Limits of power

Published : Nov 20, 2009 00:00 IST

ARE there any rules that can guide the policymaker in the realm of foreign affairs? Over half a century ago, Louis J. Halle wrote a book which sought to develop an applicable body of theory for world politics (The Nature of Power, Civilization & Foreign Policy). The subtitle of the book under review expresses a common view. The United States standing in the world and its ability to influence the course of events have declined, bu t not beyond a point of no return. Both can be restored by a foreign policy that is not ideologically driven, whether by neoconservatives or by liberals, but is shaped by sound judgment based on a realistic appraisal of the assets at hand, the options that are available and the tactics that are appropriate. Not least, it must also appreciate whether interests can be harmonised and the limits beyond which the adversary will not yield.

Since the 1990s, a new crop of realists have grown up in India. The self-serving, hypocritical moralisms of the Nehru era were replaced by a reliance on military strength exclusively. The rich tradition of realism and the writings of recognised scholars in the West remained a closed book to them. They made up in self-assurance what they lacked in learning. Two traits are common to both the Nehruites and the bogus realists of today. One is national self-obsession. Indias interests alone matter. The other is false history. Nehru was an idealist or romanticist in speech, especially in lectures to the West. He was a unilateralist and hardliner in conduct, particularly towards neighbours. Not only Pakistan, China also received from 1954 to 1960 a taste of his approach. Because the Indian intellectual was either besotted with Nehru or, as in recent years, became obsessed with his idealism, he or she produced no original ideas.

India has produced historians, scientists, economists and litterateurs of world class. It has not produced a single scholar on international affairs. The course of the Cold War and the lessons it yields remain neglected. Pakistan, the U.S. and China remain the focus of our concerns, understandably, but divorced from the context of the global power play.

This book should be read by every Indian and Pakistani student of foreign policy. Even when he was a graduate student and rapporteur at the Harvard International Seminar, chaired by Henry A. Kissinger, in 1964, Leslie H. Gelb struck his colleagues as one marked for high achievements. He did not disappoint. He is President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a columnist at The New York Times, and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Journalism. He served as a senior official in the State and Defence Departments. Scholarship apart, he won fame for independent thinking and high integrity.

One must not miss the wood of Gelbs thesis for the trees of his quotable aphorisms. All the same, here are some, before we discuss the main thesis. They provide a flavour of the lucidly written thesis. His mentor Kissingers characteristically sarcastic advice was: To be profound, it is necessary to be obscure. Gelb is lucid as well as thoughtful. Power is not soft, or hard, for that matter. It is what it always was essentially the capacity to get people to do what they dont want to do, by pressure and coercion, using ones resources and position; todays world is neither flat nor non-polar, but pyramidal. The Unites States stands alone at the pinnacle with formidable and unique global powers of leadership, but not the power to dominate; between one hundred and almost two hundred nations now need to be shepherded toward consensus on all the hot topics such as trade, health and the like. Nothing in history approaches the current magnitude and complexity of multilateral diplomacy; for the first time in history, economics has become the principal coin of the realm, displacing military and diplomatic power; Americans dont want their power raw, it has to be sauted in the best of causes. But Americans do love to feel that their country is powerful and that their leaders will excel at transforming the world into a better and safer place; a fool is someone who defines a problem in a way it cant be solved; there is a final and essential battle to win in order to restore the power of American power. It is to defang those liberals and conservatives who repeatedly corner our leaders into making commitments they cannot fulfil.

Gelb holds: The realists of both the Truman-Acheson variety like Senators Joseph Biden and Sam Nunn and the Republican realists such as Kissinger, Baker and Scowcroft, have more in common with one another than with the liberals and conservatives of their own political parties. American foreign policy would profit if they backed one another more and their political parties less.

On one point he is hopelessly wrong: America is the only country in the world where one has to explain that compromise is necessary for cooperation, and that cooperation is essential for the resolution of the majority of international problems. He should view Indias television channels. Some noted performers who have made a name, if not a living, as hardliners profess to regard compromise with an adversary more obscene than a compromising posture with a partner in a public place.

Foreign policy is common sense, not rocket science. But it keeps getting overwhelmed by extravagant principles, nasty politics, and the arrogance of power. These three demons rob us of choice, which is the core of a common sense foreign policy, but a return to common sense pragmatic, problem-solving wont be easy. Those possessed by the demons are much tougher fighters than the moderates who are constrained by the reasonableness of common sense. Yet moderates dont fight for choice. Instead, they allow extremists to twist what is good and special about us our ideals and our democratic politics into a denial of choice. We cannot conduct an effective foreign policy if we allow necessity to crush choice.

One is not being cynical if one emphasises the role of power and the primacy of the national interest. That is the difference between the spurious realism of Indias neo-Nehruites and the realism of the great masters of old. They did not spurn moral values but stressed the importance of a realistic morality in an imperfect world.

What Gelb has to say on this point deserves to be quoted in extenso: My first goal in this book is to put power back into American power, to fit it to twenty-first century realities and thus make it effective again. My second is to restore common sense to the exercise of that power and the making of American foreign policy.

Power is as vital today as ever in securing national interests. It remains the necessary means to all important international ends, the principal coin of the global realm.

The problem is that the core meaning of power has been lost, or even worse, hijacked by various liberals and conservatives in a constant and all-consuming battle. These warriors chose their battleground well. They knew that whoever defines power controls U.S. foreign policy. As they contended, power became more an ideological weapon in internal political wars than an instrument of foreign policy.

The first task now is to clear away the smoke and take back the discussion of power from the looters and fashion designers of international policy, whose creations have temporarily delighted those always searching for new and big truths. That means joisting with the leading voice of our time the soft and hard powerites. Americas premature gravediggers, the world-is-flat globalisation crowd, and the usually triumphant schemers who ceaselessly demand that America must do certain things regardless of their achievability.

The U.S. alone has the power to lead, to mould a consensus. But it cannot solve major problems on its own. It is the forging of coalition with defined aims that accords with the objectives and interests of all. Foreign policy is a quest for congruence of diverse interests.

In setting itself unattainable goals, the U.S. imposed strains on allies in ad hoc coalitions and damaged its own interests. America has endured more than half a centurys worth of these unattainable goals. We live with them now; nation-building in places such as Afghanistan, where there is no coherent nation and certainly no outsider could do this for them anyway; spreading democracy to countries such as Iraq with no tradition of, or foundations for, democracy, and insisting on bringing such places as Georgia or Ukraine under NATOs [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] wing with neither the intent nor the capability of actually sending troops to defend them. False promises and failures are the surest way to kill power.

The U.S. cannot get its way except by providing a leadership that is acceptable to those who share its objectives. The First World War altered the rules of the game in significant respects. The Second World War and the balance of terror accelerated a process in which weaker powers were able to resist great powers. The last decade has accentuated the trend. But, while economic power sets the rules, it would be foolish to imagine that military might has become irrelevant. Diplomacy without the backing of force is impotent; force unrelated to an achievable political purpose is sterile and destructive. In the past, wars settled the issue. Now, they create new issues witness Iraq and Afghanistan.

Power must be deployed in formulating a sound policy and executing it in skilful diplomacy. Gelb constantly draws on history to make good his points. The debate between George Kennan and Paul Nitze right down to the present times are all well recorded.

Even the best of policies can fail if the home front is neglected. Gelb describes their play and their limitations; the limits in which NGOs, think tanks and lobbies can perform and deliver. His comment on the role of the media, their exaggerated self-importance, incompetence and pliability merits particular notice. From Agra and Kandahar to Sharm-el-Sheikh, Indias media, especially the electronic media, have been hyperactive.

Read this about the media: Its not the NGOs or think tanks that preoccupy the White House; its the media almost as much as Congress, in fact. The power of todays media certainly exceeds that of the 1950s, when the Washington columnist Steward Alsop sneered that the press had the social standing of a dentist. To be sure, television anchors, star correspondents, and front-page reporters for prestigious newspapers can raise almost anyone on the phone and be seated next to the Secretary of States partner at dinner. In truth, my wife and I had better seats at sparkling Washington dinner parties when I was a correspondent or columnist for The New York Times than when I was an Assistant Secretary of State. But if telephone access and socialising are telltale signs of power, theyre not real power. For the most part, the media can and do make life more difficult for most Presidents, but the impact of the media on policy the real test of power is usually marginal....

The fact is that for all the medias control of the communications process among government players and between them and the public, officials do a better job of using journalists for their purposes than vice versa. In the overwhelming number of cases, the administration decides to put out a story and does so with its own spin. The media add to this overall government advantage by building their daily coverage around daily executive branch briefings. In fact, they send their senior reporters to these set-piece events in the White House and the departments of State and Defence. I know because I sat at both ends of these briefings. And these meaningless bits of trivia, derived from this daily game, often lead the news.

Many journalists suffer from a further disadvantage in covering the range of foreign, security, and international economic issues. They are not, as a group, overburdened with background and knowledge in these subjects. Everyones a political expert and about on an equal footing. Politics is mainly opinion, the sources and the reporters, and such is the state of the art in the twenty-first century....

A lack of substantive backgrounds leads to another journalistic problem; inattention to establishing the facts today, many stories are reduced to he said-she said, and people are given little factual basis for judging policy arguments....

As for television news, it does headlines, and the cable news shows have reduced the presentation of news to shouting contests, to opposing voices insisting on their own viewpoints and ignoring the facts. Cable news makes little effort to perform the basic function of journalism to explain what we know and dont know about a situation. Cable news thus has reinforced an already hysterical partisanship in American politics (emphasis added). He might well have been writing of chat shows on Indian television.

The author does not dwell exclusively in the realm of generalisations, instructive as they are. He illustrates them by reference to specific situations and to the deterioration in the domestic scene where the middle ground slipped away and partisanship took over. His remarks on dilemmas that face the U.S. in its dealings with Pakistan are noteworthy as the Obama administration is conducting a policy review. No military force and no clever power package can provide the answers here; only policy can. The only way to fix a problem where we are damned if we do and damned if we dont is to escape the dilemma itself and get out of the situation. To me, the choice comes down to this: Either go full-bore in Afghanistan and press Pakistan for essential help against the Taliban, or deter the Taliban in Afghanistan and focus on helping Pakistan move toward more political and economic stability. To me, the former is a high risk with a low prospect of success, and the latter is much less risky with a decent prospect of success. One point is certain to me; we cannot let the stay-the-course crowd make the United States stay every one of the present courses plus Iran plus pushing back on Russia. All that is way beyond Americas military might and military power and its vital interests.

Gelb is right in criticising the snub to Iran in 2005 when it offered a Grand Bargain of the kind which the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), M. ElBaradei, said Iran always sought from the U.S., namely a political deal. Almost unnoticed, Iranian leaders began helping the United States at the outset of the Afghan War with border control and other matters. Iranian sources offered Washington what looked on the surface to be an incredibly far-reaching grand bargain much like Qaddafis opening gambit. In its offer, transmitted through and perhaps modified by a Swiss diplomat, Iran undertook to tackle all major American concerns, including full transparency for security that there are no Iranian endeavours to develop or possess WMDs [weapons of mass destruction], decisive action against terrorists, coordination of efforts in Iraq, ending material support for Palestinian militias, and buying into the Saudi proposal for a two-state peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In return, the Iranian document called upon the United States to recognise Irans legitimate security interests, end economic sanctions, and provide access to peaceful nuclear technology. Bush could have probed the Iranian memo without removing his military options. The time was ripe then and is even riper now to wheel in diplomacy.

Obama has yet to seize the opportunity. To end on an aphorism that is of striking relevance to us, locked as we are in a Cold War on our borders: Look at the history of the Cold War to see just how much damage the demons have caused.

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