The New Realism

November 7, 2007 Topic: Great Powers Tags: SuperpowerIraq War

The New Realism

Mini Teaser: What should the United States do about problems like terrorism, global warming, nuclear proliferation and Iraq? Bill Richardson lays out his foreign policy vision.

by Author(s): Bill Richardson

During the last century, the United States was able to lead the free world because we had great power, and because we understood that leadership was not only about power. Democrats like Truman and Kennedy, and Republicans like Eisenhower and Reagan understood that we needed a strong military to meet Soviet power, but that we also needed a strong economy and strong democratic principles to counter the ideological challenge of Communism. Our power gave us the means to lead, but our example legitimized our leadership and made others wish to follow us.

We also were able to lead effectively because our allies knew that containment was not a Democratic or a Republican doctrine: it was an American doctrine. They could rely upon the United States to stand with them, no matter which party was in power. Today, after several years of a failed and divisive foreign policy based upon illusions and ideology, we need a new, bipartisan foreign policy rooted in reality and in the enduring values that unite us.

The democratic values that unite America and its allies are indeed enduring, but the realities we face in the 21st century are new. Never has the world experienced such a combination of global growth and environmental decline, technological change and dwindling global resources, the emergence of new great powers and of existential asymmetric security challenges. Globalization has eroded the significance of national boundaries: Many of the greatest challenges that face us-from jihadism to nuclear proliferation to global warming-do not face only us. Urgent problems that once were national are now global, and dangers that once came only from states, now come also from transnational mafias and extremist social movements-as well as from social trends, such as our excessive consumption of fossil fuels. The problems of the 21st century are not the problems of a nation: they are the problems of an interdependent global society.

The world's only superpower must lead that global society if we are to respond effectively to common challenges. We must reject the fantasies of those who advocate retreat from global engagement, just as we must reject the delusion of those who claim we can transform other countries through the unilateral application of American military power. We also must go beyond the balance-of-power realism of the last century and embrace a New Realism that understands that to exercise power effectively in the 21st century we must rise to a new level of global leadership.

The world needs a strong and respected United States, but because of the failures of the Bush Administration, our power, influence and credibility are at all-time lows. In an age of terrorism, Bush policies have weakened our alliances, emboldened our enemies, depleted our treasury, exhausted our armed forces, and fueled global anger and even hatred against us. A President who has preferred ideology to evidence and self-righteousness to compromise has refused to do the hard, patient, necessary work of strategic diplomacy. The results have been catastrophic.

President Bush also has failed to understand the importance of principle to effective leadership. While he speaks of democracy and freedom, his actions have not matched his words. Pious words cannot substitute for moral leadership. Lecturing others about democracy is not the same as respecting democratic values. Secret prisons, torture, and warrant-less wiretapping encourage those who would portray us as hypocrites to oppose, rather than as democrats to emulate.

The next President must, through words and through actions, send a clear signal to the world that America has turned the corner and will be a democratic leader once again, rather than a unilateralist loner. To do this, the new President must first end the Iraq war, rapidly and responsibly. Every day we remain mired in Iraq, we tie our own hands, and others are reminded of the dishonesty and incompetence that got us there. We need to recognize that there is no military solution to Iraq's political impasse, and that only our military withdrawal can break the stalemate and open up new political possibilities. We need to bring our troops out as we launch a diplomatic surge-a new political strategy that engages all the Iraqi factions and all the nations of the region, as well as the international donor community. A successful military exit from Iraq, accompanied by determined, principled and skillful diplomatic leadership, will be a symbol and an example to the world that America has rediscovered itself and is ready once again to lead responsibly and effectively.


A New Realism

Getting out of Iraq will be the first essential step in restoring our reputation and beginning a new strategy of U.S. global leadership. But to lead effectively, we must understand the strategic challenges we face. The following trends are transforming our world. We must have clear ideas on how to cope with all of them:

The first trend is jihadism-a flame which the invasion and collapse of Iraq has stoked into a conflagration. Never in our history have we faced such an asymmetric security challenge. The second trend is the growing power and sophistication of international mafias capable of disrupting the global economy and trafficking in weapons of mass destruction. Together these two trends raise the specter of nuclear terrorism. We know that Al-Qaeda has tried to acquire nuclear weapons. We know that Pakistan's A.Q. Khan sold nuclear technology to rogue states, and we know that some former Soviet nuclear materials remain poorly-secured. The proliferation of nuclear weapons to new countries has increased the opportunities for extremists to obtain them.

A third trend transforming our world is the rapid rise of India, the world's largest democracy, and China, the world's largest non-democracy. The fourth trend is the re-emergence of an assertive Russia, tempted by authoritarianism and nationalism, and possessing a large nuclear arsenal and control over energy resources. The simultaneous rise of India, China, and Russia requires careful American strategic leadership, so that these powerful nuclear-armed nations may be integrated into a stable global order.

A fifth transforming trend is the simultaneous increase in global economic interdependence and financial imbalances. Globalization has made our economy more vulnerable to resource constraints and financial shocks originating beyond our borders. The sixth trend we face is that of urgent global environmental and health threats. Global warming and pandemics like AIDS do not respect national boundaries. Poverty, ethnic conflict and overpopulation spill over borders, feeding a vast underground economy engaged in counterfeiting, money laundering, and trafficking in drugs, arms and people.

These six trends present us with problems that are international in their origins and will be international in their solutions. Other nations need to do their part, but only the United States can provide the essential leadership. If the world succeeds in preventing nuclear terrorism, defeating jihadism, integrating rising powers into a stable order, protecting global financial market stability, and fighting pandemics and global warming, America will deserve much of the credit. If the world fails to meet these challenges, America will deserve much of the blame.


To re-launch American leadership in the wake of the Bush Administration will require that we focus on the following priorities:

We must repair our alliances. We must restore respect for our allies, and for the democratic values that unite us. The next president needs to make it clear, through words and deeds, that we value our alliances and are committed to strengthening them. We should always prefer multilateral efforts that unite us and share burdens, but if we choose to act alone, we should not accuse our allies of disloyalty or cowardice.

We must engage our adversaries diplomatically. The Bush Administration's refusal to engage obnoxious regimes has only encouraged and strengthened their most paranoid and hard-line tendencies: Iran and North Korea responded to Washington's snubs and threats with intensification of their nuclear programs. We need to talk tough to such regimes, but to do so, we need to talk.

We must engage Russia and China strategically, and systematically. While it is easier to work with countries like India that share our democratic values, we also need to work with Russia and China to solve serious problems. We need to establish our priorities, and to work with these sometimes troublesome partners, recognizing that we can only influence, not control, what they do. With Russia, our first priorities should be securing loose nukes and putting pressure on Iran to halt nuclear enrichment. With China, our priorities should be North Korea, Darfur and trade.

We must renew our commitment to international law and multilateral cooperation. This means expanding the Security Council to include Japan, Germany, India, a country from Latin America and a country from Africa as permanent members. It means increasing aid to poor countries and working with other donors to make sure they meet their Millennium aid commitments. It means more Third World debt relief, and trade agreements that create jobs in all countries, and that seriously address worker rights and the environment. It means an IMF more flexible on social safety nets.

We must respect both the spirit and the letter of the Geneva conventions and we must join the International Criminal Court, and support it enthusiastically, so that those who would violate human rights know that they will be held accountable. The United States once was-and again must be-a human rights example to which others aspire. We must be impeccable in our own behavior, and we should reward countries that respect the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. We must lead international efforts to eradicate slavery, and we must lead on genocide, especially in Africa, where the two most recent genocides have taken place, in Rwanda and now in Darfur. History teaches us that if the United States does not take the lead on genocide, no one else will.

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