27 April 2009

Moderation and Common Sense in Foreign Affairs

Here is an important article about foreign affairs that deserves to be read by everyone: Necessity, Choice, and Common Sense by Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. The article is from his book, Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins, 2009).

I know this is a long post, but the article is brilliant. Registration at the link above is required to read the whole thing. Excerpts follow:

The United States is declining as a nation and a world power, with mostly sighs and shrugs to mark this seismic event. Astonishingly, some people do not appear to realize that the situation is all that serious. A few say it is serious and hopeless. I count myself among those who think it is most serious yet reversible, if Americans are clear-eyed about the causes and courageous about implementing the cures.

The decline starts with weakening fundamentals in the United States. First among them is that the country's economy, infrastructure, public schools, and political system have been allowed to deteriorate. The result has been diminished economic strength, a less vital democracy, and a mediocrity of spirit. These conditions are not easy to reverse. A second reason for the decline is how ineffectively the United States has used its international power, thus allowing its own and others' problems to grow and fester. The nation must attend to both issues, the former even more than the latter. Here I address principally foreign policy.

Foreign policy is common sense, not rocket science. But it keeps getting overwhelmed by extravagant principles, nasty politics, and the arrogance of power. These three demons rob officials of choice, which is the core of commonsense policy.

Common sense tells policymakers not what to think about problems but how to think about them systematically. It is what rescued the nation at critical periods in its history.

A return to pragmatic problem solving will not be easy. Those possessed by the demons are much tougher fighters than the moderates who are constrained by the reasonableness of common sense. But common sense is worth the fight because it offers the best hope for using the United States' substantial power effectively and because power is still the necessary means to solve problems in the international affairs of the twenty-first century.

The bases of the United States' international power are the country's economic competitiveness and its political cohesion, and there should be little doubt at this point that both are in decline. Many acknowledge and lament faltering parts here and there, but they avoid a frontal stare at the deteriorating whole. It is too depressing to do so, too much for most people to bear.

These signals of decline have not inspired politicians to put the national good above partisan interests or problem solving above scoring points. Republicans act like rabid attack dogs in and out of power and treat facts like trash. Democrats seem to lack the decisiveness, clarity of vision, and toughness necessary to govern. This tableau of domestic political stalemate begs for new leadership. The nation that not so long ago outproduced the rest of the world in arms and consumer goods, the nation lionized and envied for its innovation, can-do spirit, and capacity to accomplish economic miracles, has become overwhelmed by the tasks it once performed competently and with relative ease.

The author then reviews over forty years of foreign policy mistakes and blunders by both Democratic and Republican administrations. A review of the current foreign policy schools of thought follows.

Only a foreign policy grounded in common sense can rescue the United States. Such a policy would not turn on inflated great-power conflicts or the imagined absence of power conflicts, and it would appreciate the diversity of the twenty-first-century world. A commonsense policy, however, does not mean a seat-of-the-pants or ad hoc policy. It means an approach that allows leaders to examine each situation on its own merits and link it to others when linking is justified by evidence and reason. Nor would such a policy be rudderless; indeed, common sense insists that policy be grounded in strategy, priorities, and clear direction. Common sense also allows strategy, priorities, and direction to be treated as guidelines, not straitjackets.

These days, devising a commonsense U.S. foreign policy boils down to following five guidelines. First, make the United States strong again by restoring its economic dynamism and pragmatic, can-do spirit.

Second, understand clearly that mutual indispensability is the fundamental operating principle for power in the twenty-first century -- meaning that the United States is the indispensable leader but needs equally indispensable partners to succeed.

Third, focus U.S. policy and the power coalitions that must be forged on addressing the greatest threats -- terrorism, economic crises, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and global pandemics -- and then just mind other threats as best one can.

Fourth, remember that international power works best against problems before, rather than after, they mature.

Fifth, realize that although the essence of power remains pressure and coercion based on a state's resources and international position, in other respects power is not what it used to be.

These realist and commonsense principles are not self-executing. They have to be fought for in the policy and political arenas, where the demons and their handlers have long presided. But moderate political leaders and moderate policy experts can pick up the cudgel of common sense, and win. Although some Americans have become addicted to extremism, most can be weaned away from this by their leaders' emphasizing the practicality of common sense.

Every great nation or empire ultimately rots from within. One can already see the United States, that precious guarantor of liberty and security, beginning to decline in its leadership, institutions, and physical and human infrastructure, heading on the path to becoming just another great power, a nation barely worth fearing or following. It is time to send up flares signaling that the United States is losing its way and its power, that it is in trouble.

But it is even more important to reaffirm the belief that the United States is worth fighting for both across the oceans and at home. There should be no doubt that the United States, alone among nations, can provide the leadership to solve the problems that will otherwise engulf the world. And for all the country's faults, there should be no doubt that it remains the last best chance to create equal opportunity, hope, and freedom.

But to restore all that is good and special about the United States, to rescue its power to solve problems, will require something that has not happened in a long time: that pragmatists, realists, and moderates unite and fight for their country.

1 comment:

Daniel M said...

YES!!!!! On all Accounts I feel as if this is what we should be doing!