In a revolutionary world environment, foreign policy of a great power — and especially the lone superpower — is bound to be full of inconsistencies. Interests are far-flung and constantly demanding new priorities. But one does not have to refer to Machiavelli to recognize rules of the road which, when violated, are costly and in the case of the U.S., destabilizing for the entire world.
Again, those guidelines are often internally contradictory in the nature of generalizations. But a knowledge of and adherence to them is essential to pursue a foreign policy, and, in this instance, of the superpower, the United States, and world peace and stability..
That we living through revolutionary times does not have to be extensively argued. Suffice it to say that the digital revolution alone has made it harder than ever to distinguish between reality and perception by exaggerating — to quote Sec. Donald Rumsfeld — unknown unknowns. A recent former CIA operative hired by a Swiss bank to prevent fraud put it to me succinctly: the ability to reproduce almost any document (or signature) has led to almost unlimited financial hoax.
In the world of international relations something similar is equally true. But, again, there are basic dicta which are as old, at least, as the European nation-state and apply today as they always have. Many are commonsensical. To be unacquainted with them is to introduce new and additional volatility in an uncertain world.
Because of its size, its population and continental breadth, and its economy, the U.S. under any conditions would play a major world role — disengaged as well as engaged. But there are important additional nonphysical aspects. The Founders, however conservative their personal backgrounds (with the unresolved problem of black slavery), constructed a new nation on ideology rather than ethnicity, race or language. They believed that they were creating a new and unique beacon of liberty and justice harking back to Greek and Roman institutions as well as a Judeo-Christian ethic.
That, in essence, is “American exceptionalism”. To associate it with such more precise policies as “interventionism” or “isolationism” is to misunderstand completely. All one has to do is hark back to the 1930s debate of America’s world role in which both poles invoked U.S. singularity, whether Midwest agrarian radical isolationists, or East Coast industrial and financial bureaucratic interventionists.
Furthermore, it might not make much difference whether the concept is valid. The fact that it has been accepted as a part of American foreign policy for more than 200 years — however much hypocrisy one might charge — makes it is an important part of any discussion. Perhaps that is why Pres. Barack Obama had to make the sharpest possible break with his earlier (presumably) offhanded remark in Europe denigrating the whole concept. But he did so now “with every fiber of my being.” Indeed a turnabout!
America’s tools. The most important if the most nebulous of tools in making foreign policy is the prestige of the United States abroad. (So-called opinion surveys, especially those in countries with widespread illiteracy are ridiculous.) More than half a century of overwhelming domination of the world scene, especially the two decades since the implosion of the Soviet Union, have contributed to an overestimate, if anything, of the U.S.’s power and ability to solve problems.
But there is a general talking heads consensus that belief has eroded significantly for whatever reason — policies of the current Administration or the accumulation of debris from two indecisive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a welter of unidentified “mistakes” to which Obama has continually referred. That may be true, but that also depends on the strength of American prestige at its zenith, if, indeed, that point is behind us. My own reading from conversations with informed foreign friends at home and abroad is that the belief in American omnipotence, for better or for worse, is alive and well.
If I am correct, then American power arises in no small part from what Harvard University’s political scientist and former government official Joseph Nye has called “soft power”. Americans who have not traveled abroad or those who have accepted internationalization of U.S. fashions as the norm are often unaware of how that influence permeates foreign cultures. However, some of the clichéd ideas concerning American influence are equally irrelevant; e.g., the idea that a U.S. education automatically makes a returned foreigner sympathetic to Washington policy. (Some of the most virulently anti-American politicians abroad have been — and continue to be — products of at least a partial American education, a tribute perhaps to our tolerant institutions.
In the best of all worlds, formal U.S. diplomacy would exploit these cultural levers. That is rarely the case. The massive efforts of American propaganda, for example, that accompanied The Cold War, have been largely abandoned. Just as it demoralized a more efficient consular service, incorporation of United States Information Service by State has been a disaster. Libraries which once were the most important U.S. cultural activity (aside from American movies) in backward countries have disappeared without an organized digital replacement.
Less difficult to define, of course, are four other major instruments in the conduct of U.S. foreign relations: formal diplomacy, economic warfare, the U.S. Military, and clandestine espionage and “special” operations.
Unfortunately, over the years, U.S. diplomacy has taken on more and more the attributes of its traditional European model. As it has done so, for the most part, American embassies abroad deal with their counterparts in a bubble to the exclusion of any attempt to cultivate a wider public. (In many countries, with authoritarian governments, of course, this may not be a choice.)
Worse still, U.S. diplomats suffer from what the French call déformation professionelle — if you are a lawyer, your first instinct is to litigate, if you are a surgeon, you instinctively want to cut, etc. But since a successful diplomatic outcome requires compromise, what do you do when your opponent refuses to budge? You give concessions unilaterally to achieve “success”, including abandoning prematurely “the military option”.
Much is made of the fact that U.S. military expenditures are more than the sum of most other major military powers. The argument is fallacious. Unfortunately, our European NATO allies have cut back their military expenditures, too often already eaten away by non-fighting bureaucracies. Or, for example, the French in their desperate pursuit of a policing francophone Africa have had to rely on U.S. transport. That the one and only time NATO’s famous Article 5 has been invoked in Afghanistan is unfortunate — answering the 9/11 attack on the U.S. that required all partners to come to a member’s aid. Ironically, Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine may have restored some relevance to that concept, for the Europeans if not for a war weary American public.
All that notwithstanding, the mere threat to use American military in a given crisis — what the geopoliticians call “strategic ambiguity” — is perhaps American policymakers’ most potent weapon. A generally quiet if dramatic example has been the guarantees to Taiwan which permitted development of the first democratic and prosperous society in Chinese history. (However, recent Washington foot-dragging on arms and accommodation of the current Taipei government for economic collaboration with the Mainland may have put it in jeopardy.) Were the Chinese Communists to have bases on Taiwan, it would be a game-changer in the increasingly delicate Northeast Asian powder keg with a rapidly accelerating North Korean drive for WMD and an aggressive Beijing posture.
To name specific conditions and dates when American military power is to be used (or withdrawn) is perhaps the greatest weakness of the current Administration’s policies. It prepares the ground for the opponent’s strategy. Even worse is to rattle the cage of a potential opponent — whether Pres. Obama with an announced on-and-off “limited blow” against the bloody Syrian regime or Defense Sec. Chuck Hagel’s latest provocative public denunciation of Chinese adventurism — while at the same time cutting back military budgets.
Waging the U.S.’ economic weapon is also a mixed bag. International trade has increasingly become a larger part of the U.S. gross national product, producing jobs as well as profits. And because since 1985 there is more foreign investment in America than U.S. equity abroad, the Treasury has had to trim its use as an instrument of foreign policy. A tax structure which has U.S.-based multinationals holdings in the tens of billions in profits stashed overseas also weighs heavily. Still, American sanctions — especially when they are applied to third parties — can be crippling, as Tehran found out before the Obama Administration loosen the bolts as incentive for a hoped-for negotiated settlement.
Clandestine American operations abroad are part and parcel of any effective foreign policy. But certain conventions, however obvious, have to be adhered to. Yes, everyone knows we are monitoring their mail but to tell the world as Edward Snowden and his pal Glenn Greenwald did is not only to prejudice important sources of information but to raise doubts for those who would want secretly to collaborate with the U.S., including foreign intelligence organizations. It is no secret that because of its advanced facilities, Washington quietly has sometimes done “favors” for those allies.
For the White House (it says) to accidentally reveal the name of a CIA station chief is inconceivable; not that in virtually any country there has always been unacknowledged cognizance generally of who he was. (Our old joke was that he could always be identified because he collected “art”, had a wife named “Magda”, and stacked all Praeger’s books in his shelves — and wore U.S. Navy officer shoes.)
Perhaps the most important and incalculable element in the search for an effective foreign policy is political will. When presidential candidate Barack Obama — whose team showed incredible smarts at manipulating the media so it seems hardly an accident — prominently carried a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World so it could be photographed, the world got a signal.
Defensive backpedaling, even in front of an audience as important as West Point’s graduation class, will not be enough to avoid new crises through miscalculations which have brought on most wars. Nor must a policymaker wallow in what used to be called “mirror imaging” — assuming your opponent’s motivations are yours. After the longest war in U.S. history, Obama is unilaterally calling an end to violence in Afghanistan — and, in fact, to “the war on terror”.
Is he so certain a sprinkling of Al Qaeda splinters of increasing sophistication in a half dozen other countries — including recruiting some of our native-born — will do the same?
* A version of this column will be published at yeoldecrabb.com on Monday, May 31, 2014