The Road to Recovery

The Road to Recovery

Mini Teaser: A New Year's resolution is in store for U.S. foreign policy.

by Author(s): Paul J. Saunders


THE U.S. predicament in Iraq and other foreign-policy troubles have prompted a new realism from the Bush Administration. From an increasingly pragmatic approach to North Korea and Iran to a scaling back of the "freedom agenda" in the Middle East, caution is on the march. Still, the administration's foreign-policy vision is far from being a realist one-and no major presidential candidate has yet articulated an inspiring but pragmatic vision for America's international engagement. This creates an important opportunity-though not an easy one-for those who seek a new approach.

The Bush Administration has argued that pressuring governments around the world to become more democratic-with "all the elements of our power", as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice puts it-is essential to fighting terrorism, and it has attempted to make this the defining feature of America's foreign policy. Congress and the mainstream media seem to share this view-despite the fact that Americans themselves clearly disagree: Just 17 percent see promoting democracy as a "very important" goal for U.S. foreign policy, and 66 percent oppose using military force to make it happen.

What do Americans define as their priorities then? Preventing nuclear-weapons proliferation, fighting terrorism, protecting American jobs and guaranteeing energy security are the top four, each seen as "very important" by around 70 percent of Americans in a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll. And these instincts seem right. Proliferation and the link between proliferation and terrorism are clearly the gravest plausible threats the United States faces from abroad-the detonation of a nuclear weapon on our territory, whether delivered on a missile or by terrorists, could change the American way of life forever. Avoiding this fate must be the central goal of U.S. foreign policy. Energy security and jobs also affect Americans' lives significantly, both directly and indirectly through their impact on the overall economy. Beyond their potential impact on truly vital U.S. interests, however, terrorism and proliferation can serve as key tests of the differences between realist and other approaches to foreign policy.

Given the transnational nature of the terrorist and proliferation problems, the United States must maximize cooperative relationships with other governments, multilaterally and bilaterally. Doing so will help gain access to intelligence and law enforcement information, strengthen security procedures and, when appropriate, pursue joint operations. To get the cooperation we need, America will also have to be more understanding of others' perspectives, motives and needs in fighting terrorism. This means giving greater attention to other governments' priorities and structuring bilateral relationships in ways that encourage rather than discourage cooperation. Washington cannot publicly criticize the Russian or Pakistani security services one day and ask for their most sensitive secrets the next. The next administration will also need to change perceptions of its approach to the War on Terror-and should start by abandoning the Bush Administration's reinterpretations of the Geneva Conventions, stating forcefully that the United States will not engage in torture, and developing transparent and persuasive policies to ensure that it does not happen.

Preventing proliferation requires a broadly similar intelligence and security effort. But it will likely also demand a new global bargain on nuclear energy, which has become increasingly attractive to developing countries struggling with skyrocketing electricity demand and the high price of fossil fuels. Establishing a secure international nuclear-fuel consortium may be the best solution-but will require persuading at least some non-nuclear-weapons states to give up their right to an indigenous fuel cycle as guaranteed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This may not be possible if nuclear-weapons states do not make more substantial commitments to destroying a larger share of their arsenals. The United States does need nuclear weapons-and may well need new ones-but it is difficult to understand how large stockpiles of warheads designed to fulfill Cold War targeting missions improve our security today.

One key challenge in addressing terrorism and proliferation (and, for that matter, energy security and wider economic security and prosperity) is that the United States needs the cooperation of many countries with troubling domestic practices. We need China and Russia in dealing with North Korea and Iran. We need Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to fight Al-Qaeda. We need Syria in the Middle East peace process and in Iraq, at least as long as our objectives there remain as currently defined.

We share some common interests in most of these cases-neither China nor Russia wants a nuclear North Korea or Iran and neither Pakistan nor Saudi Arabia wants its own government to fall to extremists. But we have very different priorities. Beijing and Moscow seem to prefer to take their chances deterring new nuclear powers rather than to risk destabilizing them or damaging what they view as important relationships. And Pakistan and Saudi Arabia want to protect themselves from Al-Qaeda without putting their regimes at risk.

Realists recognize that these countries and others define their interests themselves and that cooperating with them requires finding the places where our interests intersect. Moreover, while a Russia or a Pakistan may accommodate some American desires, neither is likely to accommodate them all. So we need to establish clear priorities in our bilateral relationships, particularly avoiding policies that might be seen as threatening the existence of governments whose cooperation we believe we need-unless we have a well-defined plan either to get the help elsewhere or to cope with the consequences of not having it.

George Kennan responded to the criticism that realists are immoral because they fail to address conditions inside such countries by arguing that a government's actions to advance its "military security, the integrity of its political life, and the well-being of its people . . . have no moral quality" because "they arise from the very existence of the national state and from the status of national sovereignty it enjoys." Whether or not one agrees with this view, it is difficult to argue with the principle that if foreign-policy decisions do indeed have a moral quality, the paramount moral obligation of any government is to ensure the security and well-being of its own citizens before all others. This is the central reason that governments exist.

President Bush and many leading presidential candidates in both parties say that the United States must make it a priority to change other countries' practices because America should advance universal desires for freedom and dignity. But they see only half of the equation. As Zbigniew Brzezinski has effectively pointed out, dignity means having not only the respect of one's leaders, but also the respect of outsiders for one's cultural traditions and preferences. From this perspective, the desire for freedom reflects an aspiration to live free of any unwelcome outside interference, whether from a national government, multinational corporation or NGO, or Washington. Realists and others who understand this are therefore not surprised when we are not universally greeted as liberators or saviors.

There are, of course, some cases in which morality demands interference in another country's affairs, whether or not it is welcome. Certainly the United States must act-sometimes with military force-to stop genocide. In less severe cases, America should do what it can to alleviate suffering without undermining its ability to achieve other key objectives. Washington should make its perspectives on the domestic practices of other states known in ways that focus on quiet and achievable results, rather than publicly displaying a halo-wearing reflection in what Kennan called "the mirror of our own vanity." In strictly humanitarian crises-where a government requests American assistance to deal with problems beyond its capability-Washington should be as generous as its available resources allow, both out of moral considerations and in a practical effort to buttress our leadership, influence global public opinion and prevent bad situations from worsening.


OF COURSE, to be effective and inspiring, and to be true to American values, a foreign-policy vision cannot be based strictly on polling or a collection of new strategies aimed at dark threats. It must also include an ambitious and positive project for the United States. For the present generation, that project should be leading efforts to build and manage a generally stable and prosperous international system.

Because of its considerable and diverse international interests in the age of globalization, America cannot be secure and prosperous in a world wracked by violent conflict. Not every crisis affects the United States directly or significantly, but many eventually do-and the cost of preventive engagement or action is often much lower than that of an emergency response. More broadly, working to structure the international system in ways that reflect U.S. preferences is likely less costly than either permitting de facto anarchy or encouraging others to develop their own systems through our mistakes or inaction.

A dangerously expansive effort at Pax Americana was, of course, the "cakewalk" of the 1990s-mostly because it was pursued indiscriminately by the Clinton Administration, which found "vital" American interests almost everywhere. The administration seemed to think that after the end of the Cold War, the United States could and should do anything and everything. Today, the limits of American power are starkly visible to all.

Essay Types: The Realist