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Our task now is not so heroic as fighting a war, but it may be as important: to recognize our limitations, to reject the vanity of trying to remake the world in our image, and to restore the promise of our neglected society

by Ronald Steel

DURING the Cold War, foreign policy was the nation's highest priority. Almost any sacrifice could be, and often was, justified in its name. But today, with our old enemy tamed and communism repudiated, foreign policy often seems to have become nearly irrelevant. Almost any sacrifice in its name is viewed as an intolerable burden. When, as in Somalia and Haiti, American troops are put in harm's way--a normal occupational hazard for those who choose to enter the Armed Forces--the public demands their immediate withdrawal.

Asked its view on foreign commitments, the public prefers them to be minimal. An extensive survey conducted in 1993 showed overwhelming support for a domestic agenda in preference to an international one. In this poll the public rejected some of the reigning shibboleths of the foreign-policy establishment. It opposed promoting democracy abroad if that risked electing an unfriendly government, and promoting human rights abroad if that was likely to antagonize friendly nations with different traditions. Only one person in ten believed that the United States should be the single global leader, and only one in six favored self-determination for ethnic groups if that risked breaking up established states into warring regions.

Clearly there is a chasm between a foreign-policy establishment mesmerized by notions of American leadership and "global responsibilities" and an American public concerned by drug trafficking and addiction, jobs, illegal aliens, crime, health-care costs, and the environment. Not since the early days of the Cold War, when that establishment rallied the public to a policy of global activism under the banner of anti-communism, has there been such a gap between the perceptions of the foreign-policy elite and the realities of the world in which most Americans live.

This is a problem even on foreign economic issues. The average working American does not share the view of the elites, particularly economists, that global free trade and market efficiency should take precedence over unemployment and other presumably "parochial" local issues--or that it makes no difference if Japan and the European Union become richer and more powerful than the United States, so long as global trade increases. The angry debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement in the fall of 1993 went beyond partisan politics. It illustrated the conflict between those concerned with efficiency and global markets, and those worried about jobs in declining industries.

The domestic agenda is a pressing, and indeed a depressing, one. We suffer from some of the highest rates of illiteracy, malnutrition, infant mortality, violent crime, homelessness, imprisonment, and poverty in the industrialized world. Our country is hobbled by debt, weakened by fears for personal safety, suspicious of its leaders, and increasingly divided between the skilled and the unskilled, the jobholders and the unemployable.

Despite a growing economy, the median household income is less than it was twenty years ago. The gap between rich and poor grows steadily. According to a 1994 Census Bureau report, the share of the total national household income obtained by the population's lowest fifth has been dropping for years, and fell from 4.2 percent in 1968 to 3.6 percent in 1993. In the same period the share of the top fifth rose from 42.8 percent to 48.2 percent. Nearly 40 million Americans were without health insurance in 1993. More than 15 percent of the population fell below the poverty line--an annual income of $14,763 for a family of four.

By many measures of social well-being we fall inexorably behind our trading partners, just as each new generation of Americans trails its parents in income and opportunity. We put a higher proportion of our people in prison than does any other country except Russia. We murder one another at a rate that astounds the world. Whole sections of our great cities resemble parts of the Third World. As in Latin American countries, an affluent elite hides behind walls, alarm systems, and security guards. Outside these walls the growing ranks of the uneducated poor become more violent and more threatening.

We have created a class of people that has jobs but is nonetheless impoverished. We call these people the working poor. They are untrained in modern technologies, sometimes homeless, and everywhere ignored by the political system. Although we live in an ever more stratified social structure, we are loath to call it by its proper name. Indeed, it is considered unseemly, perhaps unpatriotic, to point out that a class society exists.

We hold our nation up as an example to the world, which in many ways it is. But virtually no country in Western Europe has a multigenerational underclass. None is plagued by the gun culture that has infected American cities and has now spread even to small towns. No other mass culture so extols violence. In no other Western nation is the civil society so much a hostage to unrestrained and seemingly unrestrainable violence. Indeed, violence may be the single greatest difference between American culture and European or Japanese culture, and the major reason that Europe and Japan no longer look to the United States as a model and a leader.

Our domestic troubles are not in a realm separate from our foreign policy. They are an integral part, even a product, of it. A nation that seeks not only to protect the world but also to inspire other countries with its values and achievements must be able to offer at least as much to its own people as to those it seeks to guard. Yet at home, even more than in our foreign policy, we have failed abjectly.

Although domestic policy and foreign policy were put into separate compartments during the Cold War, they are integrally related. The nation's economic health, social well- being, and political cohesion are also foreign-policy issues. The kind of division that has been made between the two realms is entirely artificial. A sick civil society is the mark of a weak nation. Gun control and public investment to train and educate the underclass and restore American cities to health may be the most important foreign-policy initiatives that the government can take.

A nation prey to drugs, guns, and violence, increasingly stratified by social class, torn by racial tension, and riven by insecurity, will be a weak player on the world stage. It may also be a threatened democracy--its people disillusioned with traditional political parties, vulnerable to the rantings of talk-show demagogues and politically motivated television evangelists, and sympathetic to vote-seeking messiahs inundating the airwaves with promises of deliverance from conventional politics. It is not easy to see what lessons in democracy the United States can offer the world when Americans themselves increasingly seem to believe that democracy is not working in this country.

For this reason a valid foreign policy must be geared to the needs of American society. It cannot indulge in flights of rhetoric, dedicating itself to the pursuit of vague objectives like "democracy" and "pluralism" in lands inhospitable to these values and posing no threat to the United States, without inviting the failure of our efforts and the alienation of a public asked to support such quixotic goals.

The unreality of current notions of the national interest was dramatized by the President's national-security adviser at the time of the American occupation of Haiti, last September. Enemies of the United States, he declared in a flurry of rhetoric, include "extreme nationalists and tribalists, terrorists, organized criminals, coup plotters, rogue states and all those who would return newly free societies to the intolerant ways of the past." After thus lining up the United States for a crusade against most of the world, the Clinton Administration, unsurprisingly, has had to retreat in one area after another, upon discovering that it was standing alone.

Having emerged from decades of foreign-policy "crises," the country is in no mood for costly adventures in redeeming the world. Leaders who set such agendas are doomed to failure and will be repudiated. The result may well be to discredit not only their more grandiose projects but also their necessary ones, such as cooperation with other major powers to dampen regional conflicts. That is the price paid for lacking a sense of proportion.

The End of Allies

AS the Cold War led to the domination of foreign policy, so in this post--Cold War period domestic policy has become paramount. This is natural and entirely proper. It is what happens after every war, and it marks the restoration of a normal balance. Our foreign policy should flow from our domestic society, from the needs and values of the American people. Reflecting its emphasis on economics, the Clinton Administration has declared that the obsolete containment doctrine should be replaced with an "enlargement of the world's free community of market democracies." The assumption behind this is that free markets require free societies, and that democracies rarely go to war against one another. But a glance at the world, beginning with the fast-growing "tigers" of Southeast Asia, reveals that there is no necessary correlation between market success and democracy. The idea that there is one is at best wishful thinking, and at base a provincial conceit, a delusion rather than a policy.

Most emerging countries--even Japan and other advanced industrial ones--do not use economic growth primarily to expand domestic consumption, as does the United States. They use it to expand production, penetrate foreign markets, acquire assets abroad, and increase their power. Economic power is the foundation of military power. As China grows richer, to take one case, it may or may not become less authoritarian. But, as its ever growing military budgets indicate, it will be stronger and more assertive. The notion that Japan should have military potential commensurate with its economic power is no longer a taboo topic in Tokyo.

Tomorrow's America will not be dealing with a world it dominates. It will be part of a complex of market economies, some of which will be democratic and some not--but all of which will be energetic competitors with their own agendas. The days of deference by allies to American military power are over. Indeed, the days of allies are over. In a world without a single menacing enemy, alliances are deprived of meaning. And in trade wars, unlike military confrontations, there are no allies, only rivals.

Even the centerpiece of our Cold War alliance structure--NATO--is sliding into atrophy in the absence of an enemy. Its major functions today are bureaucratic and psychological rather than military. It provides a purpose for general staffs that have no military duties, and it gives the illusion of security against enemies that are now nonexistent. NATO is likely to be gradually replaced by an essentially European alliance, a latter-day Concert of Europe, with a Franco-German nucleus.

This is a cause not for regret but rather for satisfaction, because it means that the United States can cease to be distracted, even seduced, by tasks that others can best perform for themselves. The ritualistic preservation of outworn structures is an evasion that puffs up our vanity and keeps us from the necessary work of re-evaluating our interests.

A new American diplomacy--one that leaves Cold War thinking behind--will pose practical questions. It will ask what responsibilities the nation has to itself and to the welfare of its citizens. For what causes should we use our power to intervene militarily, and what price is worth paying? Should we operate alone, or only in conjunction with others? At what point does a humanitarian act--such as feeding the hungry or separating victim from executioner--become a political one, such as creating and policing a nation? What is the place of morality in foreign policy?

Morality Tempered by Realism

THIS last question is particularly difficult for Americans. More than any other people, we believe that our foreign policy should have a moral component. The glue that bound together the anti-communist consensus was in part a moral one. Since the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of any serious security threat, decisions about intervention have often involved the issue of morality. What constitutes moral behavior on the part of a nation? When is interference in another country's affairs morally justified? These are not easy questions to answer. Well- meaning people can disagree on the morality of a given situation. The inability of the Clinton Administration to forge a consensus on the Bosnian war rightly caused it to retreat from its original impulse to intervene. What seemed like a moral outrage to some was to others merely a Balkan civil feud that outsiders could not resolve.

Under what circumstances should the United States intervene against other nations? There would seem to be two general justifications: morality and self-interest. In the category of morality, most Americans would agree that intervention is justified to alleviate extraordinary and severe human suffering, such as in famine, plague, and drought. This was the rationale in Somalia before the mission became compromised by grandiose notions of "nation building." And acts of genocide cannot be tolerated by the community of civilized nations. When people are being exterminated because of their ethnicity, race, or social class, outside powers have not only the right but the duty to intervene. Ideally they should do so in concert, whether through the United Nations or simply by joint agreement. It was shameful that the United States did not intervene in Rwanda last year to stop the slaughter of half a million Tutsi by the rival Hutu tribe. France was the only Western country to send troops to end the bloodshed. It was no less shameful that in the late 1970s not a single Western nation moved against the Khmer Rouge, who killed some two million of their countrymen in a drive to "purify" Cambodia for communism. Finally neighboring Vietnam entered the killing fields to stop the genocide.

If armed intervention was justified in Rwanda and Cambodia, why not in Bosnia or Haiti? Here, as in all political distinctions, the lines cannot be drawn with precision. But there are major differences that are crucial. Bosnia was the scene of a civil war in which civilians were targeted because of their ethnicity, in which people were displaced from their homes to create "ethnically cleansed" zones, and in which terrible human-rights abuses occurred. But this took place in the context of a traditional war over territory, and neither the intention nor the result was the systematic eradication of a people, which is the strict definition of genocide. The suffering resulted from the decision of a state to secede from the country of which it was a part, and unilaterally declare its independence. This is not an issue in which the United States has any responsibility to intervene.

In Haiti significant human-rights abuses have taken place for generations, as a ruling elite used intimidation and terror to enforce its authority over an impoverished peasantry. This is deplorable. But it is also the condition under which much of the world lives. To insist that the United States must intervene to overthrow repressive regimes around the globe, or even in this hemisphere, is to set an agenda that would lead to perpetual and ruinous wars of righteousness. It is a policy that could not be honored, and would rightfully be repudiated by the American people.

The lesson of these examples is not that the United States must never intervene for reasons of morality. There are times when it should and must: in cases in which it has the power to stop the horror quickly, as in Rwanda and Cambodia, and in cases in which the horror is on such a scale as to undermine the foundations of Western civilization itself, as in the genocidal madness of Nazi Germany.

But if a foreign policy is to be effective, it must have the support of the American public. And if it is to gain that support, it cannot be quixotic or simply utopian. It cannot seek impossible ends, such as the democratization of the world, or the attainment of a beneficent "world order" that will somehow be pleasing to revolutionaries and conservatives alike. It will avoid grandiose rhetoric precisely so that it can act in those cases--few but critical--in which it can at acceptable cost achieve its ends, and in which the degree of suffering or injustice that it addresses greatly exceeds the customary or the tolerable. This is not a formula that will satisfy zealots or crusaders, and it is also more than some others may be willing to support. But it is one that accords with the moral values of the American people and has limitations realistic enough to win their support.

Balance of Power

THE major justification for the use of force will continue to be, as it has been in the past, self-interest. In a democracy the interests of the people are, or at least should be, coterminous with those of the state. In practice, as we have seen as recently as the Vietnam War, leaders sometimes have fantastical ideas of the national interest and can do incalculable harm to their nation. In such a case the only remedy is to elect new leaders.

The United States might be driven to use force in the pursuit of self-interest for a number of reasons: to protect vital natural resources; to quell regional disorder that might threaten American security; to defend the nation's borders from, for example, drug traffickers, illegal aliens, or terrorists; to block a hostile power from conquering a critical area such as Western Europe; to ward off nuclear or ecological threats to our national well-being.

Admittedly, this is a long list, but it is not an indiscriminate one, and in matters of military intervention discrimination is all. The list does not include intervention to establish a democracy, or to make the world a better place, or to combat uncongenial ideologies and religions. It does not set the United States the impossible and self-destructive task of correcting all the world's wrongs or converting all the world's peoples to the blessings of our way of life. It does not reflect a policy subject to spasms of self-intoxication and to crusades of self-righteousness.

As an act of hostility or aggression, the denial of any vital resource to a nation is traditionally a cause of war. A great power must defend its interests whether they concern oil or any other commodity (although in the case of oil, the United States must also reduce its imports by reforming its wasteful practices).

Where serious political disorder, particularly near our shores, threatens our stability or that of areas we consider vital to our interests, we cannot, as a great power, abjure the right to intervene. This does not mean that we should behave like a global fire brigade. Rather, such interventions to maintain order, where necessary, should be almost entirely within our geographic region: North America and the Caribbean.

A nation that cannot control its own borders will have difficulty controlling the direction of its national life. Since we are an immigrant nation, our policies toward political refugees must be liberal and compassionate--but not impotent and anarchic. And we have a duty to protect ourselves, by appropriate means, from those who seek to do us harm, such as drug dealers and terrorists.

The concept of "balance of power" may have a nineteenth-century ring, but it remains a reality. The United States intervened three times in this century--in the two world wars and the Cold War--to prevent any single nation from controlling the European continent, and the maintenance of a European balance remains an American interest. If diplomatic means to ensure balance fail, force may once again be a necessary recourse.

Finally, and most obviously, threats to our very survival--whether from rogue states, terrorist groups armed with nuclear weapons, or states or powerful corporations that imperil our natural habitat through pollution and the destruction of irreplaceable resources--may in certain circumstances be controllable only through the use of force. It is not power, after all, that is evil but only its abuse or misapplication.

The How of Force

IF force is to be used, how shall it be done? Four possibilities present themselves: the United States can act alone, as the world's single most powerful state; it can form alliances with weaker nations, as it did during the Cold War; it can organize temporary coalitions, as it did during the Persian Gulf conflict; or it can try to operate through a multilateral organization, such as the United Nations, or a regional one, such as the Organization of American States.

The approach, of course, should depend on the circumstances. Yet it is clear that since the disappearance of our sole serious enemy, formal alliances have declined in relevance and usefulness, and are kept alive largely through bureaucratic inertia. Temporary coalitions tend to depend on the willingness of a single major nation to organize the action and carry the brunt of the burden, as the United States did during the Gulf War. Multilateral action through the UN or other organizations diffuses responsibility, and is likely to be invoked increasingly in the future. But it is workable only when it accords with the joint interests of all the major powers. This usually means reaching the lowest common denominator, as evidenced by the UN resolutions on the Bosnian war. And there, of course, the policy was essentially a failure. The UN was not equipped to perform the role of an imperial administrator and did not have the support of the major powers to do so.

The current enthusiasm for multilateralism results in large part from the unwillingness of states to make serious sacrifices to establish order in remote and peripheral areas. The consequent failure of an organization of states to act upon its grandiose ambitions necessarily lessens its credibility even in areas where it is capable of action. A further result is to inhibit crisis-dampening by regional powers that have a direct and vital stake in the outcome. The world for the most part stood by during the war in Bosnia, because the European states vitally concerned were not sufficiently organized to take action, while the United States, which had the power, lacked sufficient interest.

What this anomaly suggests is that regional disturbances that do not threaten the world power balance should be dealt with by the major powers of the region, ideally with the endorsement of the international community. Instead of seeking an ephemeral global security, we should, as Charles William Maynes has argued in Foreign Policy, encourage a policy of "regional self-reliance [that] would recognize that certain powerful states in each area will inevitably play a special security role." In other words, we must accept the reality of the long-standing tradition of spheres of influence--a tradition that we scrupulously insist upon in the Western Hemisphere under our unilaterally imposed Monroe Doctrine.

Now that many major regional powers are democratic, like the United States and the European Union, or moving toward democracy, like Russia, such a policy should be more tolerable to those concerned about the equality of all states. With the Cold War behind us, a benign spheres-of-influence policy becomes far more feasible than it was in the past. It is also more realistic than any alternative.

"Splendid Isolation"

THE recent past should have taught us that regional powers may be the only ones willing to deal with regional breakdowns. Uganda's murderous Idi Amin was deposed by neighboring Tanzania, not by the UN or the distant great powers. Vietnam put down the Khmer Rouge's genocide in Cambodia, and India stopped the Pakistani army's extermination campaign in East Bengal. Civil war and violence ravaged Lebanon for years until Syria stepped in to end it. The United States intervened to impose what it considered a desirable order in Grenada, Panama, and Haiti. Only Russia has either the interest or the capacity, whether by bribery or cruel force, to pacify warring ethnic groups in the Caucasus. It was a blind refusal to recognize the reality of China's sphere of influence that drew the United States into its disastrous adventure in Indochina.

A spheres-of-influence policy is the basis of our relationships with Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, just as it is of Russia's with the states of the former Soviet Union, and of China's with Southeast Asia. Such a policy no doubt seems unjust to those who believe in a global community of equal states, none able to impose any authority on the others. But it is also an alternative to anarchy. And it is a reality of the world we live in. It avoids indiscriminate globalism on the one hand, and utopian visions that cannot be translated into reality on the other.

Utopianism is as unrealistic, and as dangerous, as isolationism. We have never truly been an isolationist power, and we certainly cannot be one in a world integrated economically and technologically. But we also cannot afford to indulge in lingering Cold War conceits of military omnipotence and unlimited global responsibilities. Such fantasies are doomed to failure, and they breed distrust of democratic government.

We have won a victory, of sorts, and now that war is over. We enjoy a time of peace, of sorts, although the peace is not everywhere, and the time certainly will not last forever. Our task today is not so heroic as fighting a war, but it is no less difficult, and in the end it may be as important: to recognize our limitations, to reject the vanity of trying to remake the world in our image, and to restore the promise of our neglected society.

America today is hobbled by self-doubt about its political system and by "crises" abroad that in fact pose little danger. Yet the nation enjoys an unparalleled freedom of action in foreign policy. Like Britain at the height of its power, in the mid-nineteenth century, we live in a world where we are not unchallenged but are unquestionably first among only potential equals. We have no serious enemies and require no allies. This is our equivalent of what the British called their period of "splendid isolation."

The term has been much abused in recent years. It does not mean that the British were isolated, any more than we are today. Quite the contrary: they were never more engaged in the world. But the engagement was on their terms. Lord Palmerston, their leading statesman at the time, declared, in words that are often quoted, that Britain had no eternal allies and no permanent enemies, but its interests were eternal and its duty was to follow those interests. The British lived in a world of other major and aspiring powers, which did not always wish them well but learned to respect their strength, their diplomatic agility, and their values.

Ultimately even the most subtle diplomacy could not carry them above the shifting tides of power. But for a century that diplomacy, in which power was tempered by measure, ensured them security and prosperity. Had Britain, like the United States, possessed an entire continent of unparalleled riches in a sea of weak neighbors, instead of a besieged and resource-poor island, its success might have been even greater and more enduring.

AS we have left the Cold War behind us, so have we left the American century. The war gave us a sense of purpose, and without it we feel trapped by domestic troubles from which we can find no escape in parades, drum rolls, and demonstrations of resolve. The self-confidence that has always been one of our most attractive national characteristics has been sapped, leaving our nation confused and even embittered. For a long time foreign policy was a useful evasion.

It cannot be that anymore. We have to accept our domestic problems as requiring the painful compromises that they do. And we must return to foreign policy not as an escape or a salvation but merely as a means of making our way, without illusions but also without cynicism, in a world of usually competing, sometimes cooperating states.

This is not a heroic task. But it is an important one, for on its success hinges our ability to preserve and enlarge the noble vision that has justly been called the promise of American life.


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1995; The Domestic Core of Foreign Policy; Volume 275, No. 6; pages 84-92.

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