It's foreign policy, stupid

The collapse of communism has not led the US back to isolationism. Instead, argues Godfrey Hodgson, it has launched a new era of missionary interventionism-for the benefit of domestic audiences, not the US's allies
January 20, 1996

Since the end of history in 1989 it has been assumed that the 50 years of American involvement in world affairs were about to come to an end, or at least, that the US would be less willing to bear the burdens and pay the costs that President Kennedy had demanded. Was isolationism on the way back? Michael Cox, the author of this thoughtful paper (US Foreign Policy after the Cold War, Chatham House, 1995), is too shrewd for such simplicities. Instead, he begins from the premise that the US is "a superpower without a mission."

Cox's seven central chapters, dealing respectively with the constraints on American resources, the global economy, defence, post-communist Russia, Europe, Asia and the third world, constitute a useful survey. Chapter 8 reminds us that third world countries cannot be dismissed as "basket cases," if only because so many of America's problems (terrorism, immigration, drugs) actually come from the third world. And Cox is sensitive to the fact that US-sponsored "structural adjustment" has brought terrifying problems to poor countries and their people.

Cox is right to insist that "we have become so fixated on looking for what has altered since 1990 that we fail to see what has not." I would go further. American foreign policy since the end of the cold war is influenced by instincts which reach deep into the American past. The cold war has bequeathed to the US attitudes which, far from inclining the US towards isolationism, urge it on to intervention , especially unilateral intervention. This view has been reinforced by my recent discussions in Washington with members of the foreign policy establishment. I therefore disagree with Cox's conclusion that the US is in danger of failing to lead the new world order. It will lead. The question is: can it share the glories and satisfactions of leadership, as well as its costs?

What institutions push the US in this unilateralist direction? Those created in the late 1940s: the military machine, which has not been reduced as much as expected since the end of the cold war; the CIA and the rest of the "intelligence community"; the alliances, especially Nato, which the US tends to run as if Nato allies were client states; the hundreds of bases overseas and their garrisons, with their tendency to become foreign policy issues in themselves (yesterday the Philippines and Panama, tomorrow Japan and Korea); the defence and aerospace industry and its outriders in Washington; indeed the modern presidency itself. Policy is still dictated by what President Eisenhower called 35 years ago the "military-industrial complex." But it is also subject to the erratic instincts of a television audience fed on excited but unexplained glimpses of world events.

What attitudes incline American presidents towards intervention? Over the past 30 years, with few exceptions, every time a US president has taken military action overseas, his popularity has risen in the short term by some ten points. Almost nothing else a president can do will enhance his poll standing, the essential gauge of his political credit, so swiftly. Another factor is that, although there is a powerful impulse in the US today to spend less on foreign aid, diplomatic missions, or multilateral institutions such as the UN, there is less enthusiasm about cutting the defence budget. Defence expenditure has become the lifeblood of so many communities in the US that it is tenaciously defended by senators, congressmen and lobbies of all kinds. Indeed, dependence on defence spending is one of the realities that renders headshaking about whether the US is about to abandon its leadership role (of the kind Michael Cox permits himself) ultimately unrealistic.

But will the US lead in a co-operative manner, as first among equals? The omens are not good. In Bosnia, the US has acted only after refusing to do so under the aegis of the UN for three years (indeed, after sniping at UN operations and trying to sabotage its peace initiatives). As Clinton has discovered, the temptation for presidents is to exploit foreign adventures, not forswear them. What pleases the American electorate is not isolation, trade negotiations, or more careful husbandry of scarce resources. It is red meat. It wants pictures on the nightly news of American boys applying US military power, if possible under unambiguously US command, and preferably in ways that seem to confirm the superiority of American technology. When it has worked (under Ronald Reagan in Libya and Grenada, under George Bush in Panama and the Gulf) it has been immensely popular. When it has gone wrong, for example in Lebanon under Reagan, it has still been more likely to evoke a wave of patriotism than a chorus of raspberries.

This is the political logic which takes Bill Clinton-who was opposed to intervention in Vietnam-to sit in a mess hall in Germany, surrounded by the praetorian guards he is about to send to Bosnia, and hear their cheers when he tells them that their rules of engagement will allow them to shoot. Those pictures, on the nightly news, are a political asset Newt Gingrich cannot match.

Military assertiveness was not the guiding force of policy during the first half of the Clinton administration. Clinton became President Clinton in large part because he realised, in 1992, that the priority for Americans was their domestic troubles, not wandering the back roads of the world looking for dragons to slay. "It's the economy, stupid," was the key slogan; and Clinton and his men openly derided George Bush, the victor of the Gulf war, as a "foreign policy president," as if, with the cold war over, that were self-evidently a bad thing to be.

Two years later, Clinton has changed his mind. After the Republicans won control of both Senate and House, he faced oblivion. He fumbled one pass after another. His plans for health care reform were in ruins. In 1993-94 he seemed counted out. Yet here he is again, the Come-Back Kid. It is generally agreed that he emerged as the winner in the confrontation with the Republicans over the budget. Now that Colin Powell is out, Clinton looks the favourite. It is hard to see how any Republican can catch Robert Dole, who is elderly, petulant and unappealing.

Clinton's prospects were improving even before he decided that it wasn't such a bad thing to be a foreign policy president. But there is a clear electoral logic in staking his presidential prospects on presenting himself as the man who can bring peace to the world's most intransigent quarrels: in the middle east, in Bosnia, and in Northern Ireland. Of course, all three remain dangerous. Clinton grabbed credit for the middle east accord brokered by the Norwegians by inviting Rabin and Arafat to shake hands in front of American network cameras on the White House lawn; but linking himself to the middle east peace process could still blow up in his face. In Northern Ireland, the risks are fewer. If things go well, Clinton will be able to claim the credit; if they go wrong, it will be the fault of the ancient intransigence of the British. But Bosnia is Russian roulette for Clinton. The senior Republican senator who told me in Washington in November that to send American troops there would be "a disaster and a tragedy" was expressing a commonly held view. By dropping bombs in Bosnia and by banging heads in Dayton, the administration has taken the initiative. Although we have not yet seen the fine print of the agreement Richard Holbrooke brokered in such robust style, he had to promise that 20,000 American troops would join 40,000 Europeans (under Nato command) to keep it. For the time being, Dole and most Republicans have decided to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt. But 1996 is election year.

Behind the debate over American involvement in Bosnia lies the deeper and more general debate about American foreign policy in the post-cold war world. Most commentators, especially outside the US, assume that the argument is between "isolationists" and "internationalists." To see it in those terms is to misunderstand both the present argument and the historical meaning of those two terms. The isolationists were those who, when Woodrow Wilson invited them to commit the US, through the League of Nations, to permanent entanglement in the affairs of a wicked world, refused to ratify "his" Versailles treaty. They had many reasons for this: ethnic, sectional, populist. But few of them had any objection to the US being intimately involved in the world, as trader, missionary, investor, even, if necessary, with gunboats and marines. Their preference, however, was for intervening not in Europe, but in Asia and Latin America, with quasi-colonial occupation if necessary, so long as it was done in American interests.

The internationalists were those who disagreed with the isolationists. They not only felt that the US would sooner or later have to rearm to fight fascism in Europe, but they had also inherited from Theodore Roosevelt the nationalist conviction that it was time for the US to take its rightful place as the leader among the nations. The leader of these "internationalists," though he kept his allegiance concealed, was none other than Franklin Roosevelt; and their disciples were the men who were present at the creation of America's cold war hegemony: Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, John J McCloy.

The division today is no longer between the isolationists and the internationalists. The threads of the argument in the 1990s are best understood in terms of a four-way matrix: two of its poles are left and right. The other two are less simply labelled: one represents the missionary, the other the self-sufficient instincts in American history.

Reagan liked to quote John Winthrop, the second governor of Massachusetts, who said that the colony should be "a shining city on a hill." This is the tradition of "American exceptionalism." It holds that the US is different: not just bigger or richer than other nations, but morally superior, set apart from them by its historic destiny and the hand of God. It is still influential, now usually expressing itself in the belief that it is the duty of the US to export "its" values (such as democracy) to the world.

But if the American colonies were founded by men with a sense of religious mission, there was always an opposite instinct for sheltering behind the oceans and letting the rest of the world go to hell. This tradition I call "nationalist," to distinguish it both from isolationism-which was a particular historical manifestation of it-and internationalism.

The right-nationalist view is held by many of the Republican freshmen brought to the House by Newt Gingrich in his 1994 landslide. They want the US to pursue its own interests, with military force if necessary, and with minimum co-operation with allies who are seen as trading rivals. The left-nationalist view, which was the core of Congressman Gephardt's campaign for the presidency and is the view of the labour unions, also calls for a tougher pursuit of American interests, but defines them in terms of defending American jobs; left nationalists also argue that the US cannot afford to spend as much as before on foreign aid and on its international role in general.

But the groups calling for a reduction in US engagement are still outstripped by those calling for its continuation-at least on US terms. This was the thrust of the "right exceptionalist" policy of Reagan and, to a lesser extent, Bush. If there are bad men in the world-a Manuel Noriega or a Saddam Hussein-then, says this gunslinger tradition, it is the destiny of the lone superpower to bring them to book.

The version of the exceptionalist, universalist policy which Clinton prefers is the other, the Wilsonian one. As he explained recently, it argues that both American interests and "values" require the US to send troops to Bosnia. As two former members of his administration told me, it is the duty of the US to bring its ideals to the world: freedom and free markets, open societies and open trade.

For 75 years from 1914 to 1989, the US committed itself (after agonised debate but in the end decisively) to fight in defence of its values, which were also ours. It is just as well that it did. But the situation has changed. It is now a question of what kind of leadership the American public wants. Answer? The wrong kind: cheap, easy, nightly news leadership. As Michael Lind, author of The Next American Nation puts it: "public opinion, according to most of the polls, supports US leadership on two conditions: that it costs no money, and that no lives be lost."

If the world needs American leadership, as Michael Cox believes, it also needs something more than that. The US cannot use its nuclear arsenal to force the Japanese to buy American cars or the Chinese to embrace multi-party democracy. American leadership cannot only be the projection of a sense of mission which the rest of the world can never be expected to share. For even if the rest of the world did share American values, it cannot be expected to share American interests.

The problem is not that the US is "a superpower without a mission." It is that the US has all too strong a mission to spread its political and economic system wherever it can. American public opinion is happy to support missions which yield instant gratification; it is less keen to underwrite the arduous work of co-operating with allies to build a safer, more prosperous world for everyone.
Us Foreign policy after the cold war
Michael Cox