Learning to Appreciate France

March 1, 2007 Regions: Americas Tags: NeoconservatismDiplomacyHeads Of State

Learning to Appreciate France

Mini Teaser: The United States can’t bring the democratic nations of the world together—why should we expect it to lead the way for everyone else?

by Author(s): Paul J. Saunders

Such sentiments have been especially damaging in relations with Russia, where mainstream opinion among elites holds that NATO enlargement and democracy-promotion efforts in neighboring countries represent an attempt to encircle the country with governments more friendly toward Washington than Moscow. This, in turn, has had a chilling effect on a variety of matters including intelligence cooperation and shared efforts to secure nuclear material.

THE UNITED States simply cannot succeed as an international leader, or even as leader of the smaller group we call the free world, without dealing more effectively with governments-whether democracies or non-democracies-that have interests and priorities different from our own. This does not mean making concessions. What it does mean is that understanding-as distinct from accepting or supporting-others' approaches is a valuable tool in our own decision-making and helps America to get the most from others at the least cost over the longest period of time.

The potential consequences of U.S. failure to take such an approach could be shocking, and are largely unconsidered. Set aside Iraq, Iran, North Korea and even the War on Terror. Then imagine the world of 2041, when a provocative research paper by two Goldman Sachs analysts predicts that China's GDP could surpass that of the United States. Now imagine that the United States uses the next 34 years pressuring, prodding and even intimidating its way to acceptance of U.S. international priorities without making any major accommodations to others. Through a deft divide-and-rule strategy, Washington manages, for a time, to block the emergence of a coalition of the resentful. China uses the time to continue domestic reforms and changes roughly as much as it has in the last 34 years, becoming substantially more prosperous and considerably freer but still not entirely open or democratic by our standards. Beijing simultaneously continues its current foreign policy, cautiously but steadily expanding its influence and avoiding serious confrontations with anyone, even as its military expands and modernizes. What would that world look like?

It could be a world in which many democratic states-especially, but by no means exclusively, in Asia-view China as a more attractive international leader than the United States. From the perspective of many world capitals, including in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, such a China would have a compelling track record of economic development, serious military clout and a foreign policy that is relatively unthreatening with the exception of periodic efforts to block greater international recognition of Taiwan and harsh rhetoric to discourage its independence (if the issue has not been resolved in a mutually satisfactory way by that time). In view of present-day demographic trends, these countries could constitute an overwhelming majority of the global population. Present-day political trends already demonstrate clearly that China's influence is steadily growing in these areas.

Imagine that on top of all of these developments, the next 34 years are a remarkable period in the expansion of democracy. Freedom House's 2041 "Freedom in the World" report lists no nation as "not free" and the number of free countries steadily expand. How many of these new democracies will be as close and as important to the United States as France is today? If several are, we will be lucky. And how will France and other established European democracies have changed? Will demographic changes give a greater political role to European Muslims, with a corresponding influence on foreign policy decisions? How will America work with these old and new democracies, when their perspectives are different from our own and there are no politically convenient means to excuse our disagreements?

This vision of 2041 may be pure fantasy, but it is an unquestionable reality that very few foreign governments or publics are willing to deliver global leadership to the United States on a platter, even in 2007. Yet that leadership is extremely important to our country's security and prosperity both now and in the future. Americans cannot afford to assume that U.S. leadership is unquestioned or to squander it through ill-conceived policies based on mistaken assumptions.

This should not be construed as an argument that the only way to maintain leadership is by giving in so frequently that the United States is unable to protect its fundamental interests. On the contrary, if America were more careful in not only understanding the priorities of others but defining its own-rather than trying to have everything, almost indiscriminately-many other governments would have a better sense of when it is really necessary for them to accommodate Washington. They would also find it easier to do so, as they would be able to demonstrate areas in which the United States had accommodated their priorities and to say that American requests for major concessions are relatively infrequent.

Neither should it be construed as an abandonment of efforts to promote democracy, which does indeed offer greater opportunities for peace and prosperity in the long run. On the contrary, it reflects the idea that a more evolutionary approach may well lead to more stable and enduring democracies-and less internal violence-than many of today's sudden transitions. It also reflects the possibility that the ultimate success of American democracy promotion globally or in any particular country could have unintended consequences that we must take into account in advance.

However Americans decide to proceed, the United States will be unable even to win the support of other democracies if it is unable to understand and acknowledge the interests and priorities of others. At the same time, attempting to build an alliance of democracies could alienate everyone else in the process-with potentially devastating consequences for America now and in the future. If this and subsequent administrations fail to learn these lessons, it could become very lonely at the top.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center and associate publisher of The National Interest.

Essay Types: The Realist