Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Editor’s Column Spring 2000

Editor’s Column Spring 2000

By the time this issue appears in late March 2000 the major parties’ nominees for the presidency will probably be known. It’s no fun knowing who will play in the World Series before spring training is even over, and I predict the American voters will rebel. Forget campaign finance: the real reform needed is abolition of the absurdly premature and front-loaded primary election process. Not only does the present system drain most of the excitement from the races (the last time a convention had any suspense was in Chicago in 1968, and the suspense was in the streets, not the hall), it also extends the already protracted lame-duck period for the outgoing administration. The president is unlikely to take any major initiatives in foreign policy unless a crisis erupts, whereupon the candidates must mince their own words lest they appear unpatriotic, opportunistic, or just irresponsible. Meanwhile, all other nations must endure the customary eighteen months of drift in world affairs between the time one American administration prepares to clean out its desks and the time when a new administration gets up to speed. Examples abound: the Clintonites were notoriously slow in coming up with a foreign policy team and game plan; the Bushies took cover in an interminable policy review before the collapse of the Soviet bloc forced them to act; the Reaganauts, remember, concentrated on domestic economics for two years or more; and the Vance and Brzezinski factions never did find the same page during the Carter years. Aside from the presidents who took office during warsTruman, Eisenhower, and Nixonthe only one who hit the ground running in foreign and defense policy was Kennedy (albeit with controversial results). Will foreign policy at least play a major role in the campaign this time around? Again, most likely not, unless some foreign issue can be linked in the voters’ minds to some pressing domestic agenda. That is why Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, illegal immigration, and drugs are the most likely subjects of campaign rhetoric, because they have much to do with the sort of nation the United States itself will soon become. And that is why we shall devote the next issue of Orbis to a thorough examination of Latin American affairs.

In These Pages

For the moment, however, the two trends in world affairs most likely to obsess foreign policy pundits go by the shorthands of OOTW (“operations other than war,” made necessary by spreading ethnic conflicts) and RMA (“revolution in military affairs,” driven by the application of computer and space satellite systems to war). The dilemmas posed by each are thorny enough, but together they oblige the Pentagon to ask how the U.S. military can possibly recast its Cold WarÛera forces for peacekeeping missions while at the same time preserving its war-winning edge in an era of revolutionary technology. Such dilemmas are plumbed in these pages.

What causes ethnic conflicts, and under what conditions can they be resolved? No panaceas will emerge any time soon, if at all, but some initial contributions have begun to build a body of data and a theoretical framework by which to make sense of experience. Dean Pruitt, for instance, describes the spectrum of techniques available to third parties who intervene in hopes of resolving ethnic conflicts, with some real-world examples of relative success. William Zartman zeroes in on the tactics of mediation. Harvey Glickman examines in depth a negative example: the seemingly endless strife in Sudan and the conspicuous failure of the world community to inhibit the slaughter or mediate the conflict. Sonia Alianak analyzes the agonizing phenomenon of the murder of peacemakers such as Anwar Sadat by zealots within their own camp, and James Miskel calls for nonmilitary ways to provide and protect humanitarian missions.

Turning to the future of war, four high-tech experts stare at nightmare scenarios without blinking. Keith Payne takes on the threat, made chillingly plausible by the recent North Korean tests, posed by rogue states possessed not only of weapons of mass destruction, but long-range missiles to deliver them. Winn Schwartau reports on the prospects for “cyber-war” that targets the computer systems on which an enemy’s civilian economy as well as military depends. Henry Sokolski contemplates the dangers of biological and chemical assault, and Andrew Bacevich argues that what little the U.S. government has done about it so far is worse than useless. Finally, Bruce Berkowitz brings all the above into perspective in a rich review essay on books about war in the twenty-first century. Speaking of meaty reviews, Tim Naftali critiques Marc Trachtenberg’s massive, provocative interpretation of what the Cold War in Europe was really about, and Frank Gavin explains what we must learn, or unlearn, from books purporting to explain the international economic order.

Night Thoughts of an I.R. Professor

Harvey Sicherman, the president of FPRI, likes to say that my greatest regret is allowing him to talk me into assuming the editorship of Orbis. It is on occasions such as this that I take my revenge. Harvey must keep white-knuckled silence for half an hour while the unpredictable McDougall sounds off in the name of the institute. Indeed, for an accomplished speech writer like Harvey, the only thing worse than to hear a speaker botch the eloquent material you wrote for him is to sit by helplessly while a speaker elocutes botched material you didn’t write for him.

What is more, I purposely chose a title for this address so broad and vague”America and the World at the Dawn of a New Century”that I could say pretty much whatever was on my mind at the moment. But any of three approaches occurred to me. First, I might choose to look backward, reviewing the history of American foreign relations and suggesting what lessons to draw from it. That would have put me on safe ground, but I rejected that approach because it would just give you all an excuse not to read my last book.

Secondly, I could have chosen to prophesy regarding the dire trends that may shape world politics in the future. But that, I realized, would only send the audience home to bed with heads filled by nightmarish visions of failed states, famines, ethnic violence, financial meltdowns, rogue states with nuclear weapons, terrorism on American soil, an angry Russia, a threatening China, and a unified Europe becoming a competitor, rather than partner, of the United States. It is even possible that the United States will cease to exist as we know it over the next century, either because Mexican immigrants reconquer the Southwest, or because American society fragments into hostile ethnic and special interest groups, or because of some unforeseen breakdown in our constitutional government.

Thirdly, I could have taken this centennial as an occasion to mix history and prophecy by recalling the many predictions made around the year 1900. Pessimists, such as H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and the German socialist August Bebel, foresaw a twentieth century tortured by world wars made all the more hellish by modern technology. At the same time optimists, such as Andrew Carnegie and Norman Angell, foresaw a twentieth century in which war would become obsolete though the workings of free trade and spreading democracy. Call it ironic, coincidental, or just curious, but when the century was done, both camps were right!

In recent years, with 2000 approaching, we have again been teased by contradictory prognostications. Francis Fukuyama has pronounced an end to ideological conflict and predicted the gradual triumph of democracy and free markets. But Robert Kaplan has warned of two twenty-first century worldsa zone of peace and wealth and a zone of chaos and despairthat cannot coexist for long. Samuel Huntington believes that the bipolar Cold War world is being replaced by a clash among civilizations, with the Islamic and Chinese those most likely to cross swords with the West. And the U.S. Commission on National Security in the Twenty-first Century, in the first installment of its “New World Coming” project, outlined four possible futures for the world: first, the Democratic Peace, in which national sovereignty survives, but the major powers cooperate to secure peace and free trade, and eventually bring Russia and China into the club; secondly, Globalization Triumphant, in which sovereignty erodes and multilateral institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and above all multinational corporations lead the world to greater and more equal prosperity at the cost of a more uniform and commercial “McWorld”; thirdly, Protectionist Nationalism, in which free trade breaks down and the major powers compete for military and commercial power in a poorer, more dangerous world; and finally, Mayhem triggered by a global depression, environmental disaster, or ethnic violence, and characterized by wars, refugee floods, and terrorism.

But what would be the point in telling you that human beings cannot know what the next hundred years will bring? Our leaders cannot craft policy on the basis that the future will pretty much resemble the past, because to assume that past patterns will continue only guarantees that any new challenge will come as a shock. But to assume that the future is bound to be wild and unpredictable is also no use, because even the sole superpower cannot prepare for every conceivable disaster.

And that is why I rejected all the above approaches and decided instead to speak of mundane things: not mundane in the sense of boring or trivial, but in its true sense of worldly, here-and-now, real. Henry Kissinger’s precept holds that the most any statesman can aim for is to build the foundation for a generation of peace, and thus, while speculating about the millennium is fun, our task remains that of identifying the most likely challenges that world affairs may present over the next twenty-five years. That task may suggest some laundry list of problems and solutions, but I think the best way to prepare for a mysterious future is to stress not our ends or even our means, but our assets. That is because the strength and flexibility of our foreign policy assets will determine America’s ability to employ various means in pursuit of multiple goals, adjust to unanticipated threats and challenges, and lead other nations to adjust to them, too.

Today, at the end of America’s second century in foreign affairs, it may appear that little agreement exists about the nature of the international system and what America’s role in it ought to be. We see Republicans, who were bold interventionists so long as the Soviet Union existed, criticizing President Clinton’s diplomacy as opportunistic, unrealistic, inconsistent, or simply incompetent. The administration, in turn, accuses anyone who resists its foreign initiatives of that wickedest of heresies: isolationism. In truth, the leaders of both political parties and most foreign policy experts display a surprising consensus in favor of continued American leadership in pursuit of similar goals. To be sure, there is disagreement over priorities and tactics in a given case such as Kosovo or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But I think almost everyone from Patrick Buchanan to Madeleine Albright would agree on the following basic goals of our foreign policy: (1) security for the territory, citizens, and property of the United States, and for those nations whose welfare directly affects our own; (2) stability in as much of the world as possible, because the more stable our environment the more we can anticipate possible breakdowns and the less we will be called upon to fix; (3) an open, transparent, and fair system of trade, both to increase our prosperity and the stake that all nations have in security and stability; and (4) promotion of respect for those inalienable rights with which, Americans believe, all human beings have been endowed by their Creatorand not only because it is just, but because the more governments respect their own people’s rights, the more likely they are to respect those of others.

Rather, the debates we hear are less over goals than over the best means to pursue them and the priority to be given to each whenever two or more goals seem to clash. Should we rank human rights in China above or below commercial interestsand should we define the word “should” in moral or practical terms? Should we occupy the Balkans, police the Persian Gulf, and support Taiwan because of the moral and commercial stakes involved there, or are those gratuitous entanglements that spread our military too thin, manufacture enemies, and thus harm our security? Should America take the lead in reducing nuclear arsenals through treaties, sanctions, and controls, or is preserving our own deterrent the best way to dissuade implacable adversaries from getting or using weapons of mass destruction?

Those are serious questions and I do not mean to discount them. Indeed, I say in my book Promised Land, Crusader State that the tensions in American statecraft are a product of the many strategies we have adopted, sometimes simultaneously, in hopes of influencing the world, from Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive imperialism and Woodrow Wilson’s international law and organization to containment, foreign aid, and human rights. But just as most Americans agree on basic goals, so, too, can they reach rough accord on priorities and means so long as they are effectively led by the president and Congress, and so long as the policies in place appear to work. Philosophical hand-wringing does not occur except in the absence of leadership, success, or most likely both.

That is why I believe the real sources of contention today arise from a profound uneasiness with a foreign policy agenda that reduces our military power even as it expands our commitments and diverts our power into such hopeless (or at least perpetual) exercises as the creation ex nihilo of tolerant multicultural democracies in the Balkans. What is more, the outbreak of partisan ill-will centered on the president himself has aggravated the situation because the politicians, whether in attack or defense, have taken to invoking false historical analogies. These historical myths must be cleared away before any constructive debate can commence over how the United States “should” conduct itself abroad in an unprecedented era that, by definition, has no past analogs.

The first myth is based on a reading of history that posits America’s diplomatic “default mode” to be isolationism, just as European diplomacy was always driven by nationalism and balance of power. To be sure, Wilson tried to reinvent U.S. diplomacy as liberal internationalism, but his rejection only proved how stubborn our isolation was. It took Pearl Harbor to shock Americans out of their illusions, permitting FDR during the war, and Truman in the late 1940s, to invoke the lessons of Versailles, Munich, and Pearl Harbor, and persuade Americans to take up global leadership and global responsibilities. According to this reading what would risk World War III was not involvement with the world, but trying to avoid getting involved. And this simple history served well throughout the Cold War. But it has a troublesome corollary today, because if totalitarian threats were what pushed America into a leadership role, then it follows that the disappearance of such threats might induce America to fall back into an isolationist mood. But those who see every vote in the Senate on U.N. dues, African trade pacts, or the test ban treaty as proof of “creeping isolationism” are just spinning the straw in a straw man. As Fareed Zakaria of the journal Foreign Affairs, H. W. Brands in the Wall Street Journal, and I myself in Orbis have written, American internationalism arose long before any totalitarian threats, isolationism of the 1930s “head-in-the-sand” variety was the exception, not the rule, and in any case Americans today know that they have never had it so good as during the past fifty years, so why rock the boat by resigning their membership in international clubs? Polls show that the public is keenly aware of the stake it has in global stability and prosperity, and that so-called isolationism is just not an option.

The other prevalent myth, by contrast, teaches that the deepest wellspring of U.S. foreign policy was not isolationism, but militant idealism as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Open Door policy. According to this liberal myth Wilsonianism is best understood not as a repudiation of past isolationism, but as the culmination of America’s congenital idealism. Jumping ahead to the Cold War, the Soviet threat thus appears not as the main motive for American leadership of the Western alliance, but as the main barrier to American leadership of the whole world! Hence, the ebullient corollary of this reading of history is that today, with the Soviets gone, America is finally free to “enlarge” without limits the spheres of democracy, markets, and human rights.

Accordingly, we have been told that the Atlantic Alliance must go “out of area,” devote itself to ethnic conflicts, peacekeeping, and state building, and pursue a worldwide political, economic, and humanitarian agenda. Thus Clinton proclaimed a doctrine as universal as Truman’s when he promised, “if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, ethnic background, or religion, and it’s within our power to stop it, we will stop it.” But turning the Balkans into a NATO laboratory for multicultural experiments is only the tip of the iceberg. In its 1999 report “The Future of Transatlantic Relations,” the Council on Foreign Relations called for “a global U.S.-European partnership” to: manage the Asian economic crisis and overhaul the world’s financial architecture; dismantle Russia’s nuclear weapons and promote Russian democracy; suppress all Balkan conflicts and “keep it that way”; forge a “single transatlantic market” with open investment and trade; preserve Turkey’s pro-Western orientation; broaden NATO strategy to include the whole Middle East, and present a united front toward Iran, Iraq, and the Arab-Israeli peace process; make Europe abandon its “purely commercial” orientation toward Asia and help to manage conflicts among China, Japan, Korea, India, and Pakistan; make a larger American, and much larger European, defense effort in order to modernize and project military force worldwide; and, finally, forge common stances toward weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, the environment, drugs, health, crime, and human rights.

Those are all laudable goals, but together they verge on utopianism. First, any effort to arrogate to the Western alliance the roles of world policeman, nanny, and civics instructor will be denounced by other countries as neo-imperialism. Secondly, such a rapid expansion of missions will multiply points of discord within the alliance, and thus weaken cooperation even when the allies see eye to eye. Thirdly, such a global agenda, in the absence of public trust in the White House and Congress, may perversely erode the American will to exercise leadership. And fourthly, it risks causing collateral damagefrom the destruction of Serbia’s civilian economy to relations with Beijing and Moscowthat far outweighs whatever ephemeral good it may do.

If talk of a new isolationism is paranoid, but the hyper-Wilsonian agenda is self-defeating, where do we look for answers to our original question: how should Americans prepare for the most likely challenges facing them in the next generation?

First, by getting their history right, which in my judgment shows that Americans are by nature neither ostriches nor angels: they are control freaks. And that is not meant pejoratively. What nation would not want to “control” its own destiny and environment if it had the power to do so? And thanks to fundamental facts of geography and demography Americans have from the start possessed the potential, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers, “to dictate the terms of their relationship with the Old World.” Thus, during the first American century in foreign affairs, say from Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796 to the election of McKinley in 1896, U.S. foreign policy was designed to prevent the outside world from perturbing the unique experiment that was America. The country was not isolationistit had constant and intense dealings with the outside world, and could never have grown so rapidly without the immigrants, trade, capital, and technology it absorbed from abroad. But the nation did remain wisely aloof from Europe’s alliances, wars, and imperialism, thereby leaving itself free to control events in the Americas and the Pacific.

But starting in 1898, U.S. diplomacy changed in response to: the growing stake America had in foreign markets; the surge of revolution, first in Cuba and Mexico, then in China, Russia, and around the world; World War I, which threatened to rend the fabric of civilization itself; and America’s own power, which had increased to the point that the United States might hope to control events not only “over here,” but “over there.” So Republicans and Democrats, from TR and Wilson to Charles Evans Hughes, Herbert Hoover, and FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, presided over an ongoing search for ways to employ American power to control events overseas. Why? Because Americans were imperialistic, altruistic, realistic, or idealistic? No, although we have been all of those things at one time or another. The root cause was our need to manage seemingly out-of-control events that were happening far away, but could have had damaging consequences at home and undermined that most basic of American rights: the right to control our own fate, the right to build America as we see fit without interference from any “damned furriners.” In that sense, Lyndon Johnson was right when he said American foreign policy is always rooted in domestic policy. What we do or don’t do abroad is a reflection of what we, or at least our leaders, want America to do and be at home.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the best way to control our own fate was to keep America off-limits to the games played by the Great Powers elsewhere. But in the twentieth century it seemed that the best way to control our own fate was to go overseas, end wars, crush or support revolutions, lower trade barriers, promote our own values, and fashion institutions under our leadership. American tactics differed radically as we lurched from imperialism to Wilsonianism, to the business-oriented approach of the Republicans in the 1920s, to the United Nations and dollar-backed financial system established by FDR, to Truman’s and Eisenhower’s containment, nuclear deterrence, and CIA, to Kennedy’s foreign aid, counterinsurgency, and state building in the Third World. But all were driven by an urge to control.

That is why the British upper classes resent us, French Gaullists have contempt for us, Germans and Japanese are sullen toward us, Muslim fundamentalists call us Satan, Chinese accuse us of seeking hegemony, Indians call us hypocrites, and the Russians wish they knew our secret. We have exercised control, more or less, over them and played a big role in shaping their histories. They have had far less control over us, and when they succeeded for a time in disturbing us, they generally paid a terrible price.

What is the lesson of this? That we should stop trying to control our environment because other nations resent our intrusions? Of course not. They would resent us just as much if we turned inward and did not intervene when crises occurred. Our power exists, and we affect events elsewhere by refusing to use it as much as if we assert it. What is more, the United States has every right to throw its weight around when its clearly defined and enunciated national interests are being threatened or trampled upon. But nothing is so damaging to a great nation as overbearance, overextension, and overkill, especially in the pursuit of alleged interests that are not clearly defined and enunciated, or are not really being threatened or trampled upon. For by attempting to control everything, you eventually lose the power to control anything, because you will squander the capital, the assets, that endow you with power in the first place.

And that is what leads me to conclude that the best way to prescribe an approach to U.S. foreign policy in the unpredictable era to come is not to draft A, B, and C lists of our various goals and interestswe all pretty much agree on what a perfect world would look likebut to concentrate instead on the assets that make any sound foreign policy possible. Here, then, is an A list of conditions that make everything else possible.

(1) A strong U.S. economy subject only to mild recessions and modest inflation.

(2) A robust military boasting technological superiority, a full complement of well-trained and well-rested personnel enjoying high morale, and sufficient to fight and win at least one regional war while supporting (but not dominating) multilateral “operations other than war.”

(3) Presidential leadership, which is to say a commander-in-chief with an ambitious, consistent, and prudent vision of America’s role in the world, skilled at communicating that vision to the public and foreign leaders, and self-confident and patriotic enough not to mortgage U.S. foreign policy to a political, much less personal, agenda.

(4) A bipartisan internationalist consensus in Congress, which should not be difficult for a strong president to revive, but which is easily dissipated by an executive that is too arrogant, insecure, or distracted to give Congress the attention and consultation it needs.

(5) Sturdy regional alliances, because not even the sole superpower can address threats to its security or economic interests by itself. But alliances, like the Congress, require care and feeding, and nothing harms alliances more than taking them for granted, invoking them only when crisis erupts, asking them to do too little (as if their members really had few interests in common), or insisting they do too much (as if their members shared everything in common).

(6) Balances of power in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, which means American efforts to manage relations among Russia, China, Japan, India, Iran, Iraq, and their neighbors, because the prevention of war among the big powers is the most moral task we can undertake, and because we can scarcely hope for peaceful solutions to future crises over Korea, Taiwan, Central Asia, the Caucasus, or Eastern Europe if Washington is not on speaking terms with Beijing and Moscow.

(7) Finallyand this may surprise youthe United States must wield the asset of strong pan-American institutions including a broader and deeper NAFTA and Organization of American States, because the most predictable and direct challenges are liable to stem from the invasion of the United States by illegal immigrants and drugs on our southern tier, and the prospect of civil strife tearing Colombia, Mexico, and the lands in between to shreds.

Note that nowhere on that A list does human rights appear, or free trade, or public opinion. The latter is clay, made to be shaped by presidential leadership backed by Congress. As for human rights and free trade, they are goals that cannot be advanced in the absence of the seven assets on the A list.

Just remove any of themone by oneand try to imagine progress toward our four goals of security, stability, free trade, and human rights. You can’t do it. A U.S. economy in reverse, a weak and demoralized military, a floundering president, a divided, partisan Congress, a crack-up of our alliances, a Europe or Asia gripped by wars cold or hot, with China or Russia checking U.S. diplomacy at every turn, or an America fixated on crises within the Hispanic world: if only one or two of these conditions exist, then America’s sermons and sanctions will suffice to control very little abroad.

It is on this question of assets, therefore, that the realist and idealist positions converge, and a new bipartisanship ought to emerge. Without ideals the United States of America would be just another selfish empire, standing for nothing and bound to decay. But without leadership, power, and unity America would become a ridiculous caricature of itself.

Mark Twain, ever the cynic, said statesmanship was a matter of getting the formalities right, and never mind the moralities. Edmund Burke expressed this principle more soberly when he defined statesmanship as “a disposition to preserve and ability to improve.” But the most telling observation is that of historian Arnold Toynbee, who wrote that great empires do not die by murder, but by suicide. And their moment of greatest danger is their moment of greatest strength, for it is then that complacency and hubris infect the body politic, squander its strength, and mock its virtues.

To be sure, we cannot know just which challenges will arise. But no nation in history has possessed more foreknowledge of how it needs to prepare, or more resources with which to prepare. We need only exercise the wisdom and will to prepare. And if, this time, we do it, then we may finally put to rest Winston Churchill’s dictum to the effect that Americans always do the right thing, but not until they have tried all the alternatives.