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The Foreign Policy the US Needs

America is now being widely criticized as a new empire. Already toward the end of World War II De Gaulle wrote about FDR’s will to power, a will that soon took the form of an American-controlled network of unequal alliances, military bases abroad, and economic dominance. The harshest criticisms of US imperial aims were made against Bush after 2001: the US and much of the rest of the world fell out over America’s new unilateralism and its refusal to accept the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol, and arms control generally. Most nations were appalled by America’s flaunting of its dominance; its use of preventive war, particularly the invasion of Iraq, was widely seen as proof of a will to reshape and dominate the Arab world.1 America’s new mixture of patriotism and religiosity annoyed many secularists at home and abroad, and the American way of fighting terrorism by bombing and torturing Iraqis and mistreating Afghans shocked many previously well-disposed allies.

Another category of criticisms concerns the American belief that globalization should come only in the orthodox form of American free-market and pro-business policies. Many Europeans see this as a denial of the state’s responsibility to provide social justice, public services, and safety nets for the poor, the unemployed, and workers. Other sources of dismay were America’s reluctance to include in international agreements provisions for standards of health or workers’ rights, or to accept codes of conduct for multinational corporations, as well as the connections between American corporations and American political agencies—not only in occupied Iraq.

The most flagrant and widely deplored contradiction is between America’s self-image as a force for democracy and human rights and a reality in which many rights at home are sharply limited, the death penalty continues along with the torture of “enemy combatants,” while the US repudiates the international laws of war. Abroad, the US support of dictators and its failure to protect victims of genocide in Rwanda and Darfur2 have contributed greatly to anti-Americanism. Foreigners can observe for themselves, on the one hand, the weakness of public services throughout the US, the cult of low taxes, and the distrust of any redistributive role for government and, on the other hand, the formidable apparatus of American military and intelligence services throughout the world and in the US itself. The strength of America’s destructive power and the lack of American interest in nation-building and development abroad have become all too evident.

Anti-Americanism is also fostered by various American illusions: “all human beings want what we want—freedom,” to paraphrase George W. Bush; hence democratization should be easy.3 Democratization has become confused with elections, and the legal institutions and protection of rights needed for a workable democracy are neglected. America sometimes downplays or denies its own nationalism in its rhetoric, and yet America has asserted its sovereignty more forcefully than any other advanced nation in recent history (including Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain). Most other countries are more affected and limited by US policies than the US is by anyone else’s. Therefore most countries are very uneasy about a world in which the US is the single superpower.

Thus, while the mighty US faces a huge number of problems that affect other nations as well—including those of global warming and the depletion of natural resources—at the same time it distrusts or attacks global institutions such as the International Criminal Court that could be of some help. It shows little understanding of the pride, fears, and humiliations of others, and has damaged its “soft power”—the power of influencing others through persuasion and example—by its policies in Iraq, its recent abuses in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and its restrictions on foreigners eager to come to the US.


Several recent books have tried to go beyond such failures of the Bush foreign policy, particularly the war in Iraq and the violence committed in carrying it on.4

Francis Fukuyama’s book might have been called “Goodbye to Neoconservatism,” which has dominated the Bush administration. He describes neoconservatism as a doctrine with four components: (1) “a belief that the internal character of regimes matters and that foreign policy must reflect the deepest values of liberal democratic societies,” (2) a belief that American power “has been and could be used for moral purposes,” (3) “a distrust of ambitious social engineering projects,” and (4) “a skepticism about the legitimacy and effectiveness of international law and institutions to achieve either security or justice.” He discusses how these aims have been contradicted by American support for dictatorship in the Transcaucasus, and its failure to provide adequate aid for people in Darfur or for the eradication of AIDS in Africa. He now calls for “multi-multilateralism,” involving “new institutional forms,” public and private, national and international, mainly aimed at meeting the economic needs of the global economy. He thinks such multilateral relations will be more efficient than treaty-based formal institutions such as the UN and its specialized agencies.

Since he believes this multilateralism is necessary, he criticizes America’s attachment to absolute sovereignty. He also denounces the negative effects of American economic and political domination, which “rests on a belief in American exceptionalism that most non-Americans simply find not credible.” Nor is it tenable, since “it presupposes an extremely high level of competence” which we don’t have, and a domestic political system with greater attention to, and willingness to finance, foreign policy goals than the American one. Moreover, “although political reform in the Arab world is desirable, the US has virtually no credibility or moral authority in the region.”

Fukuyama believes that US power is most effective when it is latent and not seen (he mentions for example recent relations with India and other parts of East Asia), and most important when it is used to shape international institutions. He is obviously very far from his former neocon allies. Success in promoting democracy abroad depends on the past historical experience of a country, on the willingness of its government to organize free elections and thus “permit some degree of freedom for the groups that are part of civil society to organize” (as in Serbia or Ukraine), and on the political will within a society to overcome “bad governance, weak institutions, political corruption.” His model for an “engine of institutional reform” is the European Union’s process of admitting new members, which requires them to satisfy democratic requirements before being allowed to join the EU.

Why did Fukuyama, in view of his emphasis on multilateral institutions, ever sympathize with neoconservatism in the first place? The “realistic Wilsonianism” he now embraces, along with his condemnation of excessive use of American force and threats abroad, is obviously very far from the neoconservatives’ credo. Also, how could he fail, as he does, to emphasize a crucial element in neoconservative doctrines—imperial ambition and pride? It has served to connect the neoconservatives and the apostles of brute force—like Cheney and Rumsfeld—who don’t take seriously the democratic proselytizing of the neoconservatives. The imperial nationalism of both groups reminds one of that of the French Revolution, which wanted both to export the “principles of 1789” and to expand French rule of other countries. In neoconservative thought, the idea of expanding hegemony was as important as that of encouraging democracy. The neoconservatives failed to understand the difficulties of both.

Stephen M. Walt’s book is no less critical of the Bush administration’s record than Fukuyama’s. Walt and his former colleague John Mearsheimer were prescient opponents of the invasion of Iraq. His book is, however, primarily an incisive analysis of how the world’s other countries have responded to American supremacy and tried to limit it. His chapter on “the roots of resentment” is particularly impressive. It is not only American power and official policies that are resented but also—in varying parts of the world—American political values, cultural products, and the activities of “US corporations, foundations, media organizations, and various nongovernmental organizations.” He writes that “the combination of a universalist political philosophy and a strong evangelical streak” is “bound to be alarming to other countries, including some of our fellow democracies.” Walt deplores Americans’ failure to understand foreign hostility. American leaders and much of the public, he charges, suffer from “historical amnesia,” fostered by “US textbooks and public rhetoric” which portray America’s international role as “uniformly noble, principled and benevolent.”

Walt finds that while there have been few formal alliances to contain the US, other countries resort to “soft balancing,” defined as “the conscious coordination of diplomatic action in order to obtain outcomes contrary to US preferences.” The refusal of the main European countries to back the war in Iraq is the most obvious example. At the moment, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba have formed an alliance against American power in the Caribbean and Latin America, and in one degree or another, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico are resisting American economic and diplomatic pressures. Some states, he writes, are also mobilizing their domestic resources in ways that limit the US capacity to pressure them. Such a strategy can emphasize conventional military power, as can be seen in the growing strength of Chinese military forces. It can also take the form of terrorism and building weapons of mass destruction, both apparently aims of the current regime in Iran. The US should try to discourage other nations from taking such measures, Walt argues, by seeking “to convince most states that they have little to fear from US power unless they take actions that directly threaten vital US interests.” He believes a principal task of US policy is to persuade other nations that its “privileged position is legitimate,” which requires that the US respect established international law and procedures, something it has failed to do before and throughout the war in Iraq.

Some nations, he believes, have collaborated with the US for protection against threats, as for example Lebanon and Jordan, which wanted US help against the threat of Syria. Some foreign leaders “bond” with Bush—Blair being a cautionary example. He also mentions the efforts of foreign powers to influence Congress and the administration, the most flagrant case being the Israel lobby, the subject of his taboo-breaking essay with John Mearsheimer in the London Review of Books and of Michael Massing’s recent article in these pages.5

Writing as a traditional realist, Walt argues that America’s national interest demands that it try to achieve a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians. If that fails because of Israel’s unwillingness to grant the Palestinians a workable state, the US should continue to support Israel’s existence but no longer act as if Israel’s interests and US interests were identical. Instead, the US should end its excessive military and economic support of Israel.

Moreover, he argues, large US forces are no longer needed in Europe and only air and naval bases are needed in Asia. The US should avoid preventive war, intervene in the Middle East only with the participation of others, and withdraw from military engagements, if they become necessary, after a “threat has been thwarted.” The US should also deemphasize its nuclear weapons programs so as to decrease “other states’ incentives to get nuclear weapons of their own.” Bush, by putting North Korea and Iran in the “axis of evil,” only ensured that they would act more aggressively.

  1. 1

    I have discussed many of these issues in Gulliver Unbound: The Imperial Temptation and the War in Iraq (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), America Goes Backward (New York Review Books, 2004), and Chaos and Violence: What Globalization, Failed States, and Terrorism Mean for US Foreign Policy (Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming 2006).

  2. 2

    Samantha Power, in ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide (Basic Books, 2002) and in her subsequent writings about Darfur, has been an eloquent voice against America’s failure to protect the victims of genocide. So has Nicholas Kristof on Darfur.

  3. 3

    My analysis of the “American style” in Gulliver’s Troubles: Or, the Setting of American Foreign Policy (McGraw-Hill, 1968) remains, alas, valid almost forty years later.

  4. 4

    The most recent is Crimes of War: Iraq, edited by Richard Falk, Irene Gendzier, and Robert Jay Lifton (Nation Books, 2006).

  5. 5

    The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy,” London Review of Books, March 23, 2006; Michael Massing “The Storm Over the Israel Lobby,” The New York Review, June 8, 2006.

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