Contending Schools

Contending Schools – two thoughts of foreign policy

Charles William Maynes

IN HIS BOOK Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger maintains that at the turn of the last century the United States faced a choice between two fundamentally different approaches to international relations, one represented by Theodore Roosevelt and the other by Woodrow Wilson. America was then emerging from decades of preoccupation with continental expansion, the country’s economic might was beginning to outdistance that of all others, and its merchants were establishing trade ties in every corner of the globe. Two schools of thought, represented by two men who became president, arose to vie for influence in charting America’s approach to such an altered world.

Theodore Roosevelt, president from 1901 to 1909, urged the nation to establish its relations with the rest of the world solidly on the concept of national interest, based on military might and balance of power diplomacy. Woodrow Wilson, president from 1913 to 1921, pressed the nation to support a foreign policy grounded in law and deriving strength from cooperation with others.

In Kissinger’s view, and in that of others in the traditional school of foreign policy to which he belongs, Wilson won the argument. As a consequence, America’s approach to the world has been colored by its resistance to the adoption of a more traditional, more European, more “realistic” view of international relations. That is to say, America has been hesitant to develop an approach to the rest of the world based on a quest for power and a determination to act according to the standard of the national interest. (We shall leave aside for now the paradox that a country allegedly so handicapped has been more successful diplomatically, and has accumulated more power, than any of the other countries that followed more traditional approaches to international affairs.)

Now America is entering another century, and, for many of the same reasons that the debate between Roosevelt and Wilson broke out at the beginning of the twentieth century, a new debate over America’s role in the world is taking place. Today, as then, America finds itself having successfully concluded a long struggle and wondering what to do next. When Roosevelt and Wilson argued about the direction of American foreign policy their clash took place against the backdrop of a nation successfully completing its internal consolidation. The nation was secure from coast to coast and hence free to consider important strategic choices, which it proceeded to do. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the emerging debate over foreign policy is taking place in a nation that has successfully prevailed in a global struggle against a powerful adversary. With international communism fatally crippled or functionally dead, the Soviet Union gone and the Warsaw Pact disbanded, America is again secure and, hence, as it was a century ago, free to consider different strategic choices.

There is another similarity. Americans are optimistic today about themselves and their future. As in the days of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, we are convinced that we know the way–politically and economically–and that therefore we have an obligation, if not also a right, to lead others to a better future.

Most counties, of course, are not so blessed by geography and history as to be able to consider radical new approaches to the world. They may enjoy temporary periods of enhanced security or their populations may develop a greater sense of confidence or optimism, but geography and history predetermine their international stance. They are trapped within narrow strategic margins.

America also faced such limitations so long as it was militarily weak and had not reached its natural limits. But once the country was internally consolidated, once other major powers were definitively excluded from its hemisphere, and its own population began to exceed that of all other industrialized countries, the United States developed into a unique state in the international system: It acquired, and still possesses, a larger strategic margin than that enjoyed by any other power.

It is therefore quite understandable that, at the beginning of the last century and at the beginning of this one, a debate over basic strategic options could take place. A country so confident and so secure begins to understand that it has options open to it that are not available to others. It has the luxury of the kind of public debate about its external options that most state elites try to avoid. And, indeed, over the past few years three schools of American commentators have begun to clarify three different approaches to the issue of America’s place in the world. Various labels have been applied to these schools. I believe that they are best described–in terms of the scope they envisage as appropriate for their country’s role–as the controllers, the shapers and the abstainers, it being understood that each school has its conservative and liberal wings.

The earliest of the three schools to advance its case has been that which seeks to control the international system. Its adherents are the self-proclaimed hegemonists, who have decided that it is in America’s interest to use its immense power not merely to make America the leader of the international system–its primus inter pares–but to dominate it. They call for major sacrifices in money and, if necessary, in blood to ensure that the American domination lasts as long as possible (though they acknowledge that one day it must end).

The shapers believe that a quest for leadership is more realistic than a quest for domination. They are cautious about the use of power. They believe that as powerful as America may be today, it cannot prevail without the help of others. In concert with allies and friends, America’s goal should be to shape the changing international environment into more permanent patterns that will benefit U.S. interests over the longer run.

In forming their view of America’s international posture, the abstainers focus on the demise of the Soviet Union and the pacifying effects of globalization. Since America is now no longer threatened by a major international foe, and as globalization is benign, America can comfortably scale down its active role in the world, trusting to natural balances the task of keeping the peace.

Despite their differences, all three schools of thought are attempting to confront the fundamental problem in international relations: How can the state be made secure? Each school of thought strives to place America within a system that will provide that security. The controllers believe it must be a system that America determines. The shapers believe it must be a system that America molds with the cooperation of others. The abstainers believe that the international system is now sufficiently benign or nonthreatening that America should neither control nor mold it.

A closer examination of each of these three broad schools of thought may shed light on the nature of American interests as we enter the twenty-first century.

The Controllers

IN THE post-Cold War context, the first to speak for the controllers was the administration of George Bush. As that administration drew to a close in late 1992, a draft Pentagon strategy paper, leaked to the press, called for the United States to exploit the demise of the Soviet Union in order to prevent the rise of any other power that could challenge the strategic position of the United States. U.S. policymakers would take steps not only to prevent the re-emergence of another threat based in Moscow, but also to make sure that America’s allies, in particular Germany and Japan, remained in a dependent condition.

Such views have not been restricted to Republicans. In the late 1990s, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, published The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, in which he argued, with reference to the approach of ancient Rome, that America should exploit its new dominance to follow a strategy “to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.”

The American press judged the paper developed by the Bush Pentagon to be a bid for world hegemony. In response to the ensuing public furor, the Bush administration repudiated the paper as official policy, though, as the administration left office, the Pentagon published a declassified version that said much the same thing in more subdued language.

Given one’s view of the international system, the position expressed in the paper can remain not only a legitimate option but a necessary choice for the United States. The new “hegemonic realists” begin their arguments with a fear and an observation: No state, not even an ally or a democracy, can be trusted over the long run. Inevitably, another state will rise up to challenge U.S. power. Ever has it been thus and ever will it be.

America now has power unparalleled in the modern era. Perhaps not since the days of imperial Rome or ancient China has a single state so dominated the international system. Like them, the United States towers above others in military technology, economic development, political cohesion and cultural magnetism. Why not use that power, as Rome did, to hold down others as long as one can?

Vocal in expressing the conservative side of this viewpoint have been William Kristol and Robert Kagan of The Weekly Standard. The case they make can be traced back to arguments advanced by Hans Morgenthau in his seminal book on power politics, Politics among Nations, published in the early 1950s. According to Morgenthau, “Human nature, in which the laws of politics have their roots, has not changed since the classical philosophies of China, India, and Greece endeavored to discover those laws.” If this statement is true, then it is a chimera to expect much better behavior from modem states than the recorded behavior of ancient states. The wars, massacres and betrayals will continue unless a hegemon emerges to force other states into a structure that makes it impossible for them to threaten the hegemon, or one another.

From such a pessimistic view of human nature, guidelines for policy follow:

* The United States should seek hegemony because, if it does not, someone else will. Better America dominating others rather than others dominating America.

* The international system, inherently anarchic, needs someone in control. Today, the United States is the only power able to impose control on the international system. If America does not exercise control, there will be either control by others or chaos.

* Others will strive to displace America from its position of superiority; and some of them may be dangerous. Precisely for that reason, America must use its superiority to retard others in their effort to develop the ability to challenge the United States.

* Though no one likes a hegemon, America will be a much better hegemon than others would be. On balance, America will exercise its power with some restraint. American hegemony will be relatively benign and therefore perhaps more tolerated.

* Who ever dominates the international system militarily will, to a significant extent, be able to dictate to it politically and economically. This presents the United States with an opportunity to “fix” in place the system, at least temporarily, to its own benefit.

Though the “controllers” acknowledge that ultimately other powers will rebel against American hegemony, and at some point will coalesce to attempt to pull America from its perch, it is in the U.S. interest to delay that moment as long as possible. Doing so will be expensive. The editors of The Weekly Standard call for a sharp increase–as much as $80 billion yearly–to the already large American defense budget (a budget that is currently larger than the combined military expenditures of all the other major powers).

There is also a liberal or progressive answer to the question of what to do with America’s enormous and essentially unchallenged military power in a post-Cold War world that similarly favors American control. Progressives typically distrust a foreign policy based on the cold, traditional definition of national interest, an approach to international affairs that they associate with war and conquest. As a rule, they are also more optimistic about the human condition, rejecting the belief that human nature is unchanging.

At the same time, many progressives believe profoundly that, properly used, the power of government is capable of bettering the human condition. They also mourn the fact that the international system, though much safer since the demise of the Soviet Union, is not sufficiently benign in character. There are still states governed by evil people. There is still much suffering and unrealized human potential. Since America enjoys such military superiority, they argue, why not use that power, not to hold down friends, but to eradicate evil and to do good?

These “hegemonic liberals”, then, accept that international affairs involve some harsh realities, but contend that, through democratic governance, America and probably all of its democratic allies have risen above them. As the world consists, then, of the civilized and the uncivilized, it is the duty (and in the interest) of the former to impose order on the latter.

Authors like David Rieff, deputy editor of World Policy Journal, thus urge the United States to exploit its military superiority, not to impose a world hegemony over states (such as China or Germany) with the inherent potential to challenge America some day, but to impose order over currently distasteful, uncivilized powers like the Balkan states, Sierra Leone and Haiti. In Rieff’s stark words, “Our choice at the millennium seems to boil down to imperialism or barbarism.” [1] In the last century, people talked of the “white man’s burden.” In this century, the hegemonic liberals urge America to assume a decency burden. America should use its power to compel others to behave properly.

The very disparity between America’s military power and that of the rest of the world imparts tremendous emotional force to this call for decency. The disparity, it is maintained, implies an obligation to act. In these terms, America in the international system begins to resemble the adult in a school playground who witnesses a large teenager beating up on a five year-old. Does that adult not have an obligation to step in to stop the abuse?

Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, of course, it would have been impractical and dangerous for America to act in the way either branch of controllers–conservative or liberal–wishes it to act. But given the preponderance America now enjoys, the controllers maintain that it would be a dereliction of national interest or moral duty not to do so.

The Shapers

THE QUESTION arises: Do the American people have the taste for empire that such a project of control would entail? Do Americans have either the will or the skill to lord over foes, allies or the “uncivilized”? George Kennan, the historian and diplomat, cautions his fellow Americans not to be mesmerized by their own power. In humanitarian interventions that would require taking over the powers of other governments to the point of engaging in a form of neocolonialism, “neither dollars nor bayonets” will assure success, he warned in an interview with the New York Review of Books.

In light of such considerations, another school of thought has risen up: the “prudent realists”, or shapers, as I shall call them. Its adherents argue that, rather than engage in a futile and dangerous quest for hegemony, America should work with others to try to shape the international environment in a manner that serves not only its national interest, but that of the others as well.

Former officials of the Clinton administration’s Department of Defense occupy the conservative wing of this school. William Perry, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., and Ashton Carter have asserted that the United States in recent years has lost sight of its true national interest, which is protection of the heartland. The vagaries of press interest and coverage have redirected the nation’s attention and energies away from core issues toward areas of concern that are not critical to the nation’s future. What is more important: a better government in Haiti or guarding against a backlash in Russia similar to the reaction in Weimar Germany that led to Hitler’s rise? Should the nation’s top diplomats be spending most of their time on the Balkans, or trying to assist China in a peaceful transition from communist renegade to reliable regional partner?

These analysts have classified threats to the United States into three categories:

* Threats that could affect America’s core security; e.g., a wayward Russia, a hostile China, widening acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

* Regional conflicts that might involve the United States because of treaty commitments or balance of power considerations; e.g., a war in the Persian Gulf.

* Problems at the periphery that capture the headlines; e.g., Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia and Haiti.

Another conservative shaper is Richard Haass, until recently director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution and now head of policy planning in the Bush State Department. U.S. primacy, he cautions, cannot last forever. Hence, America’s goal should be to persuade other centers of power to support “constructive solutions” to the issues that the world will face. America should attempt to build an international order based on four premises: less of a reliance on force to resolve international disputes; reducing the number of weapons of mass destruction; settling for a limited doctrine of humanitarian intervention; and maximum feasible economic openness. Could there be a better agenda for a prudent realist?

The categories we have discussed thus far help to clarify the Clinton administration’s foreign policy record. Overall, the administration proved to be more cautious than a “hegemonic liberal” might hope. It stopped short of such ventures as engaging in nation-building in Africa, for example. But it proved to be more adventuresome than a prudent realist might prefer. It did, after all, establish a U.S. protectorate in the Balkans, under a NATO flag, that will in all likelihood last for decades.

The Clinton administration’s preference, however, was to assume a more benign world than that which exists in the Balkans. In so far as it is possible to discern a clear, primary concern over the past eight years, it has been one of trying to assist history’s “invisible hand” to spread democracy and free markets. The belief was that this hand was already at work, but that it needed the application of American diplomacy to accelerate its progress.

A much more optimistic and liberal vision of the international system and of human nature than that held by the hegemonists lies behind the Clinton approach. Research by scholars such as Michael Doyle, a professor of political science at Princeton University, has advanced evidence for the belief that democratic states are by their very structure peaceful, at least in their dealings with one another. With this core belief as a foundation, the Clinton administration’s preference was for policy that would spread free markets, which would lead to the development of a middle class, whose members, in turn, would demand an opening of the political process. It was a form of upside-down (or right side-up) Marxism: Economics drives politics, but this time toward middle class democracy, not the dictatorship of the proletariat. And since democracies do not attack one another, free trade will bring not only prosperity but world peace. At the end of this cycle, the rules of international politics themselves can be rewritt en, codified, and the new structure strengthened through institutionalization.

The theory, of course, rests on the assumption that what has not happened until now–democracies warring with one another–cannot happen. The test might come if countries with no liberal tradition–say, those of the Arab world–were to become democratic, and then were engaged in contesting access–both on the part of each other and of outside democracies–to vital resources such as water and oil. Would democracy then prevent them from fighting?

In any case, given such an optimistic theory as a premise, any sensible administration would be concerned to give history a push. Following this logic, the Clinton administration has aggressively pressed for the establishment of free-trade agreements with a growing number of countries around the world. It also pressed the issue of enlarging NATO even at the cost of disturbing relations with Russia. President Clinton put the final theoretical piece in his approach to international politics in place when, in his last year in office, he called for Russian membership in both the European Union and NATO, once Moscow met the membership criteria. Pulling Russia into some kind of institutional structure could suspend the laws of international politics that have applied in Europe for centuries, just as it is assumed that American world hegemony could suspend those laws for much of the rest of the world.

The Abstainers

TWO SEMINAL events have made the position of abstainer a more credible approach to foreign policy than it was for most of the twentieth century: the end of the Cold War and what we have quickly learned to call globalization.

After World War II, the struggle with the Soviet Union rendered the position of American isolationism untenable. An enemy that seemed to have a presence everywhere had to be confronted everywhere. At the same time, the model of economic development Western states had developed as a result of the experience of both the Great Depression and the Second World War called for a committed form of internationalism, involving market interference by governments and their public sector bankers to keep the world economy on the right track. Now the Cold War has ended and the growing strength of globalization, with its open borders and floating exchange rates, has put the market back in the driver’s seat.

With the loss of an external threat, the U.S. government was suddenly deprived of the argument that there was no foreign policy option other than internationalism. And with the “invisible hand” working its globalist magic, Americans and others had yet another reason to reconsider their approach to international affairs. Governments began to lose their monopoly over international relations. Transnational actors–businesses, non-governmental organizations, the news media and private individuals from Jimmy Carter to George Soros to the Pope–quickly came to exert more influence than senior U.S. officials.

Looking at these developments, some observers–Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for example–contend that a “power shift” has taken place in international politics and that transnational actors are now “able to push around even the largest governments.” If one believes these actors are benign, as many globalists do, one might well conclude that we should sit back and relax, since increasingly governments can present only the “appearance of free choice” when they set out to make the rules. [2] Of course, individuals who hold such views know that the new force of globalization brings some ill as well as much good. Nevertheless, the case they make progressively calls into question whether the historic game of geopolitics played by empires and democracies alike throughout the course of history will continue to dominate international politics. Why not, then, draw the obvious conclusion that a frantic concern with control is misplaced and pointless, and that the most th at is called for will be modest and occasional efforts at small course corrections?

While Mathews and those who agree with her make a persuasive case and point to real and important changes, the fact that similar claims about the consequences of interdependence and earlier versions of “globalization” have been made by others in the last two centuries–Cobden, Marx and Engels, Norman Angell immediately come to mind–suggests that a degree of caution is in order. The demise of the sovereign nation-state has often been announced, but it is a long time dying.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in his bestselling book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, expresses the new view graphically when he contends that if a nation wishes to enjoy the prosperity of the new globalized economy, it must put on a “Golden Straitjacket.” And once a nation is properly fitted, it finds that “two things tend to happen: your economy grows and your politics shrinks.” The competence of the state remains important, Friedman argues, but as in the delimited role of tailor and valet for the straightjacket.

Countries so bound may enjoy “more growth and higher average incomes”, but their political and economic policy choices are narrowed to “relatively tight parameters.” In Friedman’s view, this is the principal reason that there is now very little difference between the policies of those in power and those in opposition “in those counties that have put on the Golden Straitjacket.” Supporting his case is the record of governments in France and the United States in recent years. Regardless of election promises or changes in administration, policy remains fundamentally unaltered.

Of course, the suggestion is that it would be rational for governments to put on the Golden Straitjacket voluntarily. But as not everyone involved in the game of international politics is rational, Friedman would not abandon the military instrument. Nevertheless, his view of globalization, which is widely shared in financial circles, offers a very optimistic view of international relations, one suggesting that countries increasingly will lock themselves into an international structure of economic interchange that will ensure a more peaceful world. Within this structure, problems like international terrorism and criminality may remain, but the scale of bloodletting experienced in the world wars will be gone forever. Indeed, once every country is in the straitjacket, the centuries-old problem of international security will largely be solved.

Thus for the liberal abstainer, economics is more important than politics; conversely, for the conservative abstainer–the traditional isolationist–politics is more important than economics. The liberal abstainer, convinced that globalism will lift all boats, believes the nation’s highest priority is to open markets among economies and communications among cultures. The conservative abstainer, on the other hand, is worried that global forces will constrict political choice in the United States and thus erode national sovereignty–precisely the development their liberal counterparts praise.

Tom Friedman wants America, like other nations, to wear the Golden Straitjacket. Pat Buchanan fights to ensure that, no matter what the benefits, America will never try it on, because once worn it will be impossible to shed. Buchanan, it is worth noting, can only take the positions he does because America is now so secure. The United States can go its own way only as long as that is true. Buchanan would use America’s strength to consolidate the home front, with America ready to repel any power that dares challenge the United States in any fundamental way.

The goal is to keep America out of harm’s way, and the best way to do this now is through disengagement rather than engagement. The United States can withdraw from the 1947 Rio Pact with Latin American governments–which calls for collective action against a potential aggressor–because no such aggressor exists. It can abrogate any security treaty that requires the country to go to war automatically, while at the same time remaining allied with certain critical states. These states will no longer need an American armed presence on their soil to ensure their security, but will settle for American good will. Thus, U.S. ground troops would leave Western Europe and South Korea. In other words, America need no longer serve as a front-line state forever taking the lead; it can return to the restricted and safer role of the West’s “strategic reserve.”

Ironically, the hegemonists and the isolationists share a common vision: Each group wants to make sure that America remains the sole arbiter of its own fate, the former by keeping others subservient, the latter by staying out of their quarrels. The shapers, both conservatives and liberals, do not believe that U.S. power, vast though it has become, is sufficient for America to ignore or reject the need for allies and friends.

Questions and Choices

AT THE BEGINNING of the last century; Americans interested in foreign policy had an advantage that those similarly interested today do not: Leading the debate over foreign policy choices were two exceptionally eloquent national figures–Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

By contrast, today’s politics produce–perhaps require–political figures of narrow electoral calculation rather than lofty policy conviction. Since Reagan in the 1980s, no recent president or presidential candidate has been willing to make his vision of America’s role in the world a major thrust of his message to the country. All have suffered from the lack of the “vision thing”, and perhaps all agree in private that displaying it might prove politically lethal.

The schools of thought that have developed in recent years are therefore the work of a mostly anonymous foreign policy intellectual elite rather than that of major national figures. This circumstance has both advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that we are not carried away by eloquence alone. Woodrow Wilson, by all accounts a mesmerizing speaker, may have been more skilled at framing issues for the public than Teddy Roosevelt. But it is not clear that he had a better approach to international relations for the period the country was entering than did Roosevelt. To put the best gloss on his career, he appears to have been ahead of his time.

A key disadvantage surrounding our current debates is that they take place out of electoral earshot. The three schools of thought, each with its two ideological wings, frame thinking on foreign policy. They help to determine responses from administrations. But they pass no test of public support, so that, even if adopted, their doctrines are subject to rapid repudiation. And, indeed, in recent years the United States has announced and then renounced such different foreign policy approaches as a “new world order”, assertive multilateralism, a la carte interventionism, priority to Russia and China, stress on alliance ties, democratic enlargement, and humanitarian intervention.

An expressly public and political forum is needed to begin to answer some fundamental questions: America has the power of Rome, but does it have its ambition? If America acquires the ambition, will it be able to maintain it? Americans clearly enjoy the role of leader, but will they accept the sacrifices that such a role will inevitably require?

Americans insist that others consult them, but will Americans consult with others? Americans want partners, but do they always understand the difference between partners and supplicants?

Should America’s guiding star be respect for the law, or should it be the establishment of order? Is America’s premier role model abroad that of the judge or the general?

Do Americans believe that the laws of international relations are immutable, or do they believe that states, if set in a certain institutional structure, can move beyond a mere quest for power? What is that structure and to which states does it apply?

Realists denounce those who urge humanitarian interventions, but can a hegemon maintain the respect from others that its position requires if it remains totally indifferent to what is happening within the system, even at the periphery? On the other hand, does the rule that assertive hegemons will, sooner rather than later, be met by countries determined to balance and contain their power–does that rule not apply to American hegemony? And if not, why not?

America is a status quo power that benefits enormously from the current balance of power in the international system. But, considering that a wave of anti-Americanism is sweeping the globe, should it rest content?

Americans need a serious debate on how best to defend their advantage. It seems unlikely, on the basis of a decade of waiting, that this debate will develop as a result of executive branch initiative. It is perhaps time for the Congress to open up hearings on the advantages and disadvantages of the broad options that the three schools of thought outlined here have developed.

Charles William Maynes is president of the Eurasia Foundation, which promotes economic and political reform in the former Soviet Union. From 1980 to 1997 he was editor of Foreign Policy.

(1.) Rieff, “A New Age of Liberal Imperialism?”, World Policy Journal (Summer 1999), p. 10.

(2.) Mathews, Foreign Affairs (January/February 1997), pp. 53, 57.

It Was Ever Thus

Whenever, and from whatever causes, it might happen; and happen it would, that any one of these nations or confederacies should rise on the scale of political importance much above the degree of their neighbours, that moment would those neighbours behold her with envy and fear: Both those passions would lead them to countenance, if not to promote, whatever might promise to diminish her importance; and would also restrain them from measures calculated to advance, or even to secure her prosperity. Much time would not be necessary to enable her to discern these unfriendly dispositions–She would soon begin, not only to lose confidence in her neighbours, but also to feel a disposition equally unfavorable to them: Distrust naturally creates distrust, and by nothing is good will and kind conduct more speedily changed, than by invidious jealousies and uncandid imputations, whether expressed or implied.

John Jay, The Federalist No. 5

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