Bismarck for President: Redux

March 7, 2008 Topic: Great Powers Tags: Superpower

Bismarck for President: Redux

Everyone was so surprised by Beijing’s reaction to the reception given to the Dalai Lama in Washington last year. But common sense should have left everyone without doubt—and now that the State Department has announced that President Bush’s specia

In a presidential-primary season when voters are clamoring for "change," it is striking how little debate there is among leading candidates or their advisors about the direction of U.S. foreign policy. Some argue that this should not be a surprise and that the next president will be too constrained by objective realities-deep U.S. involvement in Iraq, the need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and the challenge of Middle East peace, among others-and will not have sufficient flexibility to change America's foreign policy. This is partially true and there are obviously many continuities in U.S. policy from administration to administration. But it is also profoundly misleading. With one major exception: George W. Bush faced many of the same constraints in 2003 that he faces today, and he decided to invade Iraq. It is not clear that a different president would have made the same decision, much less implemented it in the same way.

Objective realities do create constraints or, more accurately, they impose costs. And our decisions today can also create constraints tomorrow, often unintended. But at a time when so many key assumptions about the world have been proven wrong-in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the blooming of democracy in the Middle East, and in the willingness of other major powers like Russia and China to follow American advice-how can we fail to examine the policies that have flowed from those assumptions? How can we afford not to consider making changes? Whatever the constraints some may see, nothing will be more costly to America than continued self-deception.

A new conventional wisdom has emerged after the U.S. victory in the cold war in which history no longer matters and we no longer need to understand others' interests or perspectives so long as we remain on the side of righteousness-and, of course, so long as we can count on overwhelming military and economic power. And in this spirit of vain self-congratulation, we have increasingly lost the ability to look squarely in the mirror before judging others and taking them to task.

After all, despite being on the right side of history, American leaders have taken their own share of ruthless, and even brutal, decisions. Each had its own logic, and most seem strategically justified in retrospect, but few continue to play a role in our public debates. Remember that the United States was the first and only nation to use atomic weapons-and used them against cities. Washington used napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam. American leaders supported known-thug Saddam Hussein at a time when his regime used chemical weapons not only in its bloody war with Iran but against its own people.

Such decisions, while obviously regrettable, were the result of the types of difficult choices that great powers must often make. But then it behooves us not to preach too loudly about our own sense of morality. It also means that, in crafting an effective foreign policy, we shouldn't be blinded by our own rhetorical claims to ethical perfection-or to fail to recognize that many states see us as a "normal country"-one that pursues its own interests by any means necessary and often makes moral judgments about others that appear influenced by those interests.

So those people who expressed disgust and outrage over the use of Russian airpower against civilian targets in the Caucasus were prepared to overlook Israel's use of cluster bombs and other indiscriminate bombardment in southern Lebanon. They loudly condemn Tehran's disregard of the United Nations Security Council one day, but feel it is perfectly appropriate to ignore this body to secure independence for Kosovo.

Supporting one's friends while condemning one's opponents is nothing new; but when that is combined with a messianic predisposition to view the world as divided into the children of light and the children of darkness-with no need to compromise with, understand the motives of or address the concerns of those deemed opponents-this becomes truly dangerous. The refusal of most politicians to acknowledge the clear connection between U.S. conduct in the Middle East and the hatred of the United States among Islamist extremists that motivated the September 11 attacks is a case in point. The United States has had serious reasons for pursuing the types of policies it has-but it is foolhardy to ignore the evidence that there are costs. The Arab-Israeli dispute is clearly a key litmus test of American policy for many Muslims-but this fact has not been a subject of discussion, even after being raised in the Republican presidential debates. And while plenty of experts on the region have made this argument, it is not reflected where it counts: among political leaders or even most of the mainstream media.

There is a similar inability to develop a serious approach to China, which is likely to be the paramount U.S. relationship of the twenty-first century. China is an emerging superpower whose dramatic growth and rapid technological progress could rival America's economy in just a few decades and is already an important driver of global growth. Moreover, it is becoming clear that no major international initiative-such as imposing meaningful sanctions on Iran-can take place without Chinese involvement.

Yet there is no discussion outside academic circles of the consequences of Washington's unwillingness to settle for anything short of unquestioned global military dominance, something former-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was by no means alone in expecting Beijing to accept, even in their own neighborhood. But major powers are rarely prepared to count on someone else's goodwill to protect their interests, especially when their relationship with the other party is not trouble free. So why is it unexpected that China has responded by increasing its defense budget?

China's military buildup should be a serious concern for American policymakers and requires both careful monitoring and efforts to press Beijing to clarify its intentions. The United States may also need to adjust its own budget and strategies as a result. But did anyone really think that the United States could declare its intent to maintain military superiority in every region of the world, including the Asia-Pacific, and spend $515 billion on its military (excluding Iraq and Afghanistan) without some reaction from China, particularly after the United States has demonstrated a clear willingness to use force to pursue its interests? One would think that an assessment of China's (and other major powers') likely reaction should be a major element in Washington's national security decision-making, factored in to the process to ensure that U.S. spending actually achieves the ends we desire. The shock expressed over China's defense spending-whether it is the $59 billion Beijing declares or as much as $139 billion, as some claim-suggests that remarkably few people are planning even one step ahead.

Late last year, the Dalai Lama was celebrated in Washington almost without politicians or anyone in the mainstream media asking whether the enthusiastic and very public U.S. hero's welcome to someone seen by China as a separatist leader would have any consequences. And after he was saluted not at the National Cathedral but in the Capitol Building-sending a clear message that he was being received as a political leader, even a freedom fighter, rather than as a religious figure-the same people expressed surprise when Beijing refused a port call by the U.S. Navy in Hong Kong and when leading Chinese politicians made it clear that if the United States did something that harmed Beijing's interests, they should not count on support from China on issues of concern to Washington. Most Americans clearly view the Dalai Lama in a fundamentally different way than Beijing does. The point is not who is right, but rather that few acknowledge that publicly embracing him will come at a predictable cost in America's relationship with China.

None of this would matter much if the United States enjoyed an absolute preponderance of power and didn't require the aid of others. That is, sadly, not the case. The cost of the war in Iraq alone is estimated at some $500 billion-and it is far from over-and other countries are not lightening any of Washington's burden. There will be no multilateral rescue from America's unilateral action. Maintaining a crusading approach to foreign policy will saddle America with immense burdens and is inconsistent with efforts to balance budgets, cut taxes, reduce the size of the federal government, save the Social Security system or provide universal health care. This kind of global strategic and financial overstretch undermines the fundamental health of the American economy and a central pillar of our international leadership. It is bizarre to think that Americans can indefinitely absorb the costs of global empire without collecting any of its traditional economic benefits.

Moreover, the radical utopianism advanced by far too many advisors to leading Republican and Democratic candidates is not only misguided and costly, but doomed to fail. Americans may be interested in creating a utopia for the world but are not prepared to pay for it, and our democratic system is structurally incapable of building or sustaining a global imperium. And the responses such a policy generates-from terrorists and others-predictably drive domestic decisions that undermine our own precious democracy.