March 07, 2005

Over Here, A Rich Foreign Policy Debate

Much hay has been made of American foreign policy over the past few years. There is the stereotypical notion that, post 9/11, Bush's worldview was hijacked by a neo-conservative cabal, heavily Jewish and in deep cuddle with Arik Sharon, that was hell-bent on a militaristic doctrine of preemption so that varied Texan evangelicals could join their settler cousins in Judea and Samaria. Then there are the many in the Moore-school--who believe that American policy is plain driven by the avarice of the ruling elites (read: MoDo's WASP Corleones, ensuring all is well with Carlyle portfolio company EBITDA hurdles and reining in Saudi investor cash). And, of course, there are those who just saw naked neo-imperialistic land and oil grabs. The point here isn't to refute these cartoonish views of American foreign policy, however. Its been done before, in this space, and many others besides. Rather my point is to praise the real ferment and intellectual battles that have been underway regarding the future direction of American foreign policy these past years (especially since 9/11). Because when you leave the cartoonish depictions behind and enter, you know, the real world--there is much afoot indeed in terms of racuous debates underway about the future of American foreign policy.

Take just one school of American foreign policy thought--neo-conservatism. There's more than meets the eye. We have McCainite 'national greatness' neo-cons like Bill Kristol and Bob Kagan. We have guys like Max Boot and Brit transplant Niall Ferguson not shy to use the word Empire. We have the Perles who lean more national-security realist within the neo-con constellation. We have the Wolfowitzes who lean more idealistic. And, of course, there are the fissures between the Fukuyama and Krauthammer wings of the neo-conservatives. And this within just one wing of American foreign policy thought! No mention here of the Jacksonians (Rumsfeld), the paleos (Buchanan, Will), the realists (Scowcroft), the isolationists (Dean), hawkish Dems (Beinart, Lieberman), the protectionists (Gephardt), and, sui generis perhaps, the uber-realpolitiker Henry Kissinger. And there are quite a few others besides.

Compare this with the major foreign policy movements in, say France. The debate there is mostly between Euro-Gaullists and Euro-Atlanticists. Put differently, it's a debate about America. How much to partner with her, really. Granted, America is the world's reigning superpower so that: a) it will necessarily have variegated foreign policy schools of thought given its myriad interests around the globe and b) middle powers, like France, will necessarily have America figure prominently in their world views given her sheer might on the global stage. But how petty the French debate, ultimately! How much of a Euro defense corps to build up, say, before angering the Americans that NATO is being sidelined? Put differently, how to strike a balance between projecting (mostly) faux power in the interests of promoting chimerical notions of supranational greatness--versus collaborating with U.S.-led NATO in the great struggles of the time.

True, at the height of the Franco-American spat over Iraq, Chirac seemed to be trying to hold the torch for a foreign policy vision that transcended the Euro-Gaullist versus Euro-Atlanticist paradigm. It was a world defined by varied centers of power, multipolar, that resolved its disputes solely through the mechanisms of accepted international law as enunciated and actualized through the United Nations. But this was always patently bogus. Did the French refuse to take part in the Bosnia peacekeeping mission, say, because unanimous UNSC resolutions were not obtained to authorize it? Of course not. When France's interests where threatened (too much instability in Europe's southeastern frontier lands; perhaps hobbling the bid for an utopic supranational Euro-land in which la France would figure so prominently), she didn't care a whit whether the Russians and Chinese wanted to play ball on Bosnia policy at the UN. Ditto with Kosovo. So Chirac as some enobled avatar of international law as pronounced via the Great United Nations is a dubious proposition indeed (leaving aside his reign of corruption within his country).

Speaking of Kosovo, it reminds me of German foreign policy in the late 90s. Here is another formerly great nation with little to speak of in terms of foreign policy thought of note these days. The most vivid foreign policy debate in recent times in Germany was probably around the time that Milosevic was putting Kosavars onto trains and shipping them out of Kosovo. I still recall Peter Jennings, with grainy pictures of the spurned of humanity pouring onto trains, solemny intoning that history was repeating itself in the Balkans. Above all the Germans should understand such horrors. But Joshka Fischer, who finally got his Green party to support a German role in Kosovo, had to drag them kicking and screaming. What is it about a German propensity towards excess? There were the horrors of Nazism, of course. And now this over the top allegiance to maximal pacifism in the face of horrors reminiscent of the Holocaust. What of moderation, friends?

Americans are often greeted, in more sophisticated Euro-circles, as simpletons and rather on the clueless side. How dare hapless Condi, for instance, state that Iran might be a "totalitarian" state? Parisian foreign policy authorities found the language over the top and inaccurate. Surtout pas de zele. Truth be told, this silly parsing is evocative of the underwhelming vistas of continental foreign policy. The real foreign policy debates of note are occuring on this side of the Atlantic. We might find all the AEI, Brookings and CSIS mutterings-in-a-fishbowl and navel-gazing a tad provincial and tiresome, after a while. But it's a helluva lot better than the rather risible Gaullist versus Atlanticist or pacifist versus 'save victims of ethnic cleansing' debates on tap over on the Old Continent. And in a time when powers like China and India and Russia are mostly pre-occupied with great internal changes--it's nice to know there is someone minding the store when it comes to foreign policy vision--particularly given the massive challenges that will continue to confront the international community in the so-called 'arc of crisis' spanning from northern Africa, through the Middle East and Caucasus, on to South and Central Asia.

Posted by Gregory at March 7, 2005 01:50 AM | TrackBack (8)

Call me a nitpicker, but on the vary same trip I believe Condi said something along the lines of "Iran is not a totalitarian state."

Posted by: praktike at March 7, 2005 04:21 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The characterization of Americans as simpletons is apparently very deep in the European psyche. In London I have encountered it frequently -- and from our English allies! I can hardly imagine what the French, whose national self-image is apparently wrapped up in the idea of sophistication, must be like.

In the end, the only hypothesis I can fit the data with is a moral one. [This is adapted from Chapter XI of The Screwtape Letters.] It is easy to scoff, and hard to defend against scoffing. There is no inferiority, however manifest, which cannot be rationalized by belittling the means by which another's superior accomplishments were realized.

That Americans are simpletons is not falsifiable, however often we are proved right; even a stopped clock is right twice a day. No American success will be sufficient to overthrow this entrenched axiom.

Posted by: sammler at March 7, 2005 09:55 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I've had similar experiences in Europe, just before 9/11. Interestingly enough, it was always the English (not all Brits, just the English) who were most eager to tell me just how stupid they think Americans are because we voted for Bush back in 2000. Note, they did not dispute that he won; they did not trot out the Democrat dead-ender conspiracy theory that the Supremes rigged the election. Still, the English ladies that weren't high were always acting high-and-mighty, while the Dutch, the Danish, the Italians, the Germans, and the Welsh were on the whole very warm. The French didn't opine about politics, of course; generally speaking, they seemed to regard having to serve an English-speaker his coffee something akin to cleaning the latrine with one's bare hands. Okay, so it was really just the one guy at the Cafe Richeliu in the Louvre. The Algerian at another cafe seemed angry, but that was because a Russian customer that had been chatting me up had left without paying. The warmest welcome I got was from a small eatery that served overly bland poached salmon, and an American working at the Hard Rock Cafe on the Champs Elysee.

But that was all before 9/11.

Posted by: Bruce at March 7, 2005 09:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink



Posted by: Lance at March 8, 2005 04:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Dean's not an isolationist; that's just silly.

Posted by: Katherine at March 14, 2005 04:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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