The Perils of Empire -- And Coalition Building

October 22, 2003 Topic: Grand Strategy Tags: NeoconservatismHeads Of StateIraq War

The Perils of Empire -- And Coalition Building

 "Coalitions" are a popular organizing principle in Washington politics.


 "Coalitions" are a popular organizing principle in Washington politics.  They convey a sense of mass diversity held together in unity, an impression of a majority coalescing around shared interests.  The coalition, however, is also one of the most unstable formations, because what holds the coalition together must outweigh the disagreements that define its constituent parts.

"The Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy," a new foreign policy initiative which was formally unveiled at the National Press Club on October 16, 2003, bills itself as a "a nonpartisan group of scholars, policy makers and concerned citizens united by their opposition to American Empire. The Coalition is dedicated to promoting an alternative vision for American national security strategy consistent with American traditions and values."


The forty some signatories of its "Statement of Principles" (found at represent a broad spectrum of institutions and political persuasions, from the political left to the right, from traditional realists to humanitarian interventionists.  (Many of the signatories have also contributed commentary to both The National Interest and this internet weekly.)  The four spokesmen (Christopher Preble, director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute; Scott McConnell, executive editor of the American Conservative; Charles Kupchan, professor of international relations at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Steve Clemons, executive director of the New America Foundation) proclaimed their desire to "redirect our foreign policy to the defense of vital American interests," to quote from Preble's opening remarks.  All of the speakers reiterated their unease with Bush Administration policies that reflect the neo-conservative agenda-moving away from an alliance/containment strategy for dealing with threats in favor of unilateral, pre-emptive military action and the desire to use military power to forcibly reshape other countries in the American image-which risk over-extending American strategic capabilities, isolating the United States throughout the world and compromising the legitimacy of its global leadership.

The Coalition seeks to hold the Bush Administration accountable for its foreign policy decisions and hopes to create space for other views in the Administration, ranging from pragmatic realism to liberal internationalism, to have more input in the formulation of policy.  The choice of names for the Coalition is deliberate.  It seeks to advance discussion of "realistic" foreign policies (defining realistic to mean policies that are sustainable and not counterproductive).  However, recognizing that it is made up of disparate elements "united in their opposition to empire", as Clemons observed in his remarks, the Coalition stands for the "competition of ideas" in crafting alternatives to a unilateral America policing the world.

As the executive editor of The National Interest (and the editor of this publication), I welcome the creation of this Coalition-if for nothing else than the self-serving reason that in its mission to engage in debate over foreign affairs, its members will produce interesting and stimulating essays that help to justify the existence of magazines and websites devoted to foreign policy.  Debate and discussion is vitally necessary in a democratic republic if its policies are to reflect the national interest.

Yet there is a real gap between producing valid critiques of the current direction taken by the Bush Administration--several of which I find myself in agreement with--and presenting viable alternatives, especially with a group as heterogeneous as this one.  And this will be the principal challenge.  When Vice-President Cheney spoke last week at The Heritage Foundation, he cast the debate in terms of action versus inaction.  The defenders of the Bush Administration will loudly ask critics to spell out what they would do differently.

To their credit, the organizers of the Coalition have eschewed the establishment of a watered-down, satisfy-all-participants compromise vision in favor of letting the spokesmen for the principal organizations comprising the Coalition give direct and detailed responses.  This led to some amusing movements on the dais during the question-and-answer period, as different speakers wanted to clarify their positions and perhaps ensure to their constituent bases that they were not endorsing policy alternatives anathema to their core principles.

But, to be effective, the Coalition will have to demonstrate that it can do more than criticize and that its criticisms in fact apply to the future of American foreign policy, rather than be couched in a vaguer "what might have been" style of language.  And here the Coalition may run into choppier water in the months ahead.

The first test is whether the Coalition's opposition is framed in ideological or operational terms.  That is to say, is it the goals or the methods of the Bush Administration that is the core of opposition holding together this new Coalition?  (Or, is it just opposition to this particular Administration?)  Given that the backdrop to the formation of the Coalition has been "the war in Iraq", according to its Statement of Principles, does the Coalition--as a Coalition--believe that Iraq really was not a major threat, or that the threat was just not handled properly?  It is a valid point to ask whether some of the signatories to the Statement would have signed had the Bush Administration successfully obtained a second Security Council resolution or if David Kay had been able to come up with damning, conclusive proof (the so-called "retroactive evidence") of an imminent threat in his interim report. 

It is also fair to inquire whether this Coalition would have formed with the exact same composition to oppose the Kosovo intervention four years earlier.  At that time, liberal internationalists reached out to neo-conservatives to forge a coalition at that time to push for military intervention and to critique the realist position that such action was not in America's fundamental national interests. This may highlight the fundamental tension existing at the heart of this group, which common opposition to the Bush Administration can only temporary hold at bay.  The libertarian-realist axis maintains that government power cannot forcibly change societies "from above"; the liberal-internationalist axis is in favor of using softer methods and/or multilateral institutions to achieve precisely that.  

The second test is definitional. "Empire" and "vital national interests" are vague terms that are now in vogue.  Very few claim to be in favor of "empire."  (President Bush, for one, declares his opposition to "empire" as well, stating,  "America has never sought to dominate, never sought to conquer.")  It does seem that the Coalition agrees with the definition that Ray Takeyh and I advanced in an article in the summer 2003 issue of Orbis, that "what defines an imperial state is its desire to concentrate power in its own hands, ensuring that other actors conform to its leadership and allow it to set the agenda."    

Yet it is not clear whether the alternatives are to move to a "concert" system of international affairs with the major powers developing a consensus on action, or to establish a Euro-American condominium that will extend the benefits of the European project to the rest of the world.  Nor is it clear what the U.S. should do if it fails to persuade others and yet feels that "vital national interests" are at stake.

And it is the continuing elusiveness of the second term that may bedevil the Coalition in the months ahead.  The Coalition made a conscious choice to define itself as "realistic" as oppose to "realist."  Yet, everyone claims to be defending "vital national interests."  After all, the neo-conservatives have been quite successful in advancing their own agenda under the rubric of defending U.S. national interests (e. g. that regime change and democratization are essential to deprive terrorists and rogue states of bases for action).    It is not clear that the Coalition can produce a list of agreed-upon "vital interests" and vigorously advance their adoption.

Finally, this new Coalition will test the sustainability of a "non-partisan" organization in an election season, as one questioner at the press conference pointedly raised.  Republicans may grow increasingly nervous about making an "intra-party" debate easy fodder for the Democratic Party to unseat the President; Democrats may question the utility of trying to influence the Bush Administration to broaden its foreign policy horizons if there is a real chance of replacing it altogether.

The Coalition has proven it can unite disparate factions in opposition to the neo-conservative agenda.  Whether it can produce a viable alternative vision remains to be seen.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.  He attended the press conference launching the Coalition and the impressions recorded here are his personal opinion.