Grand Strategy: The Four Pillars of the Future
George W. Bush’s first term was effectively a neoconservative experiment—one that succeeded in alienating much of the world and saddling the nation with inconclusive wars and mounting debt. Nonetheless, neoconservatives populate the campaign staffs of Republican presidential candidates, and their ideas continue to wield influence in Washington. Should this wing of the Republican Party again control U.S. foreign policy, it would pursue unlimited ends without regard to available means, preventing the country from finding the new equilibrium needed to restore political and economic solvency. The Tea Party, on the other hand, hails from a libertarian tradition holding that American ambition abroad comes at the expense of liberty at home. Ron Paul hardly speaks for the Republican Party, but his popularity does reflect the increasing allure of neo-isolationism on the right. His call for U.S. withdrawal from the UN, NATO, NAFTA, and other commitments constitutes not a measured retrenchment but a precipitous retreat.
A conservative grand strategy promises either to pursue immodest ends that overstretch national means or to deny the country sufficient means to pursue necessary ends. In contrast, by spelling out how a judicious foreign policy can make America more secure than can one of unbridled ambition, progressives inoculate the electorate against the false promises of neoconservatives. And by offering a vision of global leadership that limits costs and is attuned to the nation’s core interests and political will, progressives undercut the illusory appeal of isolationism.
Making Room for the Rising Rest
As emerging powers continue their ascent, dampening rivalries and fashioning a new rules-based order will require strategic vision and purposeful U.S. engagement. Rising powers, whether democratic or not, will not obediently take their place within the liberal order erected during the West’s watch. The rising rest differ with the West on fundamental issues, including the sources of domestic legitimacy, when and under what conditions violations of sovereignty are warranted, and the relationship between states and markets. Accordingly, they will want to recast the international system in ways that advantage their interests and ideological preferences.
Russia and China do not equate legitimacy with Western standards of liberal democracy, and both powers were critical of NATO’s intervention in Libya and vetoed a UN resolution condemning Syria’s crackdown on protestors. For decades, Turkey aligned itself with Europe and the United States, but Ankara is now charting its own path, flexing its muscles in the Middle East, and adopting a confrontational stance toward Israel. India is ostensibly America’s new strategic partner, but it votes with the United States in the UN General Assembly only about 25 percent of the time.
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.
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