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Diplomacy and Empire (Part III)

What can the United States do to regain its image as a haven of freedom?

March 1, 2007

What can the United States do to regain its image as a haven of freedom?

The last half of the 20th century was, as Henry Luce had hoped, in many ways an American century. We became the preeminent society on the planet not by force of arms — but by the power of our principles and the attraction of our example. The effort to replace that preeminence with military dominion is failing badly. There will be no American imperium.

Diplomacy and Empire
by Chas W. Freeman
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

The effort to bully the world into accepting one has instead set in motion trends that threaten both the core values of our republic and the prospects for a world order based on something other than the law of the jungle. Militarism is not an effective substitute for diplomacy in persuading other peoples to do things one’s way.

Coercive measures are off-putting and are not conducive to productive relationships with foreign nations. Other peoples’ money can provide an excuse for continued self-indulgence. It is not a sound foundation for economic leadership. Obsessive secrecy is incompatible with innovation. Fear of foreigners and rule by cover-your-ass securocrats is a combination that breeds weakness, not strength.

More than anything now, we need to get a grip on ourselves. September 11 was almost five and a half years ago. There has been no follow-up attack on our homeland.

We are far from Waziristan — and Al-Qaeda’s leaders are obsessed with matching, if not exceeding, their previous standard of iconic success, something even much more talented terrorists than they would find it hard to do. Perhaps in time they will succeed — but our nation will endure. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda’s associates elsewhere have felt no such operational constraints, especially in Europe.

Yet, despite all the bombings there by homegrown and Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, government offices in Europe are still accessible to the public, security measures at transportation nodes are respectfully efficient, the rule of law continues to prevail — and the rights of citizens remain intact.

The contrast with the situation here underscores the extent to which Al-Qaeda has achieved its central objectives. It has unhinged America and alienated us from the world. We are apparently willing to sacrifice everything, including the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, to achieve absolute security from risks that others rightly consider nasty but manageable.

Quite aside from the fact that absolute security is absolutely impossible, this is not who we were. It is not who most of us want to be.

The United States of America defines itself by its values, not its territory or ethnicity. The supreme purpose of our foreign policy must be to defend our values and to do so by means that do not corrode them. By these measures, what we are doing now is directly counterproductive. It must be changed.

Let me very briefly propose a few principles to guide such change:

First, an America driven by dread and delusion into the construction of a garrison state, ruled by a presidency claiming inherent powers rather than by our constitution and our laws, is an America that can be counted upon to respect neither the freedoms of its own people nor those of others.

The key to the defense of both the United States and the freedom that defines us as a great nation is to retain our rights and cultivate our liberties, not to yield them to our government — and to honor and defend, not to invade, the sovereignty of other nations and individuals.

Second, it is time to recognize that freedom spreads by example and a helping hand to those who seek it. It cannot be imposed on others by coercive means, no matter how much shock and awe these elicit.

Neither can it be installed by diatribe and denunciation nor proclaimed from the false security of fortified buildings. We must come home to our traditions, restore the openness of our society, and resume our role as, in the words of John Adams, “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all … [but] the champion and vindicator only of our own.”

Third, credibility is not enhanced by persistence in counterproductive policies, no matter how much one has already invested in them. The reinforcement of failure is a poor substitute for its correction.

Doing more of the same does not make bad strategy sound or snatch successful outcomes from wars of attrition. All it does is convince onlookers that one is so stubbornly foolish that one is not afraid to die.

Admitting that mistakes have been made and taking remedial action generally does more for credibility than soldiering blindly on. The United States needs big course corrections on quite a range of foreign and domestic policies at present.

Fourth, we must recover the habit of listening and curb our propensity to harangue. We might, in fact, consider a war on arrogance to complement our war on terror.

Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the thuggish kidnappings of “extraordinary rendition,” the Jersey barrier and an exceptional aptitude for electronic eavesdropping cannot be allowed permanently to displace the Statue of Liberty and a reputation for aspiration to higher standards as the symbols of America to the world.

To regain both our self-respect and our power to persuade rather than coerce the world, we must restore our aspiration to distinguish our country not by the might of its armed forces — but by its civility and devotion to liberty.

The best way to assure the power to cope with emergencies is to refrain from the abuse of power in ordinary times.

Most of the world would still follow America — if only they could find it. We must help them rediscover it. That, not bullying behavior or a futile effort at imperial dominion, is the surest path to security for Americans.