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Five Global Challenges for a New American Internationalism

June 18, 2004

That giant sucking sound you may have heard last week was the last vestiges of American unilateralism spinning down the drain. Perhaps barely noticed in the din and drumbeat of the Reagan commemoration, the short and unhappy life of President Bush’s policy of “America Alone” mercifully came to an abrupt halt. In securing passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution recognizing the new Iraqi Interim Government, the Bush administration unwittingly pronounced the death of an idea whose time had never really come. America cannot go it alone; its security requires alliances and partnerships, its global leadership and influence contingent on its legitimacy in world opinion and international institutions.

Like a house of cards, the post-Cold War vision of America Unbound espoused by Dick CheneyPaul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and others has collapsed of its own weight. With the fall of the Soviet Union during the first Bush administration, Cheney and Wolfowitz aggressively argued for an overhaul of American foreign policy, one whose new primary “objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival.” The controversial draft 1992 Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) authored by Wolfowitz stated bluntly that the U.S. should “establish and protect a new order that holds the promise of convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role.” He added that “the United States should be postured to act independently when collective action cannot be orchestrated” to ensure “the sense that the world order is ultimately backed by the U.S.” Publicly rejected by the Bush 41 administration then, the unilateralism of the DPG became the reigning orthodoxy of George W. Bush after September 11, 2001. That is, until last week.

Whether the Bush administration will publicly acknowledge what virtually everyone knows to be true is another matter. Regardless, the converted internationalists at the White House have, in the words of neo-conservative Irving Kristol, been “mugged by reality.” The mounting casualties in Iraq, the overstretched U.S. military, the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, the chaos in Saudi Arabia, and the dangerous alienation of friends and foes alike showed the limits on the exercise of pure American military power. In the end, the prospect of defeat both on the ground in Iraq and at the polls at home led George Bush back to the United Nations, tail between his legs.

With American unilateralism disgraced and discredited, the United States can and must move on to a new internationalism to meet the five global challenges of the 21st century. In a time of global terrorist threats, the U.S. must rebuild its alliances, partnerships, and most of all, its reputation, to help ensure its security. In a time of new competition from the EU, China, India and others in the global economy, the U.S. must skillfully manage economic transition to maximize the American standard of living. At a time of rapidly growing Chinese economic and geo-political power, the United States must ensure that competition does not become conflict. And with the building threat of nuclear proliferation, the United States must work in concert with allies and international institutions.

1. Winning the War Against Al Qaeda

The immediate threat to the security of the United States at home and its interests abroad is the on-going war with Al Qaeda. (All American policymakers should dispense with the irrelevant term “War on Terror”; we’re not fighting an abstraction and not all terrorist groups have to be fought as American enemies, at least for now.)

“Winning” this war does not refer to surrender and occupation in the traditional sense, but instead the reduction and eventual elimination of Al Qaeda’s ability and influence. Victory will be measured in the reduction in the frequency, scope and lethality of terrorist attacks over time. With the Bush administration’s bungling in Iraq, underinvestment in Afghanistan, and plummeting opinion around the world, American success is not assured.

For that, the U.S. will need every military, diplomatic, economic and ideological tool at its disposal. In the near-term, the American military will have to be expanded and American civil defense enhanced. UN and EU member states must be offered greater economic involvement in reconstruction and development in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in exchange for their resources and stamp of legitimacy. American allies and at-risk nations such as the Philippines, Egypt and Indonesia will have to be bolstered to weather growing domestic terror threats. And the U.S. must press regimes of erstwhile partners such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for much needed political reforms.

Two other components are essential. First, the U.S. must resume its central role in resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The Middle East peace process having been abandoned and left to fester by George Bush, real and perceived Palestinian grievances among Arab states will make any Great Middle East Initiative a non-starter. The ultimate outline of the resolution is clear; Israel must yield most or all of its West Bank settlements in exchange for no Palestinian right of return. Bush’s support for Ariel Sharon’s unilateral Gaza plan pre-supposed an outcome that should have been the subject of negotiation.

Second, the U.S. must pursue national energy independence. Its growing reliance on Middle East oil creates both economic vulnerability and the Gulf military presence so central to Muslim grievances with the United States. A USA Energy Act at home could go along way towards ensuring peace and American security around the world.

2. Accommodating European Union Economic Power

Almost unnoticed in the United States was the May 1 expansion of the European Union to 25 countries. While the Bush administration has derided “Old Europe” of France and Germany, the new EU is now the world’s largest trading bloc and consolidated economy, with a market of 450 million people and a Gross Domestic Product of over $10 trillion.

The next American president and his countrymen won’ be able to ignore the EU any longer. While its political integration proceeds in fits and starts, the European Union will be both America’s geo-strategic partner and a growing economic competitor. The continued strength of the Euro relative could well jeopardize the dollar’s unique role as the world’s reserve currency. If the United States does not manage its out-of-control trade and budget deficits, it could lose the leadership role – and benefits – that the dollar denominated world economy has offered Americans since World War II. Working with our European counterparts to accommodate EU economic power and guide the global economy is essential to American economic security.

3. Managing China’s Coming Superpower Status

Even more dramatic than the steady rise of the EU as an economic force is that of China. And this hasn’t gone unnoticed by Americans. As the press has widely reported, the Chinese demand for energy has had a major impact in driving up the prices of gasoline in the United States. The statistics for the Chinese economy are undeniable and staggering: 1.3 billion people, passing Japan with the second largest GDP ($6 billion), growth rates approaching 10%, and an annual trade surplus (2003) with the U.S. topping $120 billion. China’s manufacturing leadership, increasingly competitive high-tech sector, WTO membership and even the 2008 Beijing Olympics clearly point to a greater Chinese role on the international stage.

Competition does not have to mean conflict, but the challenge posed Chinese power is a serious one that requires subtlety, not Bush-style machismo. The 2001 confrontation over the collision of a Chinese MiG and an U.S. EP3 spy plane showed the tension – and nationalism – just below the surface of Sino-American relations. China’s comparatively small nuclear arsenal and lack of a blue-water fleet limit its ability today to project power globally. Its increasing regional power in the Asia/Pacific theater, however, is unquestioned. Chinese mediation has become central to resolution of the crisis on the Korean peninsula. Growing Chinese belligerency and confidence towards Taiwan will put extreme pressure on American policymakers and the 55 year-old U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense.

4. Addressing Competition and Conflict in the Global Economy

Economic globalization will pose an ever-larger challenge to U.S. policymakers trying to ensure a growing standard of living for Americans. The fluidity of investment capital and the power on trans-national corporations beyond any one country’s control will impact the American domestic economy. As the debate over outsourcing shows, ChinaIndia and other economies will increasingly threaten American leadership in high-value sectors such as software design, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and financial services. To continue to provide high paying jobs in the U.S., American leaders will have to provide the educational opportunities, workforce skills, and political will for the successful management of a regime of free and fair trade.

American success and worldwide stability in the global economy will also require shared leadership and reform of the IMF and World Bank. The backlash against and resentment of these U.S. led financial institutions is very real among the recovering 1990’s “crisis economies” of Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea, Russia, Argentina and Mexico. As Joseph Stieglitz (Globalization and Its Discontents) and Clyde Prestowitz (Rogue Nation) have argued, the pain and privation induced by IMF austerity programs in these countries will – and should – undermine the “Washington Consensus.” Over time, the U.S. will have to accept larger EU, Japanese and Chinese roles in the existing or new organizations.

5. Controlling Global Nuclear Proliferation

Nuclear proliferation and especially the risk of terrorist groups gaining atomic weapons is a central challenge for the U.S. and its allies. Bellicose rhetoric about “Axis of Evil” regimes in North Korea and Iran won’t help matters.

Iraq aside, American saber rattling with Pyongyang isn’t credible, given the prospect of the mutual assured destruction of Seoul. Bush’s end of U.S. engagement with the North and his clear disdain for Seoul’s “Sunshine Policy” has failed to dissuade Kim Jong Il from his pursuit of a nuclear program. Only multi-lateral talks with China, Russia and Japan have prevented a complete breakdown. Similarly, the roles of France, Germany and the UK have brought whatever shaky progress the IAEA has made with Iran. And all the while, erstwhile ally Pakistan and its legendary A.Q. Khan had become the world’s nuclear flea market.

Once again, the United States can’t go it alone in preventing nuclear proliferation. It does not have the sheer power, influence or credibility to enforce a non-proliferation regime. In almost every sense, the Bush policy will have to be reversed. Spending for the safeguarding of nuclear materials will have to be substantially increased as John Kerry has proposed. (Early on, the Bush administration sought to gut the Lugar-Nunn program for disposing of former Soviet stockpiles.) In conjunction with the UN, EU, and others, the U.S. will have to offer economic incentives and security guarantees in exchange for on-site inspections and verified nuclear dismantling.

The Right Side of History

In his 2004 State of the Union Address, President Bush told the nation:

“From the beginning, America has sought international support for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we have gained much support. There is a difference, however, between leading a coalition of many nations, and submitting to the objections of a few. America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people.”

As with so many matters, Bush is flat wrong. His complete and perhaps willful misreading of global economic, demographic and security trends has resulted in a disastrous policy of American unilateralism. To address these challenges of security and economic well being during a time of dramatic change, the United States cannot go it alone. Its role should be ministerial, not hegemonic. America cannot be the world’s policeman; it can be its steward.

The next administration can send the world a clear signal from the start by signing on to the Kyoto Protocols, the land mine treaty and the International Criminal Court, all broadly supported by the American people and firmly opposed by George W. Bush.  The U.S. has an opportunity to get, as Bush himself might say, on the right side of history. It’s not too late.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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