A Real Alternative
GIVEN THE tremendous challenges facing the United States, we would be wise to heed Dimitri Simes's call for our leaders and citizens to engage in a vigorous debate about the course and content of American foreign policy. He's also right that this discussion needs to be less about tactics than the overriding purpose and character of policy. Yet his claim that we've never had such a spirited discourse-that both Democrats and Republicans "have displayed little inclination . . . to question the fundamental assumptions of American foreign policy since the Soviet collapse" in 1991-leads one to wonder: Where has he been?
Throughout the 1990s and still today, the United States's role in the world has been the subject of intense, sometimes stifling, but largely healthy debate. After the crumbling of the Soviet Union, many American leaders and analysts believed that the United States was in decline and that we would soon miss the stability and predictability of the Cold War; some politicians argued that foreign policy would take a back seat to international economics and globalization. Questions about how the United States should use its power were intensely debated: from the risks and costs of helping end ethnic wars and genocide through military force, to what was required for such U.S. actions to gain legitimacy and the future of its role in institutions like the UN and NATO. These debates raged in many places, including these pages, where Francis Fukuyama infamously declared the "End of History", Jeane Kirkpatrick argued that the United States should be a "normal" power, and Patrick Buchanan made the stunning call for "America First-and Second and Third."
To be sure, leaders from both Right and Left often came to agreement on certain questions, such as the interventions in the Balkans or the enlargement of NATO (which was almost universally derided by outside analysts). But just because they came to common ground-and, in many cases, made decisions that others disagreed with-does not necessarily mean that they were the result of unreflective or uninformed decision-making. Yet it's true that, however intense these debates were, they remained in the confines of elite circles; the broader public never really engaged in them.
That's changed during the past six years. For many Americans, the September 11 attacks marked a stark turning point for the United States's role in the world. After years in which American leaders seemed to careen from crisis to crisis, none of which quite rose to the level of grave threats to national security, the United States now faced a mortal enemy and a generational struggle. Foreign policy in the "post-Cold War era" finally had an overriding purpose: to defeat Islamic extremism. If history ended in 1989, for many it seemed to begin in 2001.
Or at least that is the narrative President George W. Bush and his team peddle. From the beginning of his presidency, he has prided himself as a decisive figure compared to what came before. To emphasize this point, he frequently frames the tough calls he's making today as correctives to poor decisions and mistakes of the past-choices made during what he described in his second inaugural address as the "years of repose, years of sabbatical." The implication is that what his immediate predecessors did is hardly worth remembering since history is being made today.
It is, of course, absurd to dismiss these years as some kind of holiday from history. Bush is not confronting problems anew, and what came before is not irrelevant. In fact, the roots of all of the problems America confronts today-Iraq, Islamic extremism, North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs, efforts to rebuild failed states, the Middle East peace process, ethnic conflicts and genocides, and economic globalization-stretch back to the period that began with the end of the Cold War in 1989. These challenges and the debates about them did not suddenly emerge after 9/11-they stem from decisions and events during these pivotal years. To be sure, fewer Americans were paying attention to the world than compared to today, and absent a broad narrative like the War on Terror, this history can seem confusing. That's why analysts should pay more attention to it-not only to understand how we got here, but to draw lessons for the road ahead.
Analysts like former National Security Advisor Zbiginew Brzezinski have offered sobering assessments. In his recent book Second Chance, Brzezinski argues that for 15 years the United States has led "badly" and that "after its coronation as global leader [in 1989], America is becoming a fearful and lonely democracy in a politically antagonistic world."
Such criticisms will ring familiar to any casual observer of the past 15 years-and surely, on this score, Simes agrees. But is this really a manifestation of the "collective state of delusion" that he decries? The history of this period is more accurately (albeit simplistically) described as one of confusion. That's not necessarily a comment on the quality or aptitude of the policymakers, but more on the realities of the moment. If there was a delusion at all, it was that the new challenges could be solved with neat and tidy solutions; that America's engagement with the world could be managed with few costs and that, somehow, after the Soviet Union collapsed, it would all get easier.
Think back to the leadership and decisions that shaped the post-Cold War period. President George H. W. Bush and his principal national security advisors, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, deserve plaudits for their skilled handling of complex events that came at a dizzying pace (in less than four years the Berlin Wall fell, the Warsaw Pact disappeared, Germany reunified, Saddam invaded and was kicked out of Kuwait, and the Soviet Union crumbled), but they failed to translate these huge successes into a lasting strategy. Some of the problem was sheer exhaustion. But Bush's attempt to begin sketching a doctrine-the much-maligned New World Order-was actually a concept borrowed from his former adversary, Mikhail Gorbachev, and was never more than a slogan. The idea quickly became shorthand for traditional stability, not a bold way forward.
Clinton had the opposite problem: He was full of ideas and had a vision for the future-globalization-but lacked the confidence, attention, acumen and political capital to implement it. During his first few years in office, Clinton's inexperience often showed, and his comfort with using U.S. power (especially military force) to solve problems seemed ambivalent at best. In the mid 1990s, French President Jacques Chirac summed things up with the biting observation that the position of leader of the free world was "vacant."
Yet Clinton got much better with time, and his commitment to enlarging NATO and working through the alliance to end the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo-doing so in the face of fierce criticism and debate from both the Republican Congress and many foreign-policy elites-were brave decisions that are still paying dividends today. NATO's enlargement has helped stabilize Central Europe-a by-product of which is the strong relationship with allies like Poland-and the Clinton team's efforts to develop NATO's capacity to go "out of area" have proved essential to its efforts today in Afghanistan. And while the Balkans still suffer from deep troubles, they are at peace and, incredibly, on the doorstep of joining the European Union.
Unfortunately, these gains and others are being diminished by the policies of the current President Bush. Skewering Bush 43 and his team is certainly not unique-such broadsides have become a cottage industry-but what is notable is that these are now coming not just from the far left but from the heart of the national-security establishment. It is hard to think of any serious policy analyst outside the government that will stand to defend the Bush record. Even those that were instrumental advocates of its most controversial policies (like Richard Perle) are vocal critics of their implementation and the administration's incompetence.
Many expect that in Bush's wake there will be a natural and overdue course correction for American foreign policy-a return to greater realism. Perhaps. Certainly there will be greater scrutiny of intelligence claims, deeper respect for the role of allies and alliances, wider understanding of the limits of military force and the importance of other instruments of American power and influence, and humility about what the United States can accomplish alone. But there's little evidence that that's going to change what Simes describes as the "collective state of delusion" about the importance and capabilities of America's global leadership. And that's a good thing.
Because the United States remains, as Simes quotes Madeleine Albright, an "indispensable nation." Albright's words are often misconstrued by her critics, who misinterpret her statements as suggesting that the United States has a universal writ to act alone always or completely disregard the views of others. Rather, what Albright actually meant is that it is difficult to imagine any global challenge-from global warming, to nuclear proliferation, to the rise of militant Islam-that can be solved without the active involvement, leadership and commitment of the United States. Yet Simes is right to remind us that getting others to act on our priorities often involves a give-and-take that the current administration, as well as many on Capitol Hill, find hard to swallow.Essay Types: The Realist