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Getting 21st Century U.S. Foreign Policy Right

Unilateralism or integration? What should guide future U.S. foreign policy?

June 8, 2005

Unilateralism or integration? What should guide future U.S. foreign policy?

None of three post-Cold War presidencies in the United States has successfully articulated a comprehensive foreign policy or national security doctrine.

The first Bush Administration spoke of a “New World Order,” but never defined it. The Clinton Administration wrote of enlarging the circle of democracies — but never put this enterprise at the center of a consistent foreign policy.

Attempts to ascribe a “Bush Doctrine” to the first term of George W. Bush came up short, as there was less a coherent policy than a mix of counterterrorism, democracy promotion, preemption and unilateralism.

As popular as unilateralism was made out to be in recent times, it is really ruled out as a U.S. national security doctrine. No single country, no matter how powerful, can contend successfully on its own with transnational challenges. Any such effort will fail.

It will also have two other adverse consequences: It will stimulate the reemergence of a world defined by a balance of power and it will erode the economic (and possibly political and military) foundations of U.S. strength that are in part responsible for the opportunity that now exists.

None of this should be construed as an argument against American leadership. But leadership implies followership. Unilateralism is just that: acting alone. Most of today’s pressing problems cannot be met by the United States alone, given the nature of the problems themselves and the realistic limits to American power.

To take just one example, critical foreign policy tools — such as sanctions — will have little impact unless other potential partners of a target government join the United States in a policy of isolation.

The administration of George W. Bush is fond of saying that the United States needs no permission slip from the United Nations or anybody else to act. This is true. No country — and certainly no great power — would or should allow itself to be so hamstrung.

But this in no way negates the point that the United States can only achieve what it seeks in the world if others work with it — as opposed to against it or not at all. In the end, the United States does not need the world’s permission to act, but it does need the world’s support to succeed.

Isolationism is no better as an alternative. No country can escape the consequences of globalization. It is not simply that there is no hiding from globalization.

It is also that the world cannot be expected to sort itself out without leadership, something only the United States can provide right now. Unlike in Adam Smith’s economic model, there is no invisible hand ensuring that all works out for the best in the geopolitical marketplace.

Counterterrorism alone does not constitute an adequate foreign policy ambition for the United States, either. It is too narrow in scope and provides no guidance for dealing with a majority of the opportunities and challenges posed by globalization and international relations.

Moreover, the surest way to address the threat of terrorism is integration. Only by integrating other countries into the struggle against existing and potential terrorism can the United States succeed.

Promoting democracy is another potential foreign policy lodestar, one that appears to be contrary to the preferred approach of the second term of George W. Bush.

“America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one,” the president proclaimed in his second inaugural address. “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

“We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies.”

It is, however, neither desirable nor practical to make democracy promotion a foreign policy doctrine. Too many pressing threats in which the lives of millions hang in the balance — from dealing with today’s terrorists and managing Iranian and North Korean nuclear capabilities to coping with protectionism and genocide — will not be solved by the emergence of democracy.

Promoting democracy is and should be one foreign policy goal, but it cannot be the only or dominant objective. When it comes to relations with Russia or China, other national security interests must normally take precedence over concerns about how they choose to govern themselves.

The fact that promoting democracy can be difficult and expensive also reduces its attraction as a foreign policy compass.

By contrast, integration can be a bold, transforming strategy by which the United States can shape the next era of history.

“Integration” is a word that brings to mind certain images, most often those associated with efforts to bring about a society in which race or religion do not define individual rights or access to services. In its most basic sense, however, it entails the combining or incorporating of parts into a larger whole.

An American foreign policy based upon a doctrine of integration would have three dimensions. First, it would aim to create a cooperative relationship among the world’s major powers — a 21st-century concert — built on a common commitment to promoting certain principles and outcomes.

Second, it would seek to translate this commitment into effective arrangements and actions.

Third, it would work to bring in other countries, organizations and peoples so that they come to enjoy the benefits of physical security, economic opportunity and political freedom.

The goal would be to create a more integrated world both in the sense of integrating (involving) as many governments and organizations and societies as possible and in the sense of bringing about a more integrated (cooperative) international community so that the challenges central to the modern era could better be met.

This is an optimistic prospect, but one more modest in imagination than, say, someone writing amid World War II of a Europe in which Franco-German friendship is the cornerstone, or of someone writing in 1951 (the year I was born) of a post-Cold War, post-Soviet world in which markets and democracies are more the world’s rule than an exception.

An integrated world can, with American guidance, become an achievable reality.

From the book “The Opportunity: America’s Moment to Alter History’s Course” by Richard N. Haass, Copyright© 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group.