In the final decade of the twentieth century, the United States had emerged as powerful but prudent. We Americans and our government, our business and our cultural outreach, had become major players in every world region.
Meanwhile, “international relations” had become, more and more, deep involvements in each other’s “internal affairs.” Some of this mutual interpenetration was widely applauded; the Marshall Plan for European recovery, 1948-52, was popular for different reasons on both sides of the Atlantic. Some involvements raised eyebrows even among their sponsors: peacetime espionage and clandestine operations were chronically suspect.
Issues about human rights, such as treatment of political prisoners, the status of women, race discrimination, and a whole catalogue of economic/social rights reaching deep into what used to be regarded as the “domestic policy” of nations—all these have also proved sensitive to those who govern and try to influence governance. They have often been resisted as political interference, depending of course on whose ox looks gored.
Much of the mutual interpenetration wasn’t even thought of as “foreign policy”: trade and investment, much of the cross-border aid for public health, cultural and educational exchange, and especially the increasingly uninhibited flows of information.
In practice all of these are handled partly, and increasingly, by “nongovernments”—civil society’s many operating agencies. In the half century after World War II, more and more international operations had been delegated by nation-states to international organizations—both to soften (by spreading the responsibility for) the political impact of “intervening in internal affairs” and also to spread the costs as widely as possible among donor countries, to help the largest contributing governments reassure their taxpayers that “we are not in this by ourselves.”
This trend did not apply just to economic and financial aid. It was equally in evidence each time a peace-and-security crisis created the need for neutral mediators, large-scale refugee relief, armed peacekeeping forces, and resources for post-hostilities peace-building. Of course many functions are so inherently international that governments have to pool their vaunted sovereignties because the dangers of uninhibited enterprise are so great in a “global commons.”
The largest, wettest and emptiest parts of our global surround—the world’s oceans, the atmosphere, and outer space—were early and obvious candidates for treatment as parts of a Global Commons. So are some widespread environmental impacts. And so, increasingly, are issues of access and barriers to the global information flow that multiplies as more and more of the world’s people make use of far-reaching information technologies and communicate via the Internet and its World Wide Web. In these circumstances, what was “American foreign policy” at the dawn of the twenty-first century?
A glance around would have revealed that we the people had already made much of the foreign policy we need, without the benefit of a single position paper from the National Security Council. For example: We are for the rights of human beings, a fair chance of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, just as it says in our Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and the United Nations founding documents we helped write. We can’t accomplish this for everyone just yet, even in our own country, but we’ll continue to work at it because it’s our nation’s very reason for being.
It bugs us that we are so often out of step with the rest of the world, and they with us. It ought to be possible for us more often to be leading the progressive, anti-poverty, pro-development and pro-peace forces in world politics.
The first 55 years since the end of World War II were replete with reasons why we need a United Nations with the capacity to act— to act in our interest, or to bless a “coalition of the willing” that is ready to act. It’s important for us to remember that the United Nations is not “the other guys;” the UN is us, complicated to be sure by the fact that it has to act in the collective interest of many others as well.
We know now that, for us, nuclear weapons are unusable except for deterrence. After all, we were willing to let one war drift into stalemate (Korea) and lose another war (Vietnam) without using the Big Bang ourselves. But we still want to prevent nuclear spread—and that policy will make much more sense worldwide when, as we should, we cut our own bulging stockpiles to the minimum levels needed for deterrence. We think we have the world’s best allies—and want to stay close to them. Some of them handle some economic or social issues better than we do, and maybe we have something to learn from them.
When it comes to our joint use of NATO, in Europe or farther afield, we’ll be a loyal and supportive member of the club, but the Europeans are going to have to assume more of the responsibility. We are coming to realize that turbulence and uncertainty in the developing world, the product of rising expectations, rising resentments, and rising frustration, are now bound to drive our older, more settled relationships— that is, our Atlantic and Pacific alliances. Asia and the Pacific, as the fastest growing region and maybe the most dynamic during the coming generation, need much more attention than the U.S. has latterly been giving it—even though its dynamism is partly the product of our earlier aid. Our relations with China especially need to be put permanently on a front burner.
The future relations between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, and the timing and method of reuniting the two Koreas, won’t be masterminded in Washington; but we do have to make sure that whatever happens comes about peacefully.
In the Middle East, we want whatever peaceful outcome the Arabs and Israelis can agree on, and we’ll even help it along, whatever it turns out to be, through aid and security guarantees. The deterioration of Africa spells big trouble for us. The continent is a chronic venue for local wars and humanitarian disasters, and a source of global epidemics.
We should be taking more initiative to bring the richer countries together for a sustained effort to ward off these troubles. Fidel Castro is a nuisance, but with the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War over he’s certainly no threat. Much more important are: maintaining Latin America as a zone of nonviolence, developing a workable immigration policy with Mexico, keeping relations with Canada as friendly and free of minor scraps as close cousins can be, and developing relations with Brazil that are fitting for one of the next world-class economic powers.
We want fair trade—untrammeled trade seems to bring in its wake too many lost jobs and too much uncertainty, so we think markets work better when they are regulated by agreement. That’s what most of the rest of the world thinks too, so we ought to get on with goodfaith bargaining. Since our farm subsidies—and Europe’s—are getting in the way, let’s work out a long-range plan to enable more American farmers to get into other lines of work and American consumers to benefit from the best and least expensive farm products wherever produced.
Our balance of trade is ridiculously out of kilter. We can’t seem to sell enough to foreigners, even of the information gadgetry we’ve helped invent, to pay for their oil and steel and automobiles and color televisions. So we’re obviously going to have to work even harder to produce and deliver more efficiently what the rest of the world needs—including all sorts of things and processes and ideas that are waiting for us to invent them. And we’d better quickly develop new energy sources that will enable Europeans and North Americans to cut back on oil from the Arabs and others whose role as suppliers is so undependable.
We really want to see a fair shake for the world’s poor, but the way foreign aid now works isn’t close to getting the job done. We would go for a much larger and better targeted effort, if it’s truly international in scope and management, and if our leaders can convince us that the aid will get to the people who need it most—not just enrich the already affluent here and abroad.
We don’t need to worry about other donors providing their fair share: the Europeans and Japanese already pony up a good deal more per capita than we do. We’re proud of the science and technology that has learned to use outer space, not only to get humans to the Moon and robots beyond that, but for worldwide human benefits— satellite communications, arms control inspection, weather forecasting, resource sensing from space, monitoring environmental risks.
Global systems will keep having to be organized to secure the human benefits future space technologies make both possible and necessary. Plenty of international cooperation is going to be required, and U.S. leadership is going to be indispensable. (It’s hard to understand why— since President John F. Kennedy’s initiatives on satellite communication and the World Weather Watch, no national political leader has grabbed this quintessentially American torch.)
That was my snapshot of the American people’s foreign policy at the start of the new millennium. But in the first years of this century, our long record of American leadership for constructive international cooperation has been seriously derailed—by American leaders.
Shocked by the scale and suddenness of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, the U.S. government first acted with wide popular and international approval—invading Afghanistan, brushing aside the Taliban and chasing after al Qaeda, the loose-knit terrorist group blamed for the first attack on the U.S. mainland in more than 200 years.
But then a series of secret decisions in Washington and unilateral moves elsewhere, the product of ideological mindsets and deeply flawed intelligence, embroiled U.S. armed forces in invading Iraq. For the invasion itself, they were, if anything, overprepared; Iraq’s defenders soon melted into the countryside and the inner cities.
For what happened next, our forces and their political leaders were woefully unprepared. The top Pentagon planners evidently assumed that their role would be as liberators: a cheering, friendly Iraqi population, freed at last from thirty years of dictatorship, would self-organize to put their own country back together. But even in the most favorable historical case, when the Allies pushed the Germans out of an already “co-belligerent” Italy during World War II, an ambitious occupation authority—the Allied Control Commission —had to be put in place with security forces at the ready and a civil affairs staff moving north with the troops to organize local government, fix power plants, rebuild ports and roads, and provide huge inputs of food and fuel for many months before a traumatized people could start organizing their own democratic future.
In Iraq, contrary to all the experience of successful post-hostilities planning, the “civil affairs” (G-5) elements were initially held back in offices in Kuwait, instead of accompanying the fighting forces as they advanced—until looting and disorder finally awakened the Americans to the need for an occupation authority.
Even then, our occupiers’ first big move was to disband Iraq’s forces that would sooner or later be needed to take over internal security from the occupation. The disbanded soldiers, their pay cut off, went home with their weapons, disgruntled and jobless. Some of them soon became part of a scattered insurgency against the occupation led and reinforced by Saddam loyalists, resentful Shiite clerics, and a growing number of terrorists— al Qaeda and copycats—from abroad.
The resulting mess radiated far beyond the borders of Iraq. The doctrine of preemptive war compounded the U.S. Administration’s evident reluctance to consult NATO allies or work with the United Nations. Commentators thoughtful enough to be swayed by evidence, such as Tom Friedman, David Brooks, and George Will, favored the Iraq war decision at first (as did a majority of Americans misled by what they were hearing from Washington), then started changing their minds.
Congress was inert and compliant, voting large grants of authority and huge sums of money in a rush that precluded a serious national debate about either the decision to go to war or an exit strategy from the mess to which we were deeply and unilaterally committed. The impact on public attitudes in Europe and “the Muslim world”—crucial segments just now of what our Founders called “the general opinion of Mankind”—was sudden and profound.
Daniel Yankelovich, our most thoughtful interpreter of public opinion, assembled some numbers that tell an appalling story. The data cited here are drawn from Gallup, Zogby, and Pew polls. They show, for example, that:
• Only 18% of citizens in the Muslim countries polled believe the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arabs; only 11% approve of President Bush; and only 7% think the “West understands Muslim customs and culture.”
• The ratio of people holding favorable opinions of the United States ranges from a high of 13% in Egypt to 3% in Saudi Arabia. It’s only 6% in Morocco and Jordan, which I think most Americans would list among the more friendly Arab countries.
• Majorities in 7 out of 8 Muslim countries are worried about a military threat from the the U.S. (The figure for Turkey, our ally in NATO, is 71%.)
• In the “Muslim countries” taken together, 56% of the people “believe Iraqis will be worse off post-Hussein.” (In the U.S., 84% think Iraqis will be better off.)
In sum (says Yankelovich), Muslim anti- Americanism now threatens our nation's security. Mistrust of the U.S. is not confined to extremists; it makes recruitment of terrorists fatally easy; it also makes it easy to channel frustration onto the U.S., and supports extremist religious clerics in their jihad against us. Our use of military force exacerbates Muslim resentment of the U.S., and makes the U.S. seem anti-Muslim—in a world with 57 Muslim nations and 1.3 billion Muslims.
"Majorities in most Western European countries consider the U.S. a threat to world peace.” That generalization applies to all the NATO allies with the ironic exception of Germany and Italy, which “fell slightly below the 50% mark.” (The summary of surveys doesn’t include Japan, so we didn’t learn whether the World War II “axis” had become unanimously pro-American.)
“Anti-Americanism has increased rapidly in Europe.” In Germany, Russia, and France the percentages of “unfavorable opinion of the U.S.” doubled from 2002 to 2003. Italy’s unfavorable opinions went from 23% to 59%; they more than tripled in Britain and quadrupled in Poland. In Turkey, where the U.S. already had a 55% unfavorable rating, it soared to 84%. (Pew: Global Attitudes Project.) “The massive loss of goodwill among our European allies” has lots of “negative consequences.” Among them: “We can no longer count on our traditional allies to help dispel the poisonous anti-Americanism in the Muslim world.”
Summary research conclusion from the Pew project: “The war [in Iraq] has widened the rift between Americans and Western Europeans, further inflamed the Muslim world, softened support for the war on terror, and significantly weakened global public support for the pillars of the post-World War II era—the UN and the North Atlantic Alliance.” The sudden turn in “the general opinion of Mankind” is even more serious than the reluctance of so many governments currently to cooperate with the United States in so many ways. Governments can and do change their policies and their international behavior much more rapidly than bodies politic typically change their minds.
Within the United States, the mind shift was equally sudden. “Before Saddam’s capture, a majority approved the direction of the war on terror.” The military action in Afghanistan was approved by 71% of Americans, and 59% approved going to war in Iraq. Were things going well in the war on terror? 65% of us said they were.
Indeed, “Saddam’s capture raised public hopes, because the public linked him directly to 9/11.” “War with Iraq has made the U.S. safer,” 56% told Gallup. Capturing Saddam spiked Bush ratings, according to both NY Times/CBS News and Gallup polls in December 2003. “Saddam’s capture also greatly elevated voter expectations.” For example, 70% of Americans thought it would “restore peace and stability in the Middle East,” and 54% even thought the missing “WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] would be found.”
BUT: “These expectations have now been dashed, damaging public support for the war in Iraq.” Support for the proposition that “going to war was worth it” slipped from 59% in December ’03 to 45 % in May ’04; the view that the “war is going badly” jumped from 43% to 57% in two months, March to May ’04; and the judgment that the country is “on the right track,” which drew 56% approval in April ’03, plummeted to 30% by May ’04.
In consequence, says Yankelovich, “the public’s fears have been aroused.” (In an ABC News/Washington Post poll 65% agreed in May ’04 that “the U.S. has gotten bogged down in Iraq.”) Approval of “Bush handling the situation in Iraq” dropped from 77% in April ’03 to 39% in May ’04; also in May of this year, 59% of Americans judged that Bush does not have “a clear plan for Iraq.”
The international fallout of the mostly unilateral decisions that produced “the mess we are in” contrasts dramatically and sadly with the instant, almost universal “rally ‘round the United States” reaction in world opinion (including the opinions of governments) just after the 9/11 attacks. For the U.S. government to have blown that golden opportunity to keep building international institutions with “the capacity to act” runs directly counter to what eleven U.S. Presidents, of both political parties and with mostly bipartisan support in Congress, had been aiming to accomplish ever since before the Second World War was even won. A dozen years ago, I tried to sum up in a paragraph the kind of “world order” that seemed likely to develop—if we worked at it:
The real-life management of peace worldwide seems bound to require a Madisonian world, a world of bargains and accommodations among national and functional factions, a world in which peoples are able to agree on what to do next together without feeling the need (or being forced by global government) to agree on religious creeds, economic canons, or political credos. A practical pluralism,not a unitary universalism, is the
likely destiny of the human race.
Working toward this goal consisted largely of initiatives born in Washington and backed by U.S. willingness to pay most of what they would cost. Other nations mostly followed suit because they lacked the resources or the power or the will to generate alternatives.
We could lead like this because we could afford to. Our economic locomotive kept moving ahead without too much sputtering—though we meanwhile opened up the widest rich-poor gap ever. Our military technology was still dominant even if our volunteer troop strength came to be thinly spread on too many static fronts. And our nuclear stockpiles, though largely irrelevant once the Cold War was over, provided an illusion of overwhelming strength.
This old-style leadership has lost its magic and mislaid its checkbook. It can be replaced only by what, pragmatically, works: leadership carried on by genuine consultation, initiatives burdened by burden-sharing, the pluralistic management of uncentralized systems.
The net effect of this half-century was thus to dwindle—relatively—America’s capacity to call the tune by paying the piper. That was, indeed, the unannounced and mostly unconscious purpose of American foreign policy. The more weapons we exported, the more successful economic tigers we helped develop, the more information hardware and software we invented and promoted worldwide, the more we opened our graduate schools to bright and feisty young people from five continents— the more we helped other societies find power where we have found it: in lively minds, in innovative processes and products, and above all in the capacity, by thinking hard, constantly to do what’s never been done before.
Even so, until recently, whether some Americans liked it or not, the United States was still the only available chair of the executive committee for an informal club of democracies that called the shots for world order, prosperity, and development. But our govenment appears to have left the chair, indeed abandoned belief in committee work, by acting so unilaterally in Iraq.
Both the American electorate and the political leaders they elect are having to climb a steep learning curve about the new game of post-cold war politics. It’s no longer good enough to lead by strutting our military stuff without thinking hard about where that will lead. It is no longer feasible even to lead by imagination backed by the power of the purse, Marshall Plan style.
Acting alone does not serve the U.S. interest, does not serve our global presence, does not win friends or partners or allies; it can win a war but makes a mess of the peace that should follow. Our imagination now has to be matched, more and more, by the willingness to listen, the capacity to consult and the power to persuade. It’s a difficult style to master. Much will depend on the quality of its mastery.
Both in “hard power” and even more in “soft power,” the United States has thus created something of a vacuum in world leadership. The vacuum is bound to be filled, but by whom and for what purposes? There may be attractive opportunities here for rest-of-the-world governments, corporations and people mobilized in nongovernmental organizations.
The European Union is the most obvious candidate for more world leadership soon. It is now a larger economy than the United States. Its economic integration is well advanced, and the euro has become a viable and strong common currency. Most of its members are longtime partners with Canada and the United States in NATO; and the European Union is also developing its own rapid-reaction force which might be especially useful in peacekeeping roles when the North Americans are undecided, reluctant or overstretched.
But…Jean Monnet, a founding father of the European Union, predicted long ago that the last big boulder in its path would be developing a European foreign policy. “We have lost the habit of urging solutions to global problems,” a friend in Paris tells me. Europe has all the ingredients, but it hasn’t yet decided to play collectively the role of a great power.
China, which already has a permanent seat on the Security Council, is certainly headed for great-power status. Its impressive rate of economic growth and its plentiful military manpower bear witness. Russia is also a member of the UN’s most exclusive club and is increasingly flexing its muscles regionally.
Several other large nations, including India, Japan, Germany and Brazil, are ambitious to join the Security Council as permanent members. India’s economic progress is especially impressive—not only its growth rate and its fabled competitiveness in computer software but also its recent decision to focus hard on adding value to its farm products.
India is demographically destined to contain the world’s largest population in a generation or less. Several of its leaders are now determined to create 100 million new jobs in the next decade; with its special emphasis on agribusiness, India is adding another chapter to its stunning success with the Green Revolution. That will qualify it for great-power status better than any number of nuclear tests.
At critical moments in living history, statesmen from “middle powers” such as Australia, Canada and South Africa have played leading roles in world politics. Indeed, the more global the issue, the more chance there seems to be for people with imagination and personal force to assume roles as world citizens regardless of the size or power of their countries of origin.
Dag Hammarskjöld, when he was the UN’s Secretary General, tried to explain his own world citizenship to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 1957, just after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first orbital satellite. “I’m like your Sputnik,” Hammarskjöld argued. “I was launched from a Swedish platform, but now that I’m in orbit I belong to no country.”
The leadership to make something different happen in building a workable world order will now mostly need to come from the rest of the world, which already contains a good deal more educated talent, more international business executives, more scientists and engineers and more professional administrators (“get-it-alltogether” people) than the United States; many of them hold degrees from U.S. universities.
As these new leaders take the initiative in one field after another, they will find in the United States all manner of internationallyminded Americans to participate in international teams, raise money, conduct research, provide ideas and use their imagination— even if for the time being the U.S. government is watching the world go by.
When I was active in U.S. international leadership, I was driven by the thought that if the U.S. government was dead in the water, the international system was likely to be becalmed as well. A quarter of a century later, I no longer think the rest of the world needs the U.S. government to make all the bugle calls—especially if its bugle is rusty and its leaders can’t remember the score.