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The New American Century?

The need, even the necessity, for United States leadership in international affairs has, at least since 1945, been taken for granted by most of the world’s governments. Great international projects, including the United Nations itself, were carried out as the result of American initiatives. In the immediate postwar years when recovery and rehabilitation were an overwhelming priority, even the Soviet Union tacitly acknowledged US leadership and accepted it in practice in the work of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which was sponsored by the US. During the cold war, countries outside the Soviet bloc accepted the United States at its own valuation as “leader of the free world.” Again, in the euphoria of the immediate post–cold war period, especially in parts of the world stricken by man-made or natural disasters, the United States was seen as, in Madeleine Albright’s words, “the indispensable nation.”

Only in the twenty-first century has this unique and previously unassailable position been subjected to question and doubt. This is happening at a time when the traditional threat to peace, wars between great powers, has, for the moment at least, receded. It has been supplanted by a series of global threats to human society—nuclear proliferation, global warming, terrorism, poverty, global epidemics, and more. These challenges can only be addressed by collective action, led by determined and imaginative men and women. In the first years of the new century it would seem that leadership of that kind would still most effectively come from the United States. This would be acceptable to the rest of the world, however, only if there is an agreed set of consistent and sound policies evolved through consultation and consensus. Current United States policy does not meet that requirement. In view of the seriousness of the new threats, however, there is not a moment to lose.


Richard Haass addresses this situation in his new book, The Opportunity: America’s Moment to Alter History’s Course. Haass’s credentials are impressive. He has served in the State Department and the Pentagon under Presidents Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush. He has had ample practical experience of the difficulty of launching carefully thought out policies amid the ideological currents and political storms that dominate Washington—a political climate that has seldom been as eccentric or ideologically charged as it is today. In The Reluctant Sheriff: The United States After the Cold War (1998),1 written during the Clinton administration, Haass addressed the problem of how “to bridge the gap between the demands of regulating a deregulated world and a society reluctant to play the role of sheriff,” i.e., the United States. Under the Bush administration he served as director of policy planning for the State Department and was a principal adviser to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He is currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

A series of important but low-key disagreements with current US policy run throughout Haass’s book and set the stage for his ideas, which he presents as an outline for a new foreign policy, but with hardly any comment on how it might be achieved politically in the US. As a general rule Haass believes that skillful diplomacy, in its broadest sense, is Washington’s best weapon in the twenty-first century, and that military force must be used only as a last resort. “During the 1990s,” he writes, “the Clinton administration did too little to shape the world; more recently, the administration of George W. Bush has often tried to do too many things in the wrong way. The result, though, is the same: We risk squandering the historic opportunity at hand.”

Haass emphasizes the by now all too apparent limitations of US military strength—two million strong at the end of the cold war and now nearly one and a half million. The US defense budget of $500 billion a year exceeds the combined defense budgets of China, Russia, India, Japan, and Europe. Confirming the warning of the former army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki, Haass points out that current operations to achieve stability in Iraq require a great deal of manpower and that no other major efforts can be undertaken by the United States as long as the Iraq military involvement lasts. Haass stresses the point, also made recently by retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, that opponents of American power have by now learned the lesson of the 1991 Gulf War: that the conventional battlefield is the one place not to fight the United States. The preferred weapons of the weak have therefore become terrorism and armed insurgency. They could also include weapons of mass destruction, or at least a credible threat to use them if they could be obtained or built.

Haass maintains that expensive “wars of choice,” such as those in Vietnam and Iraq, “that call for open-ended sacrifice for uncertain ends are simply not sustainable.” He also deplores the tendency to revert to the old system of competitive power politics, which distracts attention and resources from the real challenges. He is convinced that it is an illusion to strive for a world dominated by American military superiority. Instead the aim should be to “integrate other states into American-sponsored or American-supported efforts to deal with the challenges of globalization.” In a rather Delphic utterance he claims that the “United States does not need the world’s permission to act, but it does need the world’s support to succeed.”

Haass dismisses the Bush administration’s announced goal of promoting democracy as the keystone of foreign policy. There are too many pressing threats—genocide, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and climate change—that put the lives of millions at risk; and the emergence of democracy is more or less irrelevant to successfully dealing with most of them. Democratization should be just one element in a balanced foreign policy.

Among the unnecessary risks now being run, two are particularly dangerous, in Haass’s view. It is insane, he believes, for the US to gamble on the indefinite willingness of China to hold vast quantities of dollars and Treasury bonds, thus enabling the United States to import far more than it exports and to run huge deficits, while frequently lecturing it on human rights and other matters.2 A refusal of China to continue to buy US bonds or to hold its currency could put the US in a dangerous position. Haass writes that “a policy of guns, butter, and lower taxes is not sustainable.” He also argues that the second problem, the current worldwide spirit of anti-Americanism and the perception that Americans do not have a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, fostered in the last four years by many gratuitous policy moves, must be reversed. As he discreetly puts it, it is “essential that policies and how they are promoted be adjusted.”

As for other immediate problems, Haass notes that

speaking of a “war on terrorism”…does not help to define either the threat or the solution…. For terrorists there is no battlefield—or every place is a battlefield, from airports and shopping malls to restaurants and movie theaters.
While wars come to an end, there is unlikely to be a definite end to terrorism. Terrorism would be better understood, and treated, as a disease, with specific “steps that can be taken to eradicate or neutralize specific viruses or bacteria.”

In the chapter “Nukes on the Loose” Haass writes that the objective of the United States should be to de-legitimize and reduce, as far as possible, “the currency and symbolic value” of nuclear weapons. In particular the US should reconsider its intention to develop new nuclear weapons, such as the “bunker-buster,” whose functions can be performed by conventional weapons. In order to strengthen the effort to deter more countries from developing nuclear weapons, the US should also reconsider its opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Haass criticizes the policy of preemption or prevention, proclaimed by President Bush at West Point in June 2002. More than any other form of intervention, preventive attacks threaten to undermine international conventions and particularly, one might add, the UN Charter, which prohibits interventions involving military force except in self-defense. “A world,” Haass writes,

in which preventive attacks were common would be a dangerous and disorderly world, in some ways an undesirable throwback to times in which states regularly involved themselves in the internal affairs of their neighbors.

As for the practical application of Bush’s policy in Iraq,

Although the Bush administration described its strategy as “preemption,” the substance of its position toward Iraq constituted a clear case of “prevention,” given the uncertain knowledge of Iraqi capacities and the complete lack of evidence of any imminence of hostile attack by Iraq.

For a former Bush administration official, Haass is uncompromising in his criticism of the Iraq invasion. Because it was based on false premises, was widely seen as illegitimate, and lacked full international support, it increased anti-American feeling throughout the world, while diminishing the likelihood of international cooperation in future initiatives. Moreover, the Iraq adventure has become a “magnet and a school for terrorists.” It is an unwarranted war that ignores the essential balance between the proclaimed benefits and the real costs. If Haass held such views at the time of the invasion, it must have been a strange and distressing experience for him to remain a very senior official in the State Department during the first term of the Bush administration.

Referring to the ongoing controversy over the UN Oil-for-Food Program, in which much righteous indignation has been directed at the United Nations from Washington, Haass points out that between the wars Saddam Hussein’s main source of hard currency was the payments he received from smuggling oil to Jordan, Syria, and Turkey, an activity that was tolerated by the US. These shipments, he writes, amounted to 84 percent of Saddam’s hard currency. The United States, he thinks, should have shut down this smuggling route and subsidized the economies of Jordan and Turkey instead. He estimates that kickbacks from the much-abused UN Oil-for-Food Program, a program, incidentally, that fed and supported a large majority of the Iraqi people for over six years, may have accounted for some 16 percent of Saddam’s hard currency.

Regime change” is not a new idea. The British, French, and Israelis tried it with disastrous results at Suez in 1956. Haass feels that the US might have learned from what happened in Iran twenty-five years ago “that unattractive authoritarian regimes can be replaced by something far worse.” He quotes George Kennan’s famous guide to dealing with the Soviet Union,3 in which Kennan proposed long-term, patient, but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies, and increasing

enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate…to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.

Haass also advises against a policy of refusing to have any dealings with an authoritarian regime (as during the last forty-five years with Cuba) while calling at the same time for a change in its regime. The United States engaged in active diplomacy with the Soviet Union throughout the cold war, and regime change eventually took place.

  1. 1

    See my review in these pages of July 16, 1998.

  2. 2

    See, for example, “Rumsfeld Issues a Sharp Rebuke to China on Arms,” The New York Times, June 4, 2005.

  3. 3

    His “long telegram” that found its way into Foreign Affairs magazine in 1947.

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