Toward a New Foreign Policy

Friday, April 30, 1999

With the Leninist extinction—the abrupt, accelerated, and comprehensive collapse of communist countries—we have moved from a world of Cold War barricades to a Genesis-like world of violently weak frontiers. In Genesis, God performed two tasks: naming and bounding the world. America’s task today is the same: to respond to a radically new global political geography. We need a new conceptual geography—with a new image, doctrine, organization, and strategy, in short, a new foreign policy.

The Clinton administration has responded to the new international environment by confusing timidity with prudence. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States confronts a frontier world in which national boundaries are disintegrating, ideological distinctions are disappearing, and sites of parochial (at times genocidal) murder are spreading in Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Congo. In dealing with such a world, the Clinton administration justifiably wishes to avoid acting precipitously in any particular crisis for fear of setting off a chain reaction of unpredictable events. Yet this reasonable concern has led to a foreign policy whose major tenor and content is genuflection.


Genuflection manifests itself most clearly in our policy toward Russia and China, two potentially dangerous and genuinely weak nations that we treat as if they were actually powerful.

First, China. It is a nation with 1.2 billion poor people, 100 million of whom on any given day are roaming the country looking for work, a military that for the past twenty years has had to generate a good portion of its own budget through shady and shoddy economic operations, an economy with an acute short-term need for foreign investment, and a state that in the long term needs the United States to balance a potentially rearmed Japan. Yet President Clinton writes off Taiwan, continually pleads with China to intercede with North Korea, and pursues at best an imprudent policy regarding technological transfers to China.

Second, Russia. It is a nuclear power, above all a decaying nuclear power, with nearly forty operational Chernobyl-like reactors and a highly dangerous concentration of nuclear materials. It is a nation led by an enfeebled president who presides over a demoralized, humiliated, disorganized army; a fragmented, demonetized barter economy; a “scavenger society”; and eighty-nine regions intent on going their own way. This is the Russia into which the Clinton administration has had us indiscriminately pour billions of dollars through the IMF, most of the money making its way to Switzerland. We might as well send the money directly to banks in Geneva ourselves.

Why this genuflection? Because Clintonians believe that if we fail to kowtow to China and keep Russia on welfare, something worse is bound to happen than the events already taking place. This is an extraordinary rationale for a great power’s foreign policy. Genuflection elicits contempt for the United States, confuses American acquiescence with American influence, and indulges rather than disciplines corrupt authoritarian regimes.


To grasp international politics during the Cold War period, one had only to count to three: Them, Us, and the “Third World.” The Cold War world was dangerous and hostile but also predictable and tidy. In today’s world, where unclear political margins have replaced sharply defined ideological and military edges, the United States must reposition itself.

There is no single organizing conflict in the world today. Rather, there are substantial, consequential, and unrelated conflicts. The United States should reposition itself at the center of events. And we can. The United States alone has the capacity to act as military protector, economic storehouse, and ideological source for elites, regimes, and movements in every part of the world. I would argue that Richard Haass’s image of “foreign policy by posse,” published in the National Interest in 1995, captures the shift in position and strategy that we need to make. In place of primary reliance on formal alliances like NATO, whose rationale is being stretched and contorted to fit missions and realities that have little to do with its original purpose, the United States should lead shifting coalitions of nations, which come together, according to Haass, “for a finite set of tasks . . . often put together for a limited span of time. Such temporary coalitions would tend to have little in the way of headquarters or permanent staff.” Haass sees these “coalitions of the willing” as more of “an activity than an organization.”

The idea of foreign policy by posse is as much image as strategy, which in no way lessens its significance. Quite the contrary! I would argue that, in the origination of any institution, the emergence of a new image is the first creative act. The presentation of a novel and evocative image creates a fruitful framework for a more precise foreign policy doctrine, which in turn favors the appearance of an operational strategy. The posse image fits the Genesis-like conditions of the late twentieth century: a world marked by situations and issues—for example, conflict in Kashmir, Congo, and Haiti—each of which has little connection to the others.

What kind of doctrine and strategy does the image of a posse suggest? In my judgment, what is called for is a new strategy that might be termed “forts and firebreaks.” American strategy should be to isolate crises, preventing the spillover of events, such as those in Kosovo, that have the potential to metastasize.

Not all conflicts will require forts and firebreaks. Some conflicts should be ignored. Somalia was a case in point. We would have done well to listen to Sheikh Mohammed Abdille Hassan:

If [our] country was cultivated, or contained houses, or property, it would be worth your while to fight. . . . [But here there] are . . . many antheaps. The sun is very hot. All you can get from us is war; nothing else.

The sheikh was speaking to the English in 1897.

Other conflict sites, far from being ignored, may have to be occupied, some for long periods of time, in order to destroy nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction or to replace dangerous regimes. But sites that cannot be ignored and should not be occupied can be isolated. Different sites will require very different types of firebreaks and forts that will, depending on the case, include or exclude troops, economic aid or blockade, the action of regional allies, and direct or indirect political interference. Yet the express purpose in each case will be to block, contain, and limit—to seal off—the effects of military violence and political disintegration in a particular region.

American foreign policymakers must not only devise a new operational strategy but be alert to the fact that changes in the world’s political geography will lead in the near future to the appearance of new political issues, regions, leaders, movements, and ideologies. The United States must therefore be prepared to identify the sites, track the development, and determine the character of these new political realities, establishing whether they are benign or malignant. We must in particular be alert to the emergence of movements of rage—anti-Western, nihilistic, revolutionary movements. Even more important, we must be prepared to prevent such movements from becoming regimes of rage, that is, from successfully aligning themselves with national military and economic forces, particularly in countries with educational and technological bases strong enough to threaten us. The alignment of a movement of rage with powerful national forces is precisely what happened in Nazi Germany.


We are at a remarkable historical juncture. For the first time since the French Revolution, there is no politically centered, militarily powerful, anti-Western ideology anywhere in the world. At the same time, every major institution in American life—family, church, party, firm, and nation—is subject to challenge, confusion, and reform. In the absence of a major external threat, we face the need—and have the opportunity—to reshape our foreign policy and domestic institutions. Yet our concern should not be adaptations per se but adaptations consistent with our identity as a people and nation. As Machiavelli noted, “in composite bodies, such as states . . . those changes make for their conservation which lead them back to their origins.”

A new American foreign policy must be consistent with and sustain, not oppose or attenuate, our national identity. That identity opposes military empire. It values national sovereignty. It opposes ideologies based on group superiority. It values individual liberty and equality before the law. It opposes command economies. It values entrepreneurial economies. In short, we are a republic of liberty and democracy. Any new American foreign policy must be “named and bounded” accordingly.