Monday, July 17, 2006

US Foreign Policy Doctrine In Search of a Via Media

An fairly thorough op-ed by Robert Wright in the New York Times -- "An American Foreign Policy That Both Realists and Idealists Should Fall in Love With" -- in a summerly way reopens the old discussion of how best to serve US foreign policy in terms of general doctrines: idealism or realism?

Wright's op-ed is thus added to Fukuyama's call for a changed neorealism, a "Realistic Wilsonianism" (see this post for more) ; and to the 2003 Ronald D. Asmus report from the Democrats Progressive Policy Institute "Progressive Internationalism: A Democrat Security Strategy" (2003). Wright proposes his "progressive realism" as a bridgebuilder for Democrats and Republicans alike to embrace -- even if his objective, like Asmus', is to serve the Democrats by helping them to recast their troubled legacy on foreign policy since Vietnam and Carter. Asmus addresses the Democratic legitimacy deficit on security. He wants the Democrats to embrace a more muscular approach compared to the globalization critics on the left; but also to be more humanitarian than the state-centered right:

We begin by reaffirming the Democratic Party's commitment to progressive internationalism -- the belief that America can best defend itself by building a world safe for individual liberty and democracy. We therefore support the bold exercise of American power, not to dominate but to shape alliances and international institutions that share a common commitment to liberal values. The way to keep America safe and strong is not to impose our will on others or pursue a narrow, selfish nationalism that betrays our best values, but to lead the world toward political and economic freedom.

While some complain that the Bush administration has been too radical in recasting America's national security strategy, we believe it has not been ambitious or imaginative enough. We need to do more, and do it smarter and better to protect our people and help shape a safer, freer world. Progressive internationalism occupies the vital center between the neo-imperial right and the non-interventionist left, between a view that assumes that our might always makes us right and one that assumes that because America is strong it must be wrong.

Too many on the left seem incapable of taking America's side in international disputes, reflexively oppose the use of force, and begrudge the resources required to keep our military strong. Viewing multilateralism as an end in itself, they lose sight of goals, such as fighting terrorism or ending gross human rights abuses, which sometimes require us to act -- if need be outside a sometimes ineffectual United Nations. And too many adopt an anti-globalization posture that would not only erode our own prosperity but also consign billions of the world's neediest people to grinding poverty. However troubling the Bush record, the pacifist and protectionist left offers no credible alternative.

Progressive internationalism stresses the responsibilities that come with our enormous power: to use force with restraint but not to hesitate to use it when necessary, to show what the Declaration of Independence called "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind," to exercise leadership primarily through persuasion rather than coercion, to reduce human suffering where we can, and to create alliances and international institutions committed to upholding a decent world order. We must return to four core principles that have long defined the Democratic Party's tradition of tough-minded internationalism: National strength; Liberal democracy; Free enterprise; World leadership (italics added).

Wright on the other hand proposes a bit less aggressive version, more centered on a belief in economic forces and international regulatory regimes, but still attuned to change abroad in what IR people call "second image reversed" dynamics, namely the effects of the international environment on regimes:

Progressive realism begins with a cardinal doctrine of traditional realism: the purpose of American foreign policy is to serve American interests. But these days serving American interests means abandoning another traditional belief of realists — that so long as foreign governments don’t endanger American interests on the geopolitical chess board, their domestic affairs don’t concern us. In an age when Americans are threatened by overseas bioweapons labs and outbreaks of flu, by Chinese pollution that enters lungs in Oregon, by imploding African states that could turn into terrorist havens, by authoritarian Arab governments that push young men toward radicalism, the classic realist indifference to the interiors of nations is untenable. (...)

For now we can be patient and nurture regime change through economic engagement and other forms of peaceful, above-board influence. The result will be more indigenous, more culturally authentic paths to democracy than flow from invasion or American-backed coups d’├ętat — and more conducive to America’s security than, say, the current situation in Iraq. Democrats can join President Bush in proclaiming that “freedom is on the march” without buying his formula for assisting it.

Soul searching on foreign policy doctrines is not only the reserve of Democrats -- even if they are the ones with the most manifest problem in terms of general voter legitimacy and clear divisions among their core voters (as the high-lighted parts of the Asmus quote shows). Furthermore, these divisions are practically the same in the European centre, centre-left and left proper.

Francis Fukuyama's analysis of and call for a "Realistic Wilsonianism" is another attempt at balancing the two trends. He wants to bring neoconservatism closer to realism: less reliance on military means; and return to the original neoconservative criticism of social engineering -- more on Fukuyama here.

As always, when anyone presents you with two extremes, the synthesis of the via media looks logical and viable. And of course it is: neither blindly hardnosed realism nor blue-eyed idealism are satisfying accounts of ideals or practices of foreign policy. Rather, these categories are what the different political wings ascribe to one another -- expressions of ideological polemics. Just as evidently, the devil is in the details: the actual choice is not between the extremes, but in the balance between them.

Moreover, the question is in the end not whether that balancing will happen -- arguably, it happened in practice already in the around new year 2004 when the Bush Administration started courting the Europeans to some extent again (visibly at that years Munich conference); with the implementation of the Proliferation Security Initiative and its subsequent UN integration; and the continuous NATO country cooperation in Afghanistan, notably in the shape also of figthing elite units.

The actual big question about foreign policy doctrine is whether the Democrats can develop a trustworthy alternative to sniping and unthinking anti-globalisation. The challenge is the same in Europe, where populism on the left is decidedly on the rise. Squaring ideals with practice was never easy, but it is the politician's primary task to create visions which bridge counter-tendencies. Alas, the European politicians seem much less capable of this than the American academics. But will the American politicians listen to their academics?

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