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Starting Off

by
November 17, 2008

Obviously, no president’s foreign policy fits neatly into an ideological category. Woodrow Wilson, the great forefather of foreign policy liberalism, launched imperial wars in Latin America, brutally repressed anti-war dissent at home, and rejected a racial equality clause at the Paris Peace Conference. Dwight Eisenhower, a supposed conservative, proved more reluctant to send US forces to Vietnam than John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Ronald Reagan proposed a UN standing army while Bill Clinton became the first US president to block a Secretary-General from enjoying a second term.

Doubtless, Barack Obama’s foreign policy will also prove too pragmatic, complex or contradictory (choose your adjective) to conform to any simple ideological label. And yet there is no such thing as pure pragmatism either. All presidents, to some degree or another, are informed by ideological traditions: inherited ideas about how the world works and how America can best shape it. This is particularly true today, in an era when foreign policy debate is more ideologically polarized than it was in the early decades of the cold war. Today, according to polls, self-described liberals and conservatives differ as strongly on foreign policy as they do on economics and culture. And among elites, the bipartisan foreign policy establishment of the mid-twentieth century has long since collapsed, leaving in its wake two distinct groups of foreign policy practitioners, one Democratic and one Republican, one more liberal and the other more conservative.

Thus, it is not that surprising that from his hostility to international law to his lack of faith in both nuclear disarmament and nuclear deterrence to his openness to preventive war, George W. Bush exhibited deeply rooted conservative ideological tendencies, which cannot be explained simply as a response to the particular circumstances he faced. And similarly, it is reasonable to expect that—to some degree at least–the liberal foreign policy tradition will inform the policies of Barack Obama, a man who has embraced liberal politics more openly than any Democratic President elected since Vietnam.

The topic for this discussion, then, is what a liberal foreign policy would look like in today’s world. Let me open with a few questions. First, must such a foreign policy put international law and international institutions at its core? From Wilson to Roosevelt to Truman, there is no question that the liberal tradition has been more sympathetic to the idea of a world of law—and not merely power—than has the conservative one. And yet, in recent decades, even many liberals have questioned the utility of existing international institutions, as well as the opportunities for building effective new ones. Should Obama make the strengthening of international law and institutions a central focus of his foreign policy, and can it truly be called liberal if he does not?

Second, how central is the promotion of liberal democracy to a liberal foreign policy? Many liberals have criticized the way the Bush administration has tried to promote freedom overseas (with some doubting that it has really tried at all). But even if one grants that democracy promotion mostly requires non-military means, that it should be done multilaterally, that it should address questions of economic justice as well as political freedom, and that it should focus on the rule of law rather than merely elections, the broader question remains: Is democracy promotion really that valuable anyway? Does a liberal foreign policy have to make democracy and human rights central to America’s relationship with, say, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, China or North Korea? Or can liberals comfortably say that questions of domestic, regional and international security take precedence given America’s lack of influence, and perhaps lack of wisdom, when it comes to the internal affairs of other states?

Thirdly, should liberals be unalterably opposed to preventive war as a means of nuclear non-proliferation? If so, does that require liberals to ultimately place their faith in nuclear deterrence, given the difficulty of preventing nuclear proliferation purely through diplomacy and economic pressure? If liberals reject both preventive war and missile defense as unworkable, does that require the left to reconsider its historic distrust of the logic of mutually assured destruction?

Finally, to what extent must a liberal foreign policy be an anti-imperial one? Beyond Iraq and even Afghanistan, the United States maintains a massive military presence across the globe, one that has grown substantially since even the end of the cold war. Are liberalism and military globalism compatible, or should liberals–following George McGovern—call not merely for the US to withdraw from a costly and unpopular war, but to withdraw from its role as policeman of large swaths of the world? This would presumably have the added benefit of reducing the defense budget, something that was central to liberal foreign policy in the post-Vietnam years, but has largely fallen off the liberal agenda in Washington in recent years.

These questions are meant merely to launch the discussion. Feel free to answer some, but not all, to rephrase them as you’d like, or to take aim at the assumptions underlying them. Entries don’t need to be comprehensive. Just bite off whatever piece of this extremely broad topic most interests you, and we’ll take it from there.

Thanks for participating,
Peter Beinart

12 Comments

  • Posted by Will Marshall

    I agree with Peter that the liberal foreign policy tradition will inform the policies of Barack Obama, but the question is which liberal foreign policy tradition? Will it be the anti-war tradition, forged in the crucible of Vietnam and brought to a boil again by Iraq? Or will it be (as I hope)the tough-minded liberal internationalism of Truman, JFK and, more recently, Clinton? You can find shards of both traditions in Obama’s campaign utterances and he will no doubt fashion a foreign policy synthesis that is uniquely his own. Even so, he will find it hard to reconcile outlooks grounded in starkly different assumptions about the sources of danger and oppression in the world and America’s responsibility, as the world’s strongest and most capable power, to confront them.

    Of course it’s always preferable to organize collective responses to these dangers (even if the United States ends up bearing most of the costs and risks of intervention anyway). President Bush, through the force of negative example, has reminded Americans of the strategic benefits of international cooperation. And Obama’s global popularity should help him repair America’s moral authority and cast U.S. foreign policy in a less threatening light.

    Still, the question is whether U.S. liberals can coalesce behind the hard security tasks facing President Obama. One of his first orders of business, for example, will be persuading our increasingly reluctant NATO allies to stay in the fight in Afghanistan. To provide an effective alternative to unilateral American action, Obama should also press for reinventing the institutions of collective security, which are now failing miserably in their responsibility to protect people in places like Darfur and the Congo.

    During the campaign, Obama deftly finessed liberals’ deeply ambivalent relationship with American power. He managed to move to the left and the center simultaneously, demanding an end to the Iraq war and an escalation of the war in Afghanistan. This kind of balancing act is much harder when you have to make hard choices and govern. That’s the next act in the Obama drama.

  • Posted by Matthew Yglesias

    I’m half inclined to say that when I hear the words “tough-minded liberal internationalism of Truman, JFK and, more recently, Clinton” I reach for my revolver. In fact, I reach for my keyboard.

    But this reading of liberal foreign policy as riven between a good, tough-minded, Truman/JFK/Clinton tradition and a pernicious “anti-war tradition, forged in the crucible of Vietnam and brought to a boil again by Iraq” is ridiculous. After all what about Vietnam? And what about Iraq? Does Will Marshall really think an Obama administration needs to bring to bear the kind of thinking that informed the Kennedy and Johnson administration’s policies toward Vietnam or the kind of thinking that led so many Democrats to sign off on Bush’s plans for an invasion of Iraq? On one level, I’m sure he doesn’t. But at the same time, obsession with proving “toughness” as the ne plus ultra of liberal national security policy is precisely what led to both of those errors and I find it frankly astounding that there are still people who think this is a useful lens through which to view things.

    I think it would be a lot more useful to that kind of rhetoric aside and consider the more specific questions Peter Beinart raises. In the case of nuclear proliferation I would say that, yes, liberals should be unalterably opposed to at at least unilateral preventive warfare. I’m not as skeptical as Beinart seems to be about the prospects for other methods to work to advance non-proliferation goals, but I do agree with him that opposition to preventive war does require the left to reconsider its historic distrust of the logic of mutually assured destruction.

    Those are, perhaps, controversial views. But I think they’re correct. And I also think they deserve to be debated on the merits, rather than by considering whether or not they’re adequately tough or Trumanesque.

  • Posted by Anne-Marie Slaughter

    I agree with Matt’s response to Will, that it makes no sense to divide a liberal foreign policy into tough-minded folks who are not afraid of the use of force and peaceniks. One of the ways to transcend this divide is indeed to focus on the value of law and institutions, which I do think must be an essential part of a liberal foreign policy. It is essential not because Woodrow Wilson believed in the League of Nations, but because 1) liberals believe in the possibility of cooperation when nations have common interests, as opposed to the realist insistence that in the end a competition for relative power will triumph, but understand that that cooperation is often only achievable through institutions, whether formal or informal; 2) because liberals believe in the value of law as an essential component of liberty — liberty, whether of individuals or of nations, can only be enjoyed over the long term when order is established and guaranteed, and that order must be the order of law rather than of force; and 3) because, as John Ikenberry has written, liberals understand that voluntary acceptance of a set of restraints by great powers reassures their allies in ways that will put them in a far better position to pursue their interests. Within this context, liberals should be perfectly willing to use force, as Truman was through the UN General Assembly; as Kennedy was by getting OAS approval for the quarantine of Cuba; as Roosevelt was by setting up the UN to take account of the realities of power with the Security Council but also the value of establishing rules governing the legitmate use of force through the UN Charter, and as Bill Clinton was by going through the UN on Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia and ultimately through NATO on Kosovo.

  • Posted by Will Marshall

    The schizoid tendencies long exhibited by liberals/progressives/Democrats on questions about the purposes of American power and the use of force are old news. So are the public’s lingering doubts about liberal capacities on national security. The two are of course linked and many thoughtful liberals — Todd Gitlin springs to mind, and so does Peter Beinart –have illuminated these cleavages in the liberal/ progressive world. Matt Yglesias objects to my terms but whatever language you use to describe these internal tensions, they do exist. And I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that they magically disappeared with Barack Obama’s stirring triumph. One hears echoes of the debate in reactions to Eric Holder (criticized for his role in the Patriot Act) and the possibility of Hillary Clinton (pro-Iraq warmonger, Iran hawk, etc.)taking over at State. And it’s remarkable that, even after all the damage Bush has inflicted on U.S. foreign policy over the past 8 years, public doubts about the Democratic alternative persist. For example, a Democracy Corps poll released on the eve of the election found a 21-point McCain advantage on the question of which candidate has better ideas on national security.

    This is the political context in which President Obama will endeavor to define a new liberal foreign policy. If Matt and Anne Marie want to avert their eyes, so be it, but I don’t think U.S. foreign policy gets made in a political vacuum.

    I agree with Marie’s point that progressives of all stripes can agree on the need to strengthen international law and institutions. We can agree on the need to deemphasize military power and make better use of civilian power. We can agree on rebuilding our NATO relationships. We can agree on the need for vigorous diplomacy with adversaries. We can agree on the need for the US to go to Copenhagen and lead on climate change, and to adopt a clean energy policy at home, and more.

    On all these points, Obama will be pushing on an open door with both liberals and with U.S. public opinion. But my post focused on the hard cases of national security: rallying support (at home and in Europe) for what looks like a long military engagement in Afghanistan. Creating more representative and robust collective security institutions to actually stop the slaughter in Darfur and the Congo.

    It seems likely that such issues will rekindle unresolved debates among liberals about U.S. responsibilities and armed intervention. That’s likely to complicate President Obama’s task of constructing a liberal narrative on security, but it won’t make it impossible.

  • Posted by Andrei Cherny

    It seems to me that one of the problems of attempting to put Obama’s foreign policy in a “Trumanesque” or “Kennedyesque” or “Clintonesque” category is the ahistorical nature of so many of these conversations. The records of past presidents are bent and re-bent to make points in current arguments and cut to fit the fashions of the times. But Truman, for instance, should not be used a paragon of multilateralism as he was often willing to go it alone. Nor should Truman – the president who stood by as democracy after democracy in Eastern Europe was toppled by the Soviet Union’s agents – be seen as a representative of the absolute rule of “toughness.” History does provide important lessons, but only when we look hard at the facts as they were not as we wish them to have been.

    That being said Truman’s example is useful – not on the spectrum of toughness, but on that of confidence and ambition. In the aftermath of World War II, at the beginning of the Cold War, facing a threat from international communism very different in nature from that which confronted earlier Americans, we undertook to build a series of international institutions to respond. President Obama inherits an international situation defined by threats that are once again wholly different in their character. Global terrorism, global pandemics, global nuclear proliferation, and global climate change are all challenges that know no boundaries and that in most cases do not stem from other nations. These threats will primarily be met on the level of individual action in places around the globe. And overlaying this all is the fact that today, unlike 1945 or 1985, most people in the world live in democracies. Yet, it has been failure of the past three presidencies that we are still working in a foreign policy founded on Cold War institutions such as NATO which were created to address a particular threat at a particular moment. In the global economy of 21st century, we are still struggling to make do with institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. “With the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times,” said Jefferson. If they failed to do so, “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy.” Now is the time, with a historic mandate, for Democrats to embrace their internationalist legacy in deed and not just words.

    Peter’s questions are the right ones. From my standpoint, there is no progressive foreign policy that does not have international institutions and the spreading of democracy around the world at its core. To govern is to choose. Either we build new international institutions that are created to fit the times or we patch up the outdated institutions of the past and manage crises as they arise. The greatest danger in the years ahead is not whether we’ll overreach, but – given the circumstances – whether we’ll underreach.

  • Posted by Todd Gitlin

    I’m with Matt and Anne-Marie on the priority of multilateralism and its institutions, and with Andrei on the absurdity of rummaging through history for stellar precedents. When I hear about the marvels of Kennedy’s foreign policy, for example, I can’t help thinking about the fraudulent missile gap, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis (where the world did luck out), and Vietnam. Call me old-fashioned.

    Peter’s questions are sound, which means not easy. A general remark about what’s possible: I would not underestimate the degree to which Obama begins with a lot of American and global good will—and now Zahawiri’s reverse imprimatur as well—which gives him the opportunity to instruct Americans about a global New Deal in which America recognizes its limits. In other words, he can deploy his gift for plain but eloquent speech. He doesn’t have to proclaim a new foreign policy, or “doctrine,” all at once. He probably shouldn’t. He has to get used to the problems.

    He definitely ought to back off the fatuous democracy-everywhere rhetoric of the Bush Doctrine as well as the bludgeon of preventive war. Simply pulling back of the lunacy of the Bush years would buy him a lot of good will in the short run that can be reinvested as he decides where to go in the longer run.

    For a general proposition, I don’t know how we can do better than this: democracy promotion is a good idea except where it’s a bad idea. We should have a disposition in that direction, but not dogmatically. It’s not an absolute. I realize that such realism has a sinister ring, and I’m not comfortable with the proposition, but foreign policy is not supposed to make me comfortable; that’s not its purpose. I’ll go with Niebuhr here: it’s a fallen world and we have to make choices in fear and trembling.

    Unilateral preventive war must be absolutely taboo, and multilateral preventive war only slightly less so. Nuclear deterrence is probably the best alternative short of the Reagan agenda of zero nuclear weapons. Zero needs revival as a global initiative. Obama can resurrect it.

    Anti-imperialism is both a solid disposition and, at times, an airy abstraction. There will be places (the Korean DMZ?) where traditional American forces have some legitimate rationale, others where counterinsurgents have a place (the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan/Pakistan), still others where strategic retreat (dressed up as advance) is called for both public-diplomacy and financial purposes. (Can anybody explain to me why we still have bases in Germany?)

    All that said, more concretely, Afghanistan remains a son-of-a-bitch—and an exemplary one, for it displays the weakness in the global-policing model of informal empire that the country has gravitated into. I honestly don’t know the right way to go. If ever this were a circumstance where Obama really does need to solicit contrary advice, this is it. I do have some confidence that he’ll do so.

  • Posted by Peter Beinart

    From Gary Bass:

    I’m still enjoying the fact of Obama’s decisive win. In 1992, Michael Kinsley celebrated Clinton’s victory in style: “No doubt it will all end in tears. But for the moment, I FEEL GREAT! … Yes, the euphoria is not entirely rational. I think I speak for all Clinton supporters in saying that we realize the election of our man as president will not magically solve all the nation’s problems. Nor will it clear up our skin condition, improve our love life, pick up our dry cleaning, or stop that strange noise in the back of our car. Life goes on. Nevertheless, this victory is very, very sweet.”

    Peter wants us to talk about a liberal foreign policy, which got me thinking about its opposite: realism. George Packer wrote a great 2006 “Comment” in The New Yorker, called “Unrealistic.” He wisely warned against the danger that conservatives and liberals alike might, in the shadow of Iraq, wind up as foreign-policy realists: abandoning nation-building and democratization, giving up on the promotion of human rights, and letting the rest of the world stew in its own juices. But we seem to have gotten lucky, so far. Barack Obama obviously enters office with a ton of dead weight around his neck–wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nonproliferation crises in Iran and North Korea, newly assertive Russia and China–but he doesn’t seem to have gone realist himself. Nor would anyone stick that label on some of the possible administration types like Hillary Clinton, Jim Steinberg, Susan Rice, or Samantha Power. No doubt liberals can learn from realist calls for prudence and modesty. But (before it ends in tears) here’s one liberal way in which Obama’s election stands in refutation of one of the more unpleasant aspects of realism: the tendency of some of its proponents to define the national interest themselves, rather than letting the American public, in all its flavors, do that. In his diary in 1944, George Kennan complained: “Our actions in the field of foreign affairs are the convulsive reactions of politicians to an internal political life dominated by vocal minorities.” Unlike that Kennan strand, we’re getting a new president who relishes the pluralism of American life. That’s nice in itself, and has to be appealing to the rest of the world.

    Another Obama advantage: he can get leverage for doing stuff that should have been done a long time ago. In exchange for junking Bush’s policies on torture and global warming, and for shuttering Guantanamo, Obama can ask the Europeans for something concrete—most obviously, help in Afghanistan.

  • Posted by Spencer P. Boyer

    I’m in full agreement with the notion put forth by Anne-Marie and others that a commitment to multilateralism, strong international institutions, and a global rule of law that binds us all is critical for both national and international security interests. President-elect Obama’s popularity in the world gives him an advantage, for at least the first several months, to re-brand American foreign policy and thus re-build the perception of the United States in the world.

    I thought I’d shift the discussion a bit, however, to what specific steps the incoming Administration and Congress could take to show that they’re serious about multilateral engagement, international law, and effective international institutions. Here are a just a few thoughts:

    ● Pay in full our UN arrears – We’re over a billion and a half dollars in permanent debt to the UN, due to administration and congressional underfunding of U.S. treaty-obligated payments to the UN. While we’ve begun to address our peacekeeping debt, we’re on course to have a shortfall for UN peacekeeping in FY 2009 – at a time we’re asking the UN to take on new missions around the world.

    ● Address U.S. funding shortages for other international organizations –Underfunding of NATO, the World Food Programme, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, among other organizations critical for our interests, has hindered the effectiveness of these organizations.

    ● Work to improve U.S. relations with developing countries in the UN General Assembly (the G-77) – This will be necessary in order to move forward on UN reform matters and make the world body more efficient.

    ● Re-engage the world community on international treaties important to the international community – It’s hard to make compelling arguments for why the United States is the only industrialized country that has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and that the U.S. and Somalia are the only members of the UN refusing to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Along with ratifying those agreements, we should also move swiftly to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

    ● Be a more robust partner in tackling global warming, beginning with active participation in renegotiating the Kyoto Protocol in the coming months.

    ● Have more meaningful consultation with our allies regarding the use of force – especially regarding how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. Obviously we must act in self defense as needed, but I agree with Todd that unilateral preventive war should be ruled out.

    ● Re-evaluate our position toward the International Criminal Court – The United States played an active role in conceptualizing the court, but with the Bush administration’s opposition, America joined a list of the world’s worst human rights violators in opposing it. The ICC is an essential building block in the evolution of international and criminal law, which the United States should be helping to lead. None of the worst fears of ICC opponents have come to pass, and we’re seeing a recognition that court could be instrumental in helping resolve conflicts in Darfur and elsewhere.

    ● Engage constructively with the UN Human Rights Council – Yes, it’s been a disaster. But criticizing from the sidelines won’t do anything to help change the body or reduce the influence of the undemocratic members of the Council.

  • Posted by George Packer

    Peter’s first questions are excellent ones, but maybe not for this moment. Big doctrinal issues are more real and relevant at genuine international turning points, like the end of World War II and the Cold War. We’re having our own transformation right here in the U.S., but the rest of the world is going to be the same increasingly multifarious mess it’s been for the past few years, with many problems (climate change, refugees, nuclear proliferation, global financial breakdown) left unaddressed by the current president, others (global epidemics, African poverty) partly addressed, others (Iraq, the loss of American power and prestige) created or worsened, and others still (Afghanistan, Pakistan) so hard that they transcend the efforts and failures of any one president.

    I don’t think Obama’s first years are going to be marked by foreign-policy ambition, except on the symbolic level of the change he represents. They will be years of anti-doctrine. His biggest job is going to be preventing the collapse of Iraq while withdrawing and preventing the collapse of Afghanistan while engaging–more in the nature of problem-solving than world-shaping.

    This leads to Peter’s also-excellent second-round question, and I agree with him: we don’t know whether we can win, with or without negotiations with the Taliban, but seeing them return to power would be a calamity for the country, the region, and us, one I’m not ready to concede. Some people I respect (e.g., Rory Stewart) think we can only salvage Afghanistan by essentially getting out. Other people I respect (e.g., David Kilcullen) think that a better strategy could still succeed there, but we’re almost out of time. Who’s right? I don’t think any of us knows for sure, but Obama has clearly staked a lot on the latter. Afghanistan is where nation-building, multilateral counterinsurgency, democracy promotion, and the other elements of liberal internationalism as it operates in global flashpoints are going to survive or go to their grave.

    I think there’s a conflict in Obama that will be fascinating to follow. He’s put a lot of chips on Afghanistan, which was always a long shot. At the same time, his world view is cautious. In fact, if I had to predict, I’d say–slightly disagreeing with Gary–that he will be a kind of realist. He speaks highly of the first George Bush’s foreign policy. And realism suits the mood of the country right now. If so, I hope Obama won’t go very far in that direction. Agreeing with Gary (and Andrei, and perhaps others), I don’t think there’s much point in having a Democratic president if his foreign policy will be all about China and Russia and have nothing to say about Burma and Zimbabwe. I’d like, for example, for Obama to use his enormous popularity in South Africa to push that country to put far more pressure on Robert Mugabe before Zimbabwe is completely destroyed and southern Africa starts to go down with it.

    This is something liberals can do while Obama becomes consumed by the world as it is: remind him that, though Bush has defiled words like freedom and democracy and human rights, they should still be valued and wisely pursued, if only because they’re in our interest.

  • Posted by Thomas Wright

    As many contributors have pointed out, foreign policy experts have spent much of the past eight years trying to come up with a grand strategy on a par with containment. I was involved in some of these efforts. Much of this was a counterpoint to the neo-conservatives’ near Leninist obsession with doctrine. After all, you can’t beat something with nothing. But, the neoconservative doctrine is now beaten and it won’t return anytime soon. The question confronting foreign policy thinkers now is whether we should take advantage of this moment to turn some version of our doctrine into official policy. I agree with Michael Hirsh that this would be a mistake.

    We all love to cite the Truman administration in support of our arguments so let me try. It is often forgotten now but Truman and his advisors saw the Truman Doctrine has the unfortunate price they had to pay to secure the domestic support for a particular action—intervention in Greece and Turkey—and they spent the next three years running away from it before it ultimately boxed them in with NSC-68 and later in Vietnam. Their greatest legacies—the Marshall Plan and NATO, in particular—were not part of some grand institutionalist scheme hatched in a quieter time but an innovative solution to an immediate and overwhelming crisis (and also to demands by America’s allies in Europe). They came to understand that the plans devised during the war (such as for the United Nations Organization) introduced a lack of flexibility and realism into U.S. strategy—especially on the belief that Soviet participation was America’s most important objective—that damaged U.S. interests at that time. Ultimately, Marshall, Acheson, and Truman were true pragmatists in pursue of some fairly clear objectives—preventing the Soviets from dominating Europe and Asia. The point is that even in the golden age of U.S. strategy, doctrine and general principles to govern all cases was not such a great idea.

    What really ticked people off about the Bush administration was not just its actions, which were bad enough, but its attempt to introduce a new set of rules—Iraq would not be a rare exception like Kosovo, it would be the new way of doing business in a unipolar world; the Kyoto Protocol was not a flawed agreement in need of improvement but an assault on U.S. liberty just like other international treaties. Obviously this needs to be undone by the Obama administration and in a post to this forum Spencer Boyer correctly identifies many of the steps that can be taken but is there much to be gained by codifying principles in the other direction? For instance, take the preventive use of force. Do we really want to rule the unilateral preventive use of force out and be forced to define acceptable levels of multilateralism. After all, if we start down that road and say that it’s okay if it’s authorized by an institution where does it stop—surely not the UN, maybe NATO, but what about an out of area operation. Pretty soon, we’re all wrapped up in theoretical debates about the legitimacy of an ad hoc coalition, a Concert of Democracies, or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Why bother? Is anyone talking about preventive war in the near future? Even in the case of Iran, any such choices are far down the road if they ever have to be made at all. The Bush administration’s failure taught us to avoid wars of choice and concentrate on wars of necessity. Let’s not the make the same mistake in diplomacy by prioritizing the diplomacy of choice over the diplomacy of necessity. Concentrate on the necessary challenges, not on the optional, especially since the former are so overwhelming.

    The Obama administration confronts its own dragons in plain sight; it does not need to search for new ones. The immediate task is clear—-increasing effective international cooperation, whether on the economy, climate change, Afghanistan, or the Middle East. This brings me to a final point that I think is often overlooked. The problem is not outdated institutions per se as much as it is America’s failure to win the support of other countries inside these institutions. It’s really a failure of bilateral relationships, which is as much a realist insight as a liberal one. A renewed focus on bilateral relations—understanding the preferences, interests, goals, and fears of others—will allow the United States to craft multilateral solutions that other states will sign on to. So, we should spend less time thinking about how to expand the membership or reform the rules—although sometimes, as in the global economic arena, this is important— and more time investing in critical relations with other countries. This may lead us to understand why South Africa and India, two democracies often mentioned for inclusion in the Security Council or an expanded G-8, have been some of the less cooperative towards the United States in the UN on human rights and climate change respectively. It was effective bilateralism that allowed détente to develop and enabled George H W Bush to end the Cold War. It’s worth reinvesting in again.

  • Posted by Spencer P. Boyer

    Tom Wright is absolutely correct in noting that in order to have more effective international cooperation, “the problem is not outdated institutions per se as much as it is America’s failure to win the support of other countries inside these institutions. It’s really a failure of bilateral relationships…. A renewed focus on bilateral relations—understanding the preferences, interests, goals, and fears of others—will allow the United States to craft multilateral solutions that other states will sign on to.” One great place for the Obama administration to start is to rebuild our neglected relationship with Turkey – an indispensable ally.

    The strategic relationship between our two countries has been a cornerstone of American national security policy since the beginning of the Cold War, and there are few global security challenges that the United States and Turkey don’t share. In addition to being a critical military ally through NATO since the 1950s, Turkey is America’s only partner who can be seen as a literal and figurative bridge between the East and West. Straddling Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Mediterranean, Turkey’s central position makes it a valuable connector between each of these regions. In addition to serving as a mediator in delicate international negotiations, including hosting peace talks between Israel and Syria, Turkey serves as a transit point for oil and natural gas flowing from former Soviet states to Europe and the Mediterranean Sea.

    The U.S. decision to launch the 2003 war in Iraq, over strenuous Turkish objections, has unfortunately been one of many issues to strain U.S.-Turkish relations in recent years. The relationship has improved a bit with the U.S. increasing intelligence-sharing regarding the PKK, the terrorist organization about which Turkey is most concerned, but there is still much work to be done. Recent Pew polling found that only 12 percent of Turks have a positive opinion of the United States – less than Russia, Pakistan, or China. And what a public thinks in a democratic state like Turkey can profoundly influence the country’s leaders and their choices. It’s become smart politics to oppose the United States in too many countries around the world.

    Fortunately, the Obama administration has a keen opportunity in 2009 to re-awaken the U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership and update it to reflect new challenges in the Middle East, Europe, Russia, and the Caucasus. It will take hard work and a new acceptance of Turkey as an independent actor who will occasionally disagree with American policy and philosophy. But bringing Turkey closer to the West, including doing all we can to encourage our EU allies to move as quickly as possible to bring Turkey into the European Union, is worth the effort and will pay major dividends in the years to come.

  • Posted by Will Marshall

    I’d like to return to Peter’s question about Afghanistan. More than any other, this crisis will test President Obama’s mettle, and shape public perceptions about what foreign policy liberalism means today. George Packer is spot on in saying, “Afghanistan is where nation-building, multilateral counterinsurgency, democracy promotion, and the other elements of liberal internationalism as it operates in global flashpoints are going to survive or go to their grave.”

    Peter asks whether it is a mistake to escalate the war in Afghanistan. It’s a good question for theorists, but President Obama will have no choice but to make good on his promise to send more U.S. combat brigades there. Otherwise, the strategic (if not the prudential) premise of his opposition to the war in Iraq — that it diverted U.S. attention and resources from the real enemy in Afghanistan — falls apart. This argument of course also had the political merit of reassuring voters that being anti-war on Iraq didn’t mean he wouldn’t vigorously prosecute the fight against the perpetrators of 9/11. If Iraq will be forever charged to George W. Bush’s account, Afghanistan has become the war that Barack Obama can’t afford to lose.

    But what does it mean to win in Afghanistan? No one knows. It’s deeply ironic that the “bad war” in Iraq now looks more likely to yield a tolerable outcome than the “good war” in Afghanistan. In Iraq there is at least a chance that a coherent, reasonably representative central government will survive and be able to manage the country once U.S. troops are gone. Afghanistan has never had a strong central government, never mind democracy. It doesn’t have a well-defined border with Pakistan, either, making the Taleban insurgency more difficult to quell. Straddling the Durand Line, Pashtunstan seems to be in a state of permament revolt against both Kabul and Islamabad, with the fillip of radical Islam added to ethnic ambitions.

    So the problem of Afghanistan is really the problem of Pakistan. That’s where jihadist extremists have set up camp, and where they train terrorists for attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Europe, India and the United States. And since the U.S. and its NATO allies are extremely unlikely to invade Pakistan, sending more troops in Afghanistan is at best a stopgap while President Obama works out a real strategy.

    What it should consist of is a big subject, but I think it starts with racheting down expectations about what we can achieve militarily in Afghanistan, while upping pressure on Pakistan to practice effective counterinsurgency and win control of all of its terrority. For Obama, the first imperative may be simply holding the coalition together. A majority in every major NATO country in Europe wants to get their forces out of Afghanistan, not escalate. They will defer to the wildly popular Obama for a time, but not long without a more realistic and minimalist defintion of what we are fighting to achieve in Afghanistan. I’d be curious to know whether others think the goal, as in Iraq, should be to accelerate the pace by which we shift security responsibility to local forces, while pursuing every possible way to entice tribal leaders to break with the insurgency.

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