A Bridge Too Far

A Bridge Too Far

Mini Teaser: Washington's millenarians and their imaginary world.

by Author(s): Lawrence F. Kaplan

The new millennium arrives with few apocalyptic prophecies. In fact, its approach is having a giddy and, in some cases, narcotic effect on otherwise sober minds. Nowhere has that effect been more in evidence than among those forward-thinking members of Washington's foreign policy community: "At the dawn of a new millennium, we can envision a new era that escapes the twentieth century's darkest moments, fulfills its most brilliant possibilities", President Clinton exults. "The forces of global integration are a great tide, inexorably wearing away the established order of things."

This vision, which has shaped the contours of American foreign policy for most of the past decade, responds to multiple needs unrelated to foreign policy as such. It offers assurance that complex questions of politics and history have been resolved, that autonomous forces will sweep up the detritus of a horrible century, all but making politics and policy irrelevant. Thus, responding to the 1998 Indian nuclear tests, Mr. Clinton advised India "to define [its] greatness in 21st century terms, not in something we've left behind." He likewise enjoined China's sclerotic leadership to get on "the right side of history", confiding to reporters that one of his purposes in visiting with Chinese officials was "to create for them a new and different historical reality." In the President's telling, that reality reduces to a simple narrative of material progress and moral improvement, the benefits of which may already be glimpsed in a New Middle East, an African Renaissance and even in a strategic partnership with China.

Now, ideally, a nation's foreign policies derive from an assessment of the world around it and its own political values. Alas, the millennial paradigm has evolved in response to nothing more than excitement over a calendar date. Recent history, after all, has plainly and quickly confounded the expectation that the post-Cold War era would be a period of international harmony.

And, yet, untroubled by contrary trends, those who presently guide the fortunes of the world's only superpower insist that the twenty-first century will abolish the complexities of international politics. Specifically, it is expected to accomplish this as a result of three things: the rapid and widely celebrated growth in ties of commerce and technology; the embrace of that growth by all but an obdurate few; and, as a consequence of the latter, a fundamental redefinition of the meaning of national security.

As to the first of these, President Clinton has declared that, henceforth, the United States will build "peace through trade, investment and commerce." Indeed, the serene conviction that commercial relations are properly a cause rather than an effect of peace--a belief once thought to have been repudiated decisively at the Marne--has lately been revised and enshrined in official policy. The revised version derives mainly from enthusiasm about technological progress. Thus, National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, one of the theory's main boosters, maintains that because they allow states and societies to communicate with one another as never before, "the fellow travelers of the new global economy--computers and modems, faxes and photocopiers, increased contacts and binding contracts--carry with them the seeds of [political] change."

But if states and societies are communicating increasingly with one another--as they surely are--the question then arises: Are they saying anything new? Given its manifest reluctance to heed much of anything Washington recommends, India may provide an answer. Throughout the 1990s, a parade of foreign policy analysts and administration officials touted India's integration into the world economy as proof that it would promptly embrace the political logic of globalization. The journal Foreign Policy, for example, featured an article announcing that if the administration's strategy proved correct, "India's rising dependence on foreign trade and investment for domestic growth will become a new incentive for stable relations with its neighbors." So pervasive was this assumption that a mere ten days before India's first atomic test, Berger met with its officials and, according to the New York Times,

"raised the issue of India's nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles only peripherally, stressing instead the need for the world's two largest democracies to build on the common agenda of health, economics, environment, and information technology."

After India promptly proceeded to set off the first in a series of atomic explosions, a reportedly stunned President Clinton admonished that it "can be a very great country without doing things like this." Seconding that appraisal, the New York Times opined that India was "swimming against history's currents." Not surprisingly, Indian officials saw things a bit differently. One of the most senior of them, the Indian prime minister's foreign policy adviser, wrote in Foreign Affairs:
"The end of the Cold War did not result in the end of history. . . . It would be a great error to assume that simply advocating the new mantras of globalization and the market makes national security subservient to global trade. The 21st century will not be the century of trade. The world still has to address the unfinished agenda of the centuries."

Exactly what that unfinished agenda might be is left unsaid. But its centerpiece is likely something other than a monetary union with Pakistan.
In our relations with China, too, the vision of a commercial peace obfuscates more than it clarifies. Advertising trade deals and export-control waivers as "confidence-building" measures, the administration routinely depicts expanded commercial relations with China as a means of promoting our broader foreign policy aims. But just how much China needs its confidence bolstered has become the subject of considerable debate. For the rapid expansion of China's trade ties with the United States, Japan and Taiwan in recent years has in fact coincided with a worsening of its political relations with all three. Then, too, where President Clinton has portrayed commerce and technology as "a force for change in China, exposing China to our ideas and our ideals", the record of the past decade plainly suggests otherwise.

That countries such as China and India may view the purposes of commerce and technology differently from ourselves hardly comes as a revelation. Indeed, the opinion that nations condition the uses of markets and technology, rather than the other way around, was a staple of an earlier era when technological pessimism prevailed here in the West--most notably in the works of George Orwell, Herbert Marcuse and other analysts of totalitarianism. But in the United States today that belief has been overtaken by a conviction that the rationality of market relations somehow foreshadows the rational ordering of international relations. According to this commercialist understanding, because it is rational for human beings to seek prosperity, states will simply abjure conduct that runs counter to that aim.

But is it really necessary to point out that even in an era of globalization the logic of economics is not the logic of politics, much less that of culture or ethnicity? Europe, after all, has been tormented for a decade by a country that not so long ago boasted the highest standard of living in Eastern Europe, but that opted, when the prospect of closer economic ties to the West was dangled before it, to launch four wars and deport an ethnic minority instead. Nor are such tendencies confined to Yugoslavia. Russia, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran, to name but a few others, have in recent years equally subordinated economic interests to pursue aims of a more primal sort. Perhaps they have merely failed to grasp the directional nature of history. Or then again, maybe our willingness to regard impersonal forces as the primary agents of history is itself evidence of a defective brand of politics--with roots not in the twenty-first century, but in the scientific materialism of the nineteenth.

The persistence of nasty and divisive political impulses is, of course, not a fact that policymakers constructing a bridge to the twenty-first century will readily acknowledge. Rather, in accounting for the obduracy of certain states, they advance the proposition that, were it not for a handful of men like Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Osama bin Laden and the late Mohamed Farah Aideed, their supporters would eagerly sign on to the millennial program. "You think the Germans would have perpetrated the Holocaust on their own without Hitler?", President Clinton asked in reference to the bestial conduct of Serb forces in Kosovo. "Political leaders do this kind of thing."

Now, on the face of it, this sort of personalization of contemporary history may seem to be in sharp contradiction to the belief in the ineluctable logic of globalization. But there is an escape clause: for while these cartoon villains are blamed for the world's current troubles, it is also insisted that they are essentially anachronisms, a residue from a rapidly vanishing past. Not only are they evil but they are, in the larger scheme of things, irrelevant. Indeed, their very existence offers proof that hitherto intractable dilemmas of politics and ideology have been solved.

The war in Kosovo provided the clearest illustration of the defects in this line of thinking. From the first shot, the President depicted the NATO campaign as a battle against a lone "cynical leader" and his "distorted view of what constitutes national greatness." But that distorted view was soon revealed to be shared by virtually every institution in Serbian society, from the Orthodox Church and the democratic opposition to the Yugoslav Army and the Belgrade intelligentsia. Nevertheless, having argued itself into a surgical air campaign that was meant to last no more than three to four days, the administration clung to the fiction that it could use force as a medium for negotiating between elites, that to halt ethnic cleansing it merely needed to persuade Milosevic to, in the words of President Clinton, "change his mind."

But just how many minds needed to be changed could soon be gleaned in the faces of a million traumatized deportees, and in the giddiness of thousands of Belgrade concert-goers, exultant at the crimes being perpetrated in their name. President Clinton's claim that "our quarrel is not with the Serbian people" notwithstanding, in order to accomplish its aims, NATO--by purposefully (and rightly) adjusting its campaign to inflict greater hardships on the Serbian populace and thereby diminish public support for the course of their popularly elected president--was forced to concede that our quarrel was precisely with them.

What the West ran up against in Yugoslavia was, finally, not a man but a creed. To judge by the foreign policy priorities of the Clinton administration, there are in the world today only two sources of political legitimacy--democracy and economic growth. But there is a third one often declared to be passŽ but to which modern states repair with ever greater frequency: that is nationalism. Those who discount this ideology as the preserve of anachronistic despots do so at the cost of discounting developments likely to have serious and lasting consequences for American national security policy. For whether in Europe and Asia today or a century ago, nationalism has been sustained and exacerbated not by what the President dismisses as "fourteenth-century values", but by the same progress he routinely champions--the very dislocations that have characterized the modern era and that have only intensified in an era of globalization.

To be fair, Washington's millenarians concede on at least one point that progress may indeed be a double-sided coin. "The openness and freedom of movement that we so cherish about this modern world actually make us more vulnerable to a host of threats--terrorists, drug cartels, international criminals--that have no respect for borders", warns President Clinton. To the discussion of these "twenty-first century predators", members of the administration bring the same millennial ardor that distinguishes their approach to the global economy. In this instance, however, what stirs their imaginations is not a utopian delusion but rather a dystopian version of technological progress.

Thus in the very weeks leading up to the ransacking of Kosovo, the President and his diplomatic counselors took to the airwaves with an ominous warning: the sky, they advised, was falling. But, oddly, the alarm they were sounding had nothing to do with the escalation of Serb depredations. What so agitated the Clinton team was, rather, what its members refer to as the "new transnational security threats"--a catalogue of twenty-first century perils ranging from cyber-terrorism and crime syndicates to global warming and the flu.

No two administration officials, however, seem able to agree on exactly which items should be included in this inventory. With a fine sweep, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott discerns national security challenges "from the floor of the stock exchange in Singapore to the roof of the world over Patagonia where there is a hole in the ozone layer." The Joint Chiefs of Staff dutifully cite "spreading diseases" as a security threat. And while Vice President Gore likens the struggle to contain global environmental degradation to past American efforts against the Soviet Union, the President himself touts a "Cyber-corps" and the Human Genome Project as the best guarantors of national security.

The New York Times has reported that the administration's preoccupation with unconventional threats owes much to The Cobra Event, Richard Preston's novel about biological terrorism, which Mr. Clinton found profoundly unsettling. Perhaps true (the President's earlier views on Bosnia were derived, after all, from Robert Kaplan's account of his travels through the Balkans), but there is more. "There are still some who refuse to accept that confronting these new threats is real, serious foreign policy", Madeleine Albright warns. "Like Bismarck, they want to play geopolitical chess." And members of the administration have dismissed as "yesterday's preoccupations" and "stratocrap and globaloney" the opinion that national security refers ultimately to military concerns. It is rather the "new" threats, to which Mr. Clinton cautions "our vulnerability is real and growing", that pose the urgent danger.

Already we see how that conviction affects policy deliberations--and how it has, in fact, been revealed to have things exactly backward. Consider, to begin with, last year's missile attack on a reputed nerve agent factory in Sudan. The facility had been mistakenly certified as such by an intelligence community that had recently replaced many of its counter-terrorism specialists with biologists and chemists. It was then culled from a menu of mostly conventional targets (and selected without the input of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) by White House war-managers apparently eager to prove the existence of the new threats. Never mind that evidence of nerve gas production was flimsy at best. And never mind that the crimes the strikes were intended to avenge had been carried out with car bombs--still the weapons of choice for twentieth-century terrorists--not germs or toxins. The Clinton team, in a textbook case of mirror-imaging, saw what it wanted and expected to see.

Elsewhere, too, the tendency to subordinate fact to wish has been apparent. Indeed, as the administration has in recent years mistaken hypothetical vulnerabilities for actual threats, it has mostly ignored the persistence of those threats that have been clearly evident all along--demonstrable perils in South Asia, East Asia and other places that do not accord with its world-view. Meanwhile, there exists scant evidence to bolster the claims of the new Cassandras, and much to suggest that their talk of "redefining", "reconceptualizing" and "reinventing" national security is futurism of the most facile and shallow kind.
To be sure, today's forecasts may be proved correct tomorrow. But the numerous defects of the millennial outlook--its reckless disdain for historical experience, its presumption of universal norms and its straight-line projections--make that unlikely. Too many states still play by the old rules, and have proved quite oblivious to the contention that politics and military power no longer serve as the principal currencies of international relations. Perhaps, as the President insists, they will soon bend to the right side of history. But as the record of the past decade clearly indicates, to be prematurely correct in matters of foreign policy--to perceive opportunities and dangers not as they are, but as we wish them to be--can be as disastrous as being absolutely wrong. If American policymakers continue to delude themselves on this count, they may soon awaken to discover that, rather than to the twenty-first century, they have built themselves a bridge to nowhere.

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