Quest For a Post-Cold War Foreign Policy

James Schlesinger. Foreign Affairs. Volume 72, Issue 1. 1992.

With the end of the Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the shrinkage and transmutation of the Soviet threat, the United States has lost the magnetic north for calibrating its foreign policy. Major decisions taken in recent years, seemingly firm in execution, rest upon an uncertain direction in underlying policy. The United States has strength to spare in responding to individual challenges, yet it clearly lacks the overall strength to respond to all challenges. It should avoid that heady feeling, induced by its triumph in the Cold War, that all things are now possible. It must learn, in this altered context in which there are no major rivals, to husband its strength and to choose with care those policy objectives that reflect interests sufficiently weighty that they can garner the public support to sustain them in the long run.

To this point the record is, at best, mixed. A plethora of foreign policy objectives has been put forward, as if all could be successfully and simultaneously pursued. We are urged to advance democracy and all its procedures, human rights, civil liberties, equality before the law, protection of minorities, self-determination, an orderly world, international law, economic growth, free markets, privatization, free trade, limits on environmental degradation, curtailment of the arms trade, prevention of the spread of advanced weapons, etc., etc. The list is almost endless. What is ignored is that some of these objectives are flatly in conflict and that all require the careful examination of trade-offs. Moreover, striking little attention has been paid to the relation between means and ends. Individual tools are assumed to achieve multiple objectives—with little heed paid to their inherent limitations. Sanctions on trade (otherwise presumed to be liberalized trade) are a perennial favorite—to be variously employed to punish aggression, punish terrorism, punish violations of human rights, restore democracy, raise labor standards, bring down (some) surviving communist states, prevent environmental degradation and so forth. In this case the list is extensive, though not endless.

With so many conflicting objectives and with an inability to focus those means appropriate for achieving a limited set of objectives, now foreign policy is likely to be shaped by a capricious flow of events—rather than defined guideposts and a careful plan.

In the absence of established guideposts our policies will be determined by impulse and image. In this age image means television, and policies seem increasingly subject, especially in democracies, to the images flickering across the television screen. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: a videotape is more potent than ten thousand words. National policy is determined by the plight of the Kurds or starvation in Somalia, as it appears on the screen. “If a tree falls in the forest”—or a catastrophe occurs, but is unrecorded on tape—it is unseen. Starvation continues in the Sudan or Mozambique, suppression in East Timor or India, ethnic war in parts of the former Soviet Union, but it is Somalia or Bosnia that draw the attention, because the cameras are there.

The capital blunder committed by Deng Xiaoping may not have been the means he chose to suppress the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, but rather to invite in the cameras of the Western media so that they were there to record the event. Were the cameras not there, the pressures in this country and elsewhere to impose sanctions on China for its violations of human rights would certainly be weaker—and for practical purposes might not exist.

In the past it was said, “Trade follows the flag”; these days it seems more pertinent to say that “sanctions or the troops follow the TV cameras.” Given the immense power of modern media, inevitably policy must take into account these images that shape the public mind. Yet unless policy is to be swept along by a tide of such images, we must have a notion of what is important and unimportant to us, a clear idea of where we wish to go, established guideposts and governmental institutions that recognize that reality is both different and more complex than the images that flicker over the TV screen.

The public mood is, of course, notably fickle. It can turn quite rapidly from enthusiasm to caustic criticism as the costs mount. Protecting beleaguered minorities or starving people will enjoy public support at least at the outset. One must recall that in the early stages Vietnam as well as Korea enjoyed overwhelming support. But when an operation bogs down and, particularly, when there are casualties that the public regards as disproportionate to the gains, that support will rapidly fade.

The point underscores the need for selectivity. While America may have the physical strength to carry on three or more discrete operations simultaneously, it is not physical resources that constrain it. Our political capital, both domestic and foreign, is limited and should not be expended recklessly. Now that the direct threat to the United States has eased, one must assume that the public’s willingness to be extensively engaged has also been correspondingly reduced. Indeed President Bush suffered in the polls, not because our forces were lengthily engaged overseas, but simply because the public felt that he was devoting too much attention to foreign affairs relative to domestic matters. Thus, for wise policy it remains imperative that the political capital of public support not be expended on secondary matters, but should be reserved to deal with those substantial matters that may pose a direct threat to our interests.

Tenuous Guides to Policy

Let us turn now to a more detailed examination of some of the policy objectives suggested as complements or substitutes for the traditional precepts of diplomacy. Foremost perhaps is democracy, though it is not clearly separable from associated objectives such as human rights. Nor is support for democracy a novel development for the American society, tracing back to the unremitting pressure on President Washington in the 1790s to throw in America’s lot with revolutionary France. In 1917 America went to war to “make the world safe for democracy.” Indeed just a few years earlier President Wilson had sent troops to Mexico “to teach the Mexicans the meaning of democracy.”

Such episodes, however, have proved more useful in expressing or mobilizing public emotion than they have in providing an effective guide to policy. Democracy is an organic growth. It is not easily made into a transplant. In the West it has evolved over centuries—and has come to embody an innate respect for civil liberties. Our efforts at transplanting democratic forms, let alone the democratic spirit, have been mixed at best. Recent American endeavors in such places as Panama, Nicaragua, Peru or Angola have not been notable successes. The final judgments have not been reached more broadly in Latin America, eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. At this writing even Indian democracy seems to be fraying a bit.

An even deeper question is whether we seriously desire or prescribe democracy as the proper form of government for other societies. Perhaps the issue is most clearly posed in the Islamic world. Do we seriously want to change the institutions of Saudi Arabia? The brief answer is no; over the years we have sought to preserve those institutions, sometimes in preference to more democratic forces coursing throughout the region. King Fahd has stated quite unequivocally that democratic institutions are not appropriate for his society. What is interesting is that we do not seem to disagree. In neighboring Kuwait, a nation whose renewal has depended on American power, we have been far more concerned with restoring legitimacy than with fostering democracy.

In Algeria—when its military removed its president, suspended democratic elections and perpetuated the power of the traditional political elite—we readily acquiesced in the outcome. We swallowed our scruples (however strong they may be) because we shared the concern regarding the consequences of a fundamentalist victory. Do we really want to press greater democratization on Egypt? It would unlikely be beneficial either to our friend and ally, President Mubarak, or to Egyptian stability. Similar observations might be made about Tunisia, Morocco or even Jordan. Indeed, in the Middle East the Islamic state that has most successfully embraced democratic processes is none other than Iran. Yet few would suggest that we hold Iran in higher regard or that our relations are warmer than with other states in the region—to say nothing of whether we prefer a more democratic Iran than the Iran of the shah.

The point is not that we should cease to preach American values or that we should fail to express delight when other societies move closer to democracy. The point is that, even before we examine the trade-offs regarding economic growth or ancillary actions regarding foreign policy or countless other matters, we must conclude that, at best, the fostering of democracy is a delicate and quite tenuous guide to policy.

A similar judgment seems in order for the fostering of human rights as a policy objective. It is far better in eliciting domestic cheers than as an effective guide to policy. Stable states, such as Saudi Arabia, do not seem especially susceptible to the expression of American preferences. Nor do unfriendly states, such as Syria. American pressures are most effective in influencing friendly or dependent states, such as the shah’s Iran, but is it wise or even fair to apply pressure asymmetrically to those states that are closest to us?

Ever since Tiananmen Square the prime example (or proposed target) has been the People’s Republic of China. China is an independent-minded, ideologically suspicious nation with a population five times that of the United States. Just that fact alone makes it difficult to coerce. Nor has China ever been notably susceptible to American pressures. If the Chinese government was unprepared to yield to American blandishments on so secondary a foreign policy issue as “punishing” Vietnam in 1978, it seems almost inconceivable that it would yield on a question that, in its judgment, compromises its domestic authority.

The United States can, to be sure, inflict significant economic damage on China, but it is still doubtful whether we can force it to change its internal behavior. While China has no effective way of striking at the United States directly, we can be quite sure that we would pay penalties in other arenas. Over the years the Chinese have perfected the techniques of playing the role of spoiler, and such techniques would undoubtedly be employed. While they cannot get at us, they can get at their neighbors, whose lives would likely become more uncertain, if not more unpleasant. China, moreover, remains in a position to thwart various American foreign policy objectives. A nation that possesses a veto in the Security Council and on which we depend for cooperation in other ventures such as nonproliferation, controlling the flow of weapons and/or technology (not to mention the Clinton administration’s wish to persuade China to make sacrifices to avoid environmental degradation) is scarcely one that it pays to anger.

Traditional diplomacy would suggest that we not pick fights, but rather base our stance toward other states on whether they are antagonistic or friendly toward us—and not on their internal arrangements. Violation of the traditional tenets of diplomacy will come only at a cost to ourselves. All in all it might seem a wiser use of our energies to support democracy in Russia, where President Yeltsin has desperately sought outside backing, than to pressure China and thereby forfeit its cooperation in other areas we deem important.

A lack of analytical logic similarly affects the pursuit of secondary policy objectives—objectives less grandiose, no doubt, than proselytizing for democracy and human rights, but still no less quixotic. Take the question of the arms trade. We are urged—as if it were in our unilateral power—to stop the arms race in the Middle East, east Asia and other parts of the world. Yet we are to do so without compromising Israel’s edge in military technology. We also must remain free to sell arms (for cash) to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to bolster them against their neighbors. And, of course, arms must continue to be sold (on credit) to regional allies and friends like Turkey and Egypt. And then, of course, we also reserve the right during an election campaign to contravene a solemn diplomatic commitment and sell F-16 jets to Taiwan. Needless to say, there is no protest from the political opposition. Yet it surely sullies our image when we attempt to present ourselves as the paragon of the arms trade.

With a record such as ours it is rather incongruous to go to others and expect them to understand our needs for sales or employment or domestic political support, while brushing aside their needs. The United States is a rich and basically prosperous nation. Russia, Ukraine and now Slovakia are struggling, somewhat impoverished nations, whose industry is far more intensely geared to military production than is ours. To persuade them to limit arms sales would have required far different and bolder economic actions on the part of the outside world than we have seen.

As long as there is an appetite for the purchase of arms, there will be sellers. (As in the drug trade, controlling demand is the real key.) Whenever the United States actually restricts itself with respect to arms sales, others eagerly move in. We may persuade some other suppliers to sign multilateral declarations to limit the arms trade. We would be ill-advised to take much comfort from such promises; they will not significantly affect behavior. As the world’s leading arms supplier the United States opens itself to the charge of hypocrisy when it seeks to limit arms sales. If it is hypocrisy, quite clearly it is not limited to the United States.

Both more plausible and more serious have been the attempts to limit the transfer of advanced weapons and their technologies—missiles and bacteriological, chemical and nuclear weapons production capacities. It is a serious endeavor, but one that remains insufficiently focused. If we are to have a hope of success, we must focus primarily, if not exclusively, on preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are far more dangerous and far more destabilizing than are the other categories. Chemical agents can readily be produced in any fertilizer plant; biological agents in pharmaceutical plants. We shall not be able to preclude the spread of such capabilities unless (as in the case of Iraq) there is direct intervention. Missiles—without nuclear warheads—are not that menacing; they are more of a psychological weapon. While it is useful to slow down the spread of missiles, it will not be for long. There will be suppliers.

We should not significantly dilute our concentration or weaken our efforts on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. We need to focus on those objectives that we may be able to achieve, and not fritter away our energies on secondary goals. Preventing nuclear spread both should be—and should be universally seen to be—a preeminent objective of American policy. Only through the concentration of our efforts can we hope to be successful on this critical matter.

As a final example, let us examine the vexing area of economic objectives and measures. To be sure, the United States wants to spur worldwide economic growth with less-developed countries increasingly partaking of a spreading prosperity—and to move generally toward more increasingly liberalized trade. We like to assume that economic growth is consistent with, if not fostered by, democracy—and, in recent years, have also assumed that economic growth is spurred by free markets unfettered by government intervention.

Regrettably the record is not particularly supportive. The most spectacular economic growth since the end of the post-World War II recovery has been in the authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian states of east Asia—the Four Tigers, Japan and now China. None have been especially burdened by the changeovers or the politicking of democracy. None have allowed markets to run free and unconstrained, but rather have insisted that economic activities be guided by state policy. All have strongly encouraged exports, discouraged most imports, suppressed consumption and wages, and spurred savings and investment in strategic industries, mostly with a strong export potential. In brief, government intervention has been an indispensable ingredient. It may be capitalism, but it is surely not laissez-faire.

Many developing states with democratic institutions have lacked the same firm control and have been obliged to yield to popular demands. Thus there may be some conflict between the introduction of democratic institutions and the pursuit of rapid economic growth. Many of the states now seeking new directions in economic policy quite simply reject the American variant of unfettered capitalism. For much of Asia the preferred model is Lee Kuan Yew, not Margaret Thatcher.

Nor is the American advocacy of the free flow of goods and investment seen in the pristine form that we would prefer. Reference was made above to the American proclivity to use economic sanctions, not only as a longstanding weapon against aggressors, but also to express our disapprobation for a lengthy list of delinquencies. In the past there has been an understandable reluctance to employ military force (a reluctance that seems to have declined, at least temporarily, in recent years), and economic sanctions on trade and in investment seemed an easy instrument to underscore our disapproval of others who had failed to live up to American ideals. Such expressions of disapproval may be what we prefer, but they are not consistent either with the promotion of free trade or with the effective use of trade as an instrument of economic growth.

This behavior leads to all sorts of contradictions. To cite one amusing example, we have regularly stated the keystone of our international energy policy: to maintain unimpeded access to foreign sources of oil. Thus others with nefarious intent will not be able to deny us the energy that the international economy requires. Yet despite this repeated emphasis on unfettered access, the United States at a recent point had embargoed petroleum imports from Iran, Libya, Iraq, Kuwait, and the Neutral Zone—to penalize the countries for an accumulation of historic grievances. The chasm between declared and actual policy is but one irony. If, as we attempted, we had successfully induced other nations to follow our lead in imposing such sanctions, it would have had severe economic repercussions by driving up the price of oil.

Other nations have come over time to expect and grudgingly accept such vicissitudes in American economic policy. A more general point must, however, be made. Repeated and sudden interference with the flow of trade is a poor way to foster such trade and a greater international division of labor. (Let us recall both our own and the industrial world’s reaction to the impeding of the flow of oil by the Arab states in 1973-74 and by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978-79.) If enterprises fear that foreign markets or sources of supply may suddenly be denied to them for political reasons, they will be more wary of dependence on external supplies or external markets.

A parallel problem exists with respect to foreign investment. Aside from certain categories of strategic goods, the United States has generally advocated a free flow of international investment. However, the United States has also from time to time seized or appropriated foreign investments and frozen bank accounts and other financial assets. It has also insisted that American firms cease operations in selected foreign countries. Moreover, to the consternation of our principal allies, we have asserted the extraterritorial reach of American law over the foreign subsidiaries of American firms.

It is not necessarily to decry such actions to suggest that we would probably be well advised to reflect more before we embark upon them. There is a substantial gap between what we preach and, no doubt, believe about trade and investment and the actions that we are ready to take to achieve other political objectives.

It is a rather conspicuous contradiction. We may feel justified in taking such measures, but other nations will not fail to take note of our behavior. The United States is no longer the world’s dominant economy. We may expect that others will become somewhat more reluctant to turn to American firms to use American licenses or technology when other is available—and reduce the volume of financial and other assets placed at risk in the United States, as other financial centers become increasingly suitable alternatives. To the extent that our actions do not simply militate against free trade, they militate against the relative position of the United States in competing for such trade. The discrepancy between our professions and our practice is substantial. While we may feel justified in continuing to impose such restrictions, our behavior is likely to impose increasingly higher costs.

To sum up: with the end of the Cold War U.S. foreign policy has lost its focus. A collection of well-meaning goals is not a satisfactory substitute. The United States will have to sort out and select its political objectives and the means it employs to achieve them far better than it has.

Matching Actions to Long-Term Interests

Given the present public mood—all energy and goodwill, no compass bearing—the country seems ready to emulate Max Beerbohm’s protagonist who “jumped on his horse … and rode off in all directions.” Stirred by the images that flicker across the TV screen, we are all too ready for action without reckoning the costs. Indeed, the public mood is rather reminiscent of the period in 1963, when a cocky Kennedy administration connived in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem and launched us into “nation building” in Laos and Vietnam. The irony is that many of the same people who subsequently turned against the effort in Southeast Asia and warned against America’s allowing itself to intervene in civil wars, now provide some of the strongest voices urging on this country the role of the world’s premier policeman. To ensure that historical references are nonpartisan, it is also reminiscent of the Reagan administration’s casual decision to intervene in Lebanon in 1982—confident that all groups would be grateful for the United States serving as peacemaker.

This country is not especially good at police operations. The American public readily grows impatient—and others have learned that they can outwait us. The populace that we wish to protect is likely to conclude that at some point we will be gone, but their tormentors will still be around, and act accordingly. Nor, on the basis of past experience, should we assume that other nations are eager to move their forces in—to replace the first wave of American forces. The United States is called upon to act, as in Bosnia, not because it alone can do the task or is even especially suited to the task, but rather because others, equally capable, find it convenient for the United States to bear the principal burden. If the American public is regularly called upon to assume such burdens (even if others share this responsibility), the public will soon weary of that task—and, more importantly, will be unwilling to become engaged when America’s role is truly essential.

With the end of the Cold War—and the passing of its unique disciplines—the world is becoming more rather than less anarchic. There are many trouble spots in the world; there will be countless more. The United States is not called upon to, nor can it, cure all the world’s misery. We represent a small—and now steadily shrinking—percentage of the world’s population. Nor are we temperamentally suited to the policeman’s unhappy lot.

Few have been more penetrating or more sympathetic observers of the American democracy than was Alexis de Tocqueville. Writing over a century and a half ago he framed these trenchant words—which I have regularly referred to as de Tocqueville’s challenge:

It is especially in the conduct of their foreign relations that democracies appear to me decidedly inferior to other government…. A democracy can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy or await their consequences with patience.

Manifestly in the Cold War the United States rose to the challenge. It persevered. It stayed the course. For forty-odd years it maintained the Watch on the Elbe that protected the nations of Western Europe from their powerful Soviet neighbor. But the Cold War was unique. There was a clear and present danger—an unequivocal threat that sustained the attention and the support of the American people.

Now, however, that dominant threat has been removed. Numerous and ever-changing trouble spots clamor for the public’s attention. Our permanent interests are less clearly defined and more difficult to discern. In these radically changed and far more fluid conditions can the United States “persevere in a fixed design” or “await … consequences with patience”? The question is as yet unanswered. Part of the answer surely is: not if the public is overtaxed, not if we are drawn into too many foreign engagements without clearly defined purposes, not if we are drawn into such engagements on impulse. Clearly it has become far more difficult now that the external threat and America’s purpose are less clearly defined—and when the information revolution can rivet our attention, if only temporarily.

Can we stay the course in this new context of foreign policy? Only if we are sufficiently disciplined to select those tasks, few in number, that truly involve the longer-term interests of this society—and avoid becoming sidetracked by the many lesser tasks (brought to our attention by an enterprising news industry) that would exhaust the patience of the American public.