How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
As a supporter of the Carter administration's ideals who quickly became disillusioned with its performance and denounced the gap between its good intentions and contradictory policies, I appreciate the pithy and pugnacious prosecutor's brief that Michael Mandelbaum, a courageous supporter of Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign, has drafted ("Foreign Policy as Social Work," January/February 1996). Much of what Mandelbaum says about the Clinton team's policies toward the other major powers and its failures or deficiencies in handling the crises in Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia is convincing. But the central argument of his essay is, in my opinion, wrong.
Mandelbaum believes that an American foreign policy concerned not with interests but with values, not with relations with countries that have the capacity to affect these interests but with "small, poor, weak" and peripheral countries, is foolish. More than that, it is doomed, both for lack of public support and because turning foreign policy "into a branch of social work" is a recipe for "deep, protracted, and costly engagement in the tangled political life of each country" in which the United States intervenes, in a world "filled with distressed people." I believe, however, that the distinction between interests and values is largely fallacious, and that policy which would ignore the domestic crises that affect so many states and pseudostates today would have disastrous consequences.
MORALLY AT HOME
The national interest is not a self-evident guide, it is a construct. It is the sum of the objectives that the policymakers have set. Some of these are indeed imperatives, imposed by the nation's location on the map of power or by clear threats and needs. But many of the goals that states, and especially the major powers among them, pursue go beyond such imperatives, and result from preferences and choices. These goals are usually controversial. Those who support them cover them with the mantle of the national interest, and those who do not back them argue, like Mandelbaum, that they deal with developments that "could [not] affect the lives of . . . citizens" and thus are not in the national interest. Even during the Cold War, the United States pursued goals that could be connected only remotely to the imperatives of national security and deterrence of the Soviet threat. Mandelbaum presents the invasion of Grenada as part of the Cold War, but does not mention the intervention in Panama, which, of course, took place after the Soviet threat had crumbled. On the other end of the spectrum, the human rights policies that American administrations pursued, in their different ways, in the late 1970s and in the 1980s cannot be explained away as mere tactical moves in the battle against communism.
Great powers pursue both what Arnold Wolfers has called possession goals and what he terms milieu goals. National security deals essentially with the former. But much of foreign policy is concerned with shaping an international milieu that will provide a modicum of order (i.e., reduce the inevitable loads of violence and chaos that an anarchic international system carries) and in which the nation's citizens will feel not only safe from attack or economic strangulation but, so to speak, morally at home. Among the reasons the opposition between interests and values is a sham are that a great power has an "interest" in world order that goes beyond strict national security concerns and that its definition of order is largely shaped by its values. Many of America's policies during the Cold War--especially in relations with allies and so-called Third World countries--and many of the institutions and international regimes it helped establish resulted from preferences that could not be reduced purely and simply to the need to resist the Soviet menace or communism.
In the post--Cold War world, there is, in addition to all the classical interstate conflicts that could disrupt world order, a whole new series of dangers arising from the weakness or disintegration of many states, ethnic and religious strife within states, and dangerous policies that certain states pursue within their borders.ffi Not all interstate conflicts "could affect the lives of American citizens." But does this mean that these conflicts could not disrupt the balance of power and provoke chaos in many parts of the world and that the United States should be indifferent to them? Conversely, not every domestic crisis is susceptible to a resolution imported from abroad, or sufficiently grave to have serious external repercussions (in the form of, say, flows of refugees). Does this mean that a world of generalized internal chaos, in which neighbors of the countries in crisis would be tempted to intervene, would be tolerable from the standpoints of order and of our values? Societies and economies are too interdependent today for us to be sure that what happens in "small, poor, weak" countries will not affect the lives of American citizens, or at least the quality of their lives.
Michael Mandelbaum lives in what scholars have called the Westphalian system, in which relations are between sovereign states of unequal power. But today's world is post-Westphalian: myriad normative restraints and a huge loss of autonomy resulting from transnational forces are eroding state sovereignty generally, and the sovereign state itself, the very floor of the Westphalian construction, is collapsing in many parts of the world. Any U.S. foreign policy that would concentrate exclusively on the traditional agenda would expose the world, and the nation, to intolerable horrors and disorder. (In this respect, even though Sarajevo 1992-96 is not Sarajevo 1914, Mandelbaum's dismissal of the dangers of an expanding conflict in the Balkans is more than a little rash.)
TO JUDGE A CRISIS
Three major qualifications must be attached to my argument. First, not all crises are of equal importance to world order. Two criteria could help us decide when to intervene. Is the crisis, the domestic conflict, or the policy pursued within the borders of the state, we would ask in each case, likely to threaten regional or international peace and security? Are there massive violations of human rights, even in the absence of such a threat? These criteria correspond to the two sides of the coin of world order: the reduction of violence and chaos, and the creation or maintenance of a morally acceptable state of affairs. Whether it is in our "interest" to intervene to stop genocide or war crimes on a colossal scale I will let the sophists of national security argue among themselves; what I know is that it is our moral duty to act, whenever there is a chance of success.
That brings me to the second qualification. Even when the criteria are met, not every kind of "social work" can succeed, and there are cases in which outsiders are incapable of dealing with the causes of the crisis. In those cases it may still be a good idea to provide a modicum of humanitarian relief, as in Somalia, or to try to limit the number of victims, as the French did, belatedly, in Rwanda. But when the capacity to get at the problem's roots exists, it is a grave mistake to do too little, by putting crippling limits on the mission or by stopping too soon (as may well have happened in Haiti) or starting too late (as in the Bosnian tragedy, which was caused by Serb aggression, and where a much earlier show of NATO force might have preserved the integrity of the multiethnic state of Bosnia and prevented some of the atrocities we are now lamenting). Here I agree with Mandelbaum: when exit becomes strategy, there is something rotten in the realm of foreign policy. There is also something rotten when the blame for failures is dumped on the United Nations, not only because U.N. fiascoes largely result from the failures, ambivalences, and confusions of member states but also because serious efforts at addressing the sources of crises will always necessitate collective interventions and coordinated efforts.
A third qualification concerns the need for public support. Mandelbaum offers two explanations for the lack of support for Clinton administration policies. One is that the interventions he deplores merely responded to the wishes of particular pressure groups in American society. This seems to me quite inaccurate, especially with regard to Somalia and Bosnia. Far more convincing is his argument that the public remained hostile (or in the Somalia affair, became hostile after the deaths of 18 American soldiers) because the administration never provided a clear and persuasive account of American purposes. This charge is true. Although it has made some vague statements about expanding democracy, the Clinton administration has been much too timid in defining and defending a foreign policy based on values and other requirements of world order. American officials contradicted each other and themselves endlessly on Bosnia, and never made the case for the Haitian intervention that Mandelbaum eloquently presents--an appeal to values and a reminder of responsibility.
Mandelbaum, however, would limit American purposes to two broad security interests (military presence in Europe and in the Asia-Pacific region, and prevention of nuclear proliferation) and to trade. He does not seem to notice that the campaign against nuclear proliferation is at least as much about a world order as about protecting American lives; many potential proliferators are in no condition to threaten the United States, but they could create regional chaos and terror. Nor does he note that the drive for free trade reflects American values and beliefs--he himself assumes that "liberal economic policies . . . create wealth and expand freedom"--at least as much as American material interests.
My argument is that a foreign policy adapted to the world after the Cold War must go beyond the purposes to which Mandelbaum wants to restrict it. It must include, on the grounds that they will maintain or restore world order, certain carefully selected interventions in foreign domestic crises. This is not a plea for foreign policy as "social work," a struggle against distress everywhere in the world. It is a reminder that certain levels and kinds of distress are morally unacceptable and certain political, economic, and social breakdowns too dangerous to world order to be ignored. That is what the administration has failed to explain. Perhaps it failed to do so because of its internal divisions between those, especially in the Pentagon, who think like Mandelbaum and those who think more like me. Perhaps it refrained because it sensed the public's reluctance to become involved abroad after 45 years of cold war. But this only increased Americans' reluctance, which in turn drove the administration's obsession with exit dates and the avoidance of "mission creep." And since such restrictions on difficult missions are almost guarantees that the missions will fail, the end result is likely to be a retreat into the traditional foreign policy realm that Mandelbaum defends--at the cost of spreading chaos and misery abroad. For we live in a world in which apathy about what happens in "far away countries of which we know nothing" can all too easily lead--through contagion, through the message such moral passivity sends to troublemakers, would-be tyrants, and ethnic cleansers elsewhere--not to the kind of Armageddon we feared during the Cold War but to a creeping escalation of disorder and beastliness that will, sooner or later, reach the shores of the complacent, the rich, and the indifferent.
Stanley Hoffmann is Founding Chair of the Center for European Studies, Harvard University.