This isn’t as apocalyptic as it might sound; on the contrary, this is the first in an occasional series I’ll be writing on our foreign and defense policies, with the latter being approached both in its own right and as an arm of our foreign policy.
In this post, I intend to outline what I believe is the environment for these policies as we move through the 21st century. Another post will address the framework of our foreign and defense policies, and future posts will look at necessary structures for each, actions for and by each, and how events of the day might be handled by the new policy(s).
The present and future periods seem sufficiently different from the period ending in the mid-20th century that such a rethinking and reformulation, central as foreign and defense matters are to our existence as a nation, seems in order. Many of the seeds of these differences, certainly, were sewn in the latter half of the 20th century, a period dominated by the Cold War and by the ready view of combat in progress in the Vietnam War, which was carried out within that Cold War.
This Cold War period was characterized by political maneuvers that would have made Metternich blush, and by military confrontations that seemed on the surface to threaten the century’s third total war, but that were, in fact, proxy confrontations wherein both sides used small surrogates to do the fighting. Here was a use of foreign policy as a means of outright conflict, and this use represented the beginnings of a diffusion of physical conflict across a more amorphous set of actors than had been the formally structured nation-states that had dominated war for the preceding two or more centuries.
The environment within which international interactions are carried out has changed radically, including through large extensions from those earlier beginnings. We operate in the 21st century in a media age where the events of the day, wherever on the planet they may occur, become available for viewing, commenting, prognosticating in near real time anywhere else on the planet. We can see the results of an earthquake near Indonesia, or of an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, or of a failure to pay an international oil bill in the Ukraine, within hours, if not minutes, of their occurrence on our televisions, on our telephones, via the Internet, through nearly any visual and/or audio medium modern technology can provide a consumer.
We operate in the 21st century in a communications age that brings news of the event, or conversations with our friends and neighbors and strangers, to us nearly instantaneously via dinky little cell phones, that same Internet, video and still cameras—portable enough to be standard equipment in those cell phones—and bring us that news and those conversations from wherever our friends and neighbors might be, including half a planet away, and wherever we might be.
And we live in a 21st century where the major actors are not limited to formal nation-states. These actors include international corporations with operating budgets larger than many of those nation-states. These actors include less formally or classically organized entities which do great ill—terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda. These entities also often have budgets larger than some nation-states, and they have military establishments that are the envy of many nation-states. It is the threat from these, the terror organizations, of which al-Qaeda is only the most well-known, that must inform our policy formation, for the point of foreign and defense policy is the survival of the nation.
To be sure, the prosperity of the nation also is a major purpose of foreign policy, but without survival, there is nothing.
In this new set of conditions, the old, formal arrangements are not optimal. NATO has lost its designed foes—both the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact no longer exist—and it has gained no other purpose; although this defensive alliance has been used, clumsily, to project political and military power offensively. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have descended into piggy banks for the profligate. And so on.
Cropping up is an ad hoc arrangement of free trade areas, each of whose individual purpose seems as much to be to compete politically with other areas, both free trade and not, as to provide mutual economic benefit to the particular members.
We have a fractious, nonhomogeneous Europe trying to force itself, Procrustean-like, into a single coherent whole, of several layers: a Union of European nations loosely subordinating a poorly understood level of national sovereignty to a European “government;” a subset of that attempting to bind economies that operate from radically different moral and political imperatives to a single common currency; and a growing division among Mediterranean Europe, northern Europe, and eastern Europe.
We have a Russian Federation, perhaps in a demographically-driven last hurrah, that is attempting to reform the earlier Soviet empire, this time with a different arrangement of how Russia will rule from its geographically broad and vulnerable center.
We have a People’s Republic of China that perceives a political vacuum developing in Asia and the Pacific and so is rapidly expanding its military capabilities, and sopping up resources like oil and iron, in an attempt to fill that vacuum.
And we have a world that, on the one hand, demands that we spend our treasure and our blood in attempting a semblance of peace in the Balkans when Europe effectively refuses their moral duty in their back yard, and on the other hand that vilifies us for supporting an ally against threats to its very existence. We have a world that lectures us on our proper economic or moral comportment. The list goes on.
Accordingly, our policy principles must be informed by the following necessary underlying mindset. Following George Washington’s advice, in spirit if not literally, we must be chary of entering into formal alliances too quickly. In this light, we must review our existing alliances for their suitability to our national interests. Further, we must make plain that our friends know who they are and that they have nothing to fear. We will stand with them steadfastly through all of their—and our—trials. We must also make plain that our enemies know who they are and that they have everything to fear; their existence is at risk. They have complete control, though, over their status as our enemy. Finally, we must make plain that those who sit on the sidelines and “comment” on American actions here or there, or in this or that milieu, are demonstrating their level of integrity and courage by standing on the sidelines. Their words are unimportant, and we do not hear them.
We must also recover our recognition that the United States is an exceptional nation and our understanding that our 18th century liberal/modern conservative values of individual responsibility, individual liberty, entrepreneurship are what made us great. Other nations, other peoples will benefit from these values, also, regardless of the form these might take when tailored to the specific polity involved. Thus, it not only is in our interest to talk about these values in all areas of the world, it is in those areas’ interest to hear them. And a more prosperous, freer world is in both our interests.
Within that, it is in our interest, also, simply to provide aid to nations and peoples that need help. We need no consensus, we need no permission of consensus, to do this, our duty. Americans are the most generous people on Earth, and that innate generosity works to our, as well as the recipients’, advantage. For example, after the 2004 tsunami struck Indonesia and killed 185,000 around the Indian Ocean, American aid, delivered by our Navy’s hospital ships, with our Navy’s aircraft carriers providing critical helicopter transportation and supply in support of relief efforts, Indonesian economic and physical recovery were both made possible and accelerated. And the Indonesian people altered their opinion of us—in the middle of our war against terrorism that, by its nature, mainly involves groups claiming to be Muslim. Beyond that, our aid cut the Indonesians’ favorable opinion of Osama bin Laden by 60%. Similarly, our aid to Pakistan after a 2005 earthquake in Kashmir had killed 80,000 helped Pakistan recover far more rapidly than would have been possible otherwise, and it altered the Pakistanis’ opinion of us almost as radically. And today there is a measure of peace, if not necessarily of complete justice, in the Balkans because we acted.
In subsequent posts, I’ll expand on the impact these issues should have on our foreign and defense policies.