How to Toughen Up Human-Rights Activists and Liberal Interventionists

Why "waffling" on foreign policy is okay


Foreign Affairs managing editor Jonathan Tepperman confesses in the New York Times on Friday that he finds that in the realm of international affairs he finds the arguments from both "human rights and democracy advocates" as well as "hard-boiled foreign policy realists" frustrating and difficult to sort through. He says that in both cases, "smart people with total conviction" are putting forward compelling arguments. In the end, he considers whether the problem is that the "positions appeal to different parts of the body, heart vs. head."

Let me get my own sentiments out of the way first. I like Jonathan Tepperman and feel that Foreign Affairs is lucky to have someone as editorially and intellectually creative as he is. That said (here comes the hard-boiled realism), he makes the mistake that many human rights-tilting foreign policy analysts today who have grown too distant from the Cold War make: he suggests realism is not about the heart as well as the head. 

The challenge, from my perspective, is how to smarten up human rights advocates and interventionists who tend not to think about the head but rather react rashly and impulsively without thinking through the costs and benefits. Ted Koppel gives this some historical flourish in his excellent Wall Street Journal piece this week, "America's Chronic Overreaction to Terrorism."

As I have written previously, the late Richard Holbrooke was a significant exception to the playbook-absent liberal interventionists who dominate that faction of the foreign policy establishment. Holbrooke thought in terms of costs and benefits and was willing to negotiate with some of the world's most abhorrent, immoral characters if it moved American interests forward and served to promote global justice.

Although my friends at the realist-home base, The Center for the National Interest (previously the Nixon Center), tend to cringe when I refer to Holbrooke as a successful Nixonian-like foreign policy progressive, the fact is that his example shows that he was one of the few human rights advocates on the scene who played to both head and heart. He was a realistic human rights advocate who ruthlessly focused on results and achieved them, and the world was better for it. 

Realists, in contrast, want to square away national interests first and foremost and make sure that America's stock of power is not eroded by crusades and endeavors that distract from core interests. That said, they believe America serves a great global good in shaping the international system in ways that serve both its own interests and those of its liberal, mostly (but not always) democratic allies -- and that when America has the stock of power on hand to do so, it can help mitigate great humanitarian crises around the world in a way that both serves others and keeps American power intact and growing.

Realists don't believe, however, that even a superpower (less super than decades ago) like the United States can easily influence the deep internal dynamics and behavior of other countries -- nor should the U.S. attempt to do so. They feel that this kind of intervention inside other nations can just as easily generate blowback, or a perception of either bullying or impotency about the U.S., for objectives that were never really in reach anyway or worth the gamble.

In other words, the starting error that many human rights and liberal interventionist analysts make is that their aspirations for foreign policy were never attainable, or to say it less charitably, not solvent.

For example, Tepperman opens his essay suggesting that Obama's foreign policy weakness is responsible for all sorts of "bads" in the domestic scenes of other countries. He writes:

In just the last few weeks, the Russian government has used a show trial to silence a prominent activist, Egypt's junta has massacred protesters, Turkey has cracked down on peaceful dissent, and the rulers of Cambodia and Zimbabwe have stolen elections -- again.

In each case, the Obama administration has done little more than mutter objections under its breath.

Bad stuff has been happening inside other countries for a very long time -- even when U.S. power was its zenith after World War II and during the toughest spots during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Elections were stolen then. Genocides happened. Tyrants manhandled their citizens. Show trials occurred not only in the USSR, but also in places like Cuba, Argentina, Chile, and more.

Tepperman is mistaken, I think, to suggest that any of these cases reflects a weak foreign policy posture of the United States in general, and of the Obama administration during this period in time. 

Had he instead suggested that the inability of President Obama to get Germany's Angela Merkel to do what he wanted at the 2009 London G-20 Summit; or the difficulty the administration has in getting the U.S.-military dependent Japan to ratchet down its nationalistic, China-antagonizing rhetoric; or Obama's inability to get Israel's Netanyahu to stop building Middle-East-peace-wrecking settlements on Occupied Territories; or the president's inability to (as of yet) move or seduce Iran on to a normalization track that comes without nuclear weapons capacity; or that Saudi Arabia has shifted away from its general foreign affairs docility to more active engagement in the MENA region based on its calculation of U.S. weakness and strategic contraction; he would have been on target, as these are better measures of America's declining foreign policy effectiveness and strength.

Unfortunately, Tepperman sees American vacillation and lack of resolve as the reason for its ineffectiveness and perceived weakness -- even if he and I could agree on what measures reflect American power in the world.  

The realist answer to Tepperman's concern about declining U.S. power, and the right one in my view, is that America's national security decline is a function of (1) the mismanagement of its foreign policy resources and equities in the past -- i.e., too many "wars of choice" and the ascension of global policy crusades untethered by realistic cost and benefit calculations, (2) the relative rise in both economic and military power of other global stakeholders (America is still great and greater than the rest but not GREAT like in days of old), and (3) an absence of coherent strategy -- that could include waffling, duplicity, pugnaciousness, and earnest involvement in wrestling through foreign policy challenges. 

Tepperman suggests that articulating a clear strategy for the world and sticking to it would be better, but my sense is that America's stock of power had been badly depleted during the Bush/Cheney years and that Obama is working hard to increase that stock of power. That takes time -- and it means that waffling on some things, while moving on others, is the smarter play.

Tepperman's essay is wonderful as a teaching tool and offers opportunity for a serious debate about what drives successful or failed foreign policy outcomes. He references democracy strategists like Stanford's Larry Diamond who suggests a roster of economic and diplomatic sticks that the U.S. could use to influence the behavior of some small countries. But the bigger question that the cases mentioned raises is whether or not America's limited amount of diplomatic, military, and economic capital should be spent on compelling change in these small countries -- or whether that power should be directed at more serious challenges, like Iran for instance.

Tepperman also mentions Burma as a successful case in which diplomacy, seasoned with improved diplomatic and trade ties with the United States, moved the country's generals toward democratic liberalization. What is not mentioned is that an increasingly, regionally pugnacious China compelled Burma's leadership to hedge its bets. Vietnam did the same. Once I asked Henry Kissinger about the process of normalizing with China, and he said that the commander of a large Russian tank division amassed on the Sino-Soviet border really deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for clarifying matters to China. Myanmar, Vietnam, and the ASEAN region as a whole have had their U.S.-tilting interests clarified by a juggernaut they reside next to and worry about.

When President George W. Bush came into office, his then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice initiated a set of teach-ins with prominent national security and foreign policy intellectuals. One of these was Robert Kaplan, then an acclaimed "realist" traveling correspondent for The Atlantic and now Chief Geopolitical Anaylst at Stratfor, who told Bush in a private meeting that he would have to talk a lot about democracy and posture in favor of the expansion of democratic ideals -- but in truth he would have to do deals with thugs. 

Kaplan was right. America has to waffle on occasion because deeply intervening somewhere involves risks and can recklessly spend down the stock of American power so that the U.S. is less able to fix problems in the world tomorrow than it was prepared to yesterday. 

The problem with the costly wars America recently pursued is that they were not designed first to ensure that U.S. power prevailed in the long run -- they were mostly emotional, knee-jerk reactions to events triggered either by 9/11 or by a faction of a policy establishment types trying to settle old grievances. For the record, I supported the assault on Afghanistan and the Taliban -- but I did not support the Iraq War, nor the doubling down in Afghanistan after Obama came to office. These wars, rationalized by many in humanitarian terms, telegraphed military fatigue and overextension to nations like Russia, China, Iran, and more. They generated abuses at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo that fed extremist terrorist recruitment in the region. U.S. military power was not leveraged in these missions; it was squandered and contained. 

One Chinese strategist once told me that China's grand strategy was trying to figure a way to keep America distracted by wars with small countries in the Middle East. While America was distracted, China had an easy time expanding its influence globally.

Humanitarian interventionism has its place -- but the deployment of U.S. forces should be infrequent. Overuse of the military has burst the bubble of America's superpower mystique, and mystique was always the secret sauce of America's global influence. There was a time when people around the world -- both in the developing and developed world -- perceived the U.S. to be without limit, without boundaries, always able to invent, or create, or compel change in the world like no other nation. In recent years, because of a self-created economic crisis, the collapse of its global moral prestige, and the sense of military overextension, America is perceived by the rest of the world as a limited, rather than a boundless, force in the world.

That is what well-meaning humanitarian and democracy advocates need to figure out. Their objectives are easier and more likely to be attained when America gets its stock of power restored. That means choices between challenges.That means delivering success on one or two major challenges and then translating that momentum into dealing with the next global conundrum. 

What Tepperman should really be calling for is not the abandonment of foreign policy waffling, or of duplicity in foreign affairs, where the U.S. says one thing and does another, but rather for a decided "strategy" as its North Star.

That North Star for me is increasing America's stock of power and capability so that it can shape the international system with other partners in beneficial ways well into the future -- including on great humanitarian goals. The head -- and then the heart. Power is a function of future expectations, just like the value of a business in the stock market, and America has to rewire itself so it convinces its citizens and others around the world that its power will be considerable and consequential in the future.