Issue #23, Winter 2012

Accepting Limits: How to Adapt to a Copernican World

To read the other essays in the “First Principles: America and the World” symposium, click here.

Given both the uncertainties inherent in foreign policy and the often-mixed objectives at stake, there is a strategic logic to hedging support for leaders who, while undemocratic at home, are our friends in the foreign policy domain. But there are limits beyond which such hedging becomes hypocrisy. This bears especially on the Arab Spring. For decades our relations with Arab regimes in one administration after another followed the old adage, “He may be an S.O.B. but he’s our S.O.B.” We sprinkled some rhetoric about democracy and made gestures toward reform, but very little actually changed. That straddle, always questionable, is no longer tenable. There still needs to be a balance—democracy-promotion purism is neither practical nor prudent. But while our S.O.B. policies might appear redolent of realpolitik, such an approach actually reverses the leverage in our diplomatic relationships, giving power to leaders who think the United States can be spooked into giving them blank checks. Hosni Mubarak could continue to be all the more autocratic, corrupt, and able to rebuff U.S. “suggestions” for reform by invoking the terrorist threat. When Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh needed Yemeni troops and intelligence operations to try to stay in power, he diverted them from the counterterrorism missions that were part of our S.O.B. bargain. Moreover, there is the risk that successor regimes come to power through more violent means and with more anti-American orientations than otherwise because of the United States’s close identification with the S.O.B. regime.

We must not make the same mistake with political Islam that we did with the Third World during the Cold War, when we lumped together leaders, parties, and movements that in any way smacked of radicalism as part of the Soviet orbit. Political Islam is here to stay. It will be in the political mix more often than not. It is another part of the Copernican world. While transnational links to Al Qaeda or Iran or other similar actors need to be taken into account in shaping our relations, such factors shouldn’t trump all other considerations. Instead, such connections must be weighed, hard-headedly, as part of a broader assessment of the goals, strategies, visions, and leadership of different Islamist parties and movements in different countries.

There should be no expectation of democracy springing forth like Athena from Zeus’s head; it never has and never will, anywhere. But it also is the case that potential opportunities are being opened up for alternative paths towards societal changes that counter jihadism more organically than any U.S. policy mix of counterterrorism and public diplomacy can. Policies need to be tailored to oppose those inimical to our values and threatening our interests, while remaining open to those with whom coexistence and cooperation may be possible despite our differences. Here too the principled flexibility that marks progressives is much more what we need than the fixed ideologies that conservatives carry.

Mustering Strength from Within

Two things are certain about the twenty-first century world. It is a disorderly place. But it’s not a Hobbesian jungle out there. Nor, though, is there some new world order in the offing—neither the liberal peace neo-Wilsonians aspire to, nor the U.S. hegemony neoconservatives seek. The sources of disorder go beyond any particular bad actor(s) to the complex mix of geopolitics and globalization. Best-case scenarios for international cooperation are more about limiting disorder than establishing order.

It also is a highly competitive place. More players are in the game, more arenas are being contested. The global economy has more buyers and sellers than ever before. Scientific and technological advances are coming from labs and research centers in more and more parts of the world. Different political systems boast relative strengths. Distinct cultures have their own allures. In such a world even the most successful foreign and defense policies will help only partially. External power, hard and soft, has its limits. Global influence and national security also require robust and dynamic domestic foundations that provide strength from within. This means demonstrating the capacity to implement policies that reduce our vulnerabilities, enhance our competitiveness, and cultivate a shared sense of purpose.

Yet mustering this strength from within is proving to be a formidable challenge. For much of our history the United States sat apart from or atop the world. Insulated by the oceans and blessed by a bountiful land, we were able to selectively engage with the outside world, competing when and where we chose well into the twentieth century. During the Cold War the United States was dominant by most every measure—economically, technologically, diplomatically, politically, ideologically. Those were the days of the Ptolemaic world—and they are now over.

As with the declinism accusation, conservative paeans to “American exceptionalism” have an understandable resonance amidst so much uncertainty, doubt, and fear. But these are more anesthetic than stimulant, trying to make us feel good about ourselves in ways that soothe more than energize. Trumping them requires more than position papers. Progressives do need to tap into the American people’s patriotism and pride. But we need to do this in ways that look forward to what it takes to succeed in today’s world, not backward to what it took in the past. It is here that the domestic and global agendas come together, the one dependent on the other, together empowering us to compete in this global era.

“The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe,” was how Goethe described the transition that Copernicus set off in his day. While our paradigm shift is not of comparable magnitude, it engenders its own resistance, intellectual and political. It’s not that Copernicans are declinists. It’s that Ptolemaists are denialists. It’s not that progressives don’t believe in American greatness; it’s that we invoke the past as stimulant not anesthetic. America can and should play a leading role in the twenty-first-century world. But to do so we need a foreign policy geared to how the world is, not how it used to be.


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Issue #23, Winter 2012
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Mayhill Fowler:

I wrote a very similar piece using the same contrast (Ptolemaic/Copernican), the same examples in much the same order, a month or so ago. Curious coincidence, Mr. Jentleson.

Dec 13, 2011, 11:29 AM

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