President George W. Bush enters office with the United States enjoying a period of great international peace and prosperity. There are no global military threats like those once posed by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. The American alliance system has survived the end of the Cold War, despite predictions that it would collapse without an enemy to unify it. The U.S. economy—once written off as hopelessly in decline—has astonished the world with a combination of high growth and low inflation. American culture permeates Old World cities and Third World villages. The number of peoples living under democratic governments of one sort or another has never been higher.
To be sure, there are clouds on the horizon with which the new administration must deal. Russia is tempted to overcome its current domestic weakness through a nationalistic and imperialistic foreign policy. The Chinese government seeks to redress real and perceived historical grievances by reclaiming its status as the Middle Kingdom. There are hostile regional powers like Iraq, North Korea, and Iran, which possess long-range ballistic missiles and/or weapons of mass destruction. The American military faces a potential financial “train wreck” brought about by the demands of active overseas operations, deferred weapons modernization, and budget shortfalls. The U.S. economy is apparently slowing down, if not going into recession, which increases the risk of renewed global financial crises and protectionist measures. The outgoing Clinton administration has called attention to a variety of “new security threats,” such as climate change, AIDS, and global crime and narcotics conspiracies.
President Bush and his national security team will be kept busy dealing with this agenda, and with the "unknown unknowns" that will surprise us over the coming decade. But the administration’s success will be ultimately determined by its ability to deal with these discrete challenges in the context of a larger strategic and political perspective. There are two related aspects. The first is the preservation and promotion of America’s geostrategic position in the world. The second is the preservation and promotion of America’s principles and moral leadership.
The potential political and military challenges to America’s position in the world are understandable and predictable. Our position is often compared with that of the Roman and British Empires in their heydays—dominant not just in military terms, but in political, economic, cultural, and technological facets. Such dominance naturally generates opposition, a tendency to balance and weaken the greatest nation or empire, even by those whose own security is dependent upon the international order being maintained by that regime. Lord Acton’s famous dictum that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, causes other nations—not unreasonably—to question the purity of American motives and actions. Many critics are also allies, who dislike and envy the strength and freedom of action of their patron. France comes immediately to mind here.
Another class of states, and actors, wish to do more than weaken the United States. They believe that they (or their ideas) are entitled, for reasons of power and tradition, to dominate their own region, or the world itself. They believe that the United States—and the international order which Washington supports—is not just arrogant, but fundamentally unjust. Justice, they say, will come only when the United States is effectively removed from the scene, something that requires constant, active and often violent opposition. The leaders of Iraq and North Korea, among others, hold this view.
Our critics and allies are a manageable problem for President Bush, with careful diplomacy and good will. They need us and they know it. They will continue to respect us and follow our lead if we know where we are going—if we are clear about our particular goals and interests, and if we can deliver on our promises, especially our security guarantees. At the same time, we know that we would be poorer, economically and politically, absent these international connections and friendships. The Bush administration should reflect on allied criticism and take it in the proper spirit, because the United States does not always act wisely, and because some of the culture we export is indeed indefensible. President Bush should give our allies their due. We continue to owe a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.
Our enemies are another matter. They cannot be appeased. The Bush administration must see that they are confronted politically, deterred by overwhelming military power, and if necessary defeated if they cannot reconcile themselves to the liberal world order. We should remain open to accommodation on good terms, of course, just as we did with the Soviet Union.
Fortunately, our avowed enemies are now not sufficiently numerous or powerful as to represent anything like the old Soviet threat. But things can change, without constant attention. In particular, two great nations—Russia and China—are somewhere on the boundary between criticism and enmity. China especially is problematic in this regard. A very good case can be made that the current regime in China does view the United States as a permanent enemy, that conflict between the two is highly likely if not absolutely certain, and that we should operate diplomatically and militarily with that assumption in mind. But even so, the Bush administration would be ill-advised at present to treat China (or Russia) first and foremost as an enemy. That fact should be made clear as a result of aggressive and unsupportable actions which clearly leave us with no choice but to resist, just as Soviet behavior in the late 1940s presented a clear and present danger.
To do this, President Bush should be clear as to what our vital interests are, and just as importantly, emphasize strong support to our allies if and when they are threatened. At the same time, he should leave the door open to better relations with those who are not our avowed enemies. And he should keep our powder dry for the time when this proves demonstrably impossible.
Moving carefully on the geopolitical front is necessary for another reason. The great baseball manager, Billy Martin, once said that the secret to his success was to being able to keep the players who hated him away from those who were undecided. The greatest danger to America’s strategic position in the world—and to the peace and prosperity that are protected by our international leadership—would be cooperation between our critics (friendly or otherwise) and our enemies.
At first glance, such cooperation seems absurd and alarmist. But China and Russia—who are expected to sign a treaty of friendship later this year—are actively promoting "multipolarity" and "anti-hegemonism." These are code-words for opposition to American-led world order. Unfortunately, they find resonance in places like India, the Arab world, and even among those who look to the European Union (and its new military force) as a counter-weight to the United States.
The members of the incoming Bush administration national security team seem well aware of the risk that such rhetorical and indirect opposition to the United States might become open and tangible. Mr. Bush has often spoken of the need to couple strength with humility, to recognize and defuse the sort of resentment against the United States that naturally exists because of its great power. Many of his advisers were involved in assembling the coalition that defeated Iraq in 1990-1991. Most of them have considerable experience with the NATO allies. They understand that the proper focus of the administration should be on strengthening and expanding the great democratic alliance that is at the heart of the American-led international system. For instance, China should never be visited by an American president without stops in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia. Indeed, those nations should be visited first, and they should be treated as an integral part of American policy
toward China, and the entire region.
The democratic alliance system rests to a first order on military power, principally that of the United States. The Bush administration must improve the moral and material strength of the American armed forces, and support the balanced modernization of those forces through the introduction of advanced technologies. This will require more than additional money—it will take strong leadership within the Department of Defense—but it cannot be done without money. This signals
that the new administration is serious.
The Bush administration must address the full range of issues in its approach toward ballistic missile defense. Here is an area in which many of our friends, and all of our critics and enemies, seem to agree: American missile defenses are a bad idea. The easy path would thus be to defer deployment, momentarily relieving our allies and appeasing our adversaries. But this would leave us vulnerable to our enemies and would persuade our critics that they have a veto on our actions and the definition of our vital interests. In fact, much of the opposition abroad to missile defense stems from the belief that the United States is not really serious about the issue; that we want to be talked out of it. A sustained American conviction to deploy missile defenses, coupled with serious consultation by the Bush administration with other interested parties, especially Russia, is needed to overcome resistance.
This will not be easy, but it is achievable if coupled with creative diplomacy and a re-examination of the overall national military posture. During the campaign, Bush pointed to the need to revamp the entire Cold War arms control regime in such a way as to alleviate fears over the purpose of American military power, while strengthening strategic stability in the new international environment. Missile defenses could be coupled with other measures, unilateral and negotiated, such as the further reduction of offensive weapons and prudent changes in military deployments, such as alert levels.
The defense of American principles is the second broad foreign policy task confronting the Bush administration. The American regime is based on the theory of individual rights and self-government set out in the Declaration of Independence. All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Governments are created by the consent of the governed in order to secure these rights. From these self-evident truths come the legacy of the American regime: limited, constitutional government that is of, by, and for the people.
Americans have always seen this as a great and noble experiment, one not limited to this nation, but designed ultimately to improve the lot of humankind. Americans have often disagreed how best to promote democratic and constitutional government and individual rights in our relations with other peoples. Some have favored the force of example, others more direct action. But in either case, the Declaration has provided a moral compass for our relations with the rest of the world. Our resistance to the European despotisms of the 18th and 19th centuries, or to the tyrannies of the 20th century, was not only a matter of self-preservation and self-interest (although it was that) but one of advancing the cause of human freedom. This conferred dignity and honor to us, and moral authority to our actions.
A proper moral orientation toward the world also made us better at home, by forcing us to confront those aspects of our own polity (such as slavery and racial discrimination) that we could not defend to a candid world in light of our self-proclaimed principles. It brought us allies and supporters, even if they may have disagreed with certain aspects of our theory and practice. This moral capital, as much or more as our material strength, is at the heart of the American-led democratic alliance.
The Bush administration will find this view of politics, and the need for a moral compass provided by our own principles, under constant challenge, and not just by our avowed enemies. There are those who believe that the forces of globalization require a new view of politics and morality to deal with the transnational problems of climate change, international terrorism, humanitarian disasters, labor abuse, AIDS, and unregulated international financial transactions. Limited, constitutional government, they say, will not do the job. Democracy and individual rights must be sacrificed, truncated, or redefined. Nongovernmental organizations should replace nation-states as the agency of domestic as well as global action. International norms—devised by independent experts or advocacy groups or national leaders with the loudest voice—must substitute for the “law of nature and nations” that underpins the Declaration of Independence.
Of course, the transnational problems listed above are serious and require appropriate action. America cannot and should not go it alone. But the appropriate mechanisms for international cooperation—above all, the American-led alliance of the democracies—already exist, or can be developed within that framework. Those critics who advocate abandoning our democratic and constitutional way of life, in surrender to the supposedly inexorable forces of globalization, tacitly support those who seek to undermine America’s moral leadership through more traditional means.
It was in this area—the defense and celebration of American moral leadership—that the first Bush administration proved sadly lacking, despite its generally effective performance in managing the end of the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall fell, President George Bush said nothing. He feared, not unreasonably, that a public celebration of this event might lead to violence and encourage hard-liners in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to hold on to power. This caution, with its overriding emphasis on political stability, dominated the policy and rhetoric of George W. Bush’s father.
But the great spokesmen for democracy—such Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Churchill, Kennedy, and Reagan—would have found a way to say the right thing, even as they sought to work with those being defeated. We the people, all peoples, American, German, Russian, won the Cold War. A better world lies ahead, following the line set out originally by the American Revolution. But we never heard this message, which would have given meaning to the strain and cost and death occasioned by the need to resist Soviet communism. The Clinton administration, with its focus on international social work, did not help in this matter. We have been adrift much of the past decade as a result, despite the strength of our strategic position in the world.
Let us hope that George W. Bush and his administration can find this voice and re-articulate our moral compass, as they strive to reinvigorate America’s alliances, defend our interests, and prevent the combination of those who do not wish us well. He may wish to amend his policy prescription accordingly: strength with magnanimity.
Patrick J. Garrity is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.