Contending Schools

March 1, 2001 Topics: Great Powers Regions: Americas Tags: Bosnian WarSuperpowerYugoslavia

Contending Schools

Mini Teaser: Three distinct schools of thought shape the debate on how America should best pursue its post-Cold War interests in the world.

by Author(s): Charles William Maynes

A much more optimistic and liberal vision of the international system
and of human nature than that held by the hegemonists lies behind the
Clinton approach. Research by scholars such as Michael Doyle, a
professor of political science at Princeton University, has advanced
evidence for the belief that democratic states are by their very
structure peaceful, at least in their dealings with one another. With
this core belief as a foundation, the Clinton administration's
preference was for policy that would spread free markets, which would
lead to the development of a middle class, whose members, in turn,
would demand an opening of the political process. It was a form of
upside-down (or right side-up) Marxism: Economics drives politics,
but this time toward middle class democracy, not the dictatorship of
the proletariat. And since democracies do not attack one another,
free trade will bring not only prosperity but world peace. At the end
of this cycle, the rules of international politics themselves can be
rewritten, codified, and the new structure strengthened through

The theory, of course, rests on the assumption that what has not
happened until now--democracies warring with one another--cannot
happen. The test might come if countries with no liberal
tradition--say, those of the Arab world--were to become democratic,
and then were engaged in contesting access--both on the part of each
other and of outside democracies--to vital resources such as water
and oil. Would democracy then prevent them from fighting?

In any case, given such an optimistic theory as a premise, any
sensible administration would be concerned to give history a push.
Following this logic, the Clinton administration has aggressively
pressed for the establishment of free-trade agreements with a growing
number of countries around the world. It also pressed the issue of
enlarging NATO even at the cost of disturbing relations with Russia.
President Clinton put the final theoretical piece in his approach to
international politics in place when, in his last year in office, he
called for Russian membership in both the European Union and NATO,
once Moscow met the membership criteria. Pulling Russia into some
kind of institutional structure could suspend the laws of
international politics that have applied in Europe for centuries,
just as it is assumed that American world hegemony could suspend
those laws for much of the rest of the world.

The Abstainers

Two seminal events have made the position of abstainer a more
credible approach to foreign policy than it was for most of the
twentieth century: the end of the Cold War and what we have quickly
learned to call globalization.

After World War II, the struggle with the Soviet Union rendered the
position of American isolationism untenable. An enemy that seemed to
have a presence everywhere had to be confronted everywhere. At the
same time, the model of economic development Western states had
developed as a result of the experience of both the Great Depression
and the Second World War called for a committed form of
internationalism, involving market interference by governments and
their public sector bankers to keep the world economy on the right
track. Now the Cold War has ended and the growing strength of
globalization, with its open borders and floating exchange rates, has
put the market back in the driver's seat.

With the loss of an external threat, the U.S. government was suddenly
deprived of the argument that there was no foreign policy option
other than internationalism. And with the "invisible hand" working
its globalist magic, Americans and others had yet another reason to
reconsider their approach to international affairs. Governments began
to lose their monopoly over international relations. Transnational
actors--businesses, non-governmental organizations, the news media
and private individuals from Jimmy Carter to George Soros to the
Pope--quickly came to exert more influence than senior U.S. officials.

Looking at these developments, some observers--Jessica Mathews,
president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for
example--contend that a "power shift" has taken place in
international politics and that transnational actors are now "able to
push around even the largest governments." If one believes these
actors are benign, as many globalists do, one might well conclude
that we should sit back and relax, since increasingly governments can
present only the "appearance of free choice" when they set out to
make the rules. Of course, individuals who hold such views know that
the new force of globalization brings some ill as well as much good.
Nevertheless, the case they make progressively calls into question
whether the historic game of geopolitics played by empires and
democracies alike throughout the course of history will continue to
dominate international politics. Why not, then, draw the obvious
conclusion that a frantic concern with control is misplaced and
pointless, and that the most that is called for will be modest and
occasional efforts at small course corrections?

While Mathews and those who agree with her make a persuasive case and
point to real and important changes, the fact that similar claims
about the consequences of interdependence and earlier versions of
"globalization" have been made by others in the last two
centuries--Cobden, Marx and Engels, Norman Angell immediately come to
mind--suggests that a degree of caution is in order. The demise of
the sovereign nation-state has often been announced, but it is a long
time dying.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in his bestselling book,
The Lexus and the Olive Tree, expresses the new view graphically when
he contends that if a nation wishes to enjoy the prosperity of the
new globalized economy, it must put on a "Golden Straitjacket." And
once a nation is properly fitted, it finds that "two things tend to
happen: your economy grows and your politics shrinks." The competence
of the state remains important, Friedman argues, but as in the
delimited role of tailor and valet for the straightjacket.

Countries so bound may enjoy "more growth and higher average
incomes", but their political and economic policy choices are
narrowed to "relatively tight parameters." In Friedman's view, this
is the principal reason that there is now very little difference
between the policies of those in power and those in opposition "in
those countries that have put on the Golden Straitjacket." Supporting
his case is the record of governments in France and the United States
in recent years. Regardless of election promises or changes in
administration, policy remains fundamentally unaltered.

Of course, the suggestion is that it would be rational for
governments to put on the Golden Straitjacket voluntarily. But as not
everyone involved in the game of international politics is rational,
Friedman would not abandon the military instrument. Nevertheless, his
view of globalization, which is widely shared in financial circles,
offers a very optimistic view of international relations, one
suggesting that countries increasingly will lock themselves into an
international structure of economic interchange that will ensure a
more peaceful world. Within this structure, problems like
international terrorism and criminality may remain, but the scale of
bloodletting experienced in the world wars will be gone forever.
Indeed, once every country is in the straitjacket, the centuries-old
problem of international security will largely be solved.

Thus for the liberal abstainer, economics is more important than
politics; conversely, for the conservative abstainer--the traditional
isolationist--politics is more important than economics. The liberal
abstainer, convinced that globalism will lift all boats, believes the
nation's highest priority is to open markets among economies and
communications among cultures. The conservative abstainer, on the
other hand, is worried that global forces will constrict political
choice in the United States and thus erode national
sovereignty--precisely the development their liberal counterparts

Tom Friedman wants America, like other nations, to wear the Golden
Straitjacket. Pat Buchanan fights to ensure that, no matter what the
benefits, America will never try it on, because once worn it will be
impossible to shed. Buchanan, it is worth noting, can only take the
positions he does because America is now so secure. The United States
can go its own way only as long as that is true. Buchanan would use
America's strength to consolidate the home front, with America ready
to repel any power that dares challenge the United States in any
fundamental way.

The goal is to keep America out of harm's way, and the best way to do
this now is through disengagement rather than engagement. The United
States can withdraw from the 1947 Rio Pact with Latin American
governments--which calls for collective action against a potential
aggressor--because no such aggressor exists. It can abrogate any
security treaty that requires the country to go to war automatically,
while at the same time remaining allied with certain critical states.
These states will no longer need an American armed presence on their
soil to ensure their security, but will settle for American good
will. Thus, U.S. ground troops would leave Western Europe and South
Korea. In other words, America need no longer serve as a front-line
state forever taking the lead; it can return to the restricted and
safer role of the West's "strategic reserve."

Ironically, the hegemonists and the isolationists share a common
vision: Each group wants to make sure that America remains the sole
arbiter of its own fate, the former by keeping others subservient,
the latter by staying out of their quarrels. The shapers, both
conservatives and liberals, do not believe that U.S. power, vast
though it has become, is sufficient for America to ignore or reject
the need for allies and friends.

Essay Types: Book Review