How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Presidential elections rarely revolve around foreign policy. At the same time foreign policy issues are rarely absent as pivotal points in presidential campaign give-and-take. Narrow or broad, event-driven or character-motivated, questions of how Washington will deal with external threats or will shape America’s role in the world somehow surface in the build-up to presidential elections.
The grounds for an urgent examination of America’s role in the world are especially great. The end of the Cold War has thrown our existing assumptions and most of our traditional political divisions into turmoil. We have a new, key question: What does a superpower do in a world no longer dominated by superpower conflict? There is no obvious or easy answer, and a substantial and broad-based debate will be necessary before any kind of consensus can emerge.
Yet the climate for such a debate could not be worse. The question about what role America plays in the world comes at a time when America has no appetite for it and instead is turning inward, yearning to solve festering domestic problems. Equally significant, Americans are simultaneously feeling more unhappy with their own political system and policy-makers than at any time in modern memory. The campaign agenda, such as it is, has been dominated not by questions of budget deficits or national defense, but by "issues" of personal scandal and institutional wrongdoing, along with complaints about undeserved perks and privileges for pampered officials.
Cutting through the static to focus on the real themes seems an impossible task. Yet, erratically, in a largely subterranean way, it is beginning to happen; some rough sense is emerging as to what America is likely to do. What will happen, who will benefit politically and how this might affect America’s role in the post-Cold War world are the subjects of this essay.
Disgust, disaffection, disarray—these are terms that best characterize the state of American politics in 1992. They express the profound paradox of our time. In a most basic way this ought to be a celebratory moment. The singular goal sought by America for more than four decades—a goal that dominated public discourse, demanded huge sums of money and large numbers of lives, and made leaders and governments rise and fall—was achieved in an incredible fashion, with unbelievable ease. The spread of international communism and the threat of an "Evil Empire" that consumed our spirit and values ended, with barely a whimper and nary a bang.
The Soviet Union did not beat a tactical retreat to regroup or turn resentfully in defeat and proclaim that it would be back to fight another day; rather, its citizens rejoiced in the victory of the values of the West and the defeat of their own. It is nearly impossible to walk the corridors of the Capitol without bumping into a delegation from Russia or an east European country seeking to learn from the exemplar how the American political and economic systems work, so as to emulate their successes.
But if others view the American system with awe and respect, Americans do not. Rather than rejoicing in the streets over their victory in the Cold War, they are bitterly unhappy over the failures of the political and economic processes at home and pessimistic about the future. The post-Cold War era has brought with it not the thrill of victory, but the agony of victory. The 1992 election campaign should be about reconciling these seemingly contradictory developments, redefining America—and American politics—to fit the new world.
In part the public reaction to the end of the Cold War was an understandable one, grounded in human nature. As Oscar Wilde said in 1892, there are two great tragedies in human existence: one is never to get one’s dearest desire—the other is to get it. Winning the Cold War meant that the driving sense of purpose that had pervaded American society and politics since the late 1940s was suddenly gone, leaving a vacuum and uncertainty in its place.
The resulting disorientation has become a pervasive reality in the American political arena, at many levels. For 45 years, anticommunism defined not only American foreign policy but also the competition between the two political parties. From the 1950s (remember the 1952 G.O.P. slogan "Korea, Communism and Corruption"?) to the 1960s (the "missile gap") to the 1970s (the flap over whether Poland was "free") and the 1980s (Reagan the "warmonger," the Strategic Defense Initiative, the contras), when presidential campaigns turned to foreign policy, they turned on approaches to the Soviet threat or on how to negotiate with Moscow.
The anticommunism that went along with the Cold War was more than a simple, pragmatic reaction to a large, ominous and implacable outside threat. Anticommunism evolved into a multifaceted value in American life, not simply an issue position. Times Mirror polls in 1987 found that 70 percent of Americans not only identified themselves as strongly anticommunist, but their positions correlated strongly with a series of other viewpoints, such as American exceptionalism and the need to ensure peace through military strength. Anticommunism, the value, in other words, had both a negative side—the struggle against a common enemy—and a positive one—a celebration of our own values of freedom and democracy against the counterpoint of the set represented by communism.
The departure of anticommunism as a serious force has left Americans without either the negative bond of a common enemy or the positive momentum of a sense of common purpose to unite them. The resulting vacuum has left the country off balance and uneasy. To be sure, the victory over Soviet communism has not been the only, or the major, force behind the feelings of malaise, despair and outrage Americans express in 1992 toward politics, politicians and the state of the nation. The economy and the national obsession with scandal have contributed immensely. Indeed in April 1992 four-fifths of Americans surveyed said they believed the country was seriously on the wrong track, the highest number since 1973.
The end of both the Gulf War and the Cold War focused American attention back on the domestic agenda, which meant, perforce, on the protracted recession. And this recession has had distinctive political effects. By every objective economic standard the 1992 recession has been considerably milder than the last major downturn, in 1982. But every subjective indicator, from consumer confidence, to belief that the country is on the right or wrong track, to optimism about one’s own financial future, is far worse today than a decade ago. In February the Conference Board’s measure of consumer confidence registered its lowest level in 17 years. In other words the psychological component of this recession is as important as the economic one.
The middle-class impact of the 1992 recession contributes to the public pessimism. So too does a decade of mergers, buyouts, bankruptcies and retrenchments that has removed all meaning from the term "blue chip," squashed any sense of security from people in the automotive, airline, computer or financial services industries, among others, and left most working people feeling vulnerable to the loss of health and pension benefits, if not their jobs.
For a public uneasy about its safety net and economic security, the image has been of a government unable to move the country forward, to return some measure of economic confidence or even show appropriate levels of concern for its problems. A decade of regular annual displays of ineptitude in dealing with the single domestic problem most identified by governing elites as the sine qua non of governing—the federal deficit—underscored the incapacity of our governors to govern. Bringing international communism to its knees somehow did not come across as a victory to offset the failure to balance the budget, but rather as a gift handed to the United States and the West.
Any residual confidence in government has been erased by the near-constant drumbeat of individual and institutional scandal, true or false, proven or alleged, big or small, that has dominated press coverage of politics for the better part of a decade. John Tower, Jim Wright, Tony Coelho, Iran/contra, the Keating Five, Mike Deaver, Lyn Nofziger, Dave Durenberger, Barney Frank, Al D’Amato, the October Surprise, Chuck Robb, John Sununu, Thomas/Hill, check overdrafts, the House post office, the White House credit union, Bill Clinton, Jerry Brown—allegations and rumors of any number of things have been front-page and prime-time stories in unprecedented numbers, each time reinforcing an image of a political system rife with corruption and of smug and cosseted politicians playing by rules unavailable to the rest of us.
The whole American political process is under intense assault this year. The politics of rage have resonated with citizens around the country. It is no simple coincidence that every presidential candidate, including incumbent George Bush, is running this year as an outsider, and none have emphasized either Washington experience or foreign policy expertise. True, unhappiness with American politics, while deeper than usual this year, is almost always cyclical and easily cast aside when another issue or crisis intervenes; witness the Gulf War, which resulted in a sharp upsurge in confidence in all political institutions. But the current resentment, building through increasing oscillations over several years, may result in a huge turnover in Congress, surprising success for H. Ross Perot’s independent presidential candidacy and significant restructuring of government.
The public and media vilification of politicians in Congress, in the Executive and on the White House trail has taken its toll on the system and the individual actors. Demoralized and angst-ridden, worried more about the next press report of alleged scandal and the next 30-second attack ad, hypersensitive to every current in public opinion but incapable of focusing on public needs, American policymakers are much less likely to support foreign aid, controversial defense programs or any proposal that smacks of overconcern for foreigners at the expense of American taxpayers. The distraction created by the negative campaigns this year makes it difficult for policymakers to prepare for a serious debate on America’s role in the post-Cold War world, even if it is forced upon them.
The debate, such as it is, has surfaced in one major area. The 1992 campaign has already seen a struggle over whether another common enemy will emerge to replace the old one.
Japan appeared early on as the major contender—signaled by President Bush’s clumsy cancellation of a long-planned trip to the country in November 1991, and then the even more clumsily rescheduled trip in January. As the presidential campaign got under way, Republican challenger Patrick Buchanan called for abrogation of the U.S. mutual security treaty with Japan; Democrats Tom Harkin and Jerry Brown used exceptionally harsh, anti-Japanese language when talking about American trade failures; Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey briefly shot to national prominence with a television spot in New Hampshire, set in a hockey rink, where he warned that if Japan did not open its markets to American products, America reciprocally would close its markets. Kerrey’s spot was produced by the same consultants who had created Congressman Richard Gephardt’s tough, trade-oriented commercials in Iowa in the 1988 race.
Candidates have taken on anti-Japanese rhetoric because they have found some receptiveness among voters. The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found in 1991 a significant decline in "warm feelings" toward Japan among Americans; it was given a rating of 52 degrees on a scale from 1 to 100, a drop of nine degrees since 1986. In 1990, according to Times Mirror, only eight percent of Americans spontaneously identified Japan as America’s greatest security threat; even though the Cold War was conspicuously thawing at this time, 32 percent named the Soviet Union. By March 1992 only 13 percent picked the former Soviet Union—but a full 31 percent tabbed Japan.
Nevertheless candidates who emphasized anti-Japanese stances have not fared well on the campaign trail. Kerrey dropped his hockey rink commercial after New Hampshire; when asked why during a debate, he responded: "Because it didn’t work." Like candidate Gephardt in 1988, candidates Buchanan, Harkin, Kerrey and Brown in 1992 found that Japan-bashing provided early notoriety and an emotional boost, but few votes in primaries and caucuses. Even for those voters who feel threatened by Japan’s economic power, it is not a high enough priority to supersede other worries, from the domestic economy to general concerns about leadership among the candidates. When voters were asked by Roper right before the 1990 elections which two or three issues would have the most to do with their voting decisions, America’s trade situation with Japan got 3 percent, compared with 35 percent for inflation, 30 percent for jobs and 24 percent for curbing drug abuse.
To be sure, a Time-CNN poll in January showed that two-thirds of Americans believe that Japan’s unfair trade practices are a major reason for America’s trade imbalance. But three-fourths of Americans in the same survey singled out poor management by American business leaders to explain the trade problem.
The potential of Japan as a clear-cut common enemy is limited, in any event, by its status as an economic adversary. A military enemy can be easily envisioned in zero-sum terms: you win if they lose. But an economic contest becomes more complex: if they lose, you may lose as well. Every measure of protectionist sentiment in the American public is balanced by one of fear of the economic repercussions of protectionism. The linkage between Japanese capital investment in America and American economic performance, and between American and Japanese markets, makes it clear that we are not in a zero-sum struggle; Japan’s current economic slowdown is no cause for American rejoicing.
This will not stop presidential candidates and other politicians from bashing Japan or exploiting the frequent combative or insensitive statements made by Japanese politicians. Nor will it stop continued congressional efforts to pass punitive legislation against Japan for its trade practices or pushing tough protectionist measures aimed primarily at the Japanese, although their success will likely remain limited. The resentful calls for more burden-sharing, while not limited to the Japanese, will clearly increase in intensity. But Japan will not cut it as a replacement for the old Soviet Union.
If Japan cannot readily fill the vacant role of common enemy, who can? Perhaps nobody. Iraq is obviously not a candidate with any legs, nor Libya, Syria, North Korea, Cuba or Iran. The elimination of all serious outside threats is obviously good for American well-being. But it may well prove to be a longlasting and nettlesome problem for American politics and society. A common enemy provides glue that binds society together and reason to overcome doubts and resentments about other forces and decision-makers.
The response to this new situation has blurred the lines between and within the parties. Each is struggling to define a new worldview, and to differentiate its view from that of the other party. In both parties different forms of isolationism and internationalism have evolved as contenders, along with a grab bag of new issues emerging in the wake of anticommunism.
From the 1940s to the mid-1960s Democrats were united around a strong anticommunist approach to the world, coupled with a Rooseveltian, internationalist outlook best expressed in John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps. Vietnam fractured the Democratic worldview consensus, creating the deep divisions into anticommunists and anti-anticommunists, as reflected in the 1968 Chicago convention and George McGovern’s nomination in 1972. It also set the party down a road toward a quarter-century disadvantage with the public over its perceived weak position on national security and defense. The end of anticommunism as a potent political force removed one of the great sources of the Democrats’ internal division, only to see further strains surface with the debate over the use of force in the Persian Gulf.
The gulf is no longer a salient source of strain in the party, and Democrats have determinedly avoided some of the pitched ideological battles over foreign policy that were typical of past nomination contests. But the desire for a quick and easy unity on worldview has not been achieved. From trade to aid Democrats saw their candidates in 1992 run the gamut of issues without a central hinge.
Republicans fit a different pattern, but with similar results. In the 1930s it was Republicans and conservatives who were most prone to represent isolationist, protectionist views, as a counterpoint to FDR’s internationalist foreign policy. But anticommunism altered that, providing a forge to unite disparate G.O.P. and conservative viewpoints by the 1960s into a strong and steady anticommunist internationalism. Old-line conservatives, aristocratic conservatives, libertarian conservatives, religious conservatives and neoconservatives had cultural and political differences but came together in their ardent desire to counter the massive Soviet threat wherever it emerged.
The departure of the prime communist threat has caused the conservative movement to splinter, allowing the centrifugal forces of culture and ideology to overwhelm the weakened centripetal force of anticommunism. Buchanan’s campaign has been, as much as anything, an effort to allow his brand of traditional, isolationist conservatism to prevail over Reagan’s 1980s-style internationalism in the future of the conservative movement.
For Democrats isolationism emerged early, in the campaign theme "Come Home, America," articulated by Harkin. His outlook was echoed even more stridently by Brown, who expressed his views to a crowd in New York: "The reason we have bombed-out buildings is that you have the mentality of Bush and Clinton that are more interested in a new world order 10,000 miles away than they are in a full-employment economy." Brown has said that, as president, he "wouldn’t give a penny for foreign aid until every small farmer, businessman and family [in the United States] are taken care of."
On the Republican side Buchanan picked up the 1930s-style perspective of Father Coughlin, expressing an isolationist, nativist and protectionist worldview. Buchanan has called for an end to all foreign aid, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Europe and South Korea, the dissolution of Washington’s mutual security treaty with Tokyo and an end to U.S. payments to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
In the spring of 1990 Buchanan argued that America no longer has any interests to defend abroad, and thus the defense of our nation should end at our national borders. As for an American role in establishing, enhancing or maintaining democracies abroad, Buchanan said, "How other people rule themselves is their own business. To call it a vital interest of the United States is to contradict history and common sense."
Putting America first is a persuasive theme at a time when Americans are looking inward and feeling economic pain and frustration over domestic problems long unsolved. In the important special election for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania in November the surprise winner, Democrat Harris Wofford, used the theme "It’s time to take care of our own," to great effect.
Among Republicans an "America First" theme appeals not only to an isolationist base but dampens the unease many conservatives have felt about a strong and aggressive national security state as simply another form of Big Government. Among Democrats the America First theme has appeal because it puts the focus back on ground they find less shaky: the domestic agenda, against a president whose greatest success and enthusiasm has been in foreign affairs. In an interesting survey in December, Americans Talk Issues pitted President Bush against a generic Democrat; against a Democrat running on a domestic platform, stressing education, health care and tax relief for the middle class; and against a Democrat running on a new world order platform stressing cooperation among nations in stopping aggressive dictators, world environmental pollution and the spread of nuclear weapons. Bush led the generic Democrat, 39 percent to 27 percent; lost narrowly to the Democrat stressing the new world order, 41 percent to 37 percent—but lost soundly to the Democrat stressing domestic affairs, 54 percent to 31 percent.
While this suggests a Democratic emphasis on domestic priorities over a heavy focus on America’s role in the world in the coming election, it also suggests that an internationalist position helps, rather than hurts, a candidate. Indeed substantial survey evidence indicates that the American public is not isolationist. Last October a CBS/New York Times survey found roughly two-thirds of Americans agreed with the statements "Now that relations with the Soviet Union have improved, the United States should assert itself more than ever," and "It is still important for the United States to be on guard with a strong military." The same number disagreed with the proposition that the United States "should go its own way in international matters without worrying what other countries think." A Times Mirror survey in December found a striking 92 percent in agreement that "It is best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs."
The other Democrats who entered the primaries adopted variations of internationalism, with Kerrey mixing his occasional anti-Japanese rhetoric with calls for a new post-Cold War world order, including an activist role for America in expanding trade and technology, and in supporting and enhancing the republics of the former Soviet Union. Paul Tsongas also supported an active U.S. role abroad, rejecting protectionism and emphasizing democracy and human rights abroad.
Clinton, far more than his Democratic rivals, focused his campaign on a comprehensive worldview and articulated an assertive internationalist approach. In a major speech at Georgetown University in December and another in New York in April he stressed linking domestic needs with foreign policy. He detailed policies to meet three objectives: restructuring our military forces to counter our post-Cold War threats; promoting democracy around the world through working for demilitarization in the former Soviet Union, through private investment coordinated with conditional aid to the republics and to eastern Europe, and through the formation of a Democracy Corps that would send American volunteers abroad; and finally, restoring America’s economic leadership by expanding trade, increasing American exports and capitalizing on emerging technologies.
Clinton’s themes in many respects echo those of President Bush, although the incumbent has been surprisingly reluctant to emphasize his worldview as either a campaign or presidential theme, doing so only in response to outside events or pressure. Stung by the charge that he has no domestic agenda, moved by polls showing intense public desire to focus on internal problems like the recession, President Bush decided early in the campaign year to portray himself predominantly as the activist, the caring domestic president.
After criticism from former President Nixon for moving too slowly and cautiously in providing aid and assistance to Russia and other former Soviet republics, President Bush responded with a broad-ranging foreign policy address at a Nixon Library conference on March 11, and then on April 1—at the same time as a major Clinton foreign policy speech—with a detailed plan on Russian aid. Clinton lauded Bush’s plan as adopting many of the Arkansas Democrat’s own ideas for aid to former Soviet republics while criticizing the president’s move as too little, too late and, in its timing, politically motivated. Encouragingly, Bush followed up a week later with his most visionary speech so far, to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington.
While President Bush and Governor Clinton differ in some areas of emphasis, it is nonetheless clear that both of the major party leaders share an assertive, internationalist, free-trade-oriented and activist vision for America’s role in a post-Cold War era.
But if it is the two internationalists (the only two candidates who supported the use of military force in the Persian Gulf) who have emerged for both the Republican and Democratic parties, that does not guarantee a full-blown, engaged debate in the fall about the American position in a new world order.
There are still divisions within the parties to consider. Clinton will still have reason to avoid emphasizing an area where his ideas are unmatched by any measurable level of experience, that is, compared to a president with a lifetime of training and background in international affairs. President Bush continues to feel vulnerable on his domestic flank and, hence, continues to downplay his obvious tilt in interest and enthusiasm toward international affairs. And both major party candidates, in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots and in face of deep public outrage about the very legitimacy of politics, may hesitate to talk about an active government role abroad that emphasizes transcendental, value-laden questions about American responsibility to others, when it is much easier and more tempting to please voters by emphasizing what can be done for them directly and immediately.
The role of independent Ross Perot in this debate provided another interesting factor. The Texas billionaire has expressed no interest in or concern about America in the post-Cold War world; indeed he has candidly admitted that he has little expertise on most domestic issues, much less the range of international ones. When asked by CNN’s Larry King about the Middle East, Perot offered no specific ideas on what to do; he responded that he would send expert negotiators to the region and keep them there, rather than shuttling them back and forth, until they could emerge with a reasonable peace settlement.
The closest Perot has come to addressing the post-Cold War world has been in his proffered solution to the budget deficit. Besides $180 billion in savings from waste, fraud and abuse, and the $100 billion from improved tax collection efficiency via a new computer system, Perot suggests that $100 billion come from equal contributions to the U.S. Treasury from the Japanese and Germans to defray the costs of their defense.
The other candidates, especially Clinton, will no doubt respond with burden-sharing ideas of their own, but in general any political success on Perot’s part, emphasizing as he will the anti-Washington insider theme, will make it more difficult for the presidential candidates to emphasize international issues.
Of course events in the campaign year may dictate the tone and direction of the political debate. A violent crackdown in Peru, further bloodshed in Bosnia or Alma-Ata, political instability in Russia or Ukraine, a provocative or hostile move by Saddam Hussein or Muammar al-Qaddafi (or an allied military preemptive strike at Iraq or Libya), a breakthrough or breakdown in Middle East peace talks—these possibilities among many others could force discussion of specific policies or broader issues and themes.
What is particularly needed is vigorous give-and-take on how best to fill another large vacuum: that of a new common purpose for America. Senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) has spoken of the need for America to pursue a "Big Ambition," a transcendental goal that affirms to us our special status as a society and as a force in the world. On the surface it might seem that the climate is inhospitable for a new Big Ambition, but in fact it could be a political plus, not a minus. Finding a formula to link domestic and foreign policy in a positive fashion can be not only a persuasive campaign theme—attracting voters looking for inspiration, excitement and change—but also a way to connect with a series of other attitudes held by clear majorities of Americans. A concern with domestic priorities and a belief that we must continue to play a significant and pro-active international role are not mutually exclusive.
Here is one alternative: a new Big Ambition, tailored to inspire and excite, begins with our values—democracy, freedom and free markets—which indeed won out in the broader ideological struggle with Marxism-Leninism and totalitarianism. We have an obligation to protect and enhance those values as they take root around the world, but first and foremost we need to exemplify them better than anyone else: to be, in James Fallows’ phrase, "More Like Us."
It must start with a recognition that we need to invest in America if we are to continue to exemplify anything to the rest of the world; that it is not a question of combating an enemy but competing with partners who can also be competitors, to channel our competitive spirit in a positive way to accomplish twin goals of worldwide economic growth and robust domestic economic growth. Lester Thurow has noted:
American investment is simply not world-class. Plant and equipment investment per labor-force member is far below that of either Germany or Japan; nondefense research and development spending is 40 to 50 percent less than that of Germany and Japan; physical infrastructure investments are running at half the level of the late 1960s. While Europe embarks on an ambitious high-speed rail network to link its major cities, unspent funds pile up in highway and airport trust funds in the United States. Japan has a plan for rewiring itself with fiber optics (building the electronic highway of the 21st century); America does not.
Reining in Japan and Germany is not the answer to Thurow’s challenge; rebuilding our own economic base is. In addition to turning our attention and resources to redressing these deficits, a new Big Ambition should also mean a new spirit applied to political reform, workplace reform, school reform, urban reform and other changes that make institutions more responsive to workers, parents, teachers and others, along with a renewed commitment to public service and to rebuilding our capital stock, environment and services to make it all possible. An investment in America will cost money, to be sure, but a country with a nearly $6 trillion economy can easily afford the one to two percent of gross national product necessary to enhance its infrastructure and research and development capability.
A commitment to making our democracy and market economy the vision for others is neither liberal nor conservative at its core; it can involve borrowing ideas from wish lists of liberals and conservatives, from Bob Kuttner and Robert Reich to Jack Kemp and Stuart Butler. But what makes this focus a Big Ambition is the recognition that a renewed focus on building American democracy is not at odds with a commitment to play an active role in promoting democracy abroad.
In this post-Cold War world Americans do not want to shoulder the burden themselves. But recognizing America’s special role, they do not want to abandon the burden either. They clearly want more attention to be paid to long-neglected domestic problems, but they also believe in an active interdependent role for America, working with the United Nations and other transnational organizations, to clean up the environment, to invest in energy efficiency worldwide, to eliminate all chemical and nuclear weapons and to expand peacekeeping. Americans do not shrink from military intervention against a dictator practicing policies inimical to their values, if it is done in a cooperative, multilateral way; 79 percent believe that the United States and the United Nations should be willing to intervene militarily and engage in combat against an aggressive dictator, if diplomatic initiatives and economic sanctions fail. To be sure, they do not favor ambitious new aid programs abroad, but neither do they want to dismantle what we have established. They did not rise up in angered opposition to an ambitious aid package to the former Soviet republics, especially when it was explained as much in terms of American self-interest as simple altruism.
An active American role abroad is neither liberal nor conservative; it fits Reagan’s tradition as much as Kennedy’s. It does not require a large financial investment nearly so much as it does a clear and inspiring appeal to American values and self-interest. Although surveys tell us that Americans will not recoil from this kind of vision, it is obviously not the only one that could be presented or accepted. Even if it were to prevail, there are still many hard questions to confront. Americans may favor an active role through multilateral cooperation, but what if that cooperation is not forthcoming? Or what if multilateral organizations want to act in a fashion that is not in America’s self-interest? The post-Cold War world will not be a simple one, and the difficult trade-offs ahead need to be raised for public confrontation and argument.
Both George Bush and Bill Clinton are capable of laying out such a role for America—combining assertive domestic and activist foreign policies, and engaging the broader society in the debate. But in this angry and scandal-driven year the odds are against it. Perhaps it will not matter all that much; the appropriate role for America may develop in a hit-or-miss fashion, shaped by events and by the predilections of both the next president and the public.
But just as likely, no clear role for America will emerge, and we will continue to flounder, with policy ping-ponging between isolationism and internationalism, driven more by the momentary whims of public opinion and the tactics of various and sundry politicians than an intelligent and developed concept of where to go and what to do.
The real danger may come if the election outcome in essence reflects the status quo, at least in terms of partisan power alignments. For all the turmoil in American politics the single most likely outcome in November is the reelection of George Bush combined with a continuing, albeit somewhat smaller, Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. Disaffection and all, the electorate does not accept the judgment of many elites that we need a period of unified party control after a decade of divided government; two-thirds of Americans still say they prefer to have one party control the White House and the other the Congress, to keep all sides honest and in check.
A reelected George Bush would be made an instant lame duck by virtue of the two-term limitation. He would be made even weaker by the perceived weakness of his running mate; on November 4 the Republican Party will begin to break down into factions for Quayle, Buchanan, Cheney, Baker, Kemp, Gramm, Gingrich, Weld, Wilson, Alexander, Bennett and others, all with an eye focused more on 1996 than on the Bush agenda in 1993.
A continued Democratic Congress under these conditions would be weaker yet. A party that has lost the White House for the fourth consecutive time, after getting close once again, would be bitter and recriminative. It would also have to cope with 100 to 150 new members whose core agenda for change will be, as retiring Republican lawmaker Vin Weber has observed, the pledge not to put money in a House bank that no longer exists and to forego free Capitol parking and the use of the House gym. The constituency for farsighted post-Cold War policy will be limited and hobbled, at best.
Thus the need for a vigorous debate over the future role of America in the world is even greater right now, to provide some groundwork for policy and some mandate for the next president and Congress. The candidates should be pressured relentlessly to provide it, through questions and themes in the presidential debates and by press coverage of the campaign.
The role of opinion leaders in this process becomes especially crucial. Reporters, editors and producers require their own form of relentless peer pressure, to move the focus of press coverage away from its obsession with petty personal scandals and toward the key questions of governance for the 21st century. Media decision-makers should be subject to withering criticism from those they respect if they continue to report the campaign in the vein of supermarket tabloids.
At the same time, if the candidates and parties do not want to emphasize questions of America’s role in the post-Cold War world, that vacuum should be filled by others. Conferences in a variety of settings, aired on cable television and covered extensively in the press, are excellent efforts to turn the country’s attention to these key issues. Such conferences and seminars, along with op-ed pieces, essays, television specials and editorials ought to be everywhere in the next several months. America might stumble into an appropriate and positive role for the next few decades, but there is no good reason to rely on the whimsy of fortune.