Why Change is Not Coming

This is a “change” election, or so we hear from the media and the candidates. Three new books show that at least on foreign policy, starting anew won’t be that easy.

Both presidential candidates promise "change" if elected. In terms of foreign policy, both Senators McCain and Obama talk about restoring and enhancing America's leadership of the community of nations-and feel that recent setbacks that have occurred under the watch of George W. Bush can be overcome. The implication is that it is indeed possible to return to the status quo ante Bush of the year 2000.

But a trio of new books suggests why this is going to be highly unlikely. Thomas M. Nichols' Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) takes a hard look at an increasingly dysfunctional international system and notes that the "cat"-the concept of preventive war-is now out of the bag. "When even the Vatican starts talking about ‘the need for prompt intervention, indeed prevention of acts of terrorism,' as Pope John Paul II's foreign secretary did in 2004, it should be clear that something important is changing in the international community." David B. H. Denoon's The Economic and Strategic Rise of China and India (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) crunches the hard numbers to demonstrate the major structural changes underway that are shifting power-especially economic-to the major continental powers of Asia-meaning that there is no return to the status quo of the past decade. Dennis C. Jett's Why American Foreign Policy Fails (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) points the finger squarely at American domestic politics-and how special interests impede the emergence of a grand strategy.

Nichols-the Forrest Sherman Chair of Public Diplomacy at the Naval War College (full disclosure: I will become Nichols' colleague this fall)-chronicles how two trends-decreasing confidence that the Security Council is prepared to act as one to authorize all necessary measures to preserve the peace and security of the world and the growing concern about instantaneous threats (terrorist attacks and so on)-are eroding traditional constraints on the use of force. When I finished reading his work, I could not help but escape the impression that even if the Bush administration had not chosen to go to war in Iraq in 2003, that sooner or later the doctrine of "preventive war" would have been invoked. Moreover, even the problems with the way that war has been prosecuted have produced "little evidence that events in Iraq will dissuade any of the great powers from taking smaller and more manageable actions" in the future. Indeed, Nichols sees as the preeminent challenge facing the international community whether or not acts of preventive war can be regulated within some sort of durable framework. We could be entering an era where the international system becomes even more anarchic; we could end up with an informal concert where the major powers do what they want in a haphazard fashion; or the major stakeholders could renegotiate elements of the post-World War II system. This third way would depend, in my opinion, in large part on a Sino-American dialogue where the Chinese (and many in the developed world) would acknowledge certain limits on sovereignty in return for the U.S. (and the "Western world") committing to work within agreed limits on its global freedom of action. Nichols is blunt-"for many Americans-myself among them-this is a painful prospect"-but this may be the only way to engender true burden sharing. (Of course, there is a reciprocal arrangement that Beijing, Moscow, New Delhi and others may find difficult: that "the international community be an actual community" defined by norms and values that "will not tolerate thugs, madmen and genocidal fanatics in their ranks.")

I can't speak for Nichols-but my sense, at least from what has been coming out from both campaigns-is that neither an Obama or McCain administration would be prepared to move down the direction of formulating the terms "to restrain the use of American might in exchange for the protections of a common defense." Nichols' fear is that this might then lead to the international order being "swept away in a torrent of competing preventive actions, all of which might be well intentioned attempts in the short term" to save a liberal global system but "in the long term will collectively destroy it as surely as any major conflagration."

Jett, a career foreign service officer, provides an explanation as to why America seems unable to exercise effective leadership around the world: a dysfunctional domestic policy process where various "iron triangles" (special interests, lobbyists, think tanks, members of Congress and the executive branch, businesses and the media) jostle for position. Jett, now retired from government (and the dean of the International Center at the University of Florida) pulls no punches in this work. The entire Washington foreign policy community-appointed and elected officials, bureaucrats, the media, the think tank world and academia-comes in for some harsh (and what some here might consider unfair) criticism-including some prominent individuals who have also been TNI authors. There is a reason Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, describes Jett's book as a "bracing read" marked by "acerbic analysis."