S. policy toward GUUAM--the grouping of former Soviet states set up largely to counter Russian influence in Eurasia--is likewise buffeted by similar inconsistencies.  The United States has decided to prop up the faltering association by promising $64 million for joint projects.  It is not clear that this sum of money, however, will really be able to revitalize this organization-and at the same time it is an unnecessary irritant in our relationship with the Russian Federation.  The goals being promoted could easily be done via the American bilateral relationship with each of the individual member-states. 

There are numerous examples where different agencies of the government are working at cross-purposes.  Some have blamed the influence of commercial interests and lobbies for "distortions" in American policy.  Yet, it is to be expected that, in our system of government, different groups will seek to influence policy; the idea of a "pure" national interest that only a chosen, isolated few "professionals" can articulate is mistaken. 

Yet, there does need to be a framework where competing claims can be assessed.  It is ludicrous to try and create a new Soviet-style enemy (say, by "promoting" China or "reassessing" Europe as the "new" superpower threat to U.S. hegemony) for the sake of clarity in policy-making.  Yet, it is not clear, as Charles Krauthammer noted almost two years ago, that the war against international terrorism can provide a new "organizing principle" for American foreign policy.  The war is as vague as the shadowy groups who comprise the new enemy. 

So, is it in U.S. interests - in the fight against terrorism - to support a strong, centralized Chinese state, or does Beijing's attempts to hold China together simply create conditions that fosters increased terrorism?  Is it better to accommodate Uighur, Chechen or Abkhaz separatists or not?  Successfully combating terrorism does not provide a great deal of guidance for policies, since anything can be said to promote or inhibit terrorism (after all, one of the arguments against the use of force in Iraq would be that it would accelerate terrorism, just as one of the arguments in favor of the use of force was that regime change in Iraq was a necessary component in the war on terror). 

Similarly, the great debates-over "unilateralism" versus "multilateralism", promoting democracy or promoting stability, active intervention versus containment-misses the essential point.  All of these approaches are tools, not ends in and of themselves.   

The world right now is in a "stunned" phase, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.  Yet this period of amazement (and of other powers reassessing their plans) will not last indefinitely.   Now is the time for the United States to begin to lay out a firm set of foreign policy priorities that send clear messages to friends, partners and enemies alike as to our intentions.   


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest