In response to the September 11 attacks, the Bush Administration broadly reformulated U.S. foreign policy to confront a post-Cold War world threatened by terrorist groups, their rogue state sponsors and proliferating weapons of mass destruction. Ironically, an allegedly conservative administration eschewed the status quo and undertook, what was for all intents and purposes, a revolution in foreign policy thinking. Preemption was pushed to the forefront of security strategy. The UN and NATO were called to account. Old allies were challenged and new ones sought. Engaging the internal dynamics of states was deemed as much or more important than responding to their external behavior. In the wake of this bold initiative, skeptics often had a difficult time finding firm footing from which to advance substantive criticisms.
This is slowly beginning to change. As Nikolas Gvosdev noted in last week's edition, "The Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy" is a smattering of disparate critics united to challenging the tenets of administration policy. Another emerging coalition was on display this Tuesday and Wednesday at the New American Strategies for Security and Peace Conference-hosted jointly by The Century Foundation, The American Prospect magazine and the Center for American Progress, a new progressive research institute run by John Podesta. Whereas the former coalition sought to "redirect our foreign policy to the defense of vital American interests", the New American Strategies conference sought to go beyond criticism to articulate a thoughtful liberal or progressive alternative to the Bush Administration's foreign policy.
On hand to offer such an alternative were a colorful smattering of think tankers, former Clinton officials (including William Perry, Richard Holbrooke and Sandy Berger), retired military officers, two congressmen, three senators (Joseph Biden, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Hagel), a governor, a mayor and presidential candidate General Wesley Clark. The coalition's mission statement proclaimed, "There is mounting evidence that the present course will weaken rather than strengthen America's own security; reduce rather than increase world stability; and create more hostility towards the United States rather than admiration for our dynamic economy and democratic way of life." Frustrated with merely booing from the bleachers, the intellectual core of the Democratic party is uniting and suiting up to grapple with the Bush Administration's provocative ideas, as well as to offer counter-arguments of its own.
It is interesting to note, however, the liberal coalition accepts many of the current administration's intellectual points of departure. It agrees that the United States must today consider preemptive action as tool of counter-proliferation (albeit one of absolute last resort). It shares the administration's emphasis on the need to better equip the United States to handle threatening internal dynamics of foreign states. As would be obvious, the liberal coalition here puts greater emphasis on poverty, hunger and disease as transnational threats that can debilitate already dysfunctional states. They recognize, as does the administration, that failed states can be a breeding ground for terrorism.
Here, however, the similarities end, and the liberal coalition sought to contemplate a different trajectory from the current course of U.S. foreign policy. Former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger expressed five principles that must guide a thoughtful alternative to the current administration. First, if preemption is a flawed policy, then what other viable options exist to deal with states determined to attain weapons of mass destruction? Second, how must U.S. policy address a North Korea in the event that it will not be placated with treaties or security guarantees and is dead set on going nuclear? Third, how important is it for the United States to be admired for its character versus respected for its ability and willingness to wield overwhelming force? Fourth, what type of leadership should America pursue in order to rally foreign states in support of our national interests? Finally, how can this nation's resources be allocated more prudently to meet its expansive national security goals?
With regard to the question of preemptive strikes and preventive wars, Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institute provided the best example of an administration critic who has begun thinking through their assumptions and formulating serious challenges. Though he thought the administration had turned a useful tool of last resort into a guiding doctrine of U.S. foreign policy, he viewed preemption as sound in theory and occasionally necessary in practice. On the whole, however, he viewed it as self-defeating: proclaiming a "doctrine of preemption" leads aspiring nuclear powers to speed up their weapons production, exacerbates the security dilemma between adversarial countries like India and Pakistan and encourages states to justify brutal policies in the name of preempting terrorism.
What is needed, therefore, is a new consensus about the legitimate use of this seemingly expansive tool. The debate, Daalder argued, should not be phrased in terms of "now or never" but rather "how, when and by whom." If the UN has historically failed in addressing dangerous developments within states and if the unilateral exercise of U.S. power can be impractical, undesirable and counterproductive, then what is to be the new paradigm for managing intrastate conflict? This is a tall task indeed, and it is unsurprising that no solutions were unveiled.
This was also the case with regard to the other questions Berger posed about American leadership, alliances and resource allocation. It was widely agreed that the Bush Administration behaves arrogantly and immaturely, as though it is the only country with legitimate national interests. This disposition was reminiscent of President Bush's pre-9/11 talk of the need for humility in foreign policy, and many panelists made ironic reference to the President's early rhetoric as the touchstone of the emerging liberal position. If the United States does not take the problems of others seriously, it was argued, then it should not be surprised when others do not take America's concerns seriously either.
The New American Strategies conference did not necessarily achieve its goal of going beyond criticism of the current administration. It did, however, begin an important (and overdue) bipartisan debate about the new ideas and realities confronting America's position in the post-Cold War world. The Bush Administration has spearheaded this debate more or less alone since September 11, and it is in America's interest to have a serious intellectual counterweight to any prevailing administration. If liberals in general and the Democratic Party in particular are to offer a viable platform on national security and foreign policy, it will emerge out of the vigorous debate of ideas that is now appearing in a nascent stage.
The big question, however, that remained unanswered at the conference's close was how to handle the situation in Iraq, a problem stabbed at by numerous people in even more ways. New and better strategies to prosecute the counterinsurgency campaign and reconstruct the country were in short supply while criticism was hurled from every conceivable perspective. For this liberal coalition to be effective, they must target their criticisms and coordinate their proposed remedies to tackle what will undoubtedly be the fundamental foreign policy issue in the upcoming election, as well as the main priority of any American administration for the foreseeable future.
Christian Brose is assistant editor of The National Interest.