Sunday, October 5, 2008

What Foreign Policy? Searching for a Coherent Foreign Policy Since the End of the Cold War

Its seems to me that the United States hasn’t had a coherent foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. With our “existential” enemy vanquished, we have become free floating, wandering in search of a purpose. While the Bush administration has put forth some opinions on foreign policy, I do not consider them to constitute a coherent policy because they revolve around the administration’s doctrine of the unitary executive.

From the late 1940’s or early 1950’s until 1988, U.S. foreign policy (as I understand it from reading in books) was to prevent to spread of communism and the influence of the Soviet Union. This logic influenced a number of wars we directly participated in (Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua and Afghanistan to name a few). It also influenced our relationship with Europe through NATO.

That’s not to say that fighting communism was the only pillar of our foreign policy, nor that it was followed in every case. But it was a coherent, understandable policy that was applied with regularity. Different presidents might have fought communism differently, but they still all fought communism with the same end-goal in mind.

The Bush Foreign Policy

George W. Bush would probably point to the following doctrines and say “This is our current foreign policy.” 1) preventative strikes, 2) preventing our enemies from developing or acquiring WMDs, 3) fighting for democracy, and 4) defeating the terrorists. While this might be our current foreign policy, it is not a coherent foreign policy.

The Bush administration’s theory of the unitary executive works to place as much decision making policy in the hands of the Executive branch, with the President as its unambiguous head. Though a unitary executive and coherent foreign policy are not mutually exclusive, Bush has used the former as an excuse to ignore the latter. Foreign policy, like most of Bush’s policies, rely solely on the pleasure of the president, and not on any reasoned or thought out policy that is transferable to the next president.

A coherent foreign policy provides U.S. leadership, across administrations, with the same outline under which to make decisions. A new president can change the former’s policy, but should do so in a form that they can hand off to their own successor. A foreign policy that is coherent can, for the most part, be carried out by the Secretary of State and her deputies down to the rank and file diplomats without the President’s direct knowledge or consent. With a coherent foreign policy, a lower-ranking official can make decisions if needs be at a moment’s notice and be fairly confident that their actions are in line with the overall objectives of the President and the country.

In his speech at the Republican National Convention, President Bush reminisced that he knows what it takes to be president, because every day he looks at the daily intelligence briefings, at the reports of attacks and threats to our national security. I am arguing that, while it is important for the president to be briefed and kept up-to-date with the state of things, he shouldn’t be spending his time pouring over daily threat reports, but should instead be considering the bigger picture.

Lets take a look at each Bush policy and see why none are coherent.

Preventative Strikes

The “doctrine” of preemptive strike is probably the worst. Bush’s doctrine of preemptive strike is based in what I call Rumsfieldian logic. Rumsfieldian logic is based on the fact that there are things you know, things you know you don’t know, and things you don’t know that you don’t know. If you know something, you can act on it. If you know that you don’t know something, the subject can be investigated.

But how does a leader deal with the “unknown unknowns?” Well, you strike before they strike you. Cheney explained how this logic leads to the 1% doctrine: “If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response.”

I don’t even know where to start. Luckily, John Stewart has already did my job for me in his two-part interview with Douglas Feith, a proponent and enabler of the 1% doctrine:

I want to emphasize the fact that the 1% doctrine has not been followed through on. The Bush administration has not treated all . It is simply just another smoke screen thrown up to pretend that we have a coherent foreign policy.


The Bush administration’s efforts to deny our enemies access to WMDs would be a coherent policy if whom we considered to be our “enemy” could be determined by some measure besides identification by the President. Before Bush, this issue might have been handled under the coherent policy of non-proliferation. But Bush canned this possibility when he withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Spreading Democracy

A foreign policy that promotes the spread of democracy could conceivably be a coherent foreign policy, though it has not been under the Bush administration. For this to be a coherent policy, we would need a definition, or at least an outline, of what “democracy” means. Is a democracy a place where people vote? If so, does it count if women can’t vote? An answer of “no” would mean the U.S. only became a democracy in 1920. I don’t propose to set a ridged definition of what a democracy is because there are countless such issues. One important aspect of democracy as a governing system is its flexibility.

Another important reason why spreading democracy doesn’t count as a coherent policy for the Bush administration is that it has never sacrificed anything to promote it. “Fighting for Democracy” is just a veneer used to cover pre-existing policy. Until a month ago, Bush offered nothing but praise for Russia and Vladamir Putin. The invasion of Georgia sparked outrage from the administration not because it is a democracy, but because it is a U.S. ally. The U.S. stood by when ally General Musharraf ousted judges and otherwise ruled as a dictator. Musharraf only recently resigned as a result of internal opposition. The U.S. supported Palestinian elections, until they elected the wrong side.

As for the “War on Terror,” I’ve shared my thoughts here.

Americans, and especially their political representatives, like to say that the United States is the greatest or most powerful country on Earth. Whether we are or not is a matter of taste, a matter of how you measure things. What is true, I believe, is that acting like we are the greatest country is not smart foreign policy. In order for the world to progress

Politicians from both political parties spew more platitudes relating to foreign policy than almost any other topic besides the economy and the War on DrugsTM when its in. Why do these topics attract such brain numbing commentary? Because unlike issues such as abortion, education, the environment, veteran affairs, and national infrastructure, the Federal Government can’t really do as much about foreign policy.

As far as the economy goes, the Feds can indirectly effect change through monetary policy (interest rates, money supply, etc.), trade policy, tax policy, and by regulating interstate trade. While that may sound like a lot, the Feds can’t really do a whole lot to “help” or “save” the economy (as is often claimed) without major shifts in the country’s attitudes (in which case you can throw out almost everything I’ve written on this blog as no longer relevant). For reasons why the Feds can’t effect drug use, see my essay here.

Likewise, the United States government has very limited control over other countries without military intervention. This is increasingly becoming the case as the economic success of China, India, the EU – just about everywhere – limits the amount of impact sanctions and other sorts of financial actions have.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Not much to say here...
Perhaps the preventative strike policy simply has not had time to develop into a foreign policy...?
Perhaps since we have been without a foreign policy for a good 20 years, any attempt to build one has failed to take hold across administrations?