It is easy sometimes all too easy to criticize American foreign policy and those who make it in these days of sole-superpower listless empire maintenance. Quite frankly, the United States faces few if any severe challenges certainly not to its existence and hardly at all to its economic prosperity and effective dominance of world commerce. In the best challenge-and-response tradition, then (I dont know if that theory of world affairs is correct but its an interesting lens to use), little serious thought is devoted to foreign policy even by those who make it and carry it out.
As long as they dont raise the stakes too high (or get too many Americans killed, which might be the same thing) they can rely on superficial or ideologically driven analysis, make serious blunders and not pay too high a price in terms of damage to the countrys real core interests. So we get half-baked policies carried out by mediocrities with only a passing familiarity with current affairs, let alone history.
AN ALTERNATIVE VISION
The results, as I mentioned, are not uniformly disastrous but are remarkably shallow and easy to criticize. But in part because few Americans have or have ever had much interest in foreign affairs and in part because the powers that be (regardless of which major party wins the presidency this year, reserving the right to grant wild-card status to John McCain) are likely to continue to engage mostly in low-stakes, low-risk interventions for a while, critics of current foreign policy need to do more than criticize. We need to present alternative visions of a truly American foreign policy and of the proper role of a free and proud United States in the world, explain how they would benefit the people and make more Americans feel proud to be Americans, and get people excited about how much better things could be in this sad old world.
For my next few columns (reserving the right to comment on current developments) Id like to take on part of that challenge, presenting a positive vision of an American foreign policy suited to the way the world really is as we begin a new millennium and embodying core American principles of devotion to liberty and independence.
JUST STANDING BY?
Advocates of U.S. political or military intervention in one of many world trouble spots where, for example, human rights are being violated systematically and it is plausible to hope that an intelligent US intervention might improve matters or at least minimize some suffering, often ask those of us who are skeptical of such plans a simple question: Would you stand by and do nothing? Simply responding in the affirmative, as I would in most cases where the plan is for the government to conduct the intervention, doesnt offer enough explanation. Beyond cost-benefit analysis (which can be useful), we need to explain the core principles that make it possible for us to believe that seeming to "do nothing" not only doesnt mean nothing will be done, but offers the best hope for substantial improvement in the human condition.
I begin with the assumption that the last 15 years or so have ushered in at least two maybe three sea-change-style events or developments that make rethinking the assumptions that have guided American foreign policy for the last several generations well, maybe not imperative but at least prudent. Military historians are fond of documenting how often generals meet disaster by fighting the last war perfecting cavalry maneuvers just in time for World War I with tanks and trenches, for example. Conditions have changed, and even if we dont change the underlying principles that guide foreign policy (assuming any do in this administration), it might be advisable to think about changing medium-term objectives and tactics.
The most significant changes I refer to are, first, the end of the cold war, and second, the revolutions in communications and computer technology that have helped to make it likely that a genuinely global marketplace (like it or not, welcome it or not) is emerging or will soon emerge. A possible candidate for a third sea-change event is the growing understanding (growing more slowly than it should given the evidence of the shortcomings and failures of socialist systems and theories wherever put them practice, but still a real factor) that relatively free markets and systems that at least make bows in the direction of the rule of law generally get superior results both in terms of freedom and prosperity.
I think all these events could lead, in the next century, to the demise of the nation-state system as we have known it since it became the preferred mode of ruling in the 16th century or so, but Im not fool enough to prophesy it. Three major changes are plenty to suggest some rethinking.
It should seem reasonably obvious that with several sea-change-style events facing us, many if not all of the assumptions that have guided American foreign policy during the Cold War and perhaps the long period of active government involvement with the world at large that began under President Woodrow Wilson are due for reassessment. But so far, most politicians and people in the American media have done nothing more profound about foreign policy than to rally (even if listlessly) behind whatever lame crusade the current inhabitant of the White House has in mind, but otherwise to avoid talking or writing about foreign policy especially about fundamental guiding principles. If its less important than before, if the people are tired of it, why not just pretend it doesnt exist as a live issue, except insofar as images of starvation or suffering on television seem to demand attention?
Such an attitude is a mistake for several reasons. Foreign policy in the sense of government-to-government activity like war and diplomacy may well become less important in the years to come. But we still have numerous institutions and assumptions from the previous era. Rather than allow them to remain as expensive white elephants, we should challenge them. If new assumptions are more appropriate for the changed world we are facing, why not make them explicit? Havent we had enough of guidance by "wise men" who tell the people who supposedly employ them only a fraction of their genuine intentions in the rest of the world?
As a very practical matter, there were numerous institutions created under the aegis of the US government to carry on the Cold War, both overtly and covertly. Should they be retained, reformed or abolished? The CIA, formed from the anti-Nazi espionage operation after World War II, is just the tip of the iceberg. Do we continue to need not just the CIA, but the dozen or so other organizations formed to wage the Cold War? If they are to remain in place, shouldnt their missions be changed? If change on such an order is to be undertaken, shouldnt it be preceded or a least accompanied by public discussion?
Shouldnt the mission and consequently the deployment of US military forces be due for drastic readjustment? Perhaps the new threat will be even more extensive than the conceptually simple threat posed for so many years by the Soviet Union. But shouldnt such issues be on the table for public debate? If substantial demobilization is called for, how quickly should it be done, and how necessary is it to provide transitional institutions to ease the way toward a peacetime government?
What about defense industries? They may be as close as anything in this country to outright socialist institutions. Many have coped with the transition to becoming more market-oriented organizations better than anyone had expected, but consolidation of those whose primary business is supplying the military machine raises new questions.
STANDING INVITATIONS TO INTERVENE
What about the extensive and complex structure of alliances the United States has erected, partly to cope with the threat of communism and partly on the assumption that an increasingly interdependent world would take a lot of government agreements and management? Do we still need to spend roughly a third of the US defense budget on the defense of Europe? What justification is there for providing the defense mechanisms including US soldiers serving as tripwires that allow Japans government to spend only 1 percent of the countrys GNP on defense? How much longer will we keep troops in South Korea?
In this world of instant global communication, just how necessary is it to maintain the traditional embassies staffed the traditional way?. Embassies were originally a way for the leaders of a country to get information about other countries and to communicate through trained, experienced diplomats with the leaders of other countries. But world leaders now can and do communicate by picking up the phone, by going on CNN, or by attending summit meetings. Embassies and diplomatic structures as we know them now were developed when it might take weeks to get a message to a foreign country and more weeks to understand its impact. Do we really need so many government people overseas these days? Would a satellite dish manned by a few technicians, with maybe four or five professional diplomats do the job just as well or maybe better?
These are just a few of the practical, institutional questions the political class really should have addressed as the cold war ended, but failed to do so. But they arent simply or solely practical questions. Our answers to them will be (inevitably) and should be guided by an overarching philosophy or vision about what the role of the United States should be in the century (or at least the next several decades) to come. What kind of principles will best serve the real interests of the United States as a nation of freedom and respect for the rights of others? Ill try to outline some in my next installment.