Foreign Policy by Autopilot

Sunday, July 30, 2000

Great powers, however great their power may be, rarely find themselves in a position to reshape the system of states within which they operate. It is extraordinary, therefore, that the United States had three such opportunities during the twentieth century. We emerged from World War I, World War II, and the Cold War with such disproportionate influence that, in each of those instances, we could have constructed what former president George Bush used to call a new world order. It is even more extraordinary that, on the first and third of these occasions, we chose not to do so.

Our relinquishment of responsibility in 1919–20 is a familiar story. Woodrow Wilson set an agenda for self-determination, economic integration, and collective security that still resonates today; but his countrymen failed to follow his lead. A second chance, in 1945–47, produced more lasting results in the form of the United Nations, the Bretton Woods system, and—most important—an enduring American commitment to internationalism. But it did so only in the face of a new challenge from the Soviet Union, the outcome of which was by no means clear.

The third opportunity arose a decade ago when it became apparent that the Cold War was going to end peacefully with a total victory for the United States and its allies. No other great or rising power challenged our leadership. Our ideology had triumphed, our military might was unequaled, and we were on the verge of an unprecedented economic boom. If there was ever an opportunity to have coupled power with vision, this was it. And yet we did not do it.

Contrast our record during the first full decade of the post–Cold War era with what we accomplished in the half decade that followed World War II. Despite the fact that the prospects for democracy and capitalism were far bleaker in the mid-1940s than at the beginning of the 1990s, the United States managed somehow to implement containment, rehabilitate Europe, democratize Germany and Japan, organize NATO, and resist aggression in Korea—all in the face of determined resistance from the Soviet Union. Nothing we have done since the Cold War ended comes close to approximating even one of those achievements.

Perhaps the absence of an enemy has had something to do with this. But with all we’ve invested in researching and teaching strategy over the past half century, it would be a sad commentary if we still required adversaries to help us plot a clear strategy.

Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect coherence in an age in which so many diverse voices clamor to set national priorities. To embrace that argument, though, would be to resign ourselves to a kind of solipsistic hegemony in which short-term internal bargaining would shape long-term external strategy. Such a system would quickly become unsustainable, suggesting to the rest of the world an alarming presence of great strength in the absence of good sense.

Perhaps, though, there’s something else at work here. To fail to achieve all that one hopes for is unfortunate but understandable. To fail to achieve much of anything at all looks like an abdication of leadership—a preference for strategic drift over strategic design.


In the five years following World War II, the United States somehow managed to implement containment, rehabilitate Europe, democratize Germany and Japan, organize NATO, and resist aggression in Korea—all in the face of determined resistance from the Soviet Union. In the years following the end of the Cold War, we have done nothing that comes close to approximating even one of those achievements.


Historians are already beginning to see the 1990s much as they do the 1920s: as years when the United States could have wielded its power wisely but did not do so. It’s worth trying to figure out why this happened.

Missed Opportunities

When the Clinton administration took office in 1993, its only external adversaries were a few marginalized dictatorships—Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba—together with a scattering of insurrectionist and terrorist movements around the world. These in no way compared to the threats Americans had had to confront during the previous half century. Things were going so well that the president and his advisers appear to have felt no particular need for a strategy. They evidently assumed that two processes that had helped to end the Cold War—the trends toward political self-determination and economic integration—would continue to enhance American interests.

The Clinton team did, to be sure, experiment with labels. Recalling George F. Kennan’s "containment," they proposed terms like "engagement" and "enlargement," as if all one had to do to devise a strategy was to transform a verb into a noun. Beyond this, though, they did not go. They never specified who or what was to be engaged or enlarged. When crises arose they simply improvised, in the apparent belief that an already benign international environment would keep them from major error. It was foreign policy by autopilot, a grand strategy of laissez-faire.

So what was wrong with this? The British for centuries prided themselves on "muddling through," and the Americans, during most of the nineteenth century, largely followed their example. But there were important differences between those strategies and the one the Clinton administration has attempted.

  • First, the benign environment that once made "muddling through" possible for the British and the Americans depended on their geographic separation from the European continent—the central arena of international politics at the time. With the twentieth century’s revolutions in transportation, communication, and the means of waging war, no such separation is possible for the United States today.
  • Second, "muddling through" was meant to maintain a particular geopolitical structure: a balance of power on the European continent. When it was upset—or when it seemed likely to be—both London and Washington were prepared to abandon their isolationism and restore equilibrium. This was the basis for American interventions in Europe in 1917, 1940–41, and 1947–49. The Clinton administration had no comparably precise objective. Instead it linked American interests to a set of processes—democratization and globalization—without regard to where or how these might manifest themselves.
  • Third, the whole point of a "muddling through" strategy is to retain the initiative—having defined one’s interests, one picks the best place and method with which to defend them. What’s striking about the Clinton administration is the extent to which it has allowed others to set its agenda: Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians on NATO expansion; commercial interests and campaign managers in relations with China; the IMF in Russia and Southeast Asia; Serbs, Kosovars, and CNN in the Balkans; Congress with respect to the United Nations, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and Taiwan. Like its counterparts in the 1920s, the administration has relinquished the opportunity to lead.

When Means Are Confused with Ends

The Clinton administration’s emphasis on process at the expense of structure has produced a confusion of ends and means. I would define grand strategy very simply as the calculated adaptation of means to large ends. But if ends are not clear, if calculations are imprecise, if adaptation does not take place, then wheels spin to no purpose. Resources and energy are dissipated ineffectually.

When Clausewitz wrote that war was an extension of politics by other means, this is what he meant: that without some political objective to discipline it, the use of force becomes meaningless violence. We might well build on that to argue that without a clear goal in peacetime—without some sense of what you’re trying to do and how you’ll know when you’ve done it—power is bound to be squandered. You have to specify an end point.

What is the end point, though, for a strategy that seeks democratization as its objective? Do all existing states have to become democratic? Do we need new states for groups within existing states that have been denied democratic processes? Do we extend our military protection over some states that have become democratic and, if so, which ones? Our inconsistency with respect to Kosovo and Chechnya has already illustrated the difficulty of answering those questions. And what will our policy be if and when an increasingly democratic Taiwan declares its independence from China?

What is the end point for a strategy that promotes global economic integration? Is it to have all states follow IMF guidelines, despite differences in culture, society, and domestic stability? Does it require, as a condition of entering the international marketplace, that states abandon the social safety nets they have constructed for the protection of their own citizens? Are we to replicate, on a global scale, the workings of an unregulated capitalism whose inequities we were unwilling to accept within our own country a century ago?

The United States has long supported the processes of political self-determination and economic integration, but it has never before elevated them to the status of ends in themselves. Woodrow Wilson always regarded them as means for avoiding war and revolution, which he believed arose from the denial of those principles. He did not favor democracy and free trade everywhere, all at once. He sought democracy and capitalism where possible within a framework of great power cooperation; but he was not so naive as to believe that the other great powers’ interests would automatically accord with his own. Franklin Roosevelt, who sought to apply Wilson’s ideas in another world war, was even less inclined to view them as absolutes. He had few qualms about cooperating with one authoritarian state (the Soviet Union) to defeat another (Nazi Germany). And as his "Four Policemen" concept suggests, he certainly regarded cooperation among the great powers as vital if democratization and economic liberalization were to take root in the postwar world.

Because the Clinton administration has seen political self-determination and economic integration as ends in themselves rather than as means to larger ends—as processes unlinked to structures—there has been little effort to embed these principles, as Wilson and Roosevelt did, within a framework of great power cooperation. As a result, the Clinton team has neglected an additional method of conserving energy while minimizing resistance: seeking shared interests among powerful states.

That brings up another problem that tends to develop when one confuses means with ends: the loss of a sense of strategic ecology. I mean by this the ability to see how the parts of one’s strategy relate to the whole. Without such an ecological view, one might kill for the sake of killing, or arm for the sake of arming, or accumulate allies for the sake of building alliances—forgetting that killing, arming, and allies all have a specific purpose in war, which is to produce victory.

When means become ends in themselves they can defeat larger ends, whether by generating imbalances so that only some of the means needed to achieve the objective are brought to bear, or by generating friction that unnecessarily encumbers one’s efforts. Both of these things have happened with the Clinton administration’s Russia policy, the failure of which illustrates the consequences of neglecting strategic ecology.

A Case In Point: The Failure Of Clinton’s Russia Policy

One might have expected Russia to be the major foreign policy priority for the first post–Cold War administration. It had transfixed our attention and our energies for almost half a century. Despite the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia retained by any definition the capacity to be a major power in the post–Cold War era; it possessed as well, alone among the nations of the world, the capacity to bring about our physical destruction. But it now had a government that was prepared, as none in Moscow had ever been, to share our values—one that had said, in effect: "You were right all along in the Cold War. We were wrong. Now help us to become like you."

We had done just this, of course, at the end of World War II with West Germany and Japan. To be sure, we’d defeated and occupied those countries, something we’d not done with Russia. But we had in Russia at the end of the Cold War something we’d not had in Germany and Japan: a government in place that was sympathetic to our efforts and a population that needed little reeducation, being all too keen to follow our example. So why are our relations with Russia today as bad as they are? The explanation, I think, lies largely with the Clinton administration’s tendency to think in terms of processes, not structures.

Economic integration. The administration’s assumption here, apparently, was that Russia should move toward privatization and marketization as quickly as possible. Accordingly, the task of rehabilitating Russia was turned over to professional economists from Ivy League universities or the IMF. Little thought was given to what the next step would be if privatization did not work as effectively as it had in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. There was certainly no sense of something that had been basic to the Marshall Plan: that the purpose of economic reform is to create a state of psychological self-confidence, and that the workings of unregulated capitalism alone are unlikely to produce this. And the Marshall Plan was hardly unregulated capitalism.

Political self-determination. The Clinton administration was certainly serving the cause of self-determination when it expanded NATO and then used NATO forces in support of the Kosovar Albanians against the Serbs. But it did so in a geopolitical vacuum, with little sense of how these decisions might poison the relationship between Russia and the United States. It failed to weigh the costs of these initiatives against their benefits. Once again a focus on process caused a neglect of structure—the structure in this case being the unprecedented pattern of great-power cooperation that the end of the Cold War had brought about.


What’s striking about the Clinton administration is the extent to which it has allowed others to set its foreign policy agenda—everyone from the International Monetary Fund to the Russians to CNN.


The result was to expose the Russians to the uncushioned effects of economic integration at a time when they were also being excluded from political/military integration with the United States and Western Europe. It was not that Clinton and his advisers wanted things to come out this way. But they assumed that economic integration and political self-determination would automatically advance American interests without considering the effects on the Russian economy or on Russian pride. They failed to link these processes with the objective they still claim to seek—the transformation of Russia into a prosperous, self-confident, normal state. They got, in short, the opposite of what they wanted.

What’s missing here is not only a sense of how the parts of one’s strategy connect with the whole: there’s also a striking absence of humility and restraint. The successful strategists of the past understood that arrogance—even the appearance of it—could itself generate friction. Metternich sought a Concert of Europe, not Austrian hegemony. Once he had unified Germany, Bismarck went out of his way to avoid humiliating or even alarming the other states of Europe. George Kennan hoped to contain the Soviet Union by surrounding it with independent centers of power rather than with satellites of the United States. Nixon and Kissinger were careful, in opening relations with China, not to give the Soviets any excuse for seeing this action as directed against them, even though of course it was. George Bush was much derided for refusing to gloat when the Berlin Wall came down; but his instinct was sound, and his strategy for dealing with the consequences of that event now looks to have been quite effective—and quite at odds with the tone and practice of our diplomacy since.

So where do we go from here? What should the next administration try to do? A good place to start might be to learn from the Clinton administration’s mistakes: to define a grand strategy that identifies ends and relates means to them; that pays as much attention to structures as to processes; that recaptures the art of listening to what others have to say. For it’s a particular kind of hubris that insists on having its own way without having worked out clearly what that way should be.