Where Do We Go From Here?

Monday, October 30, 2000


t’s only natural, as an administration is coming to an end, to focus on its shortcomings. President Clinton’s foreign policy presents a particularly tempting target, and many commentators, myself included, have not been shy in taking it on. Criticism after the fact, however, is easy. It’s more difficult to answer questions the targets of such criticism have every right to ask: What would you have done differently? What would you do now? Where do we go from here?

Outsiders can never really know what it’s like, as an insider, to operate under pressure on the basis of incomplete information within an organization you can never completely control. They ought not to assume too cavalierly that they themselves could have done better. Humility and even a certain sympathy should temper what those who write have to say about those who act.

Clausewitz, who both acted and wrote, was reflecting on just those qualities when he described the “fog” of war: the fact that no military engagement ever quite matches the expectations of its participants. His brief but intense evocation of what a novice might feel going into battle for the first time (On War, chapter 4) ought to be required reading for anyone who seeks to critique policy without having had to make it.

Most Clinton foreign policy initiatives responded to agendas others had set, whether with respect to Somalia, Haiti, NATO expansion, NAFTA, Russia, Bosnia, Kosovo, China, or Taiwan.

Still, that fog did not prevent Clausewitz from identifying principles of war that have stood the test of time. Effective action, he understood, must always link theory and practice: you must draw on the accumulated wisdom of those who have gone before, but you must also apply that wisdom to the particular situation you confront. That requires knowing when to follow past precedents and when to jettison them, for warfare—like statecraft—demands both skills.

In trying to answer the “where do we go from here” question, the best we can do is to focus on principles because there is no way to know the situations in which the next administration might be called on to apply them. We can, however, fairly ask what the Clinton administration’s practices suggest about such principles.

Setting Strategic Priorities

Unlike most of their post–World War II predecessors, President Clinton and his advisers made little effort to apply explicit principles to their practice of statecraft. They did, to be sure, experiment early on with vague terms such as engagement and enlargement, but these did not catch on. Instead, administration officials began to claim that in a world in which dangers are no longer clear and present, in which interests are diverse, and in which the very nature of power itself is rapidly changing, it was neither desirable nor possible to come up with specific concepts such as containment and détente that would tie together the various strands of foreign and national security policy.

This is a defensible position. There is something to be said for staying flexible, for assessing situations as they arise, for keeping options open. One of the distinct advantages of a world without clear and present dangers is that it allows such improvisation.

The Clinton administration failed to establish a cohesive foreign policy. Too often, the administration took actions abroad with little regard for the consequences.

Whether improvisation can be sustained, however, is another issue—one of the first, indeed, to which the next administration will have to give its attention. For although it is more difficult to specify interests in the absence of obvious threats to them, it is not at all clear that the advantages of doing so disappear when dangers do. Even in benign environments, purposefulness has its purposes, the chief one of which is to prevent the dissipation of resources.

Resources are always finite, but the uses to which resources can be put are potentially infinite. The only way to ensure the efficient use of resources, therefore, is to assign some purpose to them—that’s why architects have blueprints, motorists have maps, and athletic teams have coaches. One could very well build roofs before laying foundations, or insist that all who drive between cities find their own way, or invite each player to devise his or her own rules for playing a game. But it would make little sense to do these things because of the materials, time, and energy that would be wasted along the way. Whether in a benign or a hostile environment, using resources efficiently requires some sense of priorities, some vision of where you want to go.

A second reason for setting priorities is to prevent others from setting them for you. To operate without a plan is to relinquish the initiative to those who have one, whether they be adversaries, allies, interest groups, the media, or—to use James Goldgeier’s insightful term—“policy entrepreneurs.” Most Clinton foreign policy initiatives responded to agendas others had set, whether with respect to Somalia, Haiti, NATO expansion, NAFTA, Russia, Bosnia, Kosovo, China, or Taiwan. The pattern was one of disconnected rather than interconnected actions. There’s nothing wrong with being responsive, but when that is all you are, you tend to sacrifice coherence. The various moves you make risk undercutting one another because you haven’t considered how the parts relate to the whole.

As a result of the Clinton administration’s erratic foreign policy, the United States has too often come to be seen abroad, even by its friends, as a petulantly volatile adolescent.

How, for example, did expanding NATO fit with the idea of reassuring Russia? How was the continued bombing of Iraq or the continued embargo against Cuba supposed to undermine the support of the dictators that ran those places? How did the goal of democratizing China connect with the objective of engaging it in the global economy? How was one to strengthen international institutions by refraining from joining them or by neglecting one’s responsibilities to them? How was one to persuade the world that it would be safer if the United States deployed—at vast cost and expense—a missile shield that has yet to be shown to work?

The Clinton administration can of course fairly claim that in several of these instances it has only reflected the positions of a Congress controlled by members of the opposite party whose views were not its own. But is the executive branch’s only function in foreign affairs that of reflection? President Truman did not think so when he confronted a Republican Congress in another postwar era: he stuck to his own agenda, brought the legislators around to it, and the result was the most fruitful period of bipartisan collaboration in this century. Such leadership, however, does require knowing where you want to go, which is yet another reason why purposefulness has its purposes.

Making Hard Choices

What, then, should be a new administration’s purposes in world affairs? Where should it seek to lead us? It’s best, I think, to start with the most basic objectives of any foreign and national security policy: survival, security, and a congenial international environment. These sound like platitudes and they are—until you lose sight of them.

The Clinton administration has done so by elevating a set of principles—political self-determination and economic integration—to the status of fundamental interests. The fit is not in all respects a bad one: an unqualified commitment to democratization and globalization is hardly going to endanger the nation’s survival. But would a proliferation of microstates enhance our security? Can unregulated capitalism provide a congenial international environment? Our domestic system long ago rejected both of these alternatives: federalism constrains democracy in this country, just as regulation restricts markets. Why, then, does the administration endorse these objectives without qualification in the wider world?

After witnessing the effects of unregulated capitalism in Russia and Southeast Asia, there is less of a tendency now to see capitalism as something that always, in all instances, promotes prosperity and social justice.

Democratization and globalization do favor U.S. interests but not unconditionally—a point the administration has been slow to see. There is much less talk now of using NATO as an instrument of democratization. There has been no effort to apply the Kosovo precedent in places such as Chechnya and Tibet. After witnessing the effects of unregulated capitalism in Russia and Southeast Asia, there is less of a tendency now to see capitalism as something that always, in all instances, promotes prosperity and social justice. These have been hard lessons, though, and learning them has carried a stiff price. The need to do so arose, I think, from the administration’s initial confusion of principles with interests.

Politics requires aligning principles with interests, but that in turn requires qualifying each of these. Interests must reflect principles, but they cannot simply become principles for the simple reason that principles do not always align with one another. This is what Isaiah Berlin meant by the incommensurability of values: because not all good things are compatible, one cannot have all good things. One must, in an imperfect world, limit some aspirations in order to attain others. That, in turn, means not promising too much.

Lubricating Great Power Relationships

On what basis, though, might we qualify our commitment to democratization and globalization? The clearest one, I think, has to do with the impact of these processes on international structures—the most important of which is still the relationship that exists among the great powers.

The attitude persists in Washington that in our policies toward Russia and China we can alternate between arrogance and inconsistency.

The Cold War ended—as if in some rare alignment of planets—with the United States, Western Europe, Russia, China, and Japan all more or less on the same side. The international history of the twentieth century until that point could have been written in terms of the absence of such an alignment: two world wars and the Cold War took place as a result. The early 1990s were an extraordinary moment, therefore, and one might have expected that the chief priority of any post–Cold War U.S. foreign policy would have been to try to perpetuate it.

And yet the Clinton administration—owing, I think, to its failure to think in strategic terms and its reluctance to choose among competing values—did not do this. It gave greater attention to the requirements of justice than to those of international stability. The outcome was a rapid deterioration of U.S. relations with Russia and China, thereby reversing the Nixon administration’s coup in building bridges to both of those Cold War adversaries so that it became possible to play one off against the other. Today Moscow and Beijing speak openly of cooperating against what they see as the hegemonic ambitions of the United States.

There are limits, to be sure, to what Russia and China can do. But economic and military weakness does not remove the capacity for mischief—surely we have dealt with enough rogue states to know that. The attitude persists in Washington that we can alternate between arrogance and inconsistency in our Russian and Chinese policies without significant consequences for our relationship with each of those countries or for theirs with each other.

The next administration must tend to this problem. The optimal post–Cold War system would be one in which democratization and globalization proceed with the consent of all the great powers. This is by no means an unrealistic objective, for Russia and China have moved far closer to those objectives than anyone would have thought possible a quarter century ago. But this structure of cooperation will not emerge if democratization and globalization appear to serve only U.S. interests.

Washington’s task here should be reassurance, not confrontation: this is not appeasement but lubrication. It is no sign of weakness to grease the wheels before driving off in a car. But somehow, within the Clinton administration and Congress, the Clausewitzian goal of minimizing friction has become almost invisible. We need to keep it much more prominently in view.

Restoring Domestic Consensus

Minimizing friction abroad, however, will also require doing so at home. It would be difficult to think of another point in our history at which domestic political considerations have so dominated the shaping of foreign and national security policy as during the Clinton years. Both the administration and its opponents must share the blame for this.

The Republicans, after regaining control of Congress in 1994, equated statesmanship with embarrassing the president, even when it meant taking actions—as in rejecting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—that seriously undermined the reputation of the United States in the rest of the world. President Clinton, in turn, squandered his very considerable leadership potential through inattention and indecisiveness in his first term and through personal irresponsibility in the second.

As a consequence, the United States has too often come to be seen abroad, even by its friends, as a petulantly volatile adolescent—an alarming prospect, given the disproportionate strength at its disposal. It is time we brought our behavior back into line with our power, which means giving as much attention to rebuilding a domestic concert of common interests as it does to reconstructing a great power consensus.

A New Opportunity

I do not mean to claim that all disagreements, whether domestic or international, can be—or ought to be—resolved. Truly fundamental differences can only be contested, not compromised. Some of those that separated the old Soviet Union from the Western democracies were of this nature, a fact that the architects of détente during the 1970s (and many of its supporters, among whom I include myself) did not always fully appreciate.

We have been extraordinarily lucky that the deficiencies of leadership at the top over the past eight years have not more seriously damaged our position in the world.

But it is also worth pointing out that there are fewer such fundamental differences now than at any point in at least the past hundred years. One thing the Cold War did accomplish was to vindicate democracy and capitalism. These institutions are now sufficiently deeply rooted that we can view their future with confidence. The only people who doubt this reality lack the power to do anything about it.

The opportunity exists, then, to start anew. Whoever wins the White House in November should seize this moment. That will mean establishing a center of gravity: policies grounded firmly in the national interest, not in the special interests of those who seek to advance their own agendas. It will mean recognizing that while democratization and globalization advance the national interest, they do not in and of themselves constitute that interest. It will mean minimizing friction by applying lubrication: reconstituting the concert of great powers with which the Cold War ended, even as we rebuild the domestic consensus as to where the national interest lies.

And it will mean recognizing how extraordinarily lucky we have been over the past eight years that deficiencies of leadership at the top have not more seriously damaged our position in the world. We cannot safely assume that that streak of luck will continue.