By the end of the Bush presidency, the great majority of Americans had reached the same conclusion about his administration’s unilateral use of military power and overbearing style of diplomacy: they don’t work. Voters and national security professionals alike recognized that the neoconservative approach had succeeded only in provoking international suspicion and resistance toward the United States and badly overextending U.S. power.
Yet judging from recent foreign policy coverage and commentary, you would think neoconservatives have already been vindicated after just a year with a less combative, more cooperative U.S. stance. If nothing else, the right wing has flooded every medium, debate, and issue with declarations of failure. The critique is so disconnected from the facts at times that success is called failure, most notably the recent string of victories in disrupting the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The essential dysfunction of the foreign policy debate is that the loudest conservative voices have mounted a relentless political attack rather than a sound foreign policy argument. If this were a policy debate, they would have to argue for the effectiveness of their alternative. What results would be achieved if the United States went back to tough-guy posturing and righteously hectoring the rest of the world?
The neocons regularly stress the need to tend to relations with our allies, rather than engage the countries that pose problems. This argument elides two important points. For one thing, many U.S. allies were alienated by American arrogance during the last decade. And for another, the refusal to engage with problematic countries showed no great success of its own. In fact, the results were quite the opposite. The Bush administration’s attempts to dictate terms were an obvious one-way street diplomatically, and it resulted in major security setbacks such as North Korea and Iran’s significant strides in their nuclear programs.
Underlying our dysfunctional policy debate is a clash of worldviews between two concepts of moral authority. The far-right wing took American exceptionalism to new extremes. The United States could do no wrong under their view of inherent American moral superiority, whether in secretly detaining terror suspects, or invading Iraq without international support. The strategy of engagement, on the other hand, rests on the basic political truism that others’ perceptions matter—as the Declaration of Independence puts it, the need to pay “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”
For many years now, foreign policy analysts have been reciting the mantra that not even a superpower can solve the complex problems of today’s world on its own. Yet only recently has U.S. policy stressed the central importance of international help and cooperation and made it so integral.
As a potential rightward tilt away from the multilateral consensus of 2007-2008 emerges, we can see glimpses of the policy consequences. One way to illustrate the problem is to note how the nuclear nonproliferation agenda could be subject to delays by domestic politics that are badly out of sync with international politics and realities.
It was already clear when President Obama took office that two important arms control treaties would need to be ratified by the Senate: a follow-on agreement to the START treaty to reduce U.S. and Russian arsenals and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The START agreement traces its origins back to the Reagan administration and stipulated a December 2009 ending date. The administration had reason to expect bipartisan support for both and minimal controversy over New START, the follow-on to the now-expired 1991 strategic arms agreement.
But now that President Obama has signed New START and it is drawing sharp criticism from conservative quarters, it appears that essential repairs to American credibility on nuclear nonproliferation will be hard won, and might even be in danger. For the far right, this is a matter of conscious legislative strategy. Arms control opponents have no doubt calculated that the more contentious the fight over START follow-on, the harder it will be for the Obama administration to press for ratification of the CTBT, which is actually the more significant agreement for nonproliferation.
Aside from feeding perceptions that America has lost its ability to govern, this would have repercussions for the Obama administration’s ability to achieve U.S. national security objectives. And if other U.S. diplomatic commitments prove similarly vexed, the administration won’t be able to restore American international and goodwill, something it was elected to do.
Arms control and right-wing ideology
The nascent arms control debate illustrates the seriousness of the problem, but one need only dig a bit deeper to see the strengths of the progressive case on national security and the weakness of the unilateralist argument, which is rooted in an ideological worldview that’s out of touch with the real-world challenges we confront as a nation.
The right wing is mounting a strained case against New START, portraying the New START agreement as a bigger threat than nuclear weapons themselves. For unilateralists, U.S. military strength is an extremely fragile thing. They can conjure a supposed vulnerability for any proposed limit on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Such a thorough rejection of arms control is substantially more extreme than the policies of conservative icon Ronald Reagan, whose administration, it’s worth remembering, treated arms control as an integral element of its national security strategy.
Yet if the United States jealously hangs onto all the weapons it can, that will only make it more difficult to keep others from getting nuclear weapons. Or, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in a nonproliferation policy address “Clinging to nuclear weapons in excess of our security needs does not make the United States safer…It gives other countries the motivation or the excuse to pursue their own nuclear options.”
President Obama described the unsustainable status quo in his April 2009 speech in Prague
Today, the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one. Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global nonproliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold.
A quick review of the global nonproliferation regime’s terms shows why American resistance to arms control worsens the problem. The 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty essentially serves as a legal framework to minimize the role of nuclear arms as instruments of statecraft. The terms were simple and imposed obligations on nations with or without nuclear weapons. Because the destructive power of these weapons makes it impossible to conceive of a valid military or political use, nations already possessing them must eventually disarm, and the nuclear have-nots must foreswear obtaining weapons.
The United States has carried out a series of reductions over the past four decades in tandem with Russia—which together account for 95 percent of the global total. Given that the new agreement would leave each side with 1,600 deployed warheads and thousands more not covered under the treaty, the United States can hardly claim to have fulfilled its NPT obligation.
The Test Ban Treaty is even more integral to nuclear nonproliferation. Test detonating a weapon is a lagging indicator of proliferation—effectively an announcement to the world that a nation is a nuclear-armed power. Nuclear testing is therefore the threshold that would-be proliferators should be kept from crossing. The CTBT is the international norm that marks this bright red line. Yet Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Richard Perle charged in a June 2009 color:black’>Wall Street Journal op-ed that the administration “believes, without evidence, that ratification of the test-ban treaty will discourage other countries from developing nuclear weapons. And which countries do they have in mind? Iran? North Korea?”
Just to reiterate, far-right ideologues never discuss the failure of the Bush-Cheney nonengagement strategy to halt the Iranian or North Korean nuclear programs—making Kyl and Perle’s demand for evidence rich with irony. Progressives might highlight in response to Kyl and Perle’s apparent belief that internationally agreed norms have little use in preventing more nations from getting nuclear weapons that there’s no value for nonproliferation in being able to cite the international community’s standards and expectations. In point of fact, it was North Korea’s defiant nuclear test in 2009 that prompted Chinese support for a set of particularly tough new sanctions in the U.N. Security Council.
The strategic logic of engagement
Arms control policy under the strategy of engagement is in direct contrast to the Bush administration’s approach. The lesson of recent history is that the United States cannot achieve its national security aims by telling the rest of the world, in effect, “do as we tell you, and never mind what the United States itself is doing.” Indeed, the strategy emphasizes mutual obligations among nations and their leaders.
Any national security strategy rests on key assumptions about the nature of the contemporary world. The interdependence and shared fate of nations are taken as facts of 21st century international relations. In other words, it is understood that overall global economic and security conditions affect every nation.
But while the world’s interconnectedness is assumed as a given, its prosperity and peace are contingent on the leadership and cooperation of influential nations and their political leaders. In the broadest terms, a vibrant international order is one in which a global law-abiding majority can thrive and disruptive forces are kept from sowing and exploiting turmoil. Such a stable rules-based order cannot be taken for granted; the constructive and enforcement dimensions require active and ongoing effort. The strategic challenge is therefore to boost international cooperation and action on behalf of the global common good.
This strategic frame gives progressives a better way to deal with the threats and challenges facing the United States. Progressives during the Bush-Cheney years were compelled to develop and present a distinct alternative to unilateralist ideology. And it is vital once again to articulate that alternative in order to create more political space to implement a multilateral policy. The four precepts below represent one way to summarize the progressive argument for how to use American military and diplomatic power most effectively:
- The high-stakes problems on the international agenda demand cooperative action.
- The United States and the rest of the world truly are all in it together.
- A rules-based global order requires enforcement.
- American strength helps guarantee the international system.
The imperative of tackling high-stakes problems
Pick any major problem on the global agenda, and the trajectory without an infusion of international leadership and cooperation could lead to a dire foreseeable future: nuclear arms races in Northeast Asia and the Middle East, a generation of children in extreme poverty whose development was stunted by malnutrition, a climate change tipping point of greenhouse gases, mounting bitterness over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, mounting suspicion that globalization is rigged for the benefit of the few. Inertia is not a great option.
There is a striking similarity here to U.S. domestic politics. The public discussion of international issues is rife with skepticism over the difficulty of reaching agreement, but not enough heed to the consequences of diplomatic drift and inaction. What the president said about the United Nations in his <September address to the U.N. General Assembly could be extended to international politics as a whole: this body has often become a forum for sowing discord instead of forging common ground; a venue for playing politics and exploiting grievances rather than solving problems.”
We are all in it together
All you need to do to grasp the full scope of the United States’ fundamental strategic objectives is follow international interdependence to its logical conclusions. Protecting Americans from harm is a necessary but insufficient condition for long-term U.S. interests. <Former President Bill Clinton captured the essence of the point in a 2003 speech at the University of Iowa, saying, “it’s impossible to kill or jail or occupy all of your potential adversaries. So we need a serious effort to build a world with more friends and fewer terrorists.” The ultimate goal of our foreign policy is thus for the United States to obtain wide international support and trust among world leaders and publics, based on a belief that the United States is working to build the same peaceful and prosperous future that they also want.
And the American public understands the reality and nature of interdependence at an intuitive level. They have responded positively in opinion polls over the years to the idea that attending to the needs and interests of the rest of the world ultimately benefits Americans.
A vibrant international community upholds its norms
The third and fourth foreign policy tenets transcend party lines, effectively serving as constants in U.S. strategy and foreign policy. Yet it is noteworthy how they square particularly with progressives’ views about interdependence—and take a different form than they did in the context of unilateralism.
The importance of enforcing the international rules of the game is a close cousin of the above critique of diplomatic bickering and failure to accept responsibility. U.S. administrations of either party chafe at the international community’s tendency to passively accept deadlocks with nations that flout international norms. This stems from an activist impatience and belief in enforcing norms that lie deep in the American political cultural DNA. The trick is to balance this impatience with enough patience to craft solutions that take into account the various interests at play—a balancing act that the previous administration barely even tried.
The need for a unified international front of key players is also crucial. Contrary to conservative slams against the strategy of engagement, it is not an attempt to overcome resistance by the pure force arguments. President Obama isn’t waiting for the Iranian government to say, “you’re right, our uranium enrichment is bad for global security.” The real objective of tough-minded diplomacy in a case such as Iran is to offer a stark choice between cooperation and continued pressure from a unified front of powerful nations as in the case of the sanctions against North Korea mentioned above.
One challenge in making this strategy fully effective is for the United States to convince other leaders who tend toward having a blind faith in diplomacy—viewing diplomacy itself, rather than enforcement, as the ultimate aim. President John Kennedy articulated this very idea in a November 1961 speech at the University of Washington saying, “diplomacy and defense are not substitutes for one another. Either alone would fail. A willingness to resist force, unaccompanied by a willingness to talk, could provoke belligerence—while a willingness to talk, unaccompanied by a willingness to resist force, could invite disaster.”
This understanding shows that American hard power and credible threats of force are last resorts and not the only global public good that is provided by the United States military.
American power is a cornerstone of the international order
U.S. material power clearly promotes vital national self-interests, but that is not the entire story. American power serves as a source of important public goods for the world as a whole. The United States is as a guarantor of the global order in its essential orderliness. The free navigation of global sea lanes and stable balance in Northeast Asia between China and Japan, it can be argued, are brought to you by the U.S. Navy.
As President Obama stressed in his Nobel Prize speech:
The world must remember that it was not simply international institutions—not just treaties and declarations—that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.
At the same time, there is a definite moral hazard if the Unites States presses its advantage as a hegemon—claiming extensive special prerogatives or inherent moral superiority, as some conservatives have done. And if a healthy global order and vibrant world community is our true strategic objective, the aim will not be for the United States to remain the international system’s sole underwriter in perpetuity, but to eventually share those duties with others. It is only proper in the meantime to remind the world of America’s valuable service and remind Americans that U.S. power is consonant with a progressive vision of the world.
The above analysis points toward an underlying foreign policy challenge: to better understand what it means for the United States to have a different style of leadership after the Bush-Cheney years. Having a president who is not George W. Bush might stanch the damage, but solving real-world problems is a more substantive matter than merely putting a new occupant in the Oval Office.
The progressive foreign policy case during the 2008 elections was based on an explicit strategy of international cooperation—which remains in place and has been further fleshed out, both in words and initial deeds. Yet President Obama will not be able to implement the strategy single-handedly. The lesson for his second year, and beyond, is the difference between vague approval and firm support.
The fate of the new engagement strategy depends on the deeper engagement of domestic and international progressives who want it to succeed. American voters who wanted to reduce international mistrust of the United States must realize that building that trust requires added effort. International leaders and publics who were excited by the idea of new American progressive leadership should pay closer attention to what the new leaders are trying to do.
We may believe that the alternative has been discredited, but it has clearly not gone away.
David Shorr has spent his career as a national security specialist, working for a number of leading foreign policy think tanks and advocacy groups. He is a regular contributor to the Democracy Arsenal blog.