After September 11th: Chances for a Left Foreign Policy 1
A leftist (or “progressive”) American intellectual is expected to criticize his government. 2 That seems to be the reason that many Europeans were astonished, for example, to find the name of a Socialist intellectual like Michael Walzer co-existing peacefully with people of rather different convictions on petitions supporting the Bush administration response to September 11th. 3 And when the progressive American speaks foreign tongues, it is expected that he will go on to deplore American isolationism–or unilateralism, or both, as sins of equal evil. He will be expected, in short, to be more European than the Europeans. Hence, let me say at the outset, in French, that “tout comprendre n’est pas tout pardoner.” [to understand is not to forgive.] And let me explain myself by adding, in German, a sort of Feuerbachian Umkehrung of Marx’s famous 11th Thesis: “Die Politiker haben die Welt nur verändern wollen, es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verstehen.” [The politicians have only sought to change the world; what is crucial, rather, is to understand it.]
I will propose here some ideas toward elaborating a leftist approach (which is not simply an alternative) to current American foreign policy choices. But to do so, I must first criticize some interpretations of those policies because they use categories that describe foreign policy choices as they existed during the Cold War but are only apparently relevant today. I will then sketch an historical framework for understanding some constants in American foreign policy choices as part of a democratic political dynamic. In this context, the task of the intellectual changes; criticism no longer suffices. The difference between the left and the right is replaced by an opposition between democratic and anti-democratic politics. The progressive intellectual–and the Europeans who worry about the American hegemon without thinking about their own “democratic deficit”–have to imagine forms of political intervention that encourage the openness of democratic debate while avoiding the anti-political temptations that are particularly strong in the sphere of foreign policy. 4
1. Are the old Categories still useful?
The first reactions to September 11th were that nothing would remain the same, that the old political clichés had lost their meaning, and that Leftist intellectuals could not simply repeat their hardy stance of opposition and the pacifist opposition to power. 5 Yet that cannot be true; change does not occur overnight. Geo-political relations remain over the long term; political cultures do not change in the blink of an eye nor do national habits. And recent surveys of public attitudes toward government or toward basic liberties show a remarkable constancy. (Indeed, one finds similar to reactions to the Pearl Harbor emergency, save that Americans now are more tolerant of Muslims than they were then of Japanese). 6 Perhaps, as many Europeans told us, America was finally entering the real world, forced out of her narcissism and compelled to recognize that if she is a primus, she is nonetheless a primus inter pares, among equals. But that expectation has yet to manifest itself concretely. 7
The political response of the Bush administration seemed to reflect the weight of habit. This was the unilateralist government that had refused to sign the Kyoto accords, denounced the ABM treaty that interfered with their dream of a missile defense, and were determined to eliminate Saddam Hussein regardless of the opinion of its allies. Those allies’ invocation of Article 5 of the NATO treaty as an expression of solidarity was briefly noted and quickly forgotten as the Bush team took its own initiatives in Afghanistan, accepting token offerings from the allies while giving them no voice in return. Its attitude was summed up in Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s pithy remark that this time (as opposed to the haggling that almost crippled the intervention in Kosovo) the mission would determine the coalition rather than the coalition determining the mission. The fact that Rumsfeld referred to a coalition, not an alliance, is significant: an alliance implies a shared global vision elaborated by consultation and deliberation among equals; a coalition is heteroclite, uses its members as expendable “spare parts” to fill temporary needs. Similar disdain for multilateral cooperation was starkly evident in the recent decision by Washington to “un-sign” (rather than simply not send to the Senate for ratification) the Rome treaty creating an international court; at a time when the “war” on terrorism would seem to call for such a trans-national institution, the Bush administration defiantly insisted that it would go its own way.
It may be that this picture of unilateral immobility is overdrawn; foreign policy is always a work-in-process that is subject to many different influences. Some of those influences are personal-and so the optimists remind us that Colin Powell remains secretary of state; 8 and after many long months of silent co-operation motivated by fear of electoral backlash, the Congress, and the democratic party, seem to be asserting their critical autonomy. There are other, external, influences, the grist of “realism” in foreign policy mills-which is why the intention of eliminating Saddam Hussein has been put on hold, and the US has finally found it necessary to play a role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (even though it seems unsure what that role is to be, and how it is to be played, and whether it can influence either the Israelis or the Saudis). Still other influences are domestic and electoral-as when a free-trading President imposes steel tariffs to win votes in Pennsylvania and Ohio, supports agricultural subsidies for the same purpose in Iowa and Nebraska, or pursues an antiquated Cuban embargo in deference to votes in Florida (also needed to re-elect his brother as governor). It is hard to measure the weight of these incremental shifts, or the backlash that they could bring, for example, among supporters of a new round of global trade expansion.
Those who want to see an incremental learning process rather than immobility suggest that a President who had barely traveled outside the country, and a Congress whose majority leadership takes pride in its provincialism, 9 have abandoned the historical American politics of isolationism. Insofar as foreign policy played a role in the 2000 campaign, it was epitomized in Bush’s denunciation of so-called “nation-building” and multi-lateral interventions into the affairs of others. 10herever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be America’s heart, her benedictions and her prayers. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own… She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own…she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication… She might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.” It is worth noting that I am citing this passage from Henry Kissinger’s Does America Need a Foreign Policy? (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), p. 238.] Thus, on taking office, the not-quite legitimate president broke with tradition by ostentatiously reserving his first visit for Canada, and his next for Mexico (neglecting England, and Europe). In this regard, a major victim of September 11th has been the agenda of intra-continental free trade: an expanded Nafta, regularization of immigration with the new, democratically elected Mexican president, and regained fast-track trade liberalization authority (now euphemistically called “trade enhancement”). Commerce cannot replace politics, nor can it hide political imperatives. The tariff on steel products has harmed relations with a Brazil; Chile has received no rewards for its liberal economic policies, while Argentina confronts the results of a dollarized economy out of control. The war-on-terrorism has added complications to the early and simple agenda. To take a recent example, how can one decrease tariffs on tuna fishing for the drug-infested, unstable regime in Columbia when this will create unemployment among the Muslim fishermen in the terrorist-harboring regions of the Philippines? 11
In this context, it appears that the Bush administration has moved from isolationism toward a recognition of a multi-facetted world whose complexity it could not master. As a result, it has now sought to reduce this complexity by exerting unilateral control. Not for nothing does the US spend more on national defense than the next 15 nations together; not for nothing do the Americans tell their European allies: modernize or be marginalized. And whereas the Europeans protest and demand to be treated as equals, the recent signing of a new (475 word, ignoring among other things tactical weapons) missile treaty as well as acceptance of American withdrawal from the ABM treaty suggests that the Russia of Mr. Putin has understood the hard realities of a new American century. Europe, on the other hand, seems to be fulfilling the (low) expectations of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, who recalls bitterly his period as US Ambassador to NATO a quarter century ago, in 1973-4.
But are these categories–isolationism, multilateralism and unilateralism–still useful for a characterization of American foreign policy? Isolationism has a long tradition; but it stands opposed to both multilateralism and unilateralism, which are themselves opposites. This duality leads to confusion; it conceals differences that, particularly in the new post-Cold War era, are politically important. Think of some recent examples. Unilateralism need not be the action of an imperial power snuffing out freedom as it works its will; it may be necessary when the wrangling of coalition partners prevents action at times when human rights (or lives) are in peril, as in Bosnia, Kosovo or recent cases in Africa. Multilateralism can be functional for the creation of a world of mutual interdependence whose members will reciprocally civilize each other’s behavior; but it can also be a formula for pious words that make impossible practical deeds-as in the cases just mentioned. Even isolationism can have different meanings. It need not be the stance that wishes to hear or see no evil which is condemned to pay the price of its good-natured naivetÃ©; non-action denounced as isolationism may be the recognition that not every problem can be solved immediately and that simple solutions cannot be imposed upon people unwilling or unable to admit them-indeed, there are problems that can only be solved after they fester until the times are ripe. 12
2. Categorizing Democratic Dynamics
There are good reasons, both geographical and historical, to repeat the usual description of US foreign policy as congenitally isolationist. One of the founding moments of American democracy, George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” marks not only a recognition of the limits of political power in a pluralist society but contains also the warning to his countrymen to avoid “entangling alliances.” This phrase, learned by every American school child, has become what Walter Russell Mead calls “the foreign policy equivalent of the Bill of Rights…” 13 One of the goals of Mead’s remarkable new book, Special Providence. American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World, is to show that, even before the creation of the new nation–indeed, as a political condition of its creation, which depended on French, Dutch and Spanish alliances-Americans knew, and practiced skillfully, the art of foreign policy. More than that, Mead’s claim is that-as opposed to the contemporary stereotype-foreign policy has been one of the chief issues dividing the contesting political parties, at least until the achievement of a certain “mythical” modus vivendi with the outbreak of the Cold War. 14
As opposed to the now-ambivalent categories inherited from the Cold War, Mead analyzes historically and illustrates pragmatically four currents associated with historical figures of the American past. The result goes beyond the dichotomy with which Henry Kissinger introduced his Diplomacy, when he distinguished the naÃ¯ve idealism of Wilson from the hardened balance-of-power realism of Theodore Roosevelt. 15 Mead’s first category reflects the primacy of business and commerce throughout American foreign relations: Hamiltonians stress the alliance of government and business to insure stability at home and integration into the world economy. Wilsonians then introduce a moral dimension that wants to spread American values in order to create a peaceful world under the rule of law. Jeffersonians strive above all to protect democracy at home, and therefore avoid unsavory alliances by Hamiltonians and risks of war run by Wilsonians. Finally, populist Jacksonians insist that domestic and foreign policy must insure the security and well-being of the people; while they don’t seek foreign quarrels, when war becomes necessary, these Jacksonians demand that it be fought to the finish.
Because of their historical specificity, Mead’s categories are able to take into account the dynamics of political competition because, in order to remain the same, each of them must mutate as political conditions change. This flexibility is double: it takes into account changed socio-economic conditions as well as the contending political parties. For example, the original Hamiltonian vision of the way to achieve the primacy of trade and commerce was formulated in Hamilton’s “Report on Industries,” which defended the protection of “infant industries” by means of a high tariff. Such protectionist policies could only be maintained at the end of the 19th century because protected industries still paid good wages and guaranteed secure jobs. By the middle of the 20th century, however, American economic power meant that lower tariffs (i.e., free trade) would benefit the economy–but now wages and jobs came under pressure. If a new Hamiltonian policy was to be enacted, it would have to find new allies, perhaps among the (nationalist) Jacksonians, since its former supporters had gone either to the Wilsonians (the NGOs opposing exploitation) or to the Jeffersonians (attacking business power as a threat to democracy). Hamiltonian politics would, in other words, have to change in order to remain the same.
Mead’s categories also permit the tracing of a multitude of potential cross-alliances in changing historical conditions. His account of the Wilsonians’ “missionary spirit”– which antedated Woodrow Wilson– clarifies the status of his categories. This spirit was present at the foundation, when the colonists left the Old World to seek not only religious freedom but the blessings that accompanied it. Their heirs expanded this mission, taking their creed across the continents, and bringing in their wake government interventions that to the non-historian’s eye could look like a new colonialism. But the Wilsonians had no monopoly on virtue; the Jeffersonian democratic creed not only competed with their moralism but warned against its excesses, fearing that such interventions could become a threat to the foundations of democracy. 16 Where the Wilsonian might fight “a war to end all wars,” the Jeffersonian would seek to negotiate, try to put off the moment of decision, or stand on the sidelines while cheering for the virtuous. But at this point, the temporary alliance of Jeffersonians with those Jacksonians who supported a democracy because it left them alone would come under pressure, since these populist Westerners were slow to anger but fierce in self-defense once aroused. At this point, the Jacksonians’ populism could turn into a patriotism that rejoins the Hamiltonians in defense of a national cause that holds together as long as neither side looks too closely at its own premises.
Leaving aside the historian’s question of the accuracy of these classifications, they do seem to offer a recognizable picture of America. What is significant is that they do not coincide with actual party lines; they point rather to the ingredients of shifting coalitions, and they can reflect different policy goals-or lead participants to change their policies (or to compromise) in order to maintain their original intentions. Mead attributes the success of American foreign policy to the competition among these basic categories; and he recognizes that the domination of one or the other would be harmful (which is why he dismisses at the outset the “myth” of the Cold War and a unified America for which only one policy is possible or just). His critics deplore this flexibility because it lacks predictive power; his thesis seems non-falsifiable because he can always explain post festum new combinations or splits and realignments. 17 For example, Hamiltonians among the Clinton administration appealed to the civilizing effects of Montesquieu’s “doux commerce” while Hamiltonians in the Bush camp are more crudely pro-business. Wilsonians might well ally themselves with the former, who are making the world safe for their own (modern forms of) missionary work; but other Wilsonians would insist that globalization destroys the dignity of indigenous cultures. This second group could in turn find allies among those Jeffersonians whose fear for the fragility of democracy leads them toward isolationism. But the historical fact that Jeffersonian fear of big government led many of them to oppose US entry into World War I, to reject the League of Nations and above all to appease the new totalitarians in the 1930s discredited this orientation. What remained of their influence depended on an alliance with the Jacksonians, which disintegrated with the Vietnam war. Both tendencies were appalled by the effects of the war at home and by the corrupt Vietnamese government it defended; but the Jeffersonians wanted to cut-and-run which, to the Jacksonians, was a violation of a code of honor that cut more deeply than the fear for the safety of domestic democracy.
Mead draws two conclusions from his analysis. The first is that the interplay of these four political tendencies accounts for the unquestionable successes of American foreign policy, including the victory in the Cold War. He wants his readers to learn from this history, and to recognize that foreign policy has been fundamental to the history of American democracy. The second conclusion is more contemporary and pragmatic. He suggests that the Hamiltonian and Wilsonian came together after 1989 to provide the basis of the New World Order, whose “the rise and retreat” he chronicles. Free trade plus globalization joined with increasingly powerful NGOs to pursue the creation of rule of law and the spread of democracy while protecting human rights. But this coalition was short lived; the other two tendencies affirmed themselves, and history did not come to an end, after all. What then of “the future of American foreign policy”? “I believe”, says Mead, “[that] I owe it to readers to declare my preference among the schools.” His carefully hedged adhesion is to Jeffersonianism, whose “caution,” and “conservation of… liberty and lives, and…passion for limits” is said, finally, to be the ideal that motivated John Quincy Adams and James Monroe in 1823. 18
I want to propose a different conclusion from Mead’s stimulating account. The constant interplay among the four categories that he describes means that none of them can uphold the claim that it has a monopoly on wisdom, that it expresses the unique national interest, or even that it expresses the vox populi. Mead’s analysis suggests that foreign policy success, particularly in the post-Cold War world, is not predicated on such (real or imagined) national unity; indeed, the totalitarian disasters of the 20th century in the Soviet, German (and Japanese) cases resulted from just such unitary presuppositions. The task of the democratic intellectual is not to propose another vision of unity that claims to be superior to those failed attempts. That was the project of the progressive intellectuals who rallied to Jack Kennedy, only to find themselves unable to escape from their Vietnam nightmare because their politics was defined by the moral imperatives of Cold War anti-communism. But their equally moralist left wing critics could only adopt an “anti-anti-communist” stance which had nothing political to offer, especially in the domain of foreign policy. Mead’s account suggests the direction in which to search for a new politics; although he doesn’t say it in so many words, democracy for him is not simply a means; it can also be an end to be sought in the post-Cold War world.
3. Political Dynamics in the Post-Cold War World
The end of the Cold War appeared to leave the US alone on a world stage that had no overarching structure. Omnipotence was coupled uneasily with impotence, in the Balkans, in Rwanda, in the pious words and absent deeds of the Clinton years. In 1994, Henry Kissinger argued in Diplomacy that the ethical basis of the unity of American Cold War politics was useless in the emerging political-strategic world; American power was in fact limited and could be exercised only if it rediscovered the principles of diplomatic realism of which Kissinger claimed to be a master. Seven years later, in Does America Need a Foreign Policy?, in his first chapter, Kissinger posed the question: “America at the Apex: Empire or Leader?” Empire, he argued, is not a policy; it confuses strategy with economics, while ignoring the political , cultural and spiritual impact of the new technological world. Leadership is exercised through alliances, such as NATO. An alliance differs from a guarantee of collective security, which is merely a juridical promise that, like a UN resolution, will not be carried out if major participants fail to act. 19hile Wilson’s hyperbolic statements rejecting ‘a standard of national selfishness’ are easy to dismiss, his belief that this age requires us also to think about ‘the interest of mankind’ is not so easily ignored.” (p. 36) As I have suggested following Mead, Hoffmann too concludes that “on the whole, Wilsonians understand better than realists do: that what happens within a country is often more decisive than calculations of power balance.” (p. 37)] Europe, argues Kissinger, could become merely such a zone of collective security if America does not revitalize and repoliticize the NATO alliance. This is the more important since a unified Europe (either in the German Fischer proposal, or in the French multi-speed mode, or in Blair’s confederal version) would face the US only once decisions had been made, at which point it would not be possible to revise them as a result of discussion with the Americans. Kissinger’s worry is clear, but his formula for leadership leaves no role for a European partner (only for European partners: divide et imperia is an earlier form of Kissinger’s favored Realpolitik).
Kissinger’s rejection of the old political concept of empire may be too facile (and self-interested); after all, the power and reach of 21st century America has no historical parallels. Recall the time when optimism about a Soviet revival under Gorbachev’s perestroika was widespread; historian Paul Kennedy’s best-seller, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (1987),convinced many that the result of America’s “imperial overreach” would be an inevitable decline. Today, Paul Kennedy has to admit that while Rome was limited by the Persian and Chinese empires, and the size of the British navy was equal only to the next two navies, the US stands alone. More aggressively, the Wall Street Journal editorialist, Max Boot, writing in the conservative The Weekly Standard, suggests that September 11th resulted not from foreign resentment at America’s action in the world but from the insufficient involvement of the US in its true mission. In the same vein, Robert D. Kaplan, whose Balkan Ghosts (1993) was said to have dissuaded Clinton from his aggressive “lift and strike” option for Bosnia, drew a similarly a-moral lesson in Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (2001). If order is to be imposed in an anarchic world, the American cop will have to do the job-and he will be applauded for his work by willing masses already seduced by the pleasures promised by America’s vaunted “soft power.” 20
What theorists of empire forget is that America acquired its hegemony without any specific political project other than its moral righteousness-the end of the Cold War was more a Soviet defeat than an American victory (an arms-race-to-the-death, what the Germans call tot-rÃ¼sten rather than a duel of utopias). Indeed, Bush’s national security advisor Condoleezza Rice wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2000 that since the end of the Cold War American foreign policy seemed to have lost its direction. 21 She was not alone in that analysis. But she is not alone either, today, in her revision of that analysis, whose new premise is that the post-September 11th period is “analogous to 1945-47,” when the doctrine of containment was elaborated and made operational. But the author of the remarkable article that contains Ms. Rice’s recent claim, Nicholas Lemann, puts her analysis into a broader and more worrisome imperial context, one that began under the direction of Bush pÃ¨re, aided by then-Defense Minister Cheney, who proposed its own hard-nosed vision of a post-Cold War world, only to watch with frustration as Bill Clinton–in the words of Condoleeza Rice’s Foreign Affairs article–was guilty of “an extraordinary neglect of the fiduciary responsibilities of the commander in chief.” 22
The proposed post-Cold War imperial policy is often associated with the names of deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Vice-President Cheney. Its academic label was provided by Zalmay Khalizad (now American proconsul in Afghanistan): it is the passage from “containment to global leadership.” This project, or vision, seems to have only become truly possible with the shedding of American blood on September 11th. However America acquired its hegemonic position, its rulers now intend to keep it, by all means necessary. And those means include pre-emptive strikes (possibly even nuclear) 23, the redrawing of regional maps, and the intervention needed to create what is called euphemistically a “democratic zone of peace.” Another, less euphemistic label for this project is proposed by Colin Powell’s chief intellectual advisor, Richard Haass, who occupies the office first held by George Kennan, the father of containment theory. In an interview with Lemann, the State Department’s Richard Haass suggests that there are “limits of sovereignty” that prevent governments from abusing the rights of their citizens; and there are legitimate interventions that prevent them from doing so. More important, such limits also prevent governments from supporting terrorism or from the production of weapons of mass destruction-whose possession legitimates “preventive, or peremptory, self-defense.” Obviously, such a policy would have its first application in Iraq, permitting the son to fulfill the task left for him by his father.
But, are the proponents of such a policy right in thinking that September 11th will permit them to gain public support? The cynic might reply that the manner in which this administration has used the metaphor of the war-on-terror to prevent not just dissent but even the questioning of its policies by members of the opposition (or by Republicans like Richard Shelby or Dan Burton) will insure public support by its manipulations. What can the progressive intellectual do in the face of this onslaught? What can Europe do?
Turning first to the intellectual, from whose position I began this discussion, he is assumed to be a critic of the American policy. The stance of the intellectual as critic is an old one. During the Cold War, the progressive intellectual could only be a critic of one of the competing world systems, without reflecting on the manner in which his critique implied at least tacit support of the other system. In the American context, this meant that the left was “anti-anti-communist,” with the result that it had nothing positive to defend, no ideals to realize, no project for the future. Typical of this attitude was the oldest existing weekly journal of the left, The Nation. 24 To put the matter differently, the leftist intellectual acquired the habit of finding all glasses to be half-empty; there was never any question of finding it to be half-full… and in need of further positive measures. As a result, at the end of the Cold War (if not before, which is another debate), the left made no contributions to ongoing political debates, and was blind to its Eastern compagnons.
But “the” left was and is (and should not be) so unified, as these last remarks imply. There was an anti-totalitarian left too, one that contributed to the overcoming of the Soviet order. It was not so strong in the US as for example in France. Learning from Eastern European dissidents who recognized the need to insure rights and freedoms, this new left recognized the radical political implications of democracy-which is not simply another justification of capitalist economic exploitation. Although it was a minority among the left, this new direction (and its Eastern friends) seized upon Basket III of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which conservatives denounced as a sell-out in which the West recognized the legitimacy of the Soviet imperium. Despite Henry Kissinger’s attempt to reclaim this achievement for himself, 25 there is no reason for a progressive left to let him take the credit and play the democrat. Why should the left not claim that the glass is half-full? There is no reason, for example, for a critical left not to agree with the State Department’s Richard Haass about the limits of sovereignty (although it might dissent from the possible pre-emptive nuclear strikes suggested by Paul Wolfowitz). The left should favor interventions to encourage democracy.
In this same context, one sees how the categorial framework of Walter Russell Mead offers a possible guideline for European political action as well. Two points in particular seem promising. If it is true that the democratic nature of American foreign policy depends on the constant interaction–call it checks-and-balances–of the four political tendencies, then Europeans should be on guard to insure that their words and actions do not favor the domination of one or the other tendency. Democracy in US foreign policy is good for Europe as well. Second, the lability of the flexible categories, which can enter into various alliances at different historical conjunctures, suggests that European reaction to American actions needs to bear in mind that these policies are not the result of a single unified will expressing itself in the one and only form it can possibly take. American actions result from multiple interactions; the imposition of a tariff on steel, or the decision to intervene in Iraq, are not pre-ordained; they result from political coalition building, and there is no reason only to criticize when the fact that coalitions are built by partners means that the temporary alliances can also be drawn apart and reconfigured by sufficiently subtle approaches. In a word, as with the intellectual, Europe has to remember that, despite appearances, America remains a republican democracy, plural in its values and open to the future. It is a glass that only appears half-empty; if we understand that it is also half-full, we are on our way to realizing what Marx should have intended when he wrote the 11th Feuerbach Thesis, with which I proposed to begin this discussion of intellectuals and foreign policy.