Posted: July 29, 2004
ne of these days, John Kerry may figure out whether he is modeling his foreign policy on Hubert Humphrey or George McGovern. In the meantime, he is torn, and he is not alone. The American Left has never spoken with a united voice on matters of foreign policy. Indeed, the divisions have often been stark, even bitter. With the election approaching, the Democrats will try to pull together in opposition to President Bush, but beneath the façade of unity their divisions over foreign policy will endure.
The hawk Left supports an aggressive counter-terrorist approach, a strong national defense, and a muscular foreign policy. It draws historical inspiration from the example of presidents such as Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy—liberals who were unafraid to exercise military power, if necessary, on behalf of American interests and ideals overseas. The experience of Vietnam nearly destroyed this faction as a major force in American political life. Most of its members either rejected hawkish assumptions—or became Republicans. Today, it is a beleaguered minority within the Democratic Party, represented by a few lonely figures such as Senator Joseph Lieberman.
The liberal Left supports American engagement overseas, but is generally skeptical of the use of force, and drawn to the promise of international institutions. Its first and greatest spokesman was Woodrow Wilson. One of the classic characteristics of this school of thought—as illustrated by Wilson himself—is an ultimate readiness to employ force overseas, so long as it is not justified as being in the national interest. For the liberal Left, force is only justified if it serves broad humanitarian objectives. Liberals also typically hold great hope that multilateral institutions will usher in a new era, one in which military power is increasingly irrelevant. The usual foreign policy stance of the liberal Left is idealistic, voluble, hand-wringing, and for all practical purposes ineffectual. At heart, both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were in this tradition, which forms the center of gravity within the Democratic Party today.
The far Left preoccupies itself with sweeping, damning criticisms of American foreign policy. For this group, the United States is notable mainly as an international prop for heartless multinational corporations, human rights abuses, and right-wing dictatorships. Thankfully, the far Left is rarely in a position to actually direct American diplomacy; its numbers are very small within the country as a whole, and the Democratic foreign policy establishment tries to keep the wing-nuts at arm's length. But the Left has frequently had a significant and insidious impact on the thinking of more moderate liberals—for example, by demoralizing them and giving them a guilty conscience—and it supplies many of the ideas and much of the emotion within the Democrats' activist base.
The appearance of several new books on U.S. foreign policy illustrates the continuing divisions on the Left. These books give a good indication of the kinds of attacks that Bush is likely to face this year. But they also reveal the persistent problems that the Left will face in formulating an intellectually and politically coherent alternative to Bush's foreign policy.
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Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security advisor to Jimmy Carter, and a strong advocate of anti-Communist containment within an administration not otherwise known for great competence in foreign affairs. It is unsurprising, then, that one of the more impressive foreign policy books from a Democrat is by Brzezinski. In The Choice: Domination or Leadership, he lays out his vision of America's role in the world. At the heart of the book is a bracing geopolitical analysis of contemporary world politics.
Brzezinski takes it for granted that the United States is the ultimate guarantor of political and economic stability in the world today. In his view, the primary task of American foreign policy officials over the medium term is to stabilize and pacify the broad region that he calls the "Global Balkans"—a swath of resource-rich yet politically unstable territories extending from the Middle East to Central Asia. Brzezinski does not believe that the United States can stabilize this region by itself. Therefore, for practical reasons, he looks for allies. Russia, Turkey, and India are all dismissed as not quite up to the task. Only the European Union is viewed as having the necessary capabilities. Therefore, he calls for a joint Euro-American concert of power, which would exercise a stabilizing influence over the Middle East as well as Central Asia.
Although some of Brzezinski's recommendations will be controversial (e.g., that the United States must pursue détente with Iran), they are informed by a sensibility which places considerable short-term emphasis on a clear analysis of global geopolitics. Where The Choice is less satisfying is in regard to the political implications of certain long-term global trends. Brzezinski takes quite seriously various liberal complaints regarding the evils of globalization, the erosion of state sovereignty, the "root causes" of terrorism, and the dangers of unilateralism. These assumptions lead him to advocate a long-term strategy by which the U.S. should devolve power toward a "global community of shared interests." What exactly this means is anybody's guess—the concept is never really clarified or spelled out in detail. More disturbing is the ease with which this otherwise realistic foreign policy analyst slips into vague and sometimes misleading generalizations. One might think, for example, from reading The Choice, that terrorism is largely a byproduct of globalization. Little emphasis is placed on the moral and political choices by which some discontented groups decide to terrorize innocent civilians, while others do not. Still, overall, Brzezinksi is a tough-minded and sophisticated voice on behalf of a pragmatic, hawkish liberal internationalism. If this was in fact the foreign policy of the Democratic Party today, Bush might have more to worry about. But it is not.
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For the conventional wisdom among the liberal Left, consult Joseph Nye's Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics. According to Nye, the Bush Administration has underestimated the importance of "soft power," which lies in the attractiveness of a nation's culture, ideals, and policies. Soft power is the means by which nations seduce and co-opt rather than coerce others. It is exercised through cultural exchanges, public diplomacy, foreign policy "style," and multilateral institutions. It is the very opposite of armed force. And in today's interdependent world, Nye argues, soft power is becoming increasingly important, even as military power becomes less so.
Nye's book offers a representative sampling of what seems to have become the central charge against Bush's foreign policy, that it is excessively "unilateralist." The charge is an interesting one, because it reflects what might be described as liberal theology in foreign affairs. Liberals have a deep and abiding faith in "multilateralism." Now, if multilateralism meant simply "building and nurturing alliances," then Otto von Bismarck would have to be considered a great multilateralist. But of course that is not what liberals mean by the term. Liberals believe that strong international institutions create patterns of peaceful cooperation. For this reason, they view the authority of supranational institutions such as the United Nations as an end in itself.
This inherent preference for multilateral institutions is hardly a new development. During the 1930s, for example, liberals within Britain insisted that the western democracies combat fascism by working through the League of Nations. This stance only encouraged the illusion that the League existed as some sort of independent force, apart from the military power of its constituent members. If Hitler was to be stopped, in practical terms, it could only be through the rearmament and alliance of threatened nations. In this sense, the liberal insistence on "multilateralism" actually worked against a clear-sighted response to Nazi aggression.
Today's liberals prefer that U.S. military action be routed through the United Nations. But the problem with such an approach is exactly what it was in the 1930s: it encourages the illusion that the U.N. actually exists as a consequential force in world politics, apart from the self-interested preferences of its various member states. Certainly, the Bush Administration would have preferred U.N. approval before invading Iraq. But the fact is that several leading members of the U.N. Security Council—each for its own reasons—opposed an American invasion, and were never about to give their approval. Under such circumstances, insisting on U.N. sanction for the use of force was tantamount to saying that the President of the United States is not permitted to judge or act upon what he believes to be the vital national security interests of the American people.
Nye argues that the U.S. must pay attention to soft power as well as hard power; to diplomacy, as well as force. But who in the Bush Administration would disagree? The problem begins, as it inevitably must, when difficult choices have to be made. In the real world, a U.N.-approved invasion of Iraq was not a live option; the choice was either a U.S.-led invasion, or none at all. One can certainly argue for "none at all"; but for liberals to say that Bush should have invaded only with U.N. approval is simply intellectually dishonest.
The whole concept of "soft power" has, not surprisingly, a rather mushy feel to it. No doubt, all other things being equal, it is better to be liked than disliked. But it is not always clear that the spread of American culture, or deference toward international institutions, makes the United States better liked—much less that it serves immediate U.S. security needs. In combating terrorism, for example, it is naïve to think that a new set of cultural exchanges, or a new effort at "multilateralism," will undermine the Islamist hatred of America. The more pressing need is to root out and destroy the terrorist cells, using unfashionable "hard power," as well as soft.
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For several decades, Noam Chomsky has been the leading voice of the far Left on foreign policy issues. His latest book, Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance, will no doubt function, in combination with Chomsky's previous works, as a kind of left-wing "idiot's guide" to American foreign policy. According to Chomsky, the United States is in fact the world's leading terrorist state—a militaristic and aggressive empire that acts on behalf of corporate interests and against peace and human rights worldwide. The only conceivable check on this terrifying leviathan is what Chomsky calls the "second superpower"—world public opinion, as best embodied in non-government organizations and institutions such as the World Social Forum (I hadn't heard of it, either). With luck, these plucky social activists may yet defeat and overcome the evil empire of global corporate dominance. But the stakes are high—indeed, they involve the very survival of the species.
Because this book is so fundamentally wrong-headed, so unintentionally hilarious, it is tempting to treat Chomsky as a kind of court jester in American intellectual life, and leave it at that. (See for example the book's index, which includes wonderful headings such as: "Bush, George W., contempt of, for democracy.") But unfortunately, according to the book's dust jacket, the New York Times describes Chomsky as "arguably the most important intellectual alive." So apparently we must either write off all living intellectuals, or treat him as Important.
Chomsky's modus operandi is to list a series of disconnected facts and opinions, and then leap to some unsubstantiated conclusion regarding broad patterns of cause and effect. The conclusion is always the same: the United States has done things abroad that are very bad. For example, Chomsky likes to point out that the U.S. gave Saddam's Iraq a certain degree of support during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. He never mentions that this policy might have made perfectly good sense at the time, since Iran was the greater threat. Instead, he concludes that America was not only guilty of complicity in Saddam's dictatorship, but was actually responsible for all of Saddam's subsequent crimes and aggressions. This is what one author has called the theory of "immaculate foreign policy," according to which U.S. officials are supposed to be able to foresee and prevent every conceivable negative consequence of their actions, however remote. Like most such concepts on the far Left, the theory presumes American omnipotence, thereby robbing other nations of any practical autonomy. But the theory is satisfying to many because it leaves the United States responsible for virtually every wrong, every mistake, every injustice on the planet.
Chomsky claims to want to apply a single standard of morality to world politics. But in fact what he does is wield a vicious double standard against the United States. Whenever the U.S. intervenes abroad, it is out of the worst possible motives. If the U.S. acts out of a stated interest in promoting democracy, it is upbraided for being arrogant, dishonest, and imperialistic. If it fails to promote democracy, it is attacked as cynical and hypocritical. America's adversaries, on the other hand—particularly totalitarian states like North Korea—are presumed to act on the basis of reasonable, defensive security concerns. In Chomskyland, it is always the United States that is the aggressor, acting on behalf of a tiny elite of economic interests.
The fact is that American economic, political, and military power undergirds whatever passes for "world order" today. The international system is far more democratic, peaceful, and prosperous now than it was in the early twentieth century, and this is due mainly to what Chomsky calls American "hegemony." It is a world in which Chomsky and his acolytes are free to rant, and to live in unprecedented safety, luxury, and freedom, precisely because of the protective shield of American power.
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Where does John Kerry fit into all this? It's hard to tell. When Kerry speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations, he sounds like a relatively responsible internationalist. When he speaks to strictly Democratic audiences, he sounds more like an angry anti-war activist. And his contortions over the war in Iraq leave him with the least coherent stand imaginable: in favor of the use of force initially, but against the $87 billion for postwar reconstruction.
Kerry's campaign clearly hopes that his service in Vietnam will insulate him from criticism on issues of defense and foreign affairs. But constant invocation of his military service and shouting "bring it on" are not the same thing as having a national security policy. What does John Kerry actually believe? Is he a John F. Kennedy or a Jimmy Carter?
At heart, Kerry's foreign policy instincts seem to have been powerfully shaped by his experiences in Vietnam. Kerry drew the lesson from that conflict—common among liberal Democrats—that the whole direction of American Cold War strategy was fundamentally mistaken. This was the wrong lesson to draw from Vietnam, and it was one that a majority of Americans never drew. Most Americans continued to support a strong national defense, to despise Communism, and to believe that American power could do considerable good in the world.
The dilemma for the Democrats, ever since, has been to convince the American public that they are safe stewards of the nation's security, that they can be trusted to manage America's defenses, when many Democrats are obviously squeamish about the very idea of military power. There is no easy escape from this dilemma, especially when dangers to the U.S. loom large and voters look for strength on matters of national security. Nominating a veteran for president is fine; but as the Democrats should have learned by now, a liberal with a veteran's credentials is still a liberal, and a dove is still a dove.
The Democratic Party therefore has a foreign policy problem this election year. The problem may be stated as follows: A transnational network of murderous Islamofascists seeks to kill innocent men, women, and children, and to terrorize and humiliate the United States and its allies. Do the Democrats grasp the seriousness of this threat? The impression they give is that they would rather talk about anything else. By contrast, the current president, whatever his flaws, communicates a visceral readiness to hunt down the terrorists, and to do whatever it takes to keep Americans safe. Are we supposed to believe that those whose hearts are not in this fight will do any better?