Foreign policy dilemmas

Print edition : July 16, 2004

America Unbound : The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy by Ivo H. Daadler and James M. Lindsay; Brookings Institution, 2003.

Soft Power: The Means to success in World Politics by Joseph S. Nye Jr; Public Affairs, 2004.

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of American Empire by Niall Ferguson; Allen Lane (Penguin Group), 2004.

Allies at War: America, Europe and the Crisis in Iraq by Philip H. Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro; Brookings Institution, 2004.

DESPITE all his public bravado and bluster, President George W. Bush must be an extremely worried man. Recent events in Iraq have not exactly gone in his favour, and the dip in his popular ratings casts serious doubts over whether he will return to the White House next spring. The last straw could be the 9/11 Commission's unequivocal finding that whatever evidence had been let in did not suggest an Iraq-Al Qaeda nexus prior to the 2001 catastrophe. This should give enough grist to the mill of Bush detractors - not inconsiderable in number - who have been ceaselessly assailing him for a myopic foreign policy that had alienated the U.S. from almost the rest of the world. The U.S. foreign policy, resting on shifting stands, is therefore under clinical scrutiny everywhere, not merely in West Asia where Bush has shown himself extremely vulnerable, for launching a highly questionable war.

Four well-researched books on the subject reviewed here clarify many issues. What is most apparent from them is that the focus of debate in the November presidential poll could almost wholly be Iraq and the substance of the actual foreign policy perceptions that drove the misadventure.

In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs (May-June 2004), Samuel Berger, former National Security Adviser, branded the current U.S. policy as "gratuitous unilateralism", an expression that should find resonance universally. He marvels at the enormous power that the country currently wields - the power of a dimension that it had never enjoyed before in its more than 200 years of existence. He is at the same time struck by the revelation that power and influence did not go hand-in-hand in international affairs, a fact exemplified by America's inability to convert other nations to its philosophy that rogue nations could be disciplined outside the ambit of the United Nations, whenever the occasion demanded it.

Candidate Bush won many hearts during Campaign 2000 when he said that the U.S. could win allies only through humility that was distinctly free from arrogance. Those who survey the scene now are exasperated that Bush is anything but humble, particularly when he waxes eloquent over Iraq and also when he hints that the other two members of the "Axis of Evil", namely, Iran and North Korea, could also shortly receive his attention.

Bush's tough talking takes our minds back to Senator McCarthy and John Foster Dulles in the 1950s, for whom the world was just white and black. It must, however, be remembered that these two strong personalities were influenced by the Cold War, a prominent academic and political obsession of those days. We have come far way from it ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. We are now in a unipolar world where the U.S. strides the global scene like a colossus that few can challenge militarily.

Nye and others reviewed here are distressed that notwithstanding this enviable position of authority, the U.S. President should opt for an acerbic rhetoric that eggs him on to engage continually one nation or the other. This was as if there was no other way to disseminate the country's conviction that it discountenanced any form of government that was not democratic.

WHAT should a country's foreign policy seek to achieve, especially when it advertises that it disdains hegemonistic aspirations and acts only out of altruism? In a layman's perception, such policy should first ensure that a country's own security is not imperilled on any account.

Secondly, it should give that country enough moral authority to influence the thinking of a vast majority of nations, irrespective of whether the latter are geopolitically important or not, so that they subscribe to the former's view of the world. If the U.S. believes that democracy is the best form of government, it should be able to win friends for such a political arrangement by convincing them of its benefits. You just cannot slam democracy down the throats of countries to whom it is a mere shibboleth alien to their culture. Nye and company seem to suggest that this is precisely what the U.S. is trying to do in West Asia.

Joseph Nye Jr. was Assistant Secretary in the Clinton administration and is currently a widely respected Dean at Harvard's JFK School of Government. Of all those reviewed in this column, he stands out for his conceptual view of where the U.S. stands and where it should. `Soft power' is the term that he coined several years ago, and he brings this back to present times to great effect. Such power is synonymous with a country's ability to attract and win friends in the global community, and persuade them to join camp in collectively wrestling with the problems of international relations. Its chief strengths are logic and an appeal to the better senses of a country and its rulers. It stands in sharp contrast to `hard power' that rests on force and the efficacy of the bullet. It seeks to intimidate in wresting conformity from another nation, a tactic that is resented in our times and often transforms mere adversaries into sworn enemies.

Nye recalls what Machiavelli once told the Italian princes: "It is more important to be feared than loved." In the present day world of extreme sensitivities and jealously guarded sovereignty, Nye feels it is better to be both feared and loved. What he possibly means is that the U.S. should be content with an opponent understanding its might, rather than actually using force to subjugate another country that does not fall in line. He rightly draws attention to the fact, that with all its might and a track record of victories in the Gulf war of 1991 and subsequent triumphs in Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan, the U.S. did not escape from the savage Al Qaeda attack of 2001. He is disappointed that, unlike his illustrious predecessors Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt (and possibly, to an extent, Kennedy), Bush has not understood the gains of a persuasive foreign policy that flows from an appreciation of the nuances of soft power. He cites Norway as an example of a small country that does not have the might of a massive army but has capitalised on soft power. Its stature as one that can mediate international disputes, as in Sri Lanka, has won for it enormous goodwill, enhancing thereby the incentive for employing soft power in many areas of the world.

It is an entirely different question whether such a strategy can actually solve conflicts. Undoubtedly, it can at least defuse tensions. What more does a foreign policy need to do to earn worldwide respect and acceptance for a country that may or may not be mighty in economic and military terms?

The focus of well-known Brookings Institution scholars Philip Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro in their incisive Allies at War is on the U.S.' relations with Europe, and how, since 9/11, these have deteriorated after initial sympathy and resolve of a united fight against terrorism. Here again, the end of the Cold War had made all the difference. The common threat of a Soviet might, especially in Europe, had provided the glue that bound the countries on two sides of the Atlantic. After assigning a protectionist role to the U.S., the European nations seemed to believe that they would rather concentrate on building a zone of prosperity for themselves. The continued indifference of most of Europe, possibly with the exception of the United Kingdom, to building on military strength has annoyed the U.S. because of its own assessment that perpetuating the status quo was not desirable or acceptable to it because of the arrival of some rogue nations that unabashedly use religion to whip up passions against the West.

Gordon and Shapiro do not fault the U.S. for whatever it has done to retaliate the mindlessness of Al Qaeda. What they are concerned about is the U.S.' complacence that it does not have to carry the rest of the world with it in fighting Osama bin Laden and his sympathisers.

Ivo H. Daadler, a Brookings researcher and James Lindsay, Vice-President, Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. take note of a new `revolution' in foreign policy launched by President Bush. They would have been happy if this was a revolution of objectives. Sadly, this was, one of how to achieve the goals already set by the U.S. for itself. The policy "revolution" has turned out to be an acceleration and intensification of the by now familiar U.S. pressure tactics to ensure conformity.

Daadler and Lindsay are critical of several tendencies displayed by the Bush team. These are the unilateral and arbitrary exercise of power outside the ambit of international institutions, the advocacy of a proactive doctrine of preemption after deemphasising the value of a reactive strategy of deterrence and containment, the promotion of forceful interdiction and the preference for a regime change to a dialogue with a country that it considers to be recalcitrant. What is most relevant at this stage of evolution of the European Union into a strong, unified entity is the U.S.' apparent unhappiness over the emergence of a formidable bloc.

The two writers go to the extent of charging the Bush administration with exploiting the dissensions within Europe, a complete turnaround from the days of the founding fathers who believed that U.S. should maintain absolute neutrality between a feuding England and France. The now widely differing perceptions of the two with regard to Iraq speak for themselves.

THE approach of Professor Niall Ferguson, who teaches Modern European History at Jesus College, Oxford, is more positive than that of the others reviewed. He would demand a proactive role for the U.S. in creating conditions conducive to the free exchange of capital and labour, an interaction in which it is already engaged. If its objective is to build not just an `empire' but a `liberal empire' based on values, the U.S. should work towards peace and order, the rule of law and the setting up of non-corrupt administrations. As opposed to this requirement, the U.S. is now generally seen to `consume' rather than `conquer' whenever it transgresses the sovereignty of another nation.

This is in sharp contrast with the attitudes of many other nations, especially England when that country colonised in so many parts of the world. For instance, highly educated Englishmen with Oxbridge backgrounds and coming from aristocratic families, were willing to join the Indian Civil Service in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and sweat it out in the dusty district towns of India which could hardly boast of any facilities that these men were used to at home. This was mainly because they were actuated by a nationalist sentiment that was proud of whatever their country stood for. (Ferguson recalls what Arnold Toynbee told his Oxford tutorial pupils embarking on a career in the Indian Civil Service: "If they went to India, they were to go there for the good of her people on one of the noblest missions on which an Englishman could be engaged.")

Very few Americans - except possibly with the exception of a handful of Christian missionaries - would however like to rough it out in remote corners of the world and attempt to bring in new methods of work and expose the locals to facets of U.S. culture. This is a major regret of Ferguson who is appalled that the average American is so insular despite his country's huge capital indebtedness to nations across the globe. Ferguson identifies three deficits - economic, labour and attention - as characteristic of the present-day U.S. While the first two can be taken care of respectively through external borrowing and import of manpower (both military and non-military), the third, that is, attention-deficit has to do a lot with systemic problems of the U.S. polity.

American foreign policy has the supreme advantage of being critiqued by scholars belonging to a wide spectrum of beliefs and political philosophies placed in different parts of the world. It has the added benefit of reputed think tanks within the U.S. itself. All inputs from this immense variety of sources can have an impact only if policy architects are open to learning and are conscious of their own limitations.

It is highly doubtful, whether in an election year, a disturbingly overconfident Bush administration would be receptive and do a major course correction. It will be a tragedy, however, if they remain unaffected by the wisdom of the pen wielded by Nye and company.

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