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U.S. Citizens and Foreign Policy

Gary Hart on why Americans need to be more involved in global issues.

October 7, 2004

Gary Hart on why Americans need to be more involved in global issues.

It has been said that with great power comes great responsibility.This applies to individuals as well as to nations and their citizens. In this Globalist Interview, Gary Hart — former U.S. Senator (D-Colo.) and author of “The Fourth Power: A Grand Strategy for the United States in the 21st Century” — argues that if Americans want to be the good neighbors, they must not leave foreign policy decisions up to political elites.

After the Iraq War, what is the biggest lesson to be drawn in the U.S. foreign policy arena?

"The world has long known that war is too important to be left to the generals. Now in the 21st century, we realize that foreign policy is too important to be left to specialized elites and interests."

What's wrong with that?

"As a nation, we simply cannot afford to let our role in the world be dictated by one group or another — regardless of whether they are ideologues with their special biases and agendas, militarists longing for the pseudo-clarity of Cold War confrontation or think-tank theorists who essentially grind their academic axes."

So what needs to happen?

“If we don’t want to let our relations with the peoples of the world be the province of so-called experts, then all Americans must be more engaged in their nation’s conduct in the world.”

What could U.S. foreign policy look like under those circumstances?

"At its core, our foreign policy should reflect the values of the American people: our belief in our freedom, our desire to be friends and helpful neighbors both abroad and when we greet them here at home — and most of all a policy that leaves a legacy to our children that makes them proud of us."

On what do you base the notion this could work?

"What gives us our strength globally is rooted in who we are. Remember, we start with a natural advantage in the world given the desire of most of the world's peoples to share our norms, albeit in their own cultures, where possible. They do not necessarily want to become us. They want to share what we have, what we have achieved."

The U.S. military is the strongest in the world. Why do citizens need to get involved?

"For the first time since the War of 1812, our national security has become a function of the global community. America will prevail in this new age more because of the strength of its citizens than the power of its military.”

What is the biggest obstacle in realizing your vision?

"We Americans are still often blissfully unaware of how hypocritical we appear to other peoples when we act in contradiction to our stated values — or when we refuse to acknowledge the obvious reasons for our behavior."

How do you explain this?

"There may be a divide between America's leaders and the American people. If the American people believe that we act according to our principles when in fact we do not, then either we are deceived by our leaders — or we have become willing participants in self-deception and attempted deception of others."

Can you give an example?

"Few outside the United States believed that that the Iraqi government represented a terrorist threat to the United States, but that was the principal reason given for our invasion of Iraq in 2003."

But the United States is hardly the only country that at times says one thing and does another, is it?

"True, policy based on interest has characterized nations' conduct throughout human history. There is nothing new in that. And on the best of occasions, principle and interest coincide."

Are things more complicated in the case of the United States?

"Yes, they are — we have a long history claiming to be an exceptional nation. Whenever policy based on interest collides with the notion of exceptionalism — that is, the sense that we are a principled nation bound together by a set of noble ideals — is the moment when charges of hypocrisy surface."

So should the U.S. abandon the notion of exceptionalism?

"No. It is bliss for a great nation to believe itself to be exceptional — and to behave exceptionally. But we have to realize the flip side of that equation: It is confusion at best — and cynicism at worst — to claim one thing and then do another."

How can one overcome that notion of U.S. hypocrisy?

“Our success around the world fundamentally depends not on America’s selling of its values and ideals — but on its living them.”

What is your conclusion?

"The veil separating the foreign policy priesthood from the people must be removed. We, the people, must insist that our nation's finest principles characterize our dealings with our global neighbors."

For more on these and other issues, read Senator Hart’s The Fourth Power (Oxford University Press, 2004).