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Beyond Left and Right

Beyond Left and Right

Mini Teaser: Classifications such as interventionist and isolationist, hawk and dove, realist and idealist, and multilateralist and unilateralist do not make much sense in the absence of the Cold War's defining conditions.

by Author(s): Alan Tonelson

"...if when the chips are down the world's most powerful nation, the United States, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and institutions throughout the world."

--President Richard M. Nixon announcing the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, April 30, 1970

"The West's worst moral and political disaster since the Nazis is coming to a climax. And just as many politicians and institutions paid for the failure to stop Hitler, so many will pay dearly for allowing the Serbian tyrant, Slobodan Milosevic, to destroy Bosnia."

--Anthony Lewis, "The End of the Affair," The New York Times, August 13, 1993

Anthony Lewis' recent Richard Nixon impersonations are not only amusing, they are genuinely important. They are among the many signs that American thinking about foreign policy is finally entering the post-Cold War era--and perhaps dragging the rest of American politics along with it.

In foreign affairs, the old dividing lines are blurring or being ignored, and with good reason. As is clear from any recent op-ed page, familiar classifications such as interventionist and isolationist, hawk and dove, realist and idealist, and multilateralist and unilateralist (at least as they have been used since the end of World War II) no longer make much sense, in the absence of the Cold War's defining conditions. Abroad, those conditions included rigid military and ideological bipolarity and overwhelming American economic predominance within the free world camp; at home, widespread acceptance of a state of national emergency, and of the national priorities and resource allocations that followed therefrom. Because--as it is now fashionable to observe--foreign and domestic policies can no longer be neatly separated, ideological confusion has spilled over into domestic politics. Even ideas as basic to modern politics as Left and Right are undergoing redefinition.

So far, the results seem to be little more than rampant confusion--with San Francisco Democrats clamoring for air strikes and even ground operations all over the world; hardline anticommunists emphasizing the limits to American power; consumer advocates opposing trade liberalization agreements; paleo-conservatives backing interventionist economic policies at home and abroad; the Heritage Foundation and the Rainbow Coalition both endorsing big cuts in military budgets and overseas troop deployments; the mainstream liberals who run "the party of the common man" railing against surging populism, while many conservatives stoke its fires; Carterites and Bushies both decrying "the new isolationism"; and, in the most delicious irony of all, right-wing columnist and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan picking up George McGovern's plea: "Come home, America."

The confusion and ferment are real enough. Slowly, however, more coherent patterns are becoming apparent. In fact, a new underlying fault line is already emerging in American politics and foreign policy, dividing what might best be called nationalists and internationalists. In terms of American diplomacy, this new alignment will pit a generic model of foreign policy-making that long predates the Cold War--one based at bottom not on resisting totalitarianism, or promoting democracy or world order, but on the belief that international activism itself is the key to American security and prosperity--against a rival approach that is much more radical than any Marxist alternative--a relatively passive strategy whose supreme goal is consolidating American military and economic strength, and enhancing America's freedom of action. In the realm of economic policy, those who argue that the nation-state, as an economic player, is obsolete or dangerous will vie with those convinced of its continuing relevance and legitimacy. In electoral politics, sharp differences in economic interests and cultural outlooks will produce a widening rift between business, professional, and government elites, on the one hand, and wage-earners on the other. The issue of class, in other words, is re-emerging in American politics.

The realignment process will be slow and messy, both intellectually and politically. Although cold re-calculations of interests are threatening many coalitions, most are still held together by sentimental bonds or simple inertia. If they do crystallize, however, the new alignments are likely to be stronger, more durable, and less inclined to compromise than their predecessors--at least until the next sea change occurs. In the meantime, American politics and foreign policy will continue to be influenced by what might be called the strange bedfellows phenomenon--confused divisions and coalitions based more on emotion, historical memory and personality than on substance or logic. In particular, the scene will be distinguished by a disjunction between politico-military outlooks and economic positions.

The Cold War Debate over Means

American foreign policy thinking has never been long on ideological coherence, especially since the end of World War II. When conservatives cautiously and reluctantly bought into the Cold War consensus forged by New Deal liberals in the late-1940s, they accepted not only unprecedented American international engagement and all manner of entangling alliances but a big, intrusive national security state at home, as well as Keynesian deficit spending to finance these new foreign ventures. Two decades later, during the Vietnam period, many liberals and conservatives flip-flopped, the former souring on most uses of American power abroad, the latter firming up as the strongest champions of the military tools and strategies needed to give anti-communist internationalism and containment their backbone.

Still, until the Soviet crackup, the Cold War set a durable framework for American thinking about foreign policy and most differences were contained within that framework. Nearly all American leaders and foreign policy analysts accepted the fundamental tenets of an internationalist doctrine that had crystallized during and immediately after World War II. In the aftermath of that conflict, and with the lesson of the 1930s still fresh, the defining feature of internationalism seemed clear enough, despite disputes over means and tactics: the compelling, inescapable need to thwart an aggressive totalitarianism around the world.

Paradoxically, by removing that particular threat, the Cold War's end has revealed the true foundations of American internationalism: the belief that America will never know genuine security, lasting peace, and sustained prosperity unless the rest of the world also becomes secure, peaceful, prosperous, and democratic; the belief that international security is indivisible--that the inextricably interwoven problems of discontent, political extremism, and aggression are highly contagious and bound to spread around the world once they are allowed to fester anywhere; and the belief that the only way to achieve these goals is to eliminate the conditions that breed discontent wherever they exist, and somehow impose norms of peaceful behavior on all states.

On international economic and trade policy during the Cold War, nearly all influential Americans subscribed to the internationalist goal of a highly integrated world economy in which market forces assured the most efficient possible distribution of resources and thus the greatest prosperity for all the world. Thus the international economic order forged by the United States in the late 1940s centered on an International Monetary Fund to maintain stable exchange rates, and a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade designed to set rules for international commerce that would prevent the rise of economic blocs.

A faith in laissez faire economics convinced internationalists that even if not all players obeyed the rules, Americans and others would still benefit from the freest possible worldwide flows of goods, services, and capital--at least within the free world camp. Any attempt to respond politically or strategically to economic problems--to try to enhance a country's relative position by limiting or manipulating market forces--would only backfire, because the cheater would become hooked on shortcuts, lose its skills, and deprive its people of the benefits of buying at the best prices. Just as important, the goal of free trade and economic integration maintained that what specific goods and services a state produces, or does not produce, are not important, so long as they reflect the unimpeded forces of comparative advantage. As a result, even liberals were timid about advocating any government intervention in the domestic economy, beyond macroeconomic steering and transfer payments. These beliefs also made it that much easier to soft-pedal economic disputes with allies, in order to maintain the supposedly more important strategic relationships. Of course, internationalists sought to deny U.S. resources and advanced technology to military and ideological enemies. But in the non-communist world, those assets were treated as little more than trinkets, to be doled out periodically as political favors to client states in return for good behavior.

Cold War conditions had two other profound but overlooked effects on American politics that are now rapidly fading. First, they greatly inflated American expectations of foreign policy. Anti-communist consensus and growing abundance throughout the West suspended much of what was normal in world politics--at least among noncommunist countries. Significantly, relationships between the United States and its allies were described more and more in unitary terms such as "the West" and "the Free World", which implied an underlying commonalty of interest. To many internationalists, relations among these countries started to look like domestic politics. Age-old concepts such as relative power, relative gains, and the logic of self-help in particular were widely seen as antiquated (and bitterly resented when resurrected by an unashamed traditionalist like De Gaulle). The new foreign policy agenda was managerial--integration, institution building, problem solving, collective security.

At home as well, these conditions appeared to suspend or mitigate much of what had been normal even in domestic politics--especially the bitterness of the struggle over wealth. Indeed, during the early Cold War decades, observers began describing domestic affairs in near-idyllic terms. The "end of ideology" had been achieved. The business cycle had been mastered. Politically and socially, America simply needed to fill in the New Deal's gaps with the Great Society program. Economically, all that was required was Keynesian "fine tuning."

Contrary to the received wisdom, consensus on these fundamental points did not collapse during the Vietnam War, although it is true that some serious cracks appeared. In the main, the ensuing foreign policy debate centered on the best ways to pursue internationalist goals, not on first principles, such as the need for vigorous American engagement throughout the world or to maintain a liberal world economic system at all costs. On the second-order question of means, liberal and conservative internationalists increasingly divided along neat and remarkably predictable lines. For example, the more liberal someone was, the likelier it became that he would frown on using force to advance U.S. foreign policy goals rather than economic and diplomatic substitutes; to support acting multilaterally rather than unilaterally; to give the Soviets the benefit of the doubt in international controversies; and to view Third World radicals as closet nationalists rather than communist stooges. The more conservative someone was, on the other hand, the likelier he was to take the opposite positions. Thus, by the late 1960s, there were very few conservative opponents of the Vietnam War left, and very few liberal supporters. These positions, moreover, corresponded closely--although not perfectly--with clusters of left-wing/liberal and right-wing/conservative positions on domestic issues, from taxing and spending (within a Keynesian framework), to the size of the welfare state, to race relations, to the relative importance of inflation and unemployment.

As far as security and strategy were concerned, this state of affairs persisted essentially until the end of the Cold War. Sometimes, as during Reagan's tough, "evil empire" first term, the cracks widened; sometimes, as in the more mellow period after Reykjavik, they narrowed. For polemical reasons, both liberals and conservatives liked to exaggerate their differences and treat them as fundamental, but in retrospect it is the extent of fundamental agreement that is striking.

In the economic realm, however, the picture was different, and in the 1980s early signs appeared that internationalism's long-standing commitment to free trade, something that had characterized American politics since the 1940s, was facing a philosophical challenge. Even before the Soviet collapse, many large, successful U.S. corporations, as well as labor unions, began questioning strongly the post-war U.S. commitment to free trade and to laissez-faire domestic policies. They were joined not only by liberal analysts like Robert Kuttner and Robert Reich, but by conservatives like Kevin Phillips, Clyde V. Prestowitz, Jr., and William Hawkins, who in different ways sought to unearth a Hamiltonian tradition in American conservative economic thinking, one that had been buried first under the laissez-faire orthodoxy following World War II, and then reburied under the avalanche of Reaganism. Meanwhile, other liberals such as C. Fred Bergsten (a former Carter administration Treasury Department official), and Charles Schultze (Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors to the President in the Carter years), joined with the Reagan conservatives to mount an all-out defense of free trade and to discredit the idea of industrial policy.

These early pressures on internationalism suggest that the Cold War consensus would have cracked by now, even had the Soviet Union endured. They also indicate why the Soviet Union's demise has begun to transform domestic politics as well as international relations.

The Gulf War

During the Gulf War debate in the fall and winter of 1990-91, signs of realignment in foreign policy became clearer and extended to core security issues. For the first time since V-J Day, the foreign policy debate transcended tactics and the motives of international adversaries to embrace fundamental issues. Absent a nuclear-armed superpower adversary, how deeply involved in how many regions of the world did a country of America's strength need to be? How important, now, to America's fate were the traditional, systemic internationalist goals of a secure, prosperous, and democratic world? What risks and expenditures were justified in the pursuit of these goals? Could alternative approaches serve U.S. interests more safely and efficiently? All of these questions were debated vigorously immediately before, during and after the Gulf War.

In the process, the late-Cold War division between conservative interventionists and liberal isolationists was replaced by a more complicated pattern, with differences over intervention appearing on both sides of the ideological spectrum. The debate over the Gulf War divided the conservative Republican administration from liberal Democratic critics, and internationalists from so-called neo-isolationists on the Left and Right. But it also divided staunchly internationalist Democrats like Congressman Stephen Solarz and chairman of the National Intelligence Council Joseph Nye, on the one hand, from fellow internationalist Democrats like Senator Sam Nunn and former Carter national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski (as well as Jesse Jackson) on the other; and Nixon-Ford Republicans like the President, his national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, and Henry Kissinger from former Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence James Schlesinger.

Even the security of the Persian Gulf, which most agreed was of major concern to America, did not automatically merit sending American military forces into combat in the eyes of normally interventionist former officials and commentators such as Schlesinger, Kenneth Adelman, Edward Luttwak, and columnists Evans and Novak--especially when the enemy seemed so formidable, and so capable of inflicting heavy casualties. With Saudi Arabia secured, they maintained, there simply was no hurry to go to war in January, 1991. War threatened to make the Gulf even more unstable over the long run. The effectiveness of sanctions and even diplomacy could and should be tested thoroughly.

Other conservatives and libertarians had either never accepted internationalist objectives to begin with, or now began to challenge them more forcefully. The Cato Institute's Ted Galen Carpenter and Christopher Layne, for example, insisted that, ultimately, market forces would solve America's oil problem in the Gulf--that no matter who controlled the region's vast reserves, oil exporters would have no choice but to sell their output. As for Bush's New World Order rhetoric and liberal hopes for more effective collective security and humanitarian intervention capabilities, these were derided as formulas for open-ended, risky, costly, and above all strategically unnecessary U.S. military operations all around the world. Pat Buchanan agreed with the latter charges and, regarding the Gulf specifically, asked why Americans should die to protect oil supplies that West European countries and Japan needed more than the United States. In the absence of a Soviet threat, earlier complaints about burden-sharing within the free world were being replaced by a more fundamental questioning of common interest, in what was increasingly described as a tripartite world. The old unity among the United States, Western Europe and Japan was no longer assumed.

Among liberals, by contrast, there was almost no Gulf War debate at all. The mainstream of the Democratic party ultimately treated Saddam Hussein's post-Cold War challenge to American security much as it treated most post-Vietnam Cold War-era challenges. True, like most conservatives and moderates, liberals generally favored Bush's initial dispatch of American forces to defend Saudi Arabia. But their "line in the sand" seemed to require an actual attack on those forces before their use could be sanctioned. Thus the liberals put their trust in non-military instruments, such as sanctions. Some, like Rep. Lee Hamilton and New York Governor Mario Cuomo, urged more active and flexible diplomacy. Nearly all urged deference to UN resolutions and to America's coalition allies (save for Kuwait itself, whose monarchical government, they repeatedly emphasized, was not worth American lives).

Domestic economic and political conditions in the early 1990s sharpened the issues at stake. Even as Saddam Hussein was invading Kuwait, a mild-but-persistent recession dragged on. President Bush's decisive response to Kuwait's plight could not have contrasted more sharply with his seeming indifference to his own country's difficulties. In fact, the President frankly admitted that he simply found foreign policy more enjoyable and exciting than domestic affairs.

The contrast between Bush's domestic and foreign policy faces became starker following the Persian Gulf triumph. The war did not jump-start the economy, and despite record popularity ratings Bush declined to spend any political capital--or even much time--on domestic affairs. By the following New Year, Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania had won election to the Senate demanding, "It's time to take care of our own," Bush had finally acknowledged the recession's existence, and had been forced to turn a planned diplomatic love feast in Tokyo into a market-opening exercise. From that point, the tone of the 1992 presidential campaign was set with the domestic debate and the foreign policy debate becoming opposite sides of the same coin. What George Bush's opponents were principally challenging was not any specific foreign policy he was carrying out--although these were criticized as well--but the very place of foreign policy in American life, its long-time primacy over domestic affairs.

Since the end of the Gulf War, the fragmentation of the Cold War coalitions has accelerated, but the continuing tug of old loyalties remains evident as well. The new alignments are succeeding in widening the debate on post-Cold War foreign policy to include the fundamental goals of both security and economic policy. Yet none of the new groupings that have emerged seems broadly enough based to form the core of a politically successful new coalition. Not only are conservatives and liberals each divided into interventionists and noninterventionists on security issues, and nationalists and laissez-fairists on economics, but members of these new groupings often disagree among themselves on foreign policy objectives. In other words, conventional Cold War categories such as liberal and conservative, interventionist and isolationist, realist and idealist, and free trader and protectionist, have lost their predictive power in the post-Cold War world.

There are interventionists who value international stability above all, and interventionists seeking to spark worldwide democratic revolution. Meanwhile, the North American Free Trade Agreement attracts the support both of free traders enamored of its market opening features, and closet nationalists looking to consolidate a Western Hemisphere economic bloc in preparation for possible trade wars. Worse, numerous politicians and analysts have found even minimal consistency too confining, and have been prepared to support enthusiastically this month what they were denying vigorously last month. More important, none of these groupings has risen to the main challenge posed by the post-Cold War world at home and abroad: that of sensibly integrating security and economic policies.

Fumblers on the Right

With both the Gulf War and the 1992 election now history, what most observers still call "American conservatism" seems split into no less than three principal factions--conservative realists, democratic crusaders, and conservative minimalists--and these are only barely cohering. Nor, in each case, are their security and economic positions very effectively tied together.

Traditional, mainstream Republican internationalists may be in the greatest disarray. These balance-of-power conservatives or conservative realists--including many of the leading lights of the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush administrations, as well as many prominent columnists and think tank-ers--appear united in seeking to lower Americans' expectations of the post-Cold War world. All had records as staunch cold warriors and most continue to express general support for traditional internationalist ideas such as global community, stability, and American political leadership. But nearly all have publicly worried that these ideas could become rationales for indiscriminate and dangerous American involvement in manifestly intractable conflicts all over the world.

Their commitment to preventing the disintegration of international politics into complete chaos has always been tempered by classical realism's belief that conflict and insecurity will inevitably characterize a world of fully sovereign political entities, whether they be nation-states, smaller units, or larger blocs and federations. Consequently, they have raised important questions about U.S. military interventions in Kurdistan, Bosnia, and elsewhere, as well as about liberals' plans for an international collective security system centered on so politically fragmented and militarily inexperienced an organization as the UN. In particular, they have recognized that desirability of ends alone can not justify pursuing foreign policy goals. Cost, risk, need, and feasibility require consideration as well. His ringing rhetoric about "a Pax Universalis" notwithstanding, George Bush belonged to this group. He shied away from U.S. military intervention to halt aggression in Bosnia and plunged into Somalia only after months of hesitation--and after the election.

These conservatives entertain no illusions about the international environment turning benign or tranquil after the Cold War; their seeming passivity has not been rooted in optimism. Indeed, as Kissinger and others (including the editors of The National Interest) have repeatedly warned, internationalist hopes for major post-Cold War progress toward a more Wilsonian world are bound to be dashed by the profound disagreements still dividing even the industrialized democracies, and by the sheer limits on American power, wealth, and wisdom. More important, these conservatives have drawn a critical post-Soviet distinction between the fact of disorder, tragedy, and misery around the world on the one hand, and threats to the United States on the other.

Indeed, what has impressed conservative realists most about the post-Soviet, post-Cold War world is how questionable it has left a key tenet of internationalism--the indivisibility of international security and prosperity. Without a superpower adversary to exploit global turmoil, many local problems have seemed just that to these officials and analysts--local. In the words of the Heritage Foundation's April, 1992 report Making the World Safe for America, "In the post-Soviet world, the job of protecting America's vital interests...will be less strenuous. With foreign policy no longer a zero-sum game, America can choose not to become involved in many conflicts." Other countries could take the lead in intervening in trouble spots around the world, or, failing that, these crises could be left unattended.

Despite this apparent coherence, on the most important issue that America has faced in the post-Cold War era--launching the Gulf War--the mainstream conservative camp split wide open. Moreover, even after the Gulf War, their realpolitik leanings have raised many unanswered questions. What do these conservatives mean precisely when they set "order" and "stability" as major goals of U.S. foreign policy? Are they simply trying to cool the public expectations allegedly excited by conservative and liberal champions of a crusade for global democracy? Are they so nostalgic for the Cold War that they have begun to equate freedom with chaos, as critics like George Will and William Safire have charged, and as Bush's August 1991 "Chicken Kiev" speech allegedly confirmed? And are not their hopes for maintaining order and balancing power even in Third World regions themselves somewhat utopian, containing the seeds of a dangerous new interventionism despite their intentions?

The conservative realists are divided on important economic questions as well. The Bush administration, so alert to Saddam's threat to American national and economic security, adopted a deliberately passive approach to other economic security challenges--a passivity justified, if not inspired by, internationalist economics and laissez-faire ideology. Bush and his top economic advisors subscribed wholeheartedly to the internationalist goal of a highly interdependent, market-driven world economy. In fact, despite sharpening trade disputes among the advanced industrialized countries and deteriorating U.S. economic performance, the administration and other laissez-faire advocates remained convinced that the world economy had already become a largely non-strategic realm, a positive-sum game. Aside from the arms industry, resources and technology, it seemed, existed apart from international power relationships--and from any state supervision at all. Economic competition was something engaged in by private actors, and winning and losing meant little in national terms. These views dovetailed perfectly with the skeptical Reaganite doctrine that government can do nothing right economically. Bush and his top advisors believed them so strongly that ultimately their economic policy, foreign and domestic, became reduced to a pitch for trade liberalization treaties during a prolonged period of slow worldwide economic growth--a new GATT accord and the NAFTA--as panaceas for the wide array of ills suffered by an ailing U.S. economy. Their devotion to worldwide economic interdependence and integration inhibited them from responding even when foreign enterprises moved to acquire the last American-owned manufacturers of militarily critical high technology products.

Other conservative realists, however, have begun entertaining doubts about internationalism's firm commitment to gatt-style multilateral trade liberalization and laissez-faire economics. Charles Krauthammer--who in late 1992 seemed to defect to realism from the global democracy camp--has characterized more nationalistic economic policies as "an essential feature of the fascist world view." But, Kissinger (in a journal article written with Cyrus Vance) has endorsed a policy of managed trade vis-a-vis Japan, and in large part supported NAFTA not on ideological grounds but in preemptive response to the prospect that international trade and investment patterns will become increasingly regionalized. If trade blocs are emerging in Europe and East Asia, he and other realists have reasoned, America needs one of its own--both to create a more level global playing field, and to pull its partners back toward a global approach. Characteristically, Edward Luttwak, who opposed the Desert Storm decision, has gone much further, offering an ambitious theoretical argument for the advent of an age of "geo-economics." Traditional geo-politics will be largely displaced and, even in a world of democracies, great powers will instead pursue their traditional interests and conduct their traditional struggles with economic weapons--to capture world markets and wield financial and technological leverage.

Yet how far would most of the balance-of-power realists be prepared to go towards satisfying public demands that America's short-term self-interest should take precedence over internationalism's insistence that the international economic "system" be allowed to operate autonomously? After all, most are not instinctive or philosophical economic nationalists. The same skepticism they have long held regarding government as an international social engineer feeds doubts about government as a manager of world trade and investment. Further, apart from periodic complaints about burden-sharing, few have been inclined to question seriously America's security commitments to Western Europe and Japan for economic or any other reasons.

Even bigger questions have dogged the second main conservative group --neoconservative democratic crusaders such as Patrick Glynn, Ben Wattenberg, and Joshua Muravchik (all of the American Enterprise Institute) Charles Krauthammer (at least before 1993), and the editors of The New Republic. These analysts and commentators have urged the anchoring of U.S. foreign policy in a quest to democratize the world. Consistent with the something-for-nothing approach of Reaganomics, this movement promised epochal results for a pittance--chiefly the limited commitment of resources required by the "Reagan Doctrine" which advocated speeding communism's collapse by arming insurgents against pro-Soviet Third World governments. When in an era of huge budget deficits, the costs of extending the Reagan Doctrine to many nondemocratic countries after the Cold War were raised as an objection, Wattenberg asked, "[Did] anyone remember what the merchandise trade balance was of the Roman Empire?"

The Cold War and Gulf War triumphs gave the democratic crusaders--as well as mainstream liberal internationalists--a boost. All major obstacles to finishing the worldwide democratic revolution seemed gone, and America stood at the end of history as the lone superpower. Since the Bush administration rejected their advice and the political fortunes of the crusade began to sag, the neoconservative crusaders began looking homeward--to a Democratic party with an old human rights tradition and a desperate need to puncture President Bush's foreign policy balloon.

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