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The US on a Changing World Chessboard

IF the cold war is fading, can Americans define a strategic purpose for their foreign policy? Can they sustain global great-power involvement without an enemy, especially when domestic problems compete for scarce resources? To provide those resources, does United States domestic politics demand the kind of clear danger furnished by Moscow prior to Mikhail Gorbachev? The Wilsonian tradition in US foreign policy suggests the answer is yes. Wilsonians believe that a nation's external conduct must reflect internal values. While geopolitical strategists emphasize the competition among states, and tend to disregard their domestic regimes, Wilsonians find such policies amoral.

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan are Wilsonians; Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are geopoliticians. All, however, understood that Congress and the public find it difficult to play power politics without dividing the world into ``good'' and ``bad'' states.

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Wilsonianism, some say, reflects a deep-seated liberal ``creed.'' This creed has held together a nation of immigrants and told each generation what is special about it. In our foreign policy, we often project these values onto other ones.

This creed may be irrelevant if, as seems likely, foreign-policy challenges during the 1990s will be less ideological and predictable than those of the past. If present trends continue, both major cold-war blocs will gradually lose definition. Already, tensions between Hungary and Romania over ethnic issues, as well as among the US, West Germany, and other NATO members over a common approach to Mr. Gorbachev, are more severe than some traditional NATO- Warsaw Pact disputes. If Moscow continues to be seen as relatively benign, alliances - which are common responses to threats - will weaken. Under these conditions, Americans may have trouble defining friend and foe.

US foreign policy need not become rudderless as a result. The US, as a superpower, will continue to have geopolitically defined stakes in many places. However the conflicts are resolved, security in Central America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia will depend on some American commitment. Our stakes in certain kinds of regimes, relationships, and regional power balances derive from more than just the competition with Moscow, though they may be harder to define in practice without a cold war.

Americans' attitudes toward international involvement have been quite different from this classic balance-of-power conception. What William Hyland, a former aide to President Ford, calls ``a nearly irresistible strain of isolationism'' prevents many Americans from regarding sustained involvement as a normal state of affairs. We have instead intervened abroad only in emergencies. If the cold war was an extended emergency, is there any reason to suspect we will not repeat the pattern when it is over?

International stability is never achieved once and for all. If an old challenge, such as Soviet expansionism, is finally tamed, others will replace it. In his memoirs, Henry Kissinger disparages Americans' belief that international involvement could terminate upon the achievement of good results. In this view, ambiguous compromises, the stuff of traditional diplomacy, are equated with moral sellouts. But this is true only if international politics is about good and evil rather than threats and opportunities that come from both those we might ``like'' and those we find less congenial.

The US gap between public and professional attitudes toward foreign affairs reflects a short geopolitical tradition. Unlike Britain, France, and Russia, the US is a newcomer to the classic game of nations. When Russia appeared to be an evil empire, geopolitical and moral issues ran together, and US inexperience in world affairs was less consequential.

This, however, will probably not continue. If rigid alliance and enemies are relics of the past, Americans must learn to think about international stakes and commitments in more contingent terms. Today's opponent may become tomorrow's ally; stability or genuine neutrality in key areas may be preferable to interminable wars on behalf of freedom fighters. If so, President Bush and his advisers should speak a contemporary geopolitical language that their fellow citizens can adjust to and ultimately accept.

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