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.Essay Types: The Realist