Grand Strategy: The Four Pillars of the Future
The task ahead for the West is not corralling emerging powers into the existing international order—a futile undertaking—but instead working together with them to arrive at a new set of global rules. Because progressives appreciate the merits of pluralism, they are well suited to help negotiate a bargain among states that embrace quite diverse conceptions of domestic and international governance. As Adam Mount and I argued in these pages in 2009 (“The Autonomy Rule,” Issue #12), equating legitimacy with responsible rule rather than only liberal democracy, fashioning a more equitable brand of capitalism, and strengthening the capacity and authority of regional institutions are the types of compromises around which a new order is likely to take shape. Progressives understand that pluralism and tolerance help resolve some of the most difficult challenges of domestic governance, and that these values can do the same for international politics.
Progressives should apply the logic of constructive engagement not just to those powers headed for the top ranks. As civil societies in many parts of the Arab world clamor for political freedom and economic opportunity, Washington should encourage and assist democratic movements even as it acknowledges that incremental liberalization is preferable to chaotic change and that more democracy in the Middle East may well mean more political Islam. Progressives should also support patient engagement when dealing with dangerous or unfriendly regimes. The reset with Russia has led to military cooperation on Afghanistan, diplomatic coordination on Iran, and a new pact limiting the size of nuclear arsenals. Obama’s outreach to Cuba has admittedly proceeded in fits and starts, but Havana has introduced a program of economic privatization and released dozens of political prisoners. Washington has been cautiously improving ties with Myanmar as its government relaxes its grip on power. And even if engagement with the likes of Iran and North Korea ultimately leads nowhere, Washington’s prior diplomatic efforts would help provide a political foundation for a more hard-line approach should that prove necessary.
Among Republicans, the ascent of illiberal powers promises to reinforce neoconservative and isolationist tendencies. Neoconservatives recoil at the prospect of working with autocracies like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia; such regimes, they argue, should be brought to heel and transformed into liberal polities, not treated as stakeholders. Engagement is even less justifiable when dealing with pariahs like Iran and North Korea.
While perhaps emotionally satisfying, the neoconservative preference for regime change is a recipe for self-defeating adventurism; America’s recent forays into nation-building have produced scant benefits at enormous costs. The assumption that illiberal regimes yield only when forced into submission also flies in the face of history. The most notable geopolitical breakthroughs of the twentieth century came not through coercion, but bold diplomacy—Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in Jerusalem, Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in Beijing, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik. Moreover, stabilizing the global economy, ensuring energy supplies, combating nuclear proliferation and terrorism—these and many other international challenges require working with, not isolating, non-democracies.
The Republican Party’s neo-isolationist wing, rather than seeking to turn illiberal regimes into democracies, would simply shun them. The Tea Party would want to avoid the domestic exertions and diplomatic constraints entailed in engaging rising powers not created in America’s image. Such isolation would, however, not only mean missing opportunities for pragmatic cooperation, but also ceding too much ground to non-democratic regimes. Even as the United States works with illiberal powers to forge a new rules-based order, it must actively promote democracy and liberal values globally. Pluralism, tolerance, and the power of persuasion are as important to advancing liberty and equality abroad as they are at home—something that progressives fully understand.
Reviving the Atlantic Community
As the distribution of power shifts from the West to the rising rest, the transatlantic community will need to shore up its ability to serve as the anchor of liberal democracy. The United States and Europe remain each other’s best partners, but economic duress and political weakness on both sides of the Atlantic have strained their alliance. Of particular worry is the financial crisis within the eurozone and the accompanying fragmentation of the European Union.
Progressives should make a priority of reviving the West. Although Washington has limited influence over developments within the EU, the United States should offer expertise and resources to help stabilize European markets. Washington should also make unequivocal its strong support for European unity and deepen its ties to official bodies in Brussels in order to help strengthen the union’s institutions. Only if the EU aggregates the collective will and resources of its member states can it be the full partner Americans seek.
Solidifying the transatlantic partnership as the global core of liberal values and interests also means strengthening NATO. To be sure, NATO does not enjoy the solidarity and centrality that it did during the Cold War. And its European members are certainly falling short when it comes to defense expenditures. But the Atlantic Alliance is much more than a military tool kit—it is an institution vital to preserving the coherence and effectiveness of the West as a political community. NATO should certainly continue to ensure the common defense of its members and undertake joint military operations, as it has done in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya. But the alliance should also serve as the West’s main venue for coordinating engagement with rising powers and advancing global security by helping other organizations secure peace in their own regions.
Although conservatives are often dismissive of Europe due to its lack of hard power, they generally appreciate the importance of a transatlantic community that rests on common values and interests. While neoconservatives tended to denigrate the Atlantic partnership during George W. Bush’s first term—particularly because many Europeans opposed the Iraq War—Bush changed course during his second term and worked hard to repair the Atlantic link. The Tea Party may not relish the binding commitments to collective defense that come with NATO membership, but its supporters would at least in principle welcome institutions that might be able to pick up the slack as they orchestrate the retraction of America’s geopolitical commitments.
Nonetheless, the policies pursued by conservatives are likely to do more harm than good to the Atlantic partnership. Europeans have little stomach for the brash unilateralism favored by neoconservatives. Nor do they deem wise calls from the right for NATO to offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine, a move that would provoke Russia and saddle the alliance with new and onerous commitments. As for the Tea Party, mainstream conservatives in Europe do not relate to either the isolationism or the social and fiscal conservatism of America’s far right. Simply put, an America that plays by conservative rules abroad and at home is not an appealing partner for Europe. American progressives are the natural political allies of Europeans and would therefore provide the Atlantic community a much firmer foundation of affinity and interest.
Progressive leadership at home is essential to the nation’s political and economic renewal, which in turn is the foundation for progressive leadership abroad. Since World War II, the United States has been dramatically successful in making the globe more stable, prosperous, and liberal. The recipe for ongoing success in this mission is no different than in the past: a solvent and centrist America reliant on a progressive combination of power and partnership to safeguard the national interest while improving the world.
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