Published: November 29 2006
US voters have now repudiated those who sought to impose democracy by force abroad. In spite of the gerrymandering of districts, the advantages of incumbency and renewed recourse to the politics of fear, common sense prevailed. George W. Bush is still president. But he is damaged political goods. That is good, because change is desperately needed.
The signal feature of this administration has not been merely its incompetence, but its rejection of the principles on which US foreign policy was built after the second world war. The administration’s strategy has been based, instead, upon four ideas: the primacy of force; the preservation of a unipolar order; the unbridled exercise of US power; and the right to initiate preventive war in the absence of immediate threats.
The response to the terrorist outrage of September 11 2001 reinforced the hold of all these principles. The notion of an indefinite and unlimited “war on terror” became the fulcrum of US foreign policy. It led to the idea of an “axis of evil” connecting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to theocratic Iran and Kim Jong-il’s North Korea. It brought about the justified invasion of Afghanistan, but also the diversion into Iraq. Not least, the idea of the war on terror led to the indefinite imprisonment of alleged enemy combatants without judicial oversight, toleration of torture, “extraordinary rendition” of suspects, the extra-territorial prison at Guantánamo Bay and, by indirect means, the abuses at Abu Ghraib.
All this has been bad enough. It is made worse by what John Ikenberry of Princeton University and Charles Kupchan of Georgetown aptly describe as the “sloppy intelligence, faulty judgment and ideological zealotry” that marked implementation, above all in Iraq.* Yet the poor implementation is not an accident. A belief in the primacy of the military naturally led to the transfer of responsibility to the department of defence; a belief in the efficacy of force created the conviction that victory meant peace and a swift transition to democracy; and disdain for allies guaranteed the absence of co-operation in postwar occupation.
The US must now start again. It must design a foreign policy for the current age. In doing so, it should discard almost everything the Bush administration has proclaimed.
First, the aims of foreign policy go far beyond the misnamed “war on terror”. The Islamist terrorists with which the world should, indeed, be concerned do not even pose the same existential threat as the cold war’s competition among superpowers. Equally important are maintenance of a prosperous world economy, management of the rise of new great powers, economic development, not least in the Islamic world, and management of the global commons.
Second, military power is far less effective than its supporters suppose. The threat of force cannot change the policies of other great powers, except to make them more suspicious of US intentions. It must make potential enemies still more determined to obtain nuclear weapons. As Iraq has shown, vast power cannot even impose stability on a country of 21m.
Third, the legitimacy of America as a global power rests on the ability of the US to command the respect of other countries and peoples. Gerhard Schröder could not have won an election in 2002 on an anti-American platform if the German people’s confidence in the US had not been undermined. Yet more important, the war against jihadi terrorists is a war of ideas. It will be won not by fear, but by making the west’s values more attractive to hundreds of millions of Muslims than those of its fanatical opponents. The willingness of this administration to treat the rule of law as an optional extra has made it far more difficult to defeat the terrorist ideology in the long run.
Fourth, multilateral institutions matter. They turn what would otherwise be clashes of prestige and power into acceptance of shared rules of good behaviour. Above all, only the willing co-operation of at least the world’s leading powers can address many of the global challenges. Shared institutions make such co-operation more credible and more sustained.
Fifth, solid alliances matter. The coalition of the willing has proved a slender reed. Even the UK is unlikely to let itself be dragged into a venture similar to Iraq again, in which it is fully committed but has no influence on how policy is executed. Yet the US has proved unable to achieve what it seeks unaided. Fixed alliances are indeed constraints, but they are also means of securing commitments.
The foreign policy of Mr Bush, arguably the worst president since the US became a world power, has come to a dead end. The big question is what happens now. For disastrous though it has been, alternatives could be as bad. A “realism” entirely indifferent to western values would be one blunder. Still worse would be a retreat from the war in Iraq into isolationism and from openness into protectionism.
I, however, am an optimist. Winston Churchill famously said that “the United States invariably does the right thing, after having exhausted every other alternative”. The world will not accept an American master. But it will still welcome American leadership, provided that leadership takes due account of the interests of others and rests on the values that the US has itself spread to the world.
Three decades ago, when the Vietnam war had just been lost, President Richard Nixon had been forced to resign and the world economy was in inflationary turmoil, the future of the west seemed dark. Yet over the next one and a half decades China chose the market and the Soviet empire collapsed. The victories over communism were not secured through force of arms, but through the attractions of the west’s prosperity, freedom and democracy.
Foreign policy is inescapably difficult. But one point is, I would suggest, incontrovertible. The US needs to renew its faith in the values of freedom, the rule of law and global co-operation on which it built an astonishingly successful international order after 1945. The right way ahead cannot go through 19th century views on sovereignty and the balance of power. It should go via the power of US example rather than its military power and via its ability to give a lead rather than unilateral dictation. The great US policymakers of the 20th century understood that well. Their successors should show the same wisdom in the 21st.
*Liberal Realism: The Foundations of a Democratic Foreign Policy, The National Interest, Fall 2004, www.aspenberlin.org/interesting_ articles.php?iGedminId=72