Decades from now, when historians are tempted to examine American opinion at the time of the United States’ 2008 presidential election — which has been hyped by some as the most important in over a century — old Foreign Affairs articles are likely to prove instructive. They will confirm that the United States appeared to suffer from what may best be described as a “democratic deficit.” It will seem that political sages were an endangered species, with imagination and boldness scarcely evident in an excessively timid and puerile political oratory, but the more serious condition may have been the poverty of discussion on what were expected to be the crucial foreign policy issues of the future. In the political palaver of the day, the foreign affairs agenda invented almost eight years before by a strutting but feckless president still held sway to a surprising extent.
This shortsightedness is evident in Richard Holbrooke’s essay on the “daunting agenda” likely to confront the next president (“The Next President,” September/October 2008). One can only be surprised at Holbrooke’s assertion that “the next president will inherit a more difficult opening-day set of international problems than any of his predecessors have since at least the end of World War II.” This, a dubious proposition at best, ignores the more serious foreign policy challenges confronted by Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon when they entered the White House. Holbrooke, in so greatly exaggerating contemporary hazards, unwittingly gives credence to the argument made by President George W. Bush and his advisers that there has been no time more dangerous than the present. Holbrooke differs from these Republican alarmists principally in his argument that the Bush administration failed to address the problems in what he terms “the center of the arc of crisis” — Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey — raging fires he thinks call for an emergency response. Meanwhile, he does not suggest that the next administration might do well to concentrate its prime efforts on foreign policy issues that are less obviously pressing but offer greater opportunities for a fundamental transformation of the international system.
Holbrooke’s partiality is scarcely less evident than that of Robert Kagan, Holbrooke’s putative ideological and political adversary, whose neoconservative credentials are manifest in his more nuanced but no less partisan essay, “The September 12 Paradigm” (September/October 2008). A friendly critic might be tempted to summarize Kagan’s argument as “everything is going well,” although this, as Kagan knows, was not always so. Renowned for his disillusion with Europe, Kagan represents its policies in the years following the demise of the Soviet Union as selfish and shortsighted. Luxuriating in their unprecedented prosperity with no obvious foe in sight, Europeans, Kagan argues, seemed content to characterize their longtime U.S. protector as, in his words, “crass and brutal” rather than as a political, social, or economic model. The tragedy of 9/11 changed all this, but only for a moment. Europe’s sympathy and support for the distressed giant, so cruelly attacked, was very quickly replaced by new suspicions when Bush made unmistakable his resolve to have the United States resume its role in “the business of global leadership.” The country, considered by its critics to be, in Kagan’s words, an “angry Leviathan,” received scant commendation for the risks it took in waging its so-called war on terror, a war that Kagan calls “Bush’s greatest success.” Today, the situation in Iraq is changing again, thanks largely to the United States’ military successes following the surge in U.S. troop levels. In Kagan’s eyes, all appears to be going well again. Believing that the prospects for success in Iraq are greater today than what seemed possible two years ago, Kagan ends his essay with the somewhat pallid plea that the next administration learn from both the mistakes and the successes of the Bush years.
NEW TIMES, NEW THINKING
Neither Holbrooke nor Kagan shows great originality or boldness in what he proposes. Both essentially accept many of the foreign policy priorities established by Bush, and neither recommends a fundamentally new agenda. The question, inevitably, is whether such innovation is conceivable today and whether the stale discussions of yesterday can be set aside.
Might a more novel U.S. foreign policy start with the simple proposition that the United States’ alliance with the democracies of western Europe, which has been greatly impaired of late, requires more than modest repair? Europe is not today what it was when Bush took office, and it scarcely resembles the Europe that President Bill Clinton claimed to know. The great expectations that U.S. policymakers once had for the nascent European Union have been greatly compromised, and hardly anyone has such expectations today. What, if anything, can the United States do to restore the hope that once existed? And is it, indeed, in its national interest to do so? Can the U.S.-British alliance, for example, be made more vital, replicating in new dimensions the kinds of collaboration that were so effective in the past? Where do France and Germany fit into the new European political mosaic now forming, and will economically struggling Italy be left outside of it? What policies ought to shape the United States’ relations with states as different as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Serbia, which were liberated from communist rule only two decades ago? Can Europe be restored to a more prominent place on the U.S. foreign policy agenda, and what benefits would such a change bring? Is the time for “benign neglect” over, and what new joint diplomatic and political efforts are possible and indeed conceivable in areas European countries once occupied, in Africa and the Middle East, for example? Can the collaboration of Europeans be relied on in resolving seemingly intractable international problems?
A second fundamental change, more difficult to achieve, would start with the rarely mentioned proposition that U.S. policy vis-à-vis Russia in recent years has been benighted and excessively belligerent. Although no good purpose is served by dwelling on the responsibility of both Russia and the United States for the tragic imbroglio in Georgia last August, their differences need to be placed in a more global perspective. The United States needs Russia as an ally in dealing with radical Islam, which poses a threat to both countries. If Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Bush have been excessively contemptuous of each other lately, with neither wholly appreciating the hazards created by their growing suspicions and mutual disdain, a new effort must be made to recognize that these adversarial relations serve the interests of neither country. Although some neoconservatives seem to irrationally crave a new Cold War with Russia, this would never be in the U.S. national interest. The greatest need today is for a more acute understanding of how Russia has changed since the time of President Boris Yeltsin, of why the United States is no longer living in the age of Ronald Reagan, and of the fact that neither state is a “revolutionary” society intent on disrupting the world order. Each craves stability for its own domestic reasons, and although both are still strong militarily, neither is wholly confident that the world sees it for what it is, a society intent on enriching itself while also concerned with improving the condition of millions of its less advantaged citizens.
With China, the third of the great powers that call out for new attention by the United States, the scales are less evenly balanced. One can reasonably argue that China needs the United States more than the United States needs China. This is particularly evident in the field of education, where the United States is well placed to accommodate young Chinese men and women anxious to secure better training in the natural and social sciences. The Chinese people’s readiness to seek educational opportunities abroad encourages the kind of temporary emigration from China that is becoming increasingly common. Indeed, the growing phenomenon of mass Asian tourism can only benefit the United States commercially and politically. The United States has not begun to realize its potential as either an educational or a tourist Mecca. The incomparable continent of North America, with its magnificent cities and natural wonders, remains largely unexplored by foreigners, and the early evidence of incipient Asian interest in seeing and knowing the New World suggests that international travel, from China as much as from Japan and India, offers a foreign policy opportunity scarcely recognized by those who look only at what those in the White House imagine foreign policy to consist of. Washington must resist the temptation to worry excessively about what China may aspire to be in the twenty-first century, as its economic power continues to grow. Just as the United Kingdom accepted the rise of the United States in the last decades of the nineteenth century, rarely fearing its consequences, the United States must show comparable equanimity as it observes Asia’s industrial and commercial development.
A POLICY OF PEACE
The United States, today in many ways a less provincial society than it was during the Cold War, must be prepared to recognize the serious deficiencies in its understanding of the Middle East. Despite the hazards posed by radical Islam, the Muslim world remains largely terra incognita for most Americans, including those who imagine that their command of English provides them with all the access they need to do profitable business in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Purportedly friendly Arab states, such as Egypt, are committed to never disturbing the peace or challenging Israel. As a result, Egypt has been one of the two major beneficiaries of U.S. foreign aid. Israel, crucial to the United States in large part for domestic political reasons, can be expected not to stray too far from its patron even when Iran or others threaten it. Although Americans continue to debate how long they will have to maintain forces in the region in order to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq, few are prepared to admit that Israel’s disputes with the Palestinians and its northern neighbors are unlikely to be settled for decades. Those issues resemble what Ireland proved to be for the British: an unresolved problem demanding constant attention.
Although there is no Muslim (or Arab) lobby in the United States with influence comparable to that of the pro-Israel lobby, the same reticence shown by U.S. politicians in treating Israeli issues ought to govern their public declarations about the Islamic world. Muslims feel as much pride about Islam as the Chinese do about their civilization and history — or Americans do about their own democracy and values. It serves no purpose to challenge such views. Washington would do well to show greater discipline in its habit of lecturing other governments, including those that are obviously unfriendly but pose no threat to the United States, at least compared to that posed by Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union.
U.S. policymakers must also resist the tendency to dwell only on present dangers, scarcely conceiving what future crises may arise or what others may be able to do to help the United States. More than ever, Washington needs allies and must search in many places for them. This is particularly evident regarding Iran. There can be no excuse for a military attack by the United States or Israel on Iran. The United States, if confronted by a hostile Iran intent on developing nuclear weapons, must be prepared to use any international forum and, with its allies, every kind of economic and political pressure to prevent that from happening. A calculated diplomatic offensive is likely to achieve more positive results than the hectoring so common during the Bush years. It is a national blessing that the Bush-Cheney era is coming to an end, but it would be foolish to be excessively sanguine.
Major new initiatives in U.S. foreign policy are unlikely so long as there is no new generation of U.S. leaders able to see the world not as Johnson, Reagan, Clinton, or George W. Bush conceived it but as Franklin Roosevelt and Truman did, leaders who were more sorely tested and yet were able to perceive and design new policies suited to new conditions. Intellectuals of the stature of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson will always be rare in politics and cannot be expected to emerge very often on the American scene. Given the struggle to make the United States a society less dominated by a privileged WASP elite, there is hope that one day those who have benefited most from the changes that have given them their opportunity to be heard will emerge with ideas and programs substantially different from the very modest ones that now vie for public attention.
INCLUDING THE REST
Climate change is one challenge in need of such leadership. Although progressive opinion in the West today accepts the reality of global warming, the remedies are greatly disputed. It would not even be enough for Americans and Europeans to agree on the remedies; the views of Chinese and Indians must also be considered. And neither China nor India accepts that the present plans for controlling global warming take into sufficient account its interests as a major industrializing society. How these differences can be negotiated, and indeed resolved, is a matter that will test the intelligence of many. Like world poverty, recently exacerbated by the increases in food and oil prices, the conditions that obtain today can only be alleviated by an international effort comparable to the one that created an effective system of arms control and thereby helped bring the Cold War to an end. More than is commonly realized, this success was achieved largely through collaboration between the United States and other countries and was informed by a novel scholarship. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will not be stopped by exhortation, nor will terrorism be ended by the incarceration of the few perpetrators who are apprehended. In both instances, more will be required, and pleas to reach the hearts and minds of millions can be expected to result in only limited success.
What, then, is needed? Respect for difference. In an age when many imagine that the world is losing much that once made for distinctiveness, it is useful to recall that Canada is not Mexico, China is not India, and the United States is not France. The impulse to praise the familiar over the foreign needs to be resisted. The United States today is threatened less by its mass culture than by all manner of traditional prejudices, created in substantial part by self-regarding attitudes that brook no critical comparison with the accomplishments, concerns, or interests of others.
The next U.S. foreign affairs agenda is waiting to be formulated, and the great hazard is that it may prove parochial and too unimaginative about what the world is likely to value tomorrow. Walter Bagehot, the famed nineteenth-century editor of The Economist, praised “a polity of discussion.” It is not always apparent that the noise that emanates from too many television sets conveys informed discussion or that other media are sufficiently committed to dialogue on matters of consequence. This, then, is the problem of our day, reflected in an impoverished political and foreign policy dialogue that is unlikely to be remedied by an excess of good manners. The failure to acknowledge how much damage has been done in recent years to a democracy that was once less partial to bombast and myth may be the most serious public issue of the day.