Academic Resource Program - Foreign Affairs Books

American Foreign Policy:
Cases and Choices


by Gideon Rose

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds...

—Theodore Roosevelt, "Citizenship in a Republic"

what teddy knew

In 1910,Theodore Roosevelt spoke at the Sorbonne in Paris on the topic of what democratic republics required of their citizenry. In other kinds of polities, he noted, the attributes of the rulers are all-important. In a democracy, however, it is the attributes of ordinary citizens that matter, since ultimately it is they who are responsible for the quality of the policies followed. It was thus vital, he felt, for people in general, and the educated classes in particular, to develop an appropriately serious attitude toward policymakers and policymaking. If they could not go into public service themselves, they could at least avoid the occasional tendency of intellectuals to sneer at those who did, taking cheap shots from the sidelines at the dirty hands and difficult compromises that officials had to live with. As one approaches the challenges of American foreign policy nearly a century later, his words remain worth bearing in mind.

Most media debates about foreign policy start from the assumption that every question has a relatively obvious correct answer. Pundits imply that those who agree with them are wise and good, while those who disagree are fools or knaves. Most academic treatments of the subject, meanwhile, start from the assumption that government decision-making doesn't really matter much, because foreign policy choices are driven by broad structural forces such as the distribution of power in the international system or the nature of a country's domestic political institutions.

In fact, both of these perspectives are wrong, or rather seriously incomplete. Despite what talking heads might argue, knowledgeable people of good character and similar politics often disagree about what to do in a particular situation. And despite what social scientists might think, officials often have enough freedom of action to send history down any of several different tracks. Foreign policy professionals, accordingly, tend to view the subject in a different light, as an arena of constrained choice. They try to figure out just how much room for maneuver they actually have, and how they can use it best to advance national (and other) interests.

What the academics think of as "independent variables," the professionals think of as practical constraints—things that rule out one or another hypothetical course of action. They know that policy X, for example, might be an excellent substantive response to a certain problem, but also know that if it is anathema to a powerful ally, bureaucratic faction, or special interest group, it won't be adopted. So they pass over it quickly, spending their time debating the relative merits of policies Y and Z, which promise fewer benefits but also fewer costs.

And where amateurs see issues as black or white, professionals know that the choice is almost always between shades of gray—or more precisely, between separate bundles of black and white elements packaged together in different ways. The hallmark of the serious professionals' approach to foreign policy is thus not certainty but doubt; they live in a world with no free lunches, only an endless series of competing goods and unpleasant tradeoffs.

This collection is intended as an introduction to that world. Originally published in the pages of Foreign Affairs, the essays gathered here lay out a broad range of opinion on a variety of pressing questions in American foreign policy. The authors all know what they are talking about and all have the best interests of the country and the world at heart. Yet they come at the issues from different perspectives and often passionately disagree with each other's conclusions and recommendations. Fair-minded readers will conclude that they all score at least some points and must be taken seriously, which only sharpens the dilemma about what should be done in each case. Accepting that there are no good answers is the easy part; trying to decide which answer is the least bad, and why, is where things get interesting.

the china syndrome

The first four essays deal with China, offering a variety of perspectives on how the United States should deal with a state rapidly pushing its way into the top ranks of international politics. Since power transitions have led to much of the trouble in world history, many consider this the single greatest long-term challenge for American foreign policy.

Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro see China's rise as a threat to important U.S. interests, and argue that Washington must prevent China from becoming a regional bully. Robert S. Ross, in contrast, argues that "the United States needs a policy to contend with China's potential for destabilizing [Asia], not a policy to deal with a future hegemon." He emphasizes China's efforts to cooperate with its neighbors and favors a response of engagement rather than containment.

Gerald Segal claims that both the China hawks and the China doves are misguided, entranced by visions of Chinese power that vastly exceed the mundane reality. China is "a country that has promised to deliver for much of the last 150 years but has consistently disappointed"—and may well again. Once the China problem is placed in proper perspective, he argues, sensible answers to it become much clearer.

Minxin Pei, finally, assesses the current status of China's political development, arguing that its rapid rise has been real but has left it confronting a variety of difficult domestic challenges. Figuring out how to solve the country's domestic governance crisis, he writes, is the real problem of the day, one that grand geopolitical perspectives rarely engage.

war—what is it good for?

The next four pieces deal with the question of humanitarian intervention—what the United States should do about terrible tragedies abroad that engage its compassion but not necessarily its strategic interests. Given the human suffering at issue, this question tends to generate strong emotions among analysts, and the pair of exchanges gathered here are no exceptions.

Michael Mandelbaum offers a scathing critique of the Clinton administration's intervention in Kosovo, arguing that it was a "perfect failure." Rather than helping the people of the Balkans, he claims, it hurt them; rather than establishing a model for future operations, it served as an object lesson in how not to fight a war; and rather than advancing American interests, it set them back.

James B. Steinberg, deputy national security adviser during the conflict, shoots right back, accusing Mandelbaum of "a breakdown of logic so elemental that it boggles the mind." The Clinton administration "worked to build a Europe undivided, democratic, and at peace," he writes, and in Kosovo it "did the right thing in the right way."

Alan J. Kuperman, meanwhile, argues that despite much retrospective hand-wringing, no American actions could have saved most of the victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Facile assumptions about the possibilities of humanitarian intervention do little to help anyone, he claims, and can even divert attention from other sorts of policies—such as preventive diplomacy—that might help stave off tragedies in the first place.

Alison L. Des Forges, however, argues that Kuperman is far too quick to absolve Washington of indirect culpability through malign neglect, and that timely measures to thwart the unfolding nightmare in Rwanda were ready at hand and should have been tried. That they were not, she feels, is a lasting reproach to the United States and the international community at large. A response by Kuperman, countering some of Des Forges' points, concludes the exchange.

sanctions and trade

Some of the most important and contentious foreign policy issues involve economic questions such as trade with other countries. Thus sanctions—the denial of trade or other kinds of relations with a country as punishment for some sort of misbehavior—have become a commonly used foreign policy tool in recent years, and a controversial one.

Richard N. Haass argues that "the growing use of economic sanctions to promote foreign policy objectives is deplorable" because "they frequently contribute little to American foreign policy goals while being costly and even counterproductive." He sees many impositions of sanctions as sops to domestic audiences that backfire on policymakers, getting them into unpleasant situations from which extrication is difficult.

Jesse Helms, however, writing as a senator, claims that the supposed domination of American foreign policy by congressionally mandated sanctions is a canard.Not only are they imposed less frequently than often asserted, he writes, but they are also usually more sensibly conceived.What critics are really opposed to, he believes, are the substantive policies which lie behind the sanctions—policies that put moral values over business as usual, to the chagrin of many companies and the diplomatic establishment.

Sanctions are not the only impediments to free trade, however; domestic protectionism is also common, and a subject that sparks much debate.The George W. Bush administration has claimed that, like its predecessors, it is trying to maximize trade with other countries. C. Fred Bergsten agrees, arguing that the administration's concessions to domestic interest groups such as farmers and steel producers are not simply politically inspired backtracking from free trade—as critics charge—but the price the administration had to pay for the renewal of "fast track" negotiating authority, which was itself a precondition for a new global round of universal trade liberalization.

Bernard K. Gordon, however, is reluctant to give the administration such credit, arguing that its trade policies are counterproductive. Rather than press hard for broad new trade cuts, he claims, the administration has pursued the low-hanging fruit of bilateral and regional trade agreements. Despite what the administration avers, says Gordon, these are likely to slow rather than speed up progress on a new global trade round, and thus hurt the very cause the administration claims to support.

the trouble with rogues

How to deal with the problem states often referred to as "rogues" is a perennial foreign policy issue, one that has emerged with even greater force than usual recently thanks to the Bush administration's singling out of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—the "axis of evil"—for special attention.

Writing before the recent war in Iraq, Fouad Ajami laid out the case for it by pointing to the benefits to be gained from "spearheading a reformist project that seeks to modernize and transform the Arab landscape." U.S. efforts to try to manage the situation and avoid confronting the dysfunctional internal politics of the Middle East had failed, he argued, and massive external intervention was thus an unfortunate necessity—both to protect American interests and to help Iraqis and others in the region climb out of their morass.

Richard K. Betts disagreed, however, arguing that there was insufficient provocation to justify embarking on a preventive war, something Bismarck had aptly characterized as "suicide from fear of death."

"By mistakenly conflating the immediate and longterm risks of Iraqi attack and by exaggerating the dangers in alternatives to war," he claimed, "the advocates of a preventive war against Saddam have miscast a modest probability of catastrophe as an acceptable risk."

Writing in the wake of the Iraq conflict, Kenneth M. Pollack notes that with Saddam gone, in some ways the security problems of the Persian Gulf might get more challenging rather than less. "Any Iraq strong enough to balance and contain Iran," he argues, "will inevitably be capable of overrunning Kuwait and Saudi Arabia." Actively countering Iran's nuclear weapons program, meanwhile, could strengthen hard-liners and thus actually increase the risks the program poses—and pulling back to lessen domestic political pressure on the brittle oil-rich states of the Gulf Cooperation Council could decrease rather than increase their incentives to reform. So no matter what course Washington chooses, Pollack says, it should not be surprised if it gets dragged into yet another regional crisis some years down the road.

Turning to North Korea, Victor Cha argues that the Bush administration's policies there are not as confused as they sometimes appear. There is a logic to "hawk engagement," he claims, that can shape events on the Korean Peninsula "in a way that best suits America's larger strategic interests—both during unification and beyond." Former U.S. ambassador to Korea, James T. Laney, and Jason T. Shaplen disagree, making the case that a return to less confrontational policies is necessary in order to move beyond the current impasse. Sustained negotiations toward a broader and deeper settlement than the 1994 Agreed Framework, they argue, should be Washington's objective.

Ray Takeyh, finally, offers an intriguing update on the doings of one of yesterday's villains, Libyan strongman Mu'ammar Qaddafi. The gradual evolution of Libyan policies to meet Washington's demands, Takeyh argues, poses the question of how the United States should handle a rogue regime that begins to come in from the cold. The continuation of this trend after the publication of Takeyh's piece, with the recent finalization of an agreement between Libya and the families of the Lockerbie bombing victims, only underscores his point.

america and the world

The diplomatic dustup preceding the Iraq war has raised the issue of what the relation between the United States and the chief international organization is and should be. Analyzing that fracas, Michael J. Glennon argues that the UN Security Council has been just as disabled by American unipolarity as it was by the bipolarity that characterized the Cold War. The UN founders' "grand attempt to subject the use of force to the rule of law" thus lies in ruins, he claims, and can be revived only by some future attempt to create a new international institutional framework more suited to an era of American preeminence.

Picking up the gauntlet, Edward C. Luck, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Ian Hurd challenge Glennon's analysis on practically every point. Far from revealing the Security Council's obsolescence, they claim, the prewar diplomatic maneuvers demonstrated not only the institution's continued relevance, but also the necessity of multilateral consultation in transforming raw material power into international legitimacy.

Such views are held in little regard by the foreign policy gurus of the Bush administration, who favor robust American leadership rather than deference to the opinions of others. Setting out in 1996 what would later become the administration's game plan, William Kristol and Robert Kagan called for a "benevolent global hegemony" that would put America's exceptional power behind its exceptional values. A policy of "military supremacy and moral confidence," they argued, would lock in and extend a global system favorable not only to U.S. interests but also to international order and justice.

Joseph S. Nye, writing in the wake of the Iraq war, argues that in following such advice the Bush administration has neglected its "soft power" resources and unnecessarily ruffled feathers abroad. "The problem for U.S. power in the twenty-first century," Nye writes, "is that more and more continues to fall outside the control of even the most powerful state." From terrorism to global warming, nuclear proliferation to international financial stability, the United States will thus have little choice but to mobilize international coalitions to address shared threats and common challenges.

And in closing the volume, Andrew Moravcsik calls for a new transatlantic bargain that gives each side of the Western alliance its due. "The Iraq crisis offers two basic lessons," he notes. "The first, for Europeans, is that American hawks were right. Unilateral intervention to coerce regime change can be a cost-effective way to deal with rogue states. In military matters, there is only one superpower— the United States—and it can go it alone if it has to." But the second lesson, "for Americans, is that moderate skeptics on both sides of the Atlantic were also right. Winning a peace is much harder than winning a war. Intervention is cheap in the short run but expensive in the long run. And when it comes to the essential instruments for avoiding chaos or quagmire once the fighting stops— trade, aid, peacekeeping, international monitoring, and multilateral legitimacy—Europe remains indispensable."

beware of what you wish for

For years to come, American foreign policy decision-makers will have greater freedom from external constraint than any of their predecessors could ever dream of. In guiding the actions of the greatest power in the international system—in fact, the greatest power in modern history—they will have an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future of the world itself. But despite appearances, that power is actually something of a mixed blessing, since with great power comes great responsibility. As the essays above amply demonstrate, moreover, the freedom to choose does not make the choices themselves any clearer or more obvious.

Gideon Rose is Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs.


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