America at foreign policy crossroads

By William Pingree

As the presidential election debate focuses light on the emerging structure of the post Cold War international system, it is now clear the image of a unipolar world is coming into clear focus. However, as both Democrats and Republicans contemplate the use of America’s prodigious power, two visions of this unipolar world are being offered to the American electorate. Both views see the use of American power in very different ways. The classic Democratic vision is one where the strength of America is contained within the institutional framework developed in the last half of the last century, and this strength serves to undergird and legitimize international organizations. In turn, as during the Cold War, these organizations will foster cooperation and provide collective security for the international community. After all, it was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s international view that created most of the international organizations active today in the world. This vision calls for achieving the democratic peace through international institutions, or by establishing the Democratic, liberal ideal.

On the other hand, the Republican vision has always been somewhat skeptical about the value of international institutions-especially when it comes to American national security. Republican presidents have embraced this view from Eisenhower to Reagan. Today, however, George W. Bush has built upon this skepticism and taken it to the next level. Thus, the new Republican view calls on American power to advance American interests which view now has a neo-conservative agenda of making American values the first and primary American interest.

This second vision calls for achieving the democratic peace through what may be called democratic realism. Both the Democratic and Republican visions champion the values of democracy, human rights and individual liberty as undergirding factors that need to be implemented as the goal of American foreign policy. Each view assumes that the pre-eminent position of the United States is pivotal and that American power-now so much more than that of any other nation-has created an unprecedented opportunity for the United States to take the lead. Both views find their foundations in Wilsonianism, the unique American expression of international “Manifest Destiny.” The question becomes which view will win out, and more importantly, is the unipolar assumption made by both Democrats and Republicans one that will lead to a safer and more stable world?

The Democratic institutional approach certainly tames American power through international organizations and focuses American power toward a more universalist view, which is much less confrontational.

The Republican view, while similar, changed when George W. Bush was elected. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of terrorism, Republican trust of international institutions reached a new low. The injection of neoconservative thought into Republican policy has created the vision of democratic realism, a view in which American values are not to be realized in the international community through international institutions, but are to be realized by the use of American power.

American voters are thus faced with two unipolar views of American power. First, the Democratic view of foreign policy, which looks both failed and worn out in light of emerging international verities that seem to leave the old Cold War world behind; second, a Republican view, which at a glance seems to use American power more effectively to achieve American goals, but in the long run, creates grave fears in the international community that have always produced power balances against the unipolar power.

The question of which of these views best secures the future for the United States in a safe and secure world is left to the voters. There are some final observations that need to be made as voters come to a decision. Both views succumb to the unipolar illusion and risk misperception of American interest and American capacity.

The Democratic view endangers our future by placing too much trust in the institutions of the Cold War. Without the balance of a Soviet Union, other countries no longer acutely feel the security dilemma. They are more free to pursue their own interests, not necessarily consistent with those of the United States.

The risk of becoming too utopian is always present and blinds us to the fact that the world is at once a safer place because of the demise of the Soviet Union and also a more dangerous one because of the demise of the Soviet Union. Unipolarity for Democrats assumes that the world is a rational place, with argument and collective security always winning the day. Those who so believe should visit the grave of the League of Nations frequently and remind themselves that human beings are both dynamic and schizophrenic, but never utopian.

As for the Republican view, those who embrace it must remember that a commitment to democratic realism has developed an arrogance that is dangerous and shortsighted. Unipolarity never lasts forever, and the Wilsonian ideals of self-determination, rule of law and human rights that have always inspired American participation in international affairs have now been redefined in terms of American interest. A new negative Wilsonianism has embraced Republican policy makers and this new theory caused our leaders also to blind themselves to our true national interest. Democratic realism has become a stick that enforces American values on others and thus destroys them. The old fashioned realism-power defined in terms of interest, not values- seems preferable. In the new international system, voters have a sobering choice. Therefore, “caveat emptor!”

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