JG - Whither US foreign policy?
Whither US foreign policy?
published: Sunday February 11, 2007
The pressure which continues to mount on U.S. President George Bush to pull out of Iraq emanates not only from the regular suspects of anti-war activists, Democrats or the range of progressive voices on the political landscape.
There are some very conservative forces who also feel that imperial overstretch is dangerous for America, that America should beware of overextension; that it should be minded primarily about its own security and prosperity and leave other nations to work out their problems.
Indeed, there are some who subscribe to an American Exceptionalism which would render them sceptical of America's ability to transplant its values and virtues abroad. Bush's Democracy Promotion Programme would be a non-starter. America is unique, special and exceptional, and any attempt to bring democracy to warring tribes and factions in the Middle East is purely utopian.
Isolationalism lies deep in American history and psyche. Americans are "reluctant crusaders", as Professor Colin Dueck titled his 2006 book. There has for long been a strong and compelling strain of American thought which has disdained Empire and which has seen America as being above the kind of messiness with which empires have been associated. Niall Ferguson has written eloquently about the reluctance of America to accept the designation of Empire, though it is, indeed, manifesting the characteristics of empire. (Indeed, a number of scholarly books have come out on this theme).
Classic Marxist imperialist theory would suggest no reluctance on the part of a Great Power to assume Empire role and to even bear the status, marginalising as it does ideology and values and concentrating on the economic base. This is not to minimise the importance of the economic in international relations, but it is to reject economic determinism and to call for a dialectical understanding of U.S. grand strategy.
Glory and honour
Some have accused the U.S. of wanting "hegemony on the cheap", that is, of wanting the glory and honour of Empire without bearing the costs as previous empires have. So there has been this important strain in American foreign policy which would seek to harness all the benefits of Great Power status without committing to the nation-building that, for example, the British undertook and saw as a natural consequence of Empire status.
Don't be fooled into believing that all of the pressure reaching Bush to withdraw his troops from Iraq and to retreat from his muscular foreign policy is coming from progressives opposed to imperialism. Some of it is coming from reactionaries who don't believe that exceptionally precious American lives should be sacrificed for Third World barbarians following a heathen religion.
Once it had been established that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to threaten U.S. security, and once the propaganda about Saddam Hussein's links with Al-Qaeda exploded, these conservative Americans could not care one hoot about liberty and democracy reaching the Iraqi people. The position of the isolationists or Jacksonians (named after former U.S. President Andrew Jackson) is that the U.S. should only be concerned about other nations in so far as they directly affect the interests of America. Of course, Bush has been trying desperately to convince Americans that "it is better for us to fight them there than here," and he has appealed to enlightened self-interest to sell his activist foreign policy.
But with a combination of jabs from the left and the right, Bush has been pushed against the tape. And he is going up against some strong historical forces in the United States.
Writing in 1813 to on activist for the liberation of Latin America, Thomas Jefferson said, "I join you sincerely, my friend, in wishes for the emancipation of South America." But he went on, tellingly: "That they will be liberated from foreign subjection, I have little doubt. But the result of my enquiries does not authorise me to hope that they are capable of maintaining a free government. Their people are immersed in the darkest ignorance and brutalised by bigotry and superstition."
Sounds surprisingly similar to those arch-conservatives who say Bush is too blinded by idealism to see that "these Middle East people" cannot operate a Western democratic system, that it is not suited to either their temperament or culture, and that trying to "impose our values on them" is both unwise and dangerous. They will point to the anarchy in Iraq as proof that their view that "the Middle East is not ready for democracy" is bang on target.
Some left-wing commentators are giving the impression that it is just the progressive voices which Bush has been ignoring. But he has also been ignoring some people with deeply racist and bigoted views and he has distanced himself from them by believing that all peoples are worthy of liberty, democracy and human rights. (Sure, he is inconsistent). He has held to the concept of universal human rights and universal values rather than the postmodern particularistic 'Asian values' or 'Confucian Values' as opposed to 'Western values'.
Bush himself did start outhis first term by adopting a neo-isolationist view. He criticised Bill Clinton for too many humanitarian interventions and for his aggressive liberal internationalism. As Governor Bush he insisted that "the United States must be humble. Humble in how we treat nations that are fighting to chart their own course."
In his second presidential debate with Clinton, he said "When it comes to foreign policy, that'll be my guiding question: Is it in our nation's interests?" Which at the time sounded like the natural neo-isolationist, Jacksonian approach. But September 11 changed all of that and gave the fellows from the Project for the New American Century, later to be known as neo-conservatives, all the ammunition they needed. September 11 was tailor-made for the neo-cons, also called primacists.
Colin Dueck in his Reluctant Crusaders: Power Culture and Change in American Grand Strategy refers to "the pristine disengagement of the inter-war period" which he says "resonates with Americans culturally - with both conservative nationalists and liberal progressives - in a way that no balance-of-power strategy ever could."
The Democrats, therefore, had the historical and cultural base on which to mount a challenge for the control of Congress. They have used it well. George McGovern would be pleased, while Barry Goldwater must be turning in his grave to see how his boys have been outfoxed. Writing in the latest journal, The Washington Quarterly, two foreign policy scholars, Kurt Campbell and Derek Chollet ('The New Tribalism: Cliques and the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy', Winter 2006-2007) say, "Oldsmobile Conservatives are traditional Wall Street Republicans who believe in internationalism and the power of institutions and alliance, but are traditional realists hesitant to make values, even democratic ones, a core part of U.S. foreign policy at the expense of more concrete interests such as economic wealth, resources and strategic advantage. They tend to be sceptical of military intervention for reasons other than defence and reluctant to shape the internal politics of other states."
This is why Bush's neo-conservatism is a combination of Wilsonianism and Hamiltonianism. He is a primacist and so would, unlike Woodrow Wilson, downplay the importance of institutions, multilateralism and international law, but liberal engagement with the world, but he subscribes to an activist foreign policy.
"In reality, Bush's foreign policies since 9/11 have been heavily influenced by traditional liberal internationalist or Wilsonian assumptions that all along had a troubling impact on U.S. foreign policy. The administration's difficulties in Iraq are actually the result of an excessive reliance on classically liberal or Wilsonian assumptions regarding foreign affairs," says Dueck in Reluctant Crusaders.
Bush is trying to combine concerns about morality and values with militarism. Some call this ethical realism. In a book recently published, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World, Anatol Lieven (author of the excellent America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism) and John Hulsman of the Council on Foreign Relations say "Any approach to foreign policy that hopes to create an intellectual consensus in the United States must embrace certain elements of realism and morality. The majority of Americans have demonstrated repeatedly throughout modern history their aversion to strategies based purely on criteria of international morality or humanitarianism, in their insistence that foreign policy serve the interests and above all the security of the United States ... Equally dominant strains have shown a deep aversion to strategies based solely on a 'classical' realism free of all moral constraints and aims."
Hence Bush's clutching on to moral categories to condemn Saddam Hussein's torture and human rights violations. How one balances the two, though, is the challenge, which Bush is not meeting well.
Those who believe in the primacy of American power are urging Bush to stay the course, while careful of imperial overreach. Writing in a leading journal of the conservatives and neo-conservatives Policy Review, (which originally published Robert Kagan's essay 'Of Paradise and Power'), Bruce Berkowitz from the conservative think tank, the Hoover institution says: "America's goals of ensuring peace, creating wealth and promoting human rights and the rule of law depend on our keeping our predominant position in the world, and we will likely need to do so for a long time. So we must think carefully about how the United States paces itself while also keeping our position of advantage over our competitors."
America faces serious foreign policy choices and is navigating some rough waters. Richard Haas, the respected scholar who heads the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, says in his 2005 book The Opportunity: America's Moment t History's Course: "To have a chance of succeeding, the United States will need to view other major powers less as rivals and more as partners." This is the crucible in U.S. foreign policy at this time.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at email@example.com