The Cost Of Confusion In Our Foreign Policy

September 17, 1998 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on September 17, 1998.

The two bombs in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam brutally remind Americans of the implicit costs of what President Clinton called “America’s unique leadership responsibilities.” Clinton’s words highlight a melancholy paradox. Assertions that the world stands on the threshold of a “new American century,” such as those proffered in recent issues of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, are not greeted with enthusiasm overseas, but have provoked — literally in the case of these outrages — a deadly counterblast.

Leadership is a quintessentially American idea, but it has recently suffered multiple challenges. China has just completed a home and away sweep, leaving U.S. ideals in tatters; Saddam Hussein is once again breaking out the flag of defiance, India and then Pakistan overrode intense pressure from a phalanx of Washington emissaries to join the nuclear club. Lowly villains such as Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and the Burmese junta sense that the lion is wounded.

Even America’s allies have doubts. France is openly obstructionist over Iraq and Iran, Germany has questioned NATO’s right to use force in Kosovo without prior United Nations authority, Japan is resisting U.S. pressure to reflate its economy. Saudi Arabia has offered, at best, halfhearted cooperation on terrorism.

These leadership problems present a considerable puzzle. At a moment of unrivaled domestic prosperity, when people around the world are clamoring to immigrate to the United States, why must American embassies be constructed like medieval castles and why must American tourists fear for their lives?

Perfect consistency in a great power’s foreign policy is neither expected nor desirable. But [some] accommodations undermine foreigners’ faith in America’s willingness to pay a price for its rhetorical principles. They conclude that America’s big talk is mostly bluff.

Simple‐​minded explanations abound. Clinton bashers argue that the administration has denuded the military, is in thrall to the United Nations and is gun‐​shy. More sympathetic observers charge that congressional grandstanding and refusal to appropriate the necessary resources are responsible for America’s lackluster overseas performance.

The real explanation is more profound. Seen from overseas, U.S. foreign policy is deeply schizophrenic. At the rhetorical level it operates on the basis of universalist principles such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Actual policy, however, deviates far from these ideals.

Take a few current examples. On Iraq, the administration makes common cause with Hussein’s Kurdish opponents, yet overlooks Turkey’s anti‐​Kurdish pogroms using U.S.-provided weapons. On Iran, the United States criticizes France and Germany for allowing commercial calculations to outweigh the fight against terrorism. On China, however, the U.S. focus on human rights and high‐​tech proliferation has similarly succumbed to the lure of huge profits.

Domestic priorities frequently undermine the application of principle. On India and Pakistan, the United States initially applied stiff sanctions in the name of the universalist goal of nonproliferation, but in the face of pressure from Midwestern farmers has already softened this approach. The United States has applied sanctions against Sudan on grounds of global freedom from religious persecution. In doing so, it exempted gum arabic from the sanctions regime for the very unglobalist reason that this is a key raw material for America’s beverage manufacturers.

On the Middle East, the United States refuses to recognize what is obvious to the rest of the world: that its anti‐​terrorist attitudes derive as much from domestically driven attachment to Israel as from global principles. This fact may cause the bombing investigation to run into official obfuscation if, as many speculate, the trail leads back to the Middle East.

Perfect consistency in a great power’s foreign policy is neither expected nor desirable. But these and other accommodations undermine foreigners’ faith in America’s willingness to pay a price for its rhetorical principles. They conclude that America’s big talk is mostly bluff. Adversaries calculate that deals based on American self‐​interest can normally be struck, while allies hesitate to commit themselves for fear of being sold out.

The hard fact is that American leadership will continue to be challenged until the United States recaptures a “big idea” to replace the earlier ideas of anti‐​fascism and anti‐​Communism that worked so well. Sadly, no new ideal has taken their place. Instead, the new proponents of American hegemony believe that America’s military and commercial muscle are enough to keep the world in line.

This crude notion betrays America’s best traditions. It is also, as the recent evidence shows, increasingly untenable. A more subtle understanding of the dynamics between material riches and moral influence is needed.

Two and a half millenniums ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles observed that “wealth to us is not mere material for vainglory but an opportunity for achievement.” Until today’s policymakers bring the contemporary variables of power and virtue into proper balance, U.S. leadership will be endangered and Americans overseas will remain personally at risk.