Contours of a Post-Bush Foreign Policy

September 28, 2006 Region: Americas

Contours of a Post-Bush Foreign Policy

Stefan Halper calls on the rational center to reassert itself in the public policy debate.

The foreign policy debate, according to Stefan Halper, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Studies at Cambridge University, has been reduced to a series of "bumper sticker slogans" provided by "jingoistic infotainers." In the lead up to the current war in Iraq, very few foreign policy experts challenged the Bush Administration's rationale for invasion.  If this trend of expert passivity and self-censorship persists, future administrations may continue to create slickly presented but poorly conceived foreign policy agendas.
The United States has always been driven by "big ideas," from John Winthrop's "City on a Hill" speech three hundred years ago to the much more recent concepts of "freedom on the march" and "War on Terror." As in the past, these ideas have arisen in response to grave national challenges, like the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century or the threat of international communism in the aftermath of World War II.

Today, as during the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, "the rational center has been silenced by charges of disloyalty."  Pundits, rather than experts, have come to dominate the U.S. foreign policy discourse. Worse, some experts have actually abandoned their previous positions in order to gain greater public recognition. 

This lack of public debate will have serious consequences for future policy decisions, especially in regards to China. The stifling of rational, centrist voices-as in 2003 and 2004-could easily lead a future administration to adopt a mistaken course of action in Southeast Asia. Another failure to adequately discuss diplomatic strategy could lead to "numerous possibilities of clashes with China" in the upcoming decades. The absence of vocal centrist critics, Halper believes, should concern both the Democratic and Republican parties.

After all, the president who succeeds George W. Bush will not simply be forced to pursue "Bush-lite" policies.  Certain tenets of the current administration's policy-unilateralism, for instance-have been rejected by the American public. Both the current administration and the public have been forced to recognize the "limitations of American power."  Although the United States may have the world's strongest, most technologically advanced military, it cannot be effectively used to "export American values."  Recent experiences in the Middle East have shown that democratic institutions cannot simply be imposed on any society. Democracy will only function properly if it is widely accepted within a society, but the elements of civil society that are capable of successfully promoting democracy are difficult, if not impossible, to identify.

In the Middle East, "our values, our knowledge, our template" may simply be incompatible with the prevailing sentiments in that region. Every effort, whether American or European, to "sell political products" to this troubled region has failed. The scholar grimly noted that "the Middle East enterprise […] is going to end in tears."

To the neoconservatives who advocated an American-led democratic transformation in the Middle East, "reality has been a harsh teacher."  Although neoconservatives played an influential role in formulating some of the Bush Administration's least successful policies, Halper disputed the notion that the neoconservative philosophy has been definitively discredited. While a realist foreign policy outlook has been gaining prominence within the Republican Party, advocates of American "exceptionalism" have existed within the GOP for at least two decades.

The president who succeeds Bush will face serious difficulties. In order to grapple with the problems of nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq, nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea and Islamic fundamentalism in the broader Middle East, future administrations will have to make unpalatable choices.  Even with "highly distilled, interest-driven diplomacy," Halper concluded, "there is no magic pill."

Marisa Morrison is an Apprentice Editor at The National Interest and can be reached at [email protected].