Anyone who takes the trouble to examine the current debate over the nation's foreign policy cannot but be struck by its diffuse character. To be sure, past debates also had a diffuse side, raising as they did, questions of the nation's role and purpose in the world. But these broad issues were considered in the context of a specific policy issue. The major debates over foreign policy since the 1930s all responded to what was seen as a great power threat to America's security and centered about the question of how to respond to such a threat.
The contemporary debate is evidently different. Although the security issue remains central, the absence of a great power threat gives it a quite different cast. Today's debate revolves largely around what may be termed the prior question, that is, the question of identifying what may constitute serious threats to America's security in the post-Cold War world. Its diffuse character reflects the varied responses that have been given to this question. In turn, the different responses reflect disagreement over the nature of the international system in the post-Cold War world. In the absence of some defining event or trend, the significance of which compels general recognition, we must expect this state of affairs to persist.
Meanwhile, the prevailing theme of the contemporary dialogue is "foreign policy adrift." It is one widely shared by participants who otherwise have quite different views on what the new moorings should be. The theme of foreign policy adrift of course is not to be taken literally. What is usually meant is not that the nation's foreign policy no longer has any moorings, but that what moorings it has respond to the world of yesterday, not of today and tomorrow. The expression--and its several equivalents--is rather intended to convey the need for change, both in our understanding and our policies.