The Present Opportunity

The Present Opportunity

Mini Teaser: We still live in a dangerous world, but the tenure of U.S. primacy depends less on reacting to threats than on pursuing the opportunities before us.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

What strategy should the United States adopt for an age of New-Economy American Wilsonianism? In essence, it should adopt one that expands the deep peace, preserves American primacy, and spreads Wilsonian institutions worldwide. With one noteworthy exception, each of these objectives reinforces the other two, just as the phenomena on which they are based reinforce one another. Taken together, they define the enlightened self-interest of the United States in this still new century.

Note the order, however; it is important. Maintaining the deep peace is a realist project, which, if it is not commuted successfully, will prevent the United States from doing anything constructive. It should not be taken for granted. The deep peace is vulnerable because some major powers--and many substantial middle powers with a capacity to cause considerable tension and disorder--have yet to enter the cybernetic age or to build a truly advanced economy. Counting on a new form of economic rationality to trump all other urges is therefore surely premature. Moreover, the present age of globalization has yet to withstand a major economic contraction, and no one knows how the new economic forms that enable globalization will be affected by it. Thus, one does not need a conservative's sense of the tragic to know (though it helps) that a major war cannot be completely ruled out. Northeast Asia is one place where a combination of global recession, nationalism and the historical baggage associated with it might help to trigger one off.

It is also a realist project, at least in part, to maintain American primacy, and there is no reason to apologize for it. It is not immoral, or even amoral, to do well in the world if that is what ultimately enables one to do good. But to the extent that American primacy involves soft power--the attraction of its values and culture--the job of maintaining it transcends the traditional realist calculus (and also explains why American primacy is not ordinarily imperial). As G. John Ikenberry has argued, America has been an "empire by invitation" in which the invitees have been able to borrow American assets without forsaking their own, even as the open and institutionalized character of the American order has minimized the possibilities of hegemonic excess over the long term.

The maintenance of such an order requires a sense of strategy that appreciates the critical role of healthy alliances, and the care and feeding of such alliances among democracies means taking seriously the trans-realpolitik elements that helped to form those relationships in the first place. It also puts a strategic premium on what Joffe aptly calls "supply-side diplomacy" and what others term the provision of common security goods. Such diplomacy often involves American leadership in issues that may benefit others more, and cost them less, than it benefits and costs the United States. But, overall, the United States gains from such efforts the consent of most others to its leadership. We live, then, in a world in which it has become realistic for the United States to do things that are not narrowly realist in character.

Then, finally, there is the project of promoting Wilsonian values. As suggested above, the potential for disruption in political and security relationships on account of economic and social changes afoot is large, and it is larger in some already beleaguered parts of the world than in others. As a result, this third project does not automatically or necessarily reinforce the other two. We could undermine the peace by deploying a one-size-fits-all-circumstances policy on self-determination as collapsing states generate major regional crises. (Rajan Menon examines the potential Indonesian example above, but there are others.) We could jeopardize American primacy by undertaking promiscuous nation-building interventions in places with diplomatic failure written all over them. Such promiscuity would squander credibility, raise resentment, and erode military morale and readiness on a large scale.

We have to approach failed states crises as a category of choice in which we do neither too little nor too much. As usual, selectivity and discrimination will stand us in much better stead than the urge to comprehensiveness and consistency, and one appropriately Wilsonian criterion for selectivity is the prospect for democratic development. The United States ought to take a close interest in the fortunes of new democracies and young market-based economic systems. Leon Aron is right to argue that such polities are better described as pre-liberal than illiberal democracies. In the long run, too, their success will contribute to the achievement of the first two American projects.

But not all developing countries have too little democracy and too few market-based institutions; rather, some have too much or too many too fast. An undifferentiated campaign to hoist the spread of Wilsonian values above all else will make things worse, not better. Besides, successful liberal institutions are almost invariably home-grown, so that it is the capacity for indigenous democratic development that ought to be the first measure of whether particular humanitarian crises are best handled by cautious triage or, very occasionally, by assisting in nation-building.

Otherwise, we need to concentrate effort at two points: problems most amenable to solution through more robust campaigns of preventive diplomacy, and problems so dangerous that we have no choice but to face them. Of the latter sort, most grave is the threat of mass-casualty terrorism. Those parts of the world most roiled by the age of New-Economy American Wilsonianism are natural sources of anti-American resentment. Beyond the possibility of nuclear missile attacks against the United States, it is a matter of serious concern that advancing biotechnology threatens to put very dangerous substances into the hands of rogue states and terrorist groups (including domestic ones) on a scale heretofore unimagined. This is not a problem off to the side of U.S. national security policy but one central to it, for the vulnerability of the American homeland, left unredressed, will severely reduce the flexibility, credibility and political base of any activist U.S. foreign policy.

While the United States does face many dangers, its opportunities are at least as impressive. It is good that senior Defense Department officials are insisting that the country be prepared not just for near-term challenges but for those two decades hence. (That they dare to face down the hidebound and the bureaucratically craven in the process is also to their credit.) At the same time, it has been disheartening to find no evidence of senior State Department and White House officials thinking about what sort of world we want to see 25 years from now, and how to achieve it. More than an eighth of the way through the current administration's term, neither the President nor the Secretary of State has made a speech even touching on America's longer-term international goals. Instead, President Bush has delivered two major addresses, one on missile defense and nuclear military issues and one about a military alliance: NATO. (Secretary Powell has yet to give a major speech on U.S. foreign policy.) As Zbigniew Brzezinski, a frequent contributor to these pages, has pointed out, observers in other countries may be forgiven for wondering why the United States--the most powerful and wealthiest democratic power in history, in the most tranquil security environment perhaps since the Treaty of Westphalia--should be emphasizing publicly threats to itself rather than its positive plans for international leadership. It is a genuine puzzlement to them, and not only to them.

Now, during the Cold War we in the West had books, articles and even political committees emphasizing "the present danger", and in those days that was just the right focus. Those books and articles--"as well as that committee"--did a world of good. We still have books with such titles and, yes, the world is still a dangerous place; but we should be thinking at least as much and at least as creatively about the present opportunity, defined by the historically extraordinary coincidence of the deep peace, American primacy and the ascendancy of Wilsonian values. Such thinking will lead quickly to two general conclusions.

First, it is impossible to conduct an effective supply-side diplomacy unilaterally. Unilateralism will generate gratuitous resentment and prove exhausting, counterproductive and uneconomical in every sense of the term. Sometimes, as a matter of discrete policy choices, the United States will, and should, find itself isolatedâ€"opposition to the International Criminal Court is an excellent case in point. But auto-isolation as a tenet of strategy is harmful to American primacy at a time when, strange though it may sound, we cannot act selfishly without the cooperation of others. That is why it is important to articulate aspirations for a better world that are worthy of the unprecedented opportunity before American statesmen today.

Second, to conduct an opportunity-based strategy successfully, the United States must act without arrogance or self-absorption. It is properly selfish to make it easy for others to associate their interests with the international security and economic system with which the United States is identified, and from which it benefits so handsomely. That requires special attention to tone and an unflagging awareness of the persistence of incompatible perspectives, even among putative friends. Shakespeare put it nicely:

O, it is excellent/To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous/To use it like a giant.

But, for present purposes anyway, it has been put even better: Success requires an awareness of the intractability of a world that does not exist merely in order to satisfy American expectations.That's the key to the national interest.

Essay Types: Essay