The Palmerstonian Moment

The Palmerstonian Moment

Mini Teaser: Following Lord Palmerston's dictum, the United States may have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies in the 21st century. We're left with a world of uncertainty—and opportunity.

by Author(s): Richard N. Haass


THE 44th president of the United States will assume the job at a time when the country he (or she) leads will be stretched militarily, dependent on enormous daily inflows of oil and dollars, vulnerable to many of the darker manifestations of globalization and broadly unpopular. Few previous inhabitants of the Oval Office have started off with a situation of comparable difficulty.

But first, a rare piece of good news. Noticeably absent from the agenda will be great power conflict. This was the central dynamic of international relations for the past few centuries. But it no longer is and need not be for the 21st century. This will allow the next president to focus his energies on the signature challenges of this era, many of which are fostered by globalization. He can work not just with traditional friends like Europe, Japan and Australia, but also on occasion China, Russia, India, South Africa and Brazil-as partners rather than rivals.

The bad news for the United States is that support from its long-standing allies is far from assured. In the 21st century, formal alliances will increasingly count for less. Alliances require predictability: of threat, outlook, obligations. But it is precisely these characteristics that are likely to be in short supply in a world of shifting threats, differing perceptions, and societies with widely divergent readiness to maintain and use military force.

This is in no way an expression of unilateralist sentiment. But it is a recognition that many in Europe disagree with some U.S. objectives, how the United States goes about realizing them, or both. Such disagreements will prove more fundamental and enduring than the recent improvement in transatlantic relations resulting from the coming to power of more centrist and pro-American governments in Germany and France. As a result, the United States often will not be able to count on the support of its traditional allies. Also weakening Europe's centrality to U.S. foreign policy is that its capacity for global intervention is diminishing, especially in the military field, even on those occasions it does find itself inclined to act with or in support of the United States. Much the same holds true for Japan, although there the principal dynamic stems more from a lack of domestic political consensus to act globally than it does from an unwillingness to invest.

As a result, Americans will have to become comfortable with the notion of "selective cooperation." Not too long ago I told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars that "we are entering an era of American foreign policy and indeed international relations that is almost Palmerstonian in certain ways, where countries are not clear adversaries or allies with the automaticity or predictability of either. . . .They may be active partners on one issue and largely inactive observers on another." Or they may carry out alternative or even opposing policies.

The post-Cold War world, in many respects, is far more dynamic and fluid than the relatively stable and predictable bipolar arrangements of the Cold War. It thus demands a much greater degree of flexibility from policymakers. All of this is in keeping with Lord Palmerston's dictum that a nation has neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies-just permanent interests.

But there is a silver lining. Opposition from former adversaries is also not assured. Indeed, one-time opponents may become limited partners. Take, for example, the assistance given by China in pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. Beijing, in this case-not NATO-was and is the most important partner for Washington in its efforts to denuclearize North Korea. This does not, however, mean that China is on the verge of becoming a U.S. ally. This, too, is an example of a "Palmerstonian moment", one that served U.S. objectives.


INCREASINGLY, POLICYMAKERS will need to come to terms with the reality that the defining challenges of this era stem from globalization. Globalization has led to an increase in the flow of people, ideas and goods across borders-along with greenhouse gases, drugs, weapons and viruses, computer as well as the more familiar kind. Globalization is best understood as a reality, not a choice. In such a world, every country, no matter how powerful, is vulnerable to transnational threats. No country can shut itself off. (North Korea is something of an exception, but only at an enormous cost, and even then Pyongyang cannot fully insulate itself as much as it might try.) The United States, in particular, cannot embrace protectionism given its dependence on the inflow of dollars, oil and goods. Nor can it flirt with isolationism given its inability to insulate itself from various threats that may originate elsewhere, but have the ability to reach American soil or harm American interests.

Yet, there is a pronounced lag between the realities of globalization and the U.S. (and, in particular, congressional) response. There is a discernible spike in protectionist sentiment-against trade, investment and people. None of these biases stands scrutiny. Most of the jobs that disappear do so because of technological innovation, not cheap imports or outsourcing. The proper response is doing more to make mid-career education and training available and affordable. Portable health care not tied to employment would also help. The next president needs to push for renewed Trade Promotion Authority and to push back against agricultural subsidies and anachronistic tariff and non-tariff barriers. If the price of achieving most or all of this is building an extensive safety net, it is worth paying given all the strategic and economic benefits to this country that would accrue from a successful conclusion to the Doha round.

The growth in investment protectionism-dramatically highlighted by the opposition to proposed acquisitions by the Dubai Ports Authority and the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company in the United States-also makes little sense. Absent clear and overriding national-security concerns tied to specific investments, the United States needs to remain open to dollar inflows. Such openness is good for the U.S. economy, gives others a stake in good and stable relations with the United States, and helps spread good business practices. The case in favor of remaining open to immigration is similarly strong. Immigration is one of the factors that has made this country what it is. Immigrants perform jobs that in many cases Americans are unable or unwilling to fill. Deporting the 13 million immigrants who are here without documentation is inconceivable. Some compromise that allows for earned citizenship but that also provides for enhanced security and larger legal flows of immigrants remains the only way to move forward.

Absent amidst all this protectionism is a concerted effort to take desirable and feasible domestic measures to reduce U.S. vulnerability to another dimension of globalization, namely, energy dependence. The new administration and Congress should take meaningful steps to rein in skyrocketing demand for energy-not simply to reduce the American contribution to climate change, but also to reduce the vulnerability of the American economy to supply interruptions and price increases and to slow the flow of dollars to governments that in many instances are pursuing policies inimical to U.S. national security. Energy policy is at the core of national security. Even climate change is assuming national-security dimensions. Some within the traditional security community do not see some of these issues as major threats on par with the challenges of the Cold War. It is true that countries are unlikely to go to war over levels of greenhouse gas emissions. But they may well go to war over the results of climate change, including water shortages and large-scale human migration.

Finally, no country can contend successfully with globalization on its own. This debate is largely settled-and in many ways it was a faux debate to begin with. The United States can achieve few if any of its foreign-policy objectives via unilateral action. It is not simply that there are limits to American power and resources; it is that the challenges themselves are not amenable to being met by anything less than a collective response. The next president of the United States will be forced to adopt a more multilateral approach to foreign policy.

Multilateralism as a response to globalization should not be equated with global or universal arrangements. As we are seeing in the trade realm, it is increasingly difficult to generate consensus when the number of participants swells. The result has been the proliferation of regional and bilateral accords. Something similar is possible or even likely when it comes to climate change. It will be extraordinarily difficult to negotiate a single successor to the Kyoto Protocol, one that includes all developed as well as developing countries and that addresses all of the principal dimensions of the challenge. Instead, what is likely to emerge-or, more accurately, evolve-is an amalgam of national policies, corporate programs, and regional and global arrangements limited in scope (say, devoted to one functional aspect of the challenge, such as encouraging forestation and discouraging deforestation) and participation. As a rule of thumb, global order is best served by effective and permanent institutions with broad membership, but in many instances coalitions of the willing and other such ad hoc arrangements are the best that can be achieved in the near or medium term. Again, it is important to note the Palmerstonian dimension of this approach-a successful coalition of states coping with one specific issue should not be expected to be transformed into a permanent alignment where there is agreement on all issues.

Essay Types: Essay