Saturday, January 10, 2009

Options for the Future

A friend of mine is seriously pursuing a line of work I once considered, and then dropped: the Foreign Service. A few things I noted when I took the Foreign Service Exam included:

  • I understood American history very well, from the conservative point of view.
  • My understanding of American history from a liberal point of view needed a lot of brushing up if I was going to pass the exam.
  • Studying for the exam—reading books about American history and culture—was a lot more interesting and fun than taking the exam.

In any case, I’ve been feeding my friend—who is not on the same section of the political spectrum that I am—the books that I did read. And, as Obama is coming into office soon, I thought I’d offer some thoughts here that I haven’t had time to share in conversation regarding what the Foreign Service might be in for in the next 20 years. What follows are basically alternate future histories that would derive from different foreign policy approaches/philosophies.

The Bush Doctrine Continues
While George W. Bush has been treated as the greatest evil ever to afflict the world, his foreign policy is actually not very different from Bill Clinton or his father. The end of the Cold War left America with a major question—one we have never answered satisfactorily, IMHO—with the Soviet Union gone, when is it appropriate to use military force to resolve conflicts? What Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush II have done since 1991 is to employ force when vital U.S. interests are at stake (e.g. oil, peace/stability in strategically important regions), as defined by the current president. Those interests have varied and expanded over the years, especially after 9/11, when the U.S. declared the right to preemptively attack hostile nations harboring terrorists or developing nuclear weapons; this doctrine has created resentment among rival nations.

Bush Doctrine also seeks “transformation” of the Middle East, which would include encouraging more democracy and freedom in the region and hopefully reduce the conditions leading to breeding more terrorism. This disregards the problem of the (now improving) U.S. occupation in Iraq serving as a rallying and recruiting point for Islamic extremism. Bush has also received criticism for holding terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay without trial; the alternatives are keeping these battlefield captures where they are, returning them to the countries from whence they came—and allowing them to commit future acts of terrorism, bringing them back to the U.S., trying them in military courts, or trying them in civilian courts, possibly enabling some to be set free to commit terrorist acts here in the U.S.

Of course Bush has also spent upwards of $15 billion on foreign aid and AIDS relief in Africa, and has received zero credit—one wonders which aspects of his policies future presidents will decide to keep.

American Imperium
For people who think America is an out of control empire and that we can't sink much lower, I would refer them to much worse empires: Soviet Russia, the People's Republic of China, Germany under the Second or Third Reich, Imperial Japan, Spain, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Byzantine empire, Imperial Rome, Alexander the Great's Greece, Assyria. Trust me, we could be a LOT worse. For instance, imagine any of those jokers with 21st century technology and a serious chip on their shoulders. Remember how p.o.ed everyone was after 9/11? Now imagine Americans p.o.ed enough to say to everybody, "Enough! You're all going to do things our way, or we'll bomb your country into a green glass parking lot." Imagine how much fun travel overseas will be if you're not a U.S. Marine armed to the teeth or wearing a flak jacket and radiation gear. On the plus side, if you believe Machiavelli, it's more useful to be feared than to be loved.

America Isolated
Despite opinions to the contrary, America is not (yet) a blatantly imperial power, as it lacks both the will and willingness to invade and hold territories for sheer force’s sake, as opposed to doing so for “humanitarian” or other idealistic reasons. But it could still happen. The U.S. could put up a full-border wall on its frontiers, disband or expel the United Nations, withdraw its military forces en masse, recall its citizens and diplomats, increase its tariffs in the misguided belief that it will somehow protect its citizens’ jobs, cut off foreign aid, send the military only to protect direct U.S. interests/properties/citizens…any number of measures that would reduce the country’s involvement in world affairs. The upside of this would be fewer foreign entanglements; the downside would be a loss of confidence in democracy and freedom worldwide if U.S. allies perceive that America is no longer interested in defending them from hostile neighbors or ideologies.

America the Peacemaker
Rather than put our military foot forward, the peacemaking effort would emphasize foreign aid, multilateral diplomacy, working mostly or solely through multinational organizations like the UN. This more liberal approach would aim at building goodwill through improving living conditions and human rights in poor or hostile regions of the world. The upsides of this approach can be seen in the
Marshall Plan, NATO, and the Bretton Woods economic order, which kept the West stable until 1973.

The downsides to this approach can be seen in a variety of places: North Korea and Iran, where multi-nation negotiations have resulted in those countries disregarding international wishes and continuing to develop nuclear weapons; Somalia, where foreign aid was confiscated by the government in the ‘80s and where American troops got tied up in the “
Blackhawk Down” crisis of 1993; Sudan and Rwanda, where strong words in the UN have done little good because they haven’t been backed by military force; South Vietnam in 1975 and Iran in 1979, where the U.S. allowed an ally to collapse and a hostile regime to take its place; and Afghanistan and Cambodia in 1979, where the most the U.S. could manage in the face of Communist aggression and genocide were weak protests and an Olympic boycott.

This is not to say that goodwill never works. It absolutely has its place, and the Bush Administration has done its part as well, from providing earthquake relief to Iran to helping tsunami victims in South Asia. However, goodwill is easily overlooked and quickly forgotten once the next military crisis presents itself. Also, if America is perceived as being a “soft touch,” more concerned about making friends than confronting enemies, those enemies will feel emboldened to challenge U.S. interests. And, as a friend of mine who previewed this post noted, long-lasting peace only comes through victory. (Jimmy Carter is rightly hailed for the peace he brokered between Egypt and Israel, but that peace was only made possible after Israel whupped the tar out of the Egyptian Army. No other nation has invaded Israel since 1973.) Domestically, the U.S. Constitution blocks presidents from placing other nations’ laws and desires ahead of the laws of the land—or the good of U.S. citizens.

America Leads By Example
This approach hasn’t been tried for awhile. It involves America
redeploying (not completely withdrawing) its military footprint from the world. Consider a future where the U.S. focuses on developing new technologies that make the whole world richer and more advanced—space solar power, nuclear power, space settlements and industries, ocean-thermal conversion, etc.—while reducing its dependence on foreign oil and its involvement in other nations’ business. Have a look here for that sort of future. It probably won’t happen, but I can dream.

American Realpolitik
The next American president could take the position that America is not equipped to be the world’s lone superpower and might work to arrange and maintain a “balance of power” relationship with the rest of the world’s regional powers (Russia, China, India, etc.). This
realpolitik method of diplomacy could involve changing sides in regional conflicts to prevent any single nation from becoming too powerful. The upside of this approach is that America would remain committed to preventing any nation—including itself—from regional or world dominance; the downside is that America would lose its standing as a consistent or moral power, as its alliances might include backing authoritarian powers for the sake of peace.

So what sort of world are we in for? Let’s hope it’s a good one, so that my friend can help America put its best foot forward—wherever he ends up. Someone’s got to do it.

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