Sign Up

Tuned Out: U.S. Foreign Policy After the Cold War

Can the United States learn to listen to the international community again?

September 16, 2005

Can the United States learn to listen to the international community again?

The U.S. debate on our foreign policy priorities is missing something very fundamental. Americans are discussing this issue as if only the United States was concerned with national security — and as if only the United States is confronting the plague of terror, or indeed natural disasters or any other global threat.

We behave like only we Americans have the answers — and this is very lamentable. During the Cold War, while it was understood that the United States was the driving force in the world, we never deviated from our understanding that we had allies. We called on people for their contributions, we certainly benefited from what they had to tell us — and from what we could learn from them.

Somehow, as we emerged as a hegemonic power in the post-Cold War world, we lost that ability to listen to others and to learn from them. And this phenomenon concerns not only the Bush Administration, but can be observed across the board.

During the 2004 presidential and congressional campaign, many candidates kept repeating what to me was a sure sign of how self-indulgent and self-absorbed Americans have become: "We reserve the right to act alone when our nation is in danger."

I have two problems with that declaration and the way it was used during the election campaign. First of all, no one — in the United States or abroad — has ever questioned the right of the United States to defend itself.

Second, and more seriously, that sentiment hardly was the answer to the problems the United States faced in the world in 2004 — and it is not the answer for the problems the United States is facing in 2005.

To address the global threats we are facing, such as terrorism, we have to have the support and the good judgment of vast numbers of countries around the world.

And yet, we have turned our back on the United Nations, on regional organizations and on all sorts of international groupings that we spent decades to create, that we put countless amounts of money into and that we believed — and many of us still believe — have much to offer.

Therefore, I would like to see a serious discussion rise up again in the United States as to how the world community, with the United States as the major actor in it, will cope with crises.

And terrorism is not the only such crisis we will have to face. For example, much has been made of the failures of Federal Emergency Management Agency before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

But did the United States call upon the UN or the international community for all the disaster relief expertise that they could have offered? Such expertise was readily available and had dealt with similar crises across the globe multiple times.

But we did not take the world up on their offers of help when it could have had a decisive impact — and possibly could have saved lives.

And I don't fault simply President Bush for this failure, because rejecting foreign help would have been the natural response for whoever held the presidency. The belief that we have the answers and we can provide everything prevents us from seeing the larger picture.

For this and other reasons, Americans have to do some soul-searching on where we stand today in our relationship with the rest of the world — and it's not just because a lot of the world doesn't think highly of us. I believe that a key reason of our growing isolation is that we do not draw on the knowledge and skill of others.

Another key example is intelligence, a key component of the war against terror. Obviously, without the benefit and support of intelligence services all across the world, it is hopeless to deal with terrorism.

It is clear that we need to benefit from whatever others know and what their skills are. Unfortunately, we have done very poorly in this task in recent years.

One salient issue illustrates the point. Democratizing the Middle East requires deep knowledge of the culture, mores and history of the people of the region. There are other nations, particularly those with a long history of involvement in the Middle East, that have much to teach us.

Yet, we find that all wisdom for the United States is now produced in Washington by people with very little in the way of background and expertise or, for that matter, who have ever lived in the region. This is not a formula for success.

What I am really making is a plea that we get back somehow to the era that most of us would agree was our greatest era — the post-World War II period. During that time, Americans led the free world in building the structures for a true world community in which the United States interacted with others in a most effective manner.

What Americans have to realize now is that we are not always right. In fact, we are often wrong. We don't always have the answers. In fact, we seldom have the answers — and I would like to bring that back into focus.

Most international lawyers start their studies with an in-depth look at the writings of Hugo Grotius, a 17th century Dutch jurist and diplomat, who is often referred to as the father of the law of nations.

One of his greatest insights was that law-governing relations between nations must be predicated on a respect for the opinion of others. His majestic work, "The Law of War and Peace," published in 1625, acknowledges this as a first principle.

Even the first sentence of the U.S. Declaration of Independence contains a reference to "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."

In closing, we cannot deny that — in these last four years in particular — we have failed multiple times to have a decent respect for the opinion of mankind. And that may not have advanced our nation's own interests and standing in the world.