26 May 2015

A post-ideological foreign policy?

It's remarkable to see in the pages of Time magazine, a mainstream media outlet if ever there was one, such a strong critique of American foreign policy from the magazine's own foreign-affairs correspondent, Ian Bremmer, who summarizes the arguments of his new book, Superpower: Three Choices for Amercia's Role in the World in the current issue. He summarizes three likely approaches advocated by different factions today, including good old "Indispensable America," but Bremmer clearly endorses the option he calls "Independent America." He calls it that because it would be a declaration of independence from the U.S's self-assigned "responsibility to fix the world." Bremmer believes that the 21st century has already taught younger Americans that "no nation, not even the sole superpower, can consistently get what it wants in a world where so many other governments have enough power to resist U.S. pressure," and that, as Vietnam should already have shown, "No matter how powerful you are, it's hard to defeat an enemy that cares much more about the outcome than you do." Bremmer finds this relevant not only in the Middle East but in Ukraine, which "will always matter much more to Moscow than to Washington." For him, though, the choice facing the country is about more than an acknowledgment of limits. "It's not simply that America can no longer police the world," he writes, "It's that it has no right to force those who disagree with us to see things our way." From there he moves to a critique of our global "freedom" agenda: "Americans like to believe that democracy is so undeniably attractive, and our commitment to it so obvious that others should simply trust us to create it for them within their borders. That's just not the case."

Bremmer still believes that democracy, by which he means liberal constitutional democracy, is a good everyone should want. On that assumption, he advises the U.S. to lead by example: "the best way to persuade the citizens of other countries to demand democracy is to make it work more effectively at home. Don't just tell the world that democracy is best. Show it, and build an America that others believe is too important to fail."

Implicitly acknowledging democratic dysfunction in America, Bremmer leaves unclear in this preview article what exactly the dysfunction may be and what exactly foreigners might find either attractive or inadequate about democracy as we practice it. The key word in the last quote, I think, is "effectively." Like many observers, Bremmer expects democracy to get things done. But our compromised democracy is often exploited by people who don't want things done if they come at any cost to wealth or "freedom." Our admirable desire to protect the principled dissident or the misunderstood minority also empowers potentially unprincipled or very well understood vested interests with a veto, or at least a check, on the common good. Countries where a more urgent need to get things done is felt are likely to be impatient with our system. For good or ill they want someone to have the power to get things done without being checked by the vested interests who often are the cause of their problems. They may not want to silence dissidents, but they may expect minorities, and those defined politically especially, to acquiesce eventually in the majority will as interpreted by the elected regime. Liberalism has gone wrong if it can no longer convince the dissident that to lose is not to be oppressed or enslaved, and liberal democracy has clearly gone wrong in the U.S. When every defeat is perceived as a shove down a slipper slope to totalitarianism or theocracy or socialism or oligarchy, the sort of compromises James Madison depended on for his system to work effectively become less likely, and the more outsiders blame American ineffectiveness on the power of vested interests and dogmatic ideologies grown indifferent to a common good, the less tolerant they may be toward both vested interests and principled dissidents in their own midst. Observing the rest of the world, Americans will need to recognize that not every dissident is principled, and that sometimes, as in our own history, vested interests need to go, quietly or not, if nations are to advance.

Bremmer recognizes this much when he critiques the "Indispensable" option, which presumes that "Americans can be secure only in a world where democracy, rule of law, access to information, freedom of speech and human rights are universally recognized." He reserves his strongest criticism for politicians who "continue to tell us that U.S. troops are 'defending our freedom' in places overseas where American freedom is not at risk." He blasts Jeb Bush for saying, "If we withdraw from the defense of liberty anywhere, the battle eventually comes to us." That's perhaps the most extreme expression -- from a candidate who still seems unclear about whether his brother's war policies were wise or not -- of a still-widespread belief that dictatorship anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere, and especially to freedom here. Refuting this intellectually is one thing; it'll be another to overcome the humanitarian impulse that sees the suffering of people under tyranny as our business. That impulse might be channeled toward building stronger global authorities that hold all countries equally accountable for acts against humanity, but global authorities, if truly representative, may have different priorities for human or national development than we do; a global consensus may well not hold the individual as sacrosanct as we demand, even if it acknowledged more individual rights than many do now. But while many liberals and self-styled humanitarians may be captivated by such negotiations, as long as we remain a world of sovereign nations the main priority is to respect the sovereignty of other nations until they violate other nations' sovereignty, and to get Americans over the idea that we're only safe if we dominate the world. When other countries are torn by strife amongst rule-or-ruin factions, each believing that it can flourish, or at least survive, only when it rules, we call that tribalism. The U.S. has practiced a tribalist foreign policy for too long, and if Bremmer's "Independent America" option ends that he'll have done the nation and the world a service.

Here's a link to a quiz Bremmer has created for you to determine which of his options is closest to your own beliefs. My only beef with it is that a few of the questions really have "all of the above" answers but you're not allowed to choose them.


Anonymous said...

Apparently, I rate as: "Independent".

Samuel Wilson said...

If I said that was predictable would that compromise your 'Independence' somehow?

For what it's worth, the test told me I was somewhere between 'Independent' and 'Moneyball,' which is the author's middle-of-the-road soft-power option. I'd be curious to see Time compile the results from all participants.