Vesting Shareholders

In deciding what to write for this week's column, I decided that now is not the time to re-invent the wheel, and that some of the points I raised in an article appearing in this fall's The National Interest need to be reiterated.

In deciding what to write for this week's column, I decided that now is not the time to re-invent the wheel, and that some of the points I raised in an article appearing in this fall's The National Interest need to be reiterated.

I remain intrigued by the question of why other states - including the major powers apart from Britain - continue to use Iraq as a way to stymie American leadership.  After all, other states recognize the value of American leadership in maintaining an "international system, which provides for open seas, open trade and open societies lightly defended."(1) Very few countries would consider it to be in their interest to see the United States disengage from the world, especially if the alternative would mean a resumption of regional rivalries, destabilizing arms races and accelerating tensions.

Even China, which for several decades rejected the legitimacy of the post-World War II international system, has found that its "market-oriented reforms and growing economic interdependence, both regionally and globally, have begun to challenge these principles." Beijing has found that it too benefits from an American-led international system that has enabled it to modernize and develop via free trade with other states, especially the United States. As a result, some within the Chinese foreign policy establishment are calling for Beijing to "forge a new type of security relationship with the United States." (2)

But the crisis over Iraq has demonstrated the limits of unilateral American action and has highlighted the importance of the quid pro quo in conducting diplomacy. If other countries lack a stake in a particular outcome desired by Washington, or, more importantly, if they see nothing specific to gain by placating the United States on a particular issue, they will not support U.S. actions. Clearly, this was the case with Iraq, even more so because the White House itself signaled to its partners that "[n]o matter what position they take" on the Iraq issue, "we will continue to have important relations with them beyond any decisions that are made."

A country may earnestly desire to be a partner of the United States, but this in no way means that it ceases to pursue its own national interests. Indeed, its very desire to seek closer relations with Washington is based on an assessment that such an arrangement will be beneficial (greater access to U.S. markets, extension of the American "security umbrella" to encompass the given country, and so on). Historically, the United States has offered alliance on easy terms, placing few demands on its partners and preferring to see them "as a pool of potential volunteers rather than conscripts to its cause", as Lord Black noted in his article in the Fall 2003 issue of The National Interest. Yet there comes a point when an ally or partner of the United States must assess whether support for the United States and the pursuit of its national interests are compatible.

So, the challenge for the United States is to conceptualize its interests in order to create a hierarchy of foreign policy priorities. Too often since the end of the Cold War, the United States has adopted a "Christmas tree" approach to foreign policy-hanging on all sorts of conditions (oftentimes very minor or petty issues) as a price for other states to pay for the continuation of normal, bilateral relations. This has to change. Two years ago, Dimitri K. Simes advised in the Thanksgiving 2001 issue of The National Interest: "The United States . . . needs to be flexible, creative and realistic in establishing its priorities and addressing seriously the unpleasant but inevitable trade-offs that arise among conflicting policy objectives."

This includes setting out targeted goals and searching for the tools to achieve them. One of the problems with depending on ad hoc "coalitions of the willing" to pursue U.S. interests is that there is no guarantee that other coalition partners will supply adequate amounts of troops, equipment or money to ensure equitable burden-sharing. In contrast, focused and specific agreements with other countries-laying out not only specific duties but also the benefits both parties expect to receive-would better serve our interests.

This has to be the strategy we pursue in order to achieve our goals in Iraq. For example, if we cannot establish a stable democracy and withdraw U.S. forces in the shortest possible amount of time, will we choose to empower an autocratic regime capable of implementing gradual reforms or will we commit to a long-term deployment of U.S. forces to Iraq for "as long as it takes?" If we cannot have an effective Iraqi leadership that is also unfailingly pro-American, do we want effective rulers capable of holding the country together or weak but pro-American leaders who may end up presiding over a failed state? What do we need from countries like Russia (UN Security Council support), India (large numbers of peacekeepers) or Germany (financial contributions), and what are we prepared to offer in exchange?

Foreign policy need not become an "Oriental bazaar" (in Putin's words), but the rules of the marketplace apply no less to the conduct of international affairs as they do to business transactions. The United States may believe that its causes are just, but it must provide incentives nonetheless for its partners to join in shared enterprises. If other states are invested in continued American leadership of the international system, it becomes their own national interest to have that leadership be successful. If the United States fails to make other countries shareholders, however, not only will its leadership appear bankrupt, it will become increasingly difficult to secure its vital interests. This is no way to run a profitable international order.


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