Directionally Challenged

March 22, 2007 Topic: Great Powers Region: Americas Tags: Superpower

Directionally Challenged

U.S. foreign policy needs a change of course, according to Amitai Etzioni and Michael Lind.


Although they may not be able to deliver on their promises, African rainmakers never seem to be unemployed. E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the anthropologist who studied this phenomenon, noted that all rainmakers tended to rely on similar excuses: "It will rain later" or "The rain dance was done incorrectly." Speaking at The National Interest yesterday, sociologist Amitai Etzioni, of The George Washington University, compared these witch doctors to the political rainmakers in Washington, DC. When "noble [foreign-policy] goals smack into unyielding reality", in-denial American policymakers are only willing to make minor adjustments to an already decided-upon course of action.

However, these incremental, improvised changes will not suffice; U.S. foreign policy needs an overarching approach. This underlying notion should be "security first", Etzioni suggested, building on his argument in the current issue of The National Interest. The security-first concept suggests that security must precede democracy in order for the latter to develop. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us that "democratization by lethal means is not possible", and "we are put in all kinds of binds when we try it", Etzioni said. Bringing "the light [of democracy] to the heathens" by smashing their institutions of governance will only impede the progress of democracy in the long run, the scholar added.


Working within a country's pre-existing power structure allows the United States to ensure that the territory in question does not fall into chaos. This strategy often requires Americans policymakers to reach out to unsavory individuals, like Afghan warlords, former Nazis or "illiberal moderates" in the Muslim world. Once security has been ensured, then U.S. diplomats and policymakers can begin the process of nudging a government towards reform.

Libya provides a perfect illustration of the "security first, democracy later" approach to policy. Since Etzioni views nuclear terrorism as the principal threat to global security, he sees Libya's decision to renounce nuclear weapons as an unequivocal step in the right direction. Even though Etzioni insisted that Libya is "the poster child of what we want" in terms of nuclear-threat reduction, there is a strong temptation in Washington to hold Qaddafi's feet to the fire on human-rights issues. This focus on domestic reforms signals to North Korea and Iran that disarmament and regime change are inextricably linked in the minds of U.S. policymakers.

While Russia may be an established nuclear power, its nuclear weapons are worrisome for a different reason. Russia's arms are poorly guarded and could easily fall into the hands of terrorists, yet we fail to devote adequate resources to ensuring that these and other nuclear weapons are secured. The threat posed by nuclear terrorism is so grave, said Etzioni, that he could convince a Southern jury of the necessity to adopt his security-first approach as the primary tenet of U.S. foreign policy.

Michael Lind, a Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, also weighed in on what principles should guide American foreign policy.

Lind linked the direction of current U.S. foreign policy to long-standing historical trends. The 19th-century United States, a "fragile" democratic republic in a world of authoritarian states, avoided being drawn into Europe's concert-of-power systems. U.S. policymakers of that era perceived that participating in such a system-with its fluid alliances, unelected leaders, massive standing armies and secretive diplomacy-would put the young republic in jeopardy. Instead of taking part in the great-power game, the United States confined itself to carving out a sphere of influence in North America.

The fear of a multipolar world, in which states balance against one another, still influences U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War world. Now, unlike in the past, the United States aspires not to be the hegemon over one region, but over the entire globe. This strategy is informed by the hegemonic-stability theory, which asserts-in the words of Lind-that there will be "no peace unless one great power is on top of the pecking order." To deter any rising powers from challenging the "top dog", the United States must also ensure that its military spending far exceeds that of other great powers.

The United States must also assume the security burdens of other great powers to maintain its place on the global totem pole. This strategy obliges the United States to fight wars to protect the security of its allies. For instance, Lind alleges that the United States sent troops to the Balkans in the 1990s both to protect Germany and to prevent it from re-arming. While other countries, like Germany or Japan, "concentrate on making cars, we protect their coasts," Lind said.

Unfortunately, according to Lind, global hegemony will prove impossible to sustain. As the United States' dominance of the global economic system fades, America's ability to finance such an expensive strategy will also diminish. Worse, the hegemony strategy wears away at the foundations of America's democratic society. According to Lind, the foreign-policy elite fears that the public is not willing to bear the hegemonic burden, so it conceals its policies' true aims from ordinary Americans.

Due to the deleterious consequences of the hegemonic strategy, Lind expressed his support for a concert-of-power system, in which the United States and its allies would share in the task of policing the world. This strategy would be more palatable to the American people and would put less strain on the American economy.

While Lind and Etzioni laid out different, though not incompatible, stances on how U.S. foreign policy should proceed, they seemed to agree that the rainmakers in Washington need to confront their policy failures.

Marisa Morrison is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.