One of Washington's most exclusive clubs during the 1990s was the annual board dinner of The National Interest. Presided over by founding editor Owen Harries and often kicked off with a presentation by Henry Kissinger, the group included Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Irving, Bea and Bill Kristol, Samuel Huntington, Paul Wolfowitz, Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Pipes, Charles Krauthammer, Marty Feldstein, Eliot Cohen, Peter Rodman and a host of other conservative thinkers, writers and doers, including just about everyone now characterized as a "neoconservative."
What I always found fascinating about these dinners was their unpredictability. People's views were very much set in concrete during the Cold War; while this group was divided into pro- and anti-détente camps, virtually everyone (myself included) had staked out territory years before. The Berlin Wall's fall brought a great change, and there was no clear mapping between one's pre-1989 views and the ones held thereafter. Roughly, the major fault line was between people who were more realist and those who were more idealist or Wilsonian. But everyone was trying to wrestle with the same basic question: In the wake of the disappearance of the overarching strategic threat posed by the former USSR, how did one define the foreign policy of a country that had suddenly become the global hegemon? How narrowly or broadly did one define this magazine's eponymous "national interest"?
It was at one of these dinners that Charles Krauthammer first articulated the idea of American unipolarity. In the winter of 1990-91, he wrote in Foreign Affairs of the "unipolar moment"; in the Winter 2002/03 issue of The National Interest, he expanded the scope of his thesis by arguing that "the unipolar moment has become the unipolar era." And in February 2004, he gave a speech at the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute in which he took his earlier themes and developed the ideas further, in the aftermath of the Iraq War. He defined four different schools of thought on foreign policy: isolationism, liberal internationalism, realism and his own position that he defines as "democratic globalism", a kind of muscular Wilsonianism--minus international institutions--that seeks to use U.S. military supremacy to support U.S. security interests and democracy simultaneously.
Krauthammer is a gifted thinker and his ideas are worth taking seriously for their own sake. But, perhaps more importantly, his strategic thinking has become emblematic of a school of thought that has acquired strong influence inside the Bush Administration foreign policy team and beyond. It is for that reason that Krauthammer's writings, particularly his AEI speech, require careful analysis. It is in the spirit of our earlier debates that I offer the following critique.
The 2004 speech is strangely disconnected from reality. Reading Krauthammer, one gets the impression that the Iraq War--the archetypical application of American unipolarity--had been an unqualified success, with all of the assumptions and expectations on which the war had been based fully vindicated. There is not the slightest nod towards the new empirical facts that have emerged in the last year or so: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the virulent and steadily mounting anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East, the growing insurgency in Iraq, the fact that no strong democratic leadership had emerged there, the enormous financial and growing human cost of the war, the failure to leverage the war to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and the fact that America's fellow democratic allies had by and large failed to fall in line and legitimate American actions ex post.
The failure to step up to these facts is dangerous precisely to the neo-neoconservative position that Krauthammer has been seeking to define and justify. As the war in Iraq turns from triumphant liberation to grinding insurgency, other voices--either traditional realists like Brent Scowcroft, nationalist-isolationists like Patrick Buchanan, or liberal internationalists like John Kerry--will step forward as authoritative voices and will have far more influence in defining American post-Iraq War foreign policy. The poorly executed nation-building strategy in Iraq will poison the well for future such exercises, undercutting domestic political support for a generous and visionary internationalism, just as Vietnam did.
It did not have to be this way. One can start with premises identical to Krauthammer's, agree wholeheartedly with his critiques of the other three positions, and yet come up with a foreign policy that is very different from the one he lays out. I believe that his strategy simultaneously defines our interests in such a narrow way as to make the neoconservative position indistinguishable from realism, while at the same time managing to be utterly unrealistic in its overestimation of U.S. power and our ability to control events around the world. It is probably too late to reclaim the label "neoconservative" for any but the policies undertaken by the Bush Administration, but it is still worth trying to reformulate a fourth alternative that combines idealism and realism--but in a fashion that can be sustained over the long haul.
Krauthammer and other commentators are correct that what is seen as "Kissingerian" realism is not an adequate basis for American foreign policy. A certain degree of messianic universalism with regard to American values and institutions has always been an inescapable component of American national identity: Americans were never comfortable with the kinds of moral compromises that a strict realist position entails. The question, which was the constant subject of those board dinners, was: What kinds of bounds do you put around the idealistic part of the agenda? Krauthammer answers this key question in the following manner:
"Where to intervene? Where to bring democracy? Where to nation-build? I propose a single criterion: where it counts. Call it democratic realism. And this is its axiom: We will support democracy everywhere, but we will commit blood and treasure only in places where there is strategic necessity--meaning, places central to the larger war against the existential enemy, the enemy that poses a global mortal threat to freedom. [italics in the original]"
While this axiom appears to be clear and straightforward, it masks a number of ambiguities that make it less than helpful as a guideline for U.S. intervention. The first has to do with the phrase "strategic necessity", which of course can be defined more and less broadly. Krauthammer initially appears to be taking a realist position by opting for the narrow definition when he refers to an "existential enemy" or an enemy posing a "mortal" threat. If these words have any real meaning, then they should include only threats to our existence as a nation or as a democratic regime. There have been such threats in the past: the Soviet Union could have annihilated us physically and conceivably could have subverted democracy in North America. But it is questionable whether any such existential threats exist now. Iraq before the U.S. invasion was certainly not one: It posed an existential threat to Kuwait, Iran and Israel, but it had no means of threatening the continuity of our regime. Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups aspire to be existential threats to American civilization but do not currently have anything like the capacity to actualize their vision: They are extremely dangerous totalitarians, but pose threats primarily to regimes in the Middle East.
This is not to say that Iraq and Al-Qaeda did not pose serious threats to American interests: the former was a very serious regional threat, and the latter succeeded in killing thousands of Americans on American soil. Use of WMD against the United States by a terrorist group would have terrible consequences, not just for the immediate victims but also for American freedoms in ways that could be construed as undermining our regime. But it is still of a lesser order of magnitude than earlier, state-based threats. The global Nazi and communist threats were existential both because their banner was carried by a great power, and because ideologically there were many people in the United States and throughout the Western world seduced by their vision. The Islamist threat has no such appeal, except perhaps in countries like France that have permitted high levels of immigration from Muslim countries.
I suspect that Krauthammer's intended use of the term "strategic necessity" is actually broader than is implied by his own words about existential threats. At the end of his axiom he leaps to the need to fight an "enemy that poses a global mortal threat to freedom", and elsewhere speaks of the United States as "custodian of the international system", suggesting a broadminded understanding of self-interest. Does "global" here mean threats that transcend specific regions, like radical Islamism or communism? If the enemy's reach has to be global, then North Korea would be excluded from the definition of a "strategic" threat. Or does "global" instead mean any mortal threat to freedom around the globe? Does the fact that an "enemy" poses a mortal threat to another free country but not to us qualify it as our "enemy?" Is Hamas, an Islamist group which clearly poses an existential threat to Israel, our enemy as well? Is Syria? And if these are our enemies, why should we choose to fight them in preference to threats to free countries closer to home like the FARC or ELN, which threaten democracy in Colombia, or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela? What makes something "central" in this global war? Was Iraq central to the war against radical Islamism?Essay Types: Essay