American Foreign Policy in a Changing World

by Mark English

I have previously drawn attention to the neo-conservative elements of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy orientation and spoken of the dangers (as I see them) of a resurgence of such policies. [1] At the time I wrote my previous piece on this topic (before the first TV debate), the polls were narrowing and the trend favored Trump. Subsequently, things have not gone well for the Republican campaign, and the polls now predict that Clinton is heading for victory.

Assuming Clinton does win, I sincerely hope that she changes tack on foreign policy because – given the epochal changes currently underway in the geopolitical and economic spheres – I just don’t see how neo-conservative-style policies, based on an essentially imperial vision of America’s role in the world and coupled with a deeply adversarial approach to Russia and China, could possibly play out in a benign way.

There are different views on this, of course, and I am not entirely sure of my position. On NATO, for example, I tend to the view that it should have been gradually scaled back or unwound after the demise of the USSR and that its expansion eastwards (in spite of assurances given to Gorbachev that this would not happen) and current activities have made the likelihood of large-scale war more rather than less likely. Charles Moore, a British neo-conservative who has a very dark view of Putin’s ultimate intentions, makes a case for NATO’s continuing importance in constraining Russia. [2] There is no simple answer here. Perceived weakness and confusion on the part of Western powers will no doubt be exploited by hostile forces. But it is also true that alliances which operate as vehicles for hegemonic powers can be very problematic.

The word ‘realism’ can mean many different things, depending on context. Often it is used rhetorically and lacks substantive meaning. In international affairs, however, it has a generally accepted meaning. Stephen Walt explains:

Realism sees power as the centerpiece of political life and sees states as primarily concerned with ensuring their own security in a world where there’s no world government to protect them from others. Realists believe military power is essential to preserving a state’s independence and autonomy, but they recognize it is a crude instrument that often produces unintended consequences. Realists believe nationalism and other local identities are powerful and enduring; states are mostly selfish; altruism is rare; trust is hard to come by; and norms and institutions have a limited impact on what powerful states do. In short, realists have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint, no matter how appealing this might be in the abstract. [3]

Walt makes a good case that had we listened to foreign policy realists over recent decades, many innocent lives would have been saved and the world would – in all probability – be a less militaristic and better place than it is today.

Realism is opposed to the more activist philosophies of neoconservatism on the one hand and humanitarian interventionism on the other. These labels – it must be said – are not clear-cut and blur at the edges: actual humanitarian interventions can, for example, take place within either a neoconservative or a realist framework. And realism itself comes in different flavors. But its key defining elements are clear enough.

All forms of realism in international relations are associated with strong skepticism about all forms of ideological thinking; an acute awareness of the dangers of the unforeseen consequences of military interventions; and generally modest expectations of what can be achieved on the international front (or “pessimism” as Walt puts it).

As I understand it, there are factions within the Obama administration, some (like Obama himself, perhaps) not so committed to neocon-style policies and some more committed to hawkish intervention. I think the election of Hillary Clinton would give comfort to the latter group, and there would be a policy shift in that direction. That is my fear and what – above all – has motivated this and the earlier essay.

Someone asked in the course of the discussion of my earlier piece whether I really thought that the Chiefs of Staff would accept a presidential order to do something likely to trigger war with Russia or China.

It would depend on the circumstances. But it seems obvious enough that to the extent that the US follows neocon-like policies, the prerequisites for a big war (as distinct from more limited, regional conflicts) are more likely to be in place. The worst situations arise when countries fall readily into blocs and particularly, if the blocs are very large and very few. We know this from the Cold War. At times we were very close to the brink of a global catastrophe. It would be quite stupid to return, deliberately, to such a state of affairs, not to mention unnecessary. But many of the neocons seem to want just that.

I happen to think our future is bleak, whatever happens with this election and whatever policies the new administration adopts. But a civilization-ending nuclear war is by no means inevitable and in my opinion is less likely in a multipolar world, in which political leaders see their role more in local and regional than in global and ideological terms. The Cold War was about power blocs, but it was also about ideology. The old Marxist-Leninist, Maoist and related ideologies have faded from the scene. I say it’s time for all of these overarching narratives to be dropped, including the idea that America has some kind of imperial destiny (or responsibility) to fulfil.

For years I bought into this narrative to some extent. But for a state to fulfil this kind of imperial role effectively, its strength and dominance and underlying economic health must be unquestioned. The state in question must also be widely trusted and respected. Arguably these conditions applied to the United States in the not-too-distant past. But today?

In America – and even to some extent in Britain – both neo-conservatism and liberal interventionism are associated with the idea of American exceptionalism: that the United States has a special status amongst the nations, moral as well as military, and that from this status flow certain unique rights and responsibilities relating to global order and governance. In the past this view may (or may not) have been associated with largely benign consequences. But, I would contend, in current circumstances it can only be extremely dangerous.

In a recent article, Brazilian journalist Pepe Escobar points out that President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was preempted by an article published by Hillary Clinton which in turn reflected the ideas of Kurt Campbell. [4] Previously, Clinton had seen America’s battle to maintain world dominance mainly in economic terms, but Campbell’s influence led to her adopting a far more militaristic stance.

“Kurt Campbell,” writes Escobar, “is now the CEO of an Asia-centered advisory group. He’s also associated with the Washington think tank Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), a neocon/neo-liberal-con mix. It’s CNAS that came up with the geopolitical road map to be adopted by a future President Clinton. Key signatories include Campbell, the godfather of the neocons Robert Kagan, and Michele Flournoy, formerly with the Pentagon and a co-founder of CNAS.”

And Escobar notes that the “road map” – a report entitled “Extending American Power: Strategies to Expand US Engagement in a Competitive World Order” – pushes the notion of American exceptionalism. It “extols “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea – which is code for the US navy forever controlling the sea lanes straddling China’s supply chain.” It also calls for a no-fly zone in Syria – “which would pit the US air force against the Russian air force.”

America’s predicament is compounded by Europe’s social, political, economic and monetary crises. In fact, much of what is going on in Europe closely parallels the American situation – unprecedented levels of indebtedness (including sovereign debt), facilitated by unorthodox monetary policies, unemployment, falling productivity, the rejection by large swathes of the public of mainstream political parties, decreasing trust in and reliance on the mainstream media, mass (and largely uncontrolled) immigration, problems with the assimilation/integration of certain migrant groups, and so on. The crisis of the Euro is unique to Europe, of course, but the US dollar has its own problems. Its days as the world’s de facto reserve currency were always numbered, but mismanagement on the part of US authorities is hastening the decline.

In fact, the whole complex, Western-dominated, post-World War 2 architecture of international diplomacy and finance is in trouble, as the world’s center of economic gravity shifts to East and South Asia. US power and influence has been projected to a large extent through this system, but now that the edifice is tottering, more questions are being asked about the nature of America’s ongoing role.

Clearly the United States is in (at least relative) decline, both economically and in terms of global political influence. It can no longer plausibly play the dominant global role it has played – with mixed success – over the past seventy years or so. Will its leaders have the sense to realize this and slowly turn the focus to domestic and regional problems? Or will they cling – in some cases no doubt through sincere belief, in others from a need for self-aggrandizement – to a mythologized view of America’s destiny and role in the world?

References

  1. https://theelectricagora.com/2016/09/26/dangerous-times-thoughts-on-the-us-presidential-election/
  2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/21/trumps-support-is-making-russia-more-dangerous-than-it-was-in-th/
  3. http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/08/what-would-a-realist-world-have-looked-like-iraq-syria-iran-obama-bush-clinton/
  4. http://m.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/2027847/why-hillary-clinton-bigger-concern-china-donald-trump

9 Comments »

  1. Brian Balke

    Perhaps. But the basic point I am trying to make is that we are currently in an anomalous and unsustainable situation with the US involved at Russia’s frontiers and in the South China Sea. I am not saying America has no role to play but *strategically speaking* that role should be a nuanced one which factors in current geopolitical realities, including Russian security concerns and the rise of China as a global economic power and a regional military power.

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  2. Hi Mark, good piece with plenty to chew on. I’ll write a more detailed reply tomorrow.

    ………..

    Hi Brian, that is an interesting question though I see that more pertaining to Russia than China. Or at least I only see Russia engaged in what could be called “military adventurism”. Do you think China is too, and what are some examples?

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  3. Mark,
    well, as I noted to your previous article, the problem with this election is that it hasn’t been about policy, but personality. Now that Trump is in complete melt-down, I see that pundits both right as well as left are saying much the same thing. The Republican Party will need to take a bold critical look at itself and its practices after January.

    That said, I must again remark that, despite our differences on other issues, I still pretty much agree with your main points here. The US came out of WWii master of the world, and forgot what inevitably happens to world empires. It may take longer for it to happen to the US, but the signs are there for those who would look at them. One only hopes that the decline will be so gradual that we don’t take the whole world down with us.

    Although the policies that have led to the current situation have been in place since the ’50s, the single most catastrophic mistake (in the context of your discussion) the US made was in deciding not to rush aid to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The G.H.W. Bush administration’s decision to let the Russian government – and the Russian people – effectively just go broke (whole regions reverted to barter economics for a time) opened the door to a renewed Russian nationalism, which currently flourishes, diminishing democratic gains made in the Yeltsin era. I suspect that G.H.W. and his people had hoped that an impoverished Russia would open its doors to American businesses to help rebuild the economy; but this showed little understanding of how Russia has traditionally seen the West – with grave suspicion – long before the Revolution of 1917.

    And then of course came the invasion of Iraq, swiftly followed by the bizarre financial wheeling and dealing G.W. Bush engaged with China in order to finance it (borrowing 3 billion dollars, as if Bejing were his personal bank, while getting them to buy into the whole sub-prime mortgage scam, which ultimately led to another half-billion buy off in 2007/2008, which presaged, and partly led into, the Recession.)

    Now it would have been nice had Obama really represented a change, both in fiscal policy and foreign policy; but the fact is, these policies are completely institutionalized. It’s doubtful that any President can do more than tinker with them. And my remarks on the W. Bush – Bejing dealings are meant to highlight that the foreign policy – political and military – and the economic policy are inextricably bound together. So suggesting a redefinition of our global interests, and a redirection of our concerted efforts on the world’s stage – we’re talking about a massive change in the way government is conducted in the US, perhaps only on a par with – the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    So, alas! – I don’t see the kind of realism you’re asking for here entering into political discourse in the US anytime soon, except on the margins.

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  4. ejwinner

    “… foreign policy – political and military – and … economic policy are inextricably bound together.”

    We are seeing more and more evidence of this.

    “So suggesting a redefinition of our global interests, and a redirection of our concerted efforts on the world’s stage – we’re talking about a massive change in the way government is conducted in the US…”

    It will also involve a change in the way people think. Unfortunately following-the-money-type analyses are not exactly riveting, especially for the general public.

    Also messages about national decline are never easy to sell. People – top political leaders more so than others perhaps – often have a lot invested in national pride. I think patriotism can be a very positive thing – but it can also very easily turn toxic (and be exploited by warmongers).

    The only hopeful aspect of this is that thinking people right across the political spectrum are finding agreement on these issues.

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  5. Hi Mark, I share your hope that Clinton will change her approach to foreign policy.

    If true, Escobar’s piece is chilling and suggests change (for the better) is unlikely. Clinton’s connection to specific neocons with specific designs in the Far East is eerily reminiscent of Bush’s connection to Wolfowitz and Co with their designs on the MidEast. Of course Escobar argued (weeks before 9/11) that Al-Qaida was basically a broken organization, so maybe (I hope) he’s missed something important here. Still, he seems totally righty about Clinton’s stance on TPP. As Clinton announces her cabinet we may get a better feel for which way she is headed.

    I wish the Reps had mounted a more fact/policy oriented campaign to bring these kinds of issues to the front. Not that it would have helped Dems like Trump, but at least Dems would understand problems they may face under Clinton.

    Regarding Realism… I agree with many of the points given within the “definition” by Walt, but that seems to leave a lot of wiggle room for error. Perhaps it was my own confusion but I connected (and sort of still do) the Realpolitik of Kissinger with Realism. To the extent that Realism can include Realpolitik (or Kissinger’s brand of it) it is not a guarantor of making choices in line with my own views.

    I don’t believe that standing up for (or defending) a preferred set of standards (we can call this an ideology for sake of argument), is the same as promoting one. I don’t think any state should be trying to actively remake the world in its image. Then again, I think it is wise for a state to consider before acting whether there is a choice which will (in the long run) allow it to maintain its own standards. The nature of our meddling in Afghanistan to defeat Russia may have been the most convenient at the time, but it clearly did not help us protect ourselves or the Afghan people, and has come around to undercut our own desired standards at home.

    It will be interesting to see if US politicians can embrace a vision of the US as simply one state among many. Ironically this may come more easily from traditionally conservative populations, isolationists and libertarians, than liberals.

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  6. dbholmes

    “If true, Escobar’s piece is chilling and suggests change (for the better) is unlikely. Clinton’s connection to specific neocons with specific designs in the Far East is eerily reminiscent of Bush’s connection to Wolfowitz and Co with their designs on the MidEast… I wish the Reps had mounted a more fact/policy oriented campaign to bring these kinds of issues to the front.”

    Indeed. But foreign policy is rarely a decisive election issue, is it?

    “As Clinton announces her cabinet we may get a better feel for which way she is headed.”

    The fact that she is now under FBI investigation again changes the picture somewhat… (I see the new material comes from the Anthony Weiner investigation. What a circus!)

    “Regarding Realism… I agree with many of the points given within the “definition” by Walt, but that seems to leave a lot of wiggle room for error. Perhaps it was my own confusion but I connected (and sort of still do) the Realpolitik of Kissinger with Realism. To the extent that Realism can include Realpolitik (or Kissinger’s brand of it) it is not a guarantor of making choices in line with my own views.”

    I think it’s just a kind of general framework and it doesn’t guarantee anything. I think you’re wanting to see it as an ideology – and realists see themselves as explicitly rejecting ideological and formulaic responses. Their orientation is pragmatic and their “pessimism” about what is possible means that prudence tends to override opportunism. But realists disagree amongst themselves and there are competing versions of realism (and “neo-realism”).

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  7. Hi Mark. I always appreciate your sincere commitment to grappling with the truth. Despite her problems, if you think there’s a question between Clinton and Trump, my best guess it you give excessive weight ideology – what people say they are for. The linked video starts off with a discussion of how ideology became a dead issue in the USSR before Gorbachev came to power (and before that, Alan Dulles obsessed over Stalin’s theoretical writing, when for Stalin, theory/ideology was little more than a tool).

    Here is all I’ll probably say for a long time, and it is also quite relevant to the “Cult of the Self” discussion:

    Richard Burr, NC Senator and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence:

    locked in a tight race for reelection, quipped that as he walked into a gun shop “nothing made me feel better” than seeing a magazine about rifles “with a picture of Hillary Clinton on the front of it.” “I was a little bit shocked at that — it didn’t have a bullseye on it.” (quoted from Esquire online)

    Who put this guy there, and what are we going to do about it? It’s going to be a long fight. We all have to look inside ourselves. By all means, elect the saner candidate, and (and try to turn the idiots out of congress), but a new president (even with a new congress) won’t save us. Our culture has drifted (almost all we do as a society is drift, because the only people seriously working at directing it have an ideology of “No direction needed — the essence of economy is that you don’t have to think about it, so stop thinking about it. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”). Even the Grateful Dead is complicit (noted in the linked interview), and certainly the “New Left” as a whole, which may have philosophically contributed the most to the “New Right”.

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  8. Thanks Hal.

    “Despite her problems, if you think there’s a question between Clinton and Trump, my best guess is you give excessive weight [to] ideology – what people say they are for.”

    Remember I’m focused here on foreign policy. Clinton has a track record in foreign affairs which is quite disastrous. With respect to Trump, we will see (if he wins); or not (if he doesn’t).

    “The linked video starts off with a discussion of how ideology became a dead issue in the USSR before Gorbachev came to power (and before that, Alan Dulles obsessed over Stalin’s theoretical writing, when for Stalin, theory/ideology was little more than a tool).”

    Sure. And the doctrine of American exceptionalism is also arguably being used (though some still believe in it).

    “Who put this guy [Richard Burr] there, and what are we going to do about it?”

    Good question.

    “Our culture has drifted (almost all we do as a society is drift, because the only people seriously working at directing it have an ideology of “No direction needed — the essence of economy is that you don’t have to think about it, so stop thinking about it. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”). Even … the “New Left” … may have philosophically contributed the most to the “New Right”.”

    Re Adam Curtis [audio]. Certainly seems worth following up on. At least he seems to be sensitive to the tension between communitarian(/collectivist?) and individualist approaches.

    “Here is all I’ll probably say for a long time…”

    Not ill I hope?

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