Priorities, Not Delusions

April 25, 2007 Topic: Great Powers Regions: Americas Tags: NeoconservatismSuperpowerHeads Of State

Priorities, Not Delusions

Mini Teaser: Opportunistic policies advocated on both sides of the political aisle won’t address the real challenges that threaten the well-being of the United States.

by Author(s): Dimitri K. Simes

THOSE WHO hoped that the Democrats' victory in November would launch a major foreign policy debate are disappointed. Setting aside the immediate issue of Iraq, which obviously requires the nation's attention, neither presidential candidates nor the Congress nor the media have shown much interest in a serious conversation about the direction of U.S. foreign policy. A majority of legislators and opinion leaders act as if Iraq were an isolated mistake resulting from the peculiar naivety and incompetence of the Bush Administration rather than the logical progression of the country's post-Cold War foreign policy.

Indeed, with the exception of Iraq-where they have demonstrated more indignation and impatience than creative thinking-Democrats in both Congress and academe have displayed little inclination, nor have many of their Republican colleagues, to question the fundamental assumptions of American foreign policy since the Soviet collapse.

Lou Dobbs has asked rhetorically, "Is there not one decent, honest man or woman in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, in either party's leadership, who possesses the courage and the honesty to say, ‘Enough. The people who elected us deserve better'? So far the answer is no." I assume that even Mr. Dobbs himself would admit to rhetorical exaggeration in this sweeping indictment, but it is no exaggeration to say that unless we do better-much better-as a body politic, the United States will not be able to develop an effective foreign policy. And without an effective foreign policy, America could face potentially devastating consequences at home and abroad.

Today's collective state of delusion about America's role in the world certainly did not begin with the George W. Bush Administration. When the United States became the only superpower and was no longer restrained by calculations of Soviet reactions to U.S. actions, quite a few in the American foreign policy elite could not withstand the temptation of triumphalism and a sense of unlimited possibilities. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave early voice to such sentiments by publicly portraying the United States as an "indispensable nation." While America had clearly become the dominant voice in international politics, Albright's need to brag about it could not but irritate many abroad. And it did.

The 1999 Yugoslav war was the clearest indication of the very limited differences on key foreign policy issues between the liberal interventionists leading the Clinton Administration and neoconservatives outside it. More broadly, one could see some of the same authors appearing in the pages of the neoconservative Weekly Standard and the liberal interventionist New Republic where they beat the same drum calling for the United States to become the vanguard of a worldwide democratic revolution to liberate the masses and make America safe. And, they assured us, because the United States was strong and would be acting to impose "the will of the international community", it would also be cheap.

This emerging conventional wisdom was not seriously challenged by the media or think tanks. At The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, the editorial and op-ed pages alike were dominated by crusaders carrying the standard of America's new democratic predominance; other major papers, like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Times, were more open-minded, but the overall balance in U.S. papers still clearly favored the coalition of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists. Revealingly, more op-eds by Americans questioning the conventional wisdom appear in papers published outside the United States, like Financial Times and International Herald Tribune, than in major U.S.-based papers.

The U.S. media's propensity to cover international affairs through the prism of domestic politics was a major reason for this phenomenon. Those who had roles in previous administrations, demonstrable connections to the current one, or particularly good chances to join the next administration, enjoy the best access to op-ed pages. The trouble is that while many of these people have impeccable academic credentials and are associated with prestigious think tanks, few are analysts first and foremost. On the contrary, many if not most are members of a government-in-exile aspiring to return to power or, alternatively, people whose livelihoods depend on their connections to the current administration, of whichever party. Such individuals naturally and understandably tend to be very careful to avoid defying the conventional wisdom and especially careful to avoid saying anything that could make them vulnerable to criticism by Washington power brokers in both political parties.

As liberal interventionists played a greater and greater role in the Clinton Administration and neoconservatives were believed to dominate the Bush Administration, at least until recently, those who did not share their views were considered marginal and accordingly unworthy of significant media attention regardless of the merit of their arguments. The outcome, as Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke have written, was "a marked failure of the institutions Americans rely upon to analyze and, when necessary, challenge Administration policy governing major foreign engagements." This is not merely an academic issue. The honorable men and women sent to Iraq deserve America's profound gratitude, and their families have every reason to be proud of their courage and sense of duty. However, if we had a more open-minded and competent leadership and, at a minimum, a better debate many of their sacrifices could have been avoided.

ONE OF the first issues Americans need to discuss as a nation, in a meaningful way, is what role the United States should seek in the world of the 21st century. America had a vigorous debate about its mission in the world after the end of World War II, including discussion of how to confront the Soviet challenge, restore European economies, move Japan away from militarism, and create a new structure of international organizations and regional alliances. Strikingly, however, in the 15 years since the disintegration of the Soviet Union-after the George H. W. Bush Administration left office-our leadership has made fundamental decisions about U.S. foreign policy without much analytical evaluation, consideration of possible consequences of our actions or debate about America's purpose in an evolving world order.

It is beyond doubt that the United States is the most powerful nation of our time and that it enjoys an unparalleled combination of military power, economic might, cultural appeal and strong alliances. This gives America the opportunity to have a huge impact in shaping the international system. But huge is not the same as unlimited or even unchallenged. And there is a profound difference between seeking global hegemony and acting as a global leader. For a hegemon, others' opinions obviously have to be taken into account but provide little strategic guidance. The master knows best and should be prepared either to act unilaterally or to use its leverage to force others to follow in order to accomplish its objectives. Just look at the language in media reports about U.S. diplomacy today. The United States frequently "presses" and "pushes" and only rarely "persuades", much less "accommodates." Washington is almost never described as a leader that represents the perspectives of its followers (though the United States often takes upon itself the right to speak on behalf of "the international community").

American leadership is different. It would still require the United States to engage in muscular diplomacy, to maintain military capabilities second to none and to use force, even pre-emptive force on occasion. The real question is not whether America should use its multidimensional power to enhance its security and prosperity or to defend its principles. Rather, the question is how Americans want to define their interests and principles and how to balance among them by establishing a set of priorities. While there is a growing body of literature on the subject, there has been very little discussion by politicians. This has been especially true of the 2008 presidential candidates, who are reluctant to offend potentially important constituencies by appearing insufficiently committed to their narrow goals. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the media give scant attention to understanding our national interests in the new international environment.

In fact, whenever realists talk about interests and setting priorities, they are regularly accused of opposing democracy and human freedom. This obviously is false. Setting aside its overly sophisticated and complex academic version, all that realism really means is understanding that no matter how noble your cause, you can't walk on water without getting your feet wet.

More broadly, offensive as it may be to many Americans, the historical record on democracy is still ambiguous and does not yet support the notion that democracy nationally or globally will establish an everlasting paradise. As Lord Robert Skidelsky has observed, "Contrary to Francis Fukuyama, democracy may not be the end point to which history is evolving. It may perhaps be a stage in the political life of a small group of countries, to be succeeded by oligarchy."

In fact, some of America's founders-including John Adams-questioned the moral superiority of democracy and expressed concern that democracy could evolve into something else entirely. Adams argued specifically that democracies would almost inevitably eventually be dominated by those of "independent fortunes", "eloquence", "learning" and "cunning" and such democracies would transform themselves into de facto aristocracies. "Democracy never lasts long", he wrote, "it soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. . . .It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy." The British conservative philosopher Edmund Burke expressed similar sentiments, writing that "A perfect democracy is, therefore, the most shameless thing in the world. As it is the most shameless, it is also the most fearless."

Essay Types: The Realist