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

Questions and Choices

At the beginning of the last century, Americans interested in foreign
policy had an advantage that those similarly interested today do not:
Leading the debate over foreign policy choices were two exceptionally
eloquent national figures--Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

By contrast, today's politics produce--perhaps require--political
figures of narrow electoral calculation rather than lofty policy
conviction. Since Reagan in the 1980s, no recent president or
presidential candidate has been willing to make his vision of
America's role in the world a major thrust of his message to the
country. All have suffered from the lack of the "vision thing", and
perhaps all agree in private that displaying it might prove
politically lethal.

The schools of thought that have developed in recent years are
therefore the work of a mostly anonymous foreign policy intellectual
elite rather than that of major national figures. This circumstance
has both advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that we are
not carried away by eloquence alone. Woodrow Wilson, by all accounts
a mesmerizing speaker, may have been more skilled at framing issues
for the public than Teddy Roosevelt. But it is not clear that he had
a better approach to international relations for the period the
country was entering than did Roosevelt. To put the best gloss on his
career, he appears to have been ahead of his time.

A key disadvantage surrounding our current debates is that they take place out of electoral earshot. The three schools of thought, each with its two ideological wings, frame thinking on foreign policy. They help to determine responses from administrations. But they pass no test of public support, so that, even if adopted, their doctrines are subject to rapid repudiation. And, indeed, in recent years the United States has announced and then renounced such different foreign policy approaches as a "new world order", assertive multilateralism, a la carte interventionism, priority to Russia and China, stress on alliance ties, democratic enlargement, and humanitarian intervention.

An expressly public and political forum is needed to begin to answer some fundamental questions: America has the power of Rome, but does it have its ambition? If America acquires the ambition, will it be able to maintain it? Americans clearly enjoy the role of leader, but will they accept the sacrifices that such a role will inevitably require?

Americans insist that others consult them, but will Americans consult with others? Americans want partners, but do they always understand the difference between partners and supplicants?

Should America's guiding star be respect for the law, or should it be the establishment of order? Is America's premier role model abroad that of the judge or the general?

Do Americans believe that the laws of international relations are immutable, or do they believe that states, if set in a certain institutional structure, can move beyond a mere quest for power? What is that structure and to which states does it apply?

Realists denounce those who urge humanitarian interventions, but can a hegemon maintain the respect from others that its position requires if it remains totally indifferent to what is happening within the system, even at the periphery? On the other hand, does the rule that assertive hegemons will, sooner rather than later, be met by countries determined to balance and contain their power--does that rule not apply to American hegemony? And if not, why not?

America is a status quo power that benefits enormously from the current balance of power in the international system. But, considering that a wave of anti-Americanism is sweeping the globe, should it rest content?

Americans need a serious debate on how best to defend their advantage. It seems unlikely, on the basis of a decade of waiting, that this debate will develop as a result of executive branch initiative. It is perhaps time for the Congress to open up hearings on the advantages and disadvantages of the broad options that the three schools of thought outlined here have developed.

Charles William Maynes is president of the Eurasia Foundation, which promotes economic and political reform in the former Soviet Union. From 1980 to 1997 he was editor of Foreign Policy.

Essay Types: Book Review