A Realist Symposium: Partisans Reviewed

A Realist Symposium: Partisans Reviewed

Mini Teaser: Responding to Dimitri K. Simes’s assertion that we aren’t having a real debate over foreign policy, Derek Chollet argues the Democrats are providing genuine alternatives; Grover G. Norquist looks at the structural reasons inhibiting both parties f

by Author(s): Derek CholletGrover G. NorquistDov S. ZakheimDimitri K. Simes

Identifying themselves with the Obama and McCain campaigns, Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan take a similar view, arguing that support from "great democratic nations" gives the United States international legitimacy to use force without UN Security Council authorization. Daalder, a Clinton Administration NSC official now at the Brookings Institution, and Kagan, a Carnegie Endowment senior associate with close ties to the Bush Administration, argue that notwithstanding Iraq, "the situations in which an American president may have to use force have only grown." Moreover, they continue, these situations include not only attacks on America or its allies, imminent threats that a hostile regime or group may acquire nuclear weapons and genocide, but the much more vague "terrorist threats", "weapons proliferation", "traditional forms of aggression" (against whom is not specified), and "other human rights violations." Where in the world is one of these four things not happening?

The trouble is that both the historical record and current realities demonstrate that very few others would welcome the United States-perhaps with support from some European countries, Japan and Australia-acting like judge, jury and executioner in the international system. This reaction would not be limited to rogue states like Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. It would include non-democratic major powers like China and Russia, important American friends such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and major democratic countries, including India and Argentina. And chances are that at least some would not only object strongly, but view these ambitions as a global threat to which they would respond with a strategic realignment greatly endangering U.S. security, prosperity and values. Yet when America's very destiny is at stake, our major political leaders are blind and deaf, preoccupied by what Grover Norquist has described elsewhere as the "'Survivor' reality show we call presidential primaries."

We must acknowledge that our political process, as it exists today, is poorly equipped to produce a foreign policy appropriate for global leadership. As Norquist notes, "the foreign-policy debate has become a central front in [the] struggle for majority status-at the expense of designing and implementing a serious and successful foreign policy for a great nation."

Significantly, neither of America's two recent presidents made foreign policy a centerpiece of their campaigns. Bill Clinton was elected with the slogan "It's the economy stupid!" by contrasting George H. W. Bush's considerable successes in foreign policy, especially in managing the end of the Cold War and winning the Gulf War, with his seeming inability to secure America's prosperity at home. Similarly, George W. Bush ran for president as a traditional realist conservative disinclined to seek out foreign-policy adventures-and, as Norquist demonstrates, the Republican base was not significantly pressuring his administration to move in the direction of messianic interventionism.

But neither administration was able to resist interventionism-either the Clinton Administration's intervention on the cheap, essentially a "Bush-Cheney lite" foreign policy notwithstanding Hillary Clinton's self-serving revisionism, or the Bush team's post-9/11 notion that the only way to keep America safe is to remake the world in its image, whatever the cost.

And here we cannot ignore the dereliction of duty of the foreign policy "community" and the deleterious impacts of the "permanent campaign" for creating an atmosphere where questioning the limits of American power or raising the need to make difficult compromises was tantamount to defeatism or appeasement. This is not to blame America first for the numerous imperfections, mistakes and misdeeds of other nations. Rather it is to start an honest conversation about what we need to do to rebuild a policy formulation process to protect American security, prosperity and freedom abroad.

BUT, AS long as campaigns and internal politicking rule over foreign-policy decision-making, we should hold out little hope. Think tanks in Washington are littered with scholars jockeying for positions in future administrations. Since campaigns are starting earlier and earlier, this means people are sacrificing meaningful debate for seats on the campaign tour bus years before Election Day. It doesn't have to be this way.

When I started at the Carnegie Endowment some 25 years ago, its then-president Thomas Hughes strongly urged me and other new staff to be very cautious in becoming involved with political campaigns that could even create an impression that we might be serving anyone's political agenda. This is obviously not happening around Washington, DC any longer. Think tanks are cropping up all over the place, each designed to house would-be State and Defense Department staffers. Even some old guard think tanks seem more like partisan halfway houses than places of honest debate.

If the United States government, with the help of the non-governmental foreign policy establishment, cannot come up with new and innovative approaches to coping with the foreign policy challenges of the day, then others must try to fill the vacuum.

Cheers to Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and others who are committing billions to fight global poverty and disease. But private efforts, however noble and well funded, cannot become a substitute for an effective and wise American role in the world, and poor policy decisions resulting from a poor policy debate can quickly undo their considerable achievements.

Money does not determine everything in U.S. politics and cannot buy a high quality foreign policy debate or, for that matter, a high quality domestic debate. But money is necessary to support genuinely independent research and to provide forums for serious thinking rather than cleverly packaged political statements. If existing institutions are not meeting these needs, then it is time for donors to provide incentives for change and, where necessary, to build new institutions that have what it takes to provide the serious analysis America desperately needs to be a global leader. After all, the rationale for think tanks' tax exempt status is that they serve the public good through independent thinking-not partisan propaganda. Many of us in both parties have had enough self-serving moralism and bombastic yet banal posturing. We are ready to have a serious conversation about U.S. interests and values, and the best ways to promote them both. If we put our ideas, energy and-yes-our money together, the realist moment may come sooner than most think!

Dimitri K. Simes is the president of The Nixon Center and publisher of The National Interest.

Essay Types: The Realist