Not long after president Bush’s State of the Union caused an uproar in Europe, former CIA chief, James Woolsey wrote a provocative piece telling Europeans that they better be ready for the sheriff to settle scores at the OK Corral or fence for themselves. Woolsey may be a hawk and spoiling for a fight, but he is no fool. He wanted to make a point, to force an issue, and he did. The image of the lone ranger works wonders on European tempers. Especially on the Dutch, who always half suspect the US to be an unsophisticated, immature power, hung up on silly dreams of the Old West, Dead or Alive and similar juvenile ideas and acting them out if given half a chance. Woolsey pushed all the buttons. In doing so he provided a public service. Amidst the noise that was generated by all the usual suspects, finally a start has been made to discuss foreign policy in the 21st century. Not just how different politicians react to events, but how the world sticks together and what the long term goals and policy of the United States, Europe and other actors will be and what consequences a sound and honest analysis of the stategic puzzle will have. This paper and this meeting are examples of it. I must say, if anything good has come from the September 11th attacks, it is the renewed interest in foreign policy thinking.
This afternoon I would like to pose two propositions and offer one structure for analysis of US foreign policy, now, as always, hard to understand for Europeans. I will do so as a long term Dutch observer of American policy, trying to understand what drives the Americans, rather than trying to explain why the Dutch are unable to do so.
My first proposition is that there is a large degree of continuity in US foreign policy, no matter who runs it. Sure enough, the US pendulum may swing quite a bit, but the outer ends are fairly well circumscribed and the pendulum stays in between. The current administration is no exception.
My second proposition is that, while this may be the case, there is indeed a fundamental change under way that will have long term consequences. A hard nosed analysis seems to point to a more insular policy of the US, leading to a withdrawl of US troops and direct involvement from both Europe and Northeast Asia.
Finally, as a structure for analyzing American policy I will discuss four schools that inspire American foreign policy making. These schools and the way they interact and reinforce or weaken each other, help to understand the domestic side of American foreign policy.
Let’s start with this long term continuity. I would venture to say while the pendulum of American foreign policy may swing this way or that, it never goes very far from the center and it always generates its own opposition, both in Europe and in the US. So, for example, Henry Kissingers balance of powers-juggling act and Richard Nixons detente met their natural opposition in the mid seventies, leading to a more assertive foreign policy, particulary in the wake of the Vietnam trauma and Soviet adventurism in the Third World. President Carter added human rights to the mix, but otherwise had no alternative but to go with the flow, slowing down and eventually cutting off detente, and reacting noisily and ineffectively to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Ronald Reagans defense build-up was well in place under president Carter, as were the notoriously more agressive US policies towards the Soviet Union. While these ran their course, they may have helped and maybe even caused to bring about the end of the Cold War.
By that time, the pendulum had swung back towards a more multilateral approach, underlined by the joint operations against Iraq after its occupation of Kuwait. But nothing came of a new world order, whatever president Bush may have had in mind. It was a measure of his own lack of understanding domestic politics that he failed to realize that world orders do not play well in Peoria, or in Jesse Helms’ North Carolina.
After a decade of drift under president Clinton, with much multilateral talk and mostly unilateral action, we see the pendulum going the other way. Not very far, though. Clintons multilateralism was always smooth talking to paper over the much more basic US attitude that it does not really need to cowtow to other nations or international organizations. Under president George W. Bush this wallpaper has been torn down. Say what you will, but the Bush administration does not pretend. It recognizes that treaties that the previous administration signed or committed to, would not be supported by the required two thirds of the US Senate. This recognition appears to be realistic and provides much clarity, and I must ad, also prevents the president from being embarrassed by an unwilling Congress – undermining his authority. Mr. Clinton would not have saved these agreements either, both lacking stamina for semi-lost causes and political authority.
Apart from NAFTA, which is a whole different ballgame, I don’t think any serious foreign policy commitment has been accepted by the Senate since the Panama Canal Treaty in 1979 and it is useful to recall that president Carter had to spend a lot of political credit to get it passed. So looking at thirty years of US foreign policy, George W. Bush is not all that far from the center of gravity to which it always turns back to.
Every time the administration changed hands, there was much lamenting and handwringing in Europe, until, after a little while, the then current administration was considered acceptable. It has always been this way. Naturally, the Atlantic partners have always moved with the general drift of US policy, usually compensating when the pendulum went to far out one way or the other. The numerous fights and differences of opinion within the alliance came and went and came again as sure as day follows night. We all remember the ritual of the Mansfield amendment.
Occasionally Europe felt excluded, as in the strategic arms negotiations, occasionally it tried to keep the US out of its arrangements, as in the Helsinki agreements – where, of course, the US wrestled back in and got a commitment to human rights that may be, ironiously, Kissingers most lasting achievement. So, I would argue that the current spat is not all that much different from what we have seen before. The US as a lone superpower does what it does best: guard its interests, wield a big stick and occasionally big words. Europe does what it does best: talk diplomacy, keep channels open and plee for a small stick. I would argue that both ‘powers’ do what they do best and that is how it should be. They benefit from each other. It is good to keep this in mind as we discuss the many differences in approach. A little bit of tolerance for each others hangups may go a long way.
This brings me to my second proposition, somewhat less comforting, that we are in for big changes. For all the continuity in American foreign policy, its stategic underpinnings are likely to change considerably in the coming years. While I am not particularly worried about isolationism in the US, as traditionally understood, I do expect a new rational and realistic analysis of US interests and following from that, a more insular or, if you like, offshore approach. It seems only logical that, in the absence of the Soviet threat, America’s commitment to Europe will loose its inevitability. John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, who recently published a challenging book on Great Powers from which I take some of the ideas expressed here, argues that, now as ever, the primary goal of US policy is to ‘dominate the western hemisphere while not permitting another great power to dominate Europe or Northeast Asia’. A clearer statement is hard to find. He goes on to argue the inevitability of German ascent, maybe even to a nuclear status; the increasing power of Japan; and the wrongheadedness of a US policy of supporting the economic growth of China.
Mearsheimer offers the kind of hard nosed realism that moralists, European and American, do not like. In his Tragedy of Great Powers the tragedy referred to is the fact that nations act along certain lines, no matter what intentions they may express. That power abhors a vacuum is no great revalation, nor the fact that nations don’t like to waste their power. As the US has no usefull role to play, it will not keep its military in Europe and this will lead to different power politics within the region. Mearsheimer foresees the five relevant powers in Europe balancing each other, if necessary in different combinations, trying to counterbalance a Germany that is strong both in population and in economic wealth. This is not necessarily bad, but we better get ready for it.
I don’t do him justice in truncating his argument, but I hope you get the drift. In Europe I don’t hear much discussion about these kind of strategic patterns, we talk more about our small European force and what its mission might be. Maybe Mearsheimer does underestimate the way in which Europe might actually get to a joint foreign and defense policy, but I must admit that
I am sceptical that this will actually happen. To paraprhrase, nobody has ever lost money in betting on the weakness of European unity.
In view of the subjectmatter today, I would also like to point to one of Mearsheimers conclusions that may suprise us. He contends that US dependency on the world economy is way overstated. Economic globalization notwithstanding, he argues that the US is not very vulnerable for any kind of economic upheaval in either Europe or Asia. In other words, if we think that dependency on the world economy will force the US to remain active in preserving peace in Europe and Asia, we are wrong.
Likewise in Northeast Asia, Mearsheimer foresees different arrangements of power, especially if China keeps growing economically. Here too, the numbers tell a story. In population, of course, China is hard to beat. Add that to economic wealth, and a power play is enevitable. Mearsheimer is convinced that it is a wrongheaded policy to support economic growth in China. On the contrary, he says, the US should obstruct it. The idea that more democracy and more economic wellbeing will make sure that China will not take its role as a great power and will not compete with the US, is in his view entirely wrong. Again, the details are interesting, but would lead to far away from my topic. In any case, in his analysis there is a bigger chance of problems in Asia than in Europe. So one can expect US attention to be drawn even more towards Asia. What this implies for NATO should be a topic for our discussions.
I give you Mearsheimers observations as food for thought. His logic is impeccable, if you accept his premises. To think them through is a worthwhile exercise, if only because Mearsheimer is firmly within mainstream thinking. His work has been discussed and tossed around by the Council of Foreign Relations and it is fair to say that this kind of ‘realistic’ thinking influences policy making. Is is, however, not a part of the debate in Holland or in Europe, where we prefer to talk tactics and actual policy, rather than strategic theory. Conclusion drawn from Mearsheimers analysis: big change is coming – this is hís conclusion – and – mý conclusion – we are not preparing for it.
On to the domestic side of US foreign policy. Just as Dutch foreign policy is driven by a certain idea of ourselves and the mission that we claim to have for country and world, so too US policy is driven by visions of what the US should do and why. Last year a wonderful book was published, Special Providence, by Walter Russel Mead, that helped putting these inspirations in perspective, a perspective that is much more informative than the traditional grouping in moralists and realists, preferred by Henry Kissinger. I for one found it particularly helpful. It completes the picture if you add it to the structural points of difference with Europe, such as the division of power within US government, relatively short terms of office, internal rivalries and, not least, the astonishing degree of democracy in US society. The inherent messyness of democratic policymaking, makes it sometimes hard to understand what goes on in Washington, but, Mead would argue and I would concur, in the end it does lead to a coherent policy in which all interests are represented.
Mead argues that foreign policy always was part of the American political scene (rather than something fairly new), that the US has developed its own style, and that US foreign policy has been astonishing succesful. This is challenging enough, and to explain he groups recurrent thinking in US foreign policy into four schools, each named after a leading representative of that school. Thus we have Hamiltonians, Jeffersonians, Wilsonians and Jacksonians. Each school works at different levels, representing regional, economic, social and class interests; they encompass visions on domestic and foreign policy and not just reflect moral and political values but also socio-economic and political interests.
The Hamiltonians, named after Alexander Hamilton, George Washingtons secretary of the Treasury, feel that the primary US mission is to support US business. To protect American interests, they are willing to act militarily, but rather not. They much prefer to build a global economic system that protects those interests. They are convinced that this not only benefits the US but also the world at large.
The Wilsonian School, named of course after Woodrow Wilson but active before he appeared on the scene, makes it a moral and a practical goal of US policy to spread American values in the world. These values are the best garantuee for peace and the wellbeing of all. This does not preclude military action but diplomacy is always the preferred option, as are international law and institutions.
The goal of the Jeffersonian School, named after the third president, is to protect American democracy in an unfriendly an dangerous world. This school always searches for a policy that protects American independence at the lowest cost and with as little danger as possible. This is the school of strategic thinkers, like John Quincy Adams (of Monroe doctrine fame) and George Kennan (of containment fame) but also isolationists like the historian Charles Beard and the author Gore Vidal. They believe setting an example, being a role model, is more important than forcing others to adher to American ideals, if only because they are always worried about the threats to their own democracy. So they are sticklers for procedures and the rule of law. The protection of liberty is prime, not the protection of trade or industry, leave alone the spread of democracy or other values in the world.
The most important school and the least understood are the Jacksonians, named after Andrew Jackson, president from 1829 to 1837. They represent a populist and popular culture of honour, independence, courage and military pride, a remainder of the culture of the frontier. Jacksonians will not engage lightly, but if they do, they go all out. This is the school that baffles foreigners, the cowboy school. Jacksonians have no interest in a better world, nor in diplomacy and patience, or in trade strategies. Their sole goal is to require the government to act on behalf of the ordinary man, whose basic instincts are sound. They don’t like big government, except for the military. They accept that problems may be complicated, but they think most solutions are fairly simple. Above all, they are pratical. They prefer to stay away from military action, but if they go, they want to win.
These schools, in different, often overlapping configurations, form and inform US foreign policy. Mead argues that mostly they strengthen each other – you don’t often see a pure form. Thus, at the end of the twentieth century, an uneasy mix of Hamiltonians and Wilsonians ran policy. For president Clinton economic interests were important (as in dealing with China), preferably embedded in a global order of free trade. The Wilsonian element, a better world for all and human rights everywhere, was made to work for the Hamiltonian urge, hence Clintons China policy.
But there always was a strong Jeffersonian element in American society: a protection of US interest, period. So the government could get into treaties like the Law of the Sea, Kyoto, Test ban Treaty etc, but Congres had its own thing to do, protect American independence. So they obstructed anything that would take away American freedom of action. Jeffersonians nor Jacksonians care for international order as a goal per se. They are convinced that American interests do not require this order and could only be harmed.
In the attitude of the Bush administration we see these schools too, but in a different mixture. Thus it was the Jacksonian element that gave president Bush the support after September 11th to act forcefully. Words as ‘evil’, ‘cowards’ and the like, fit entirely in this tradition and do no fail to ring the right bells even if they have exactly the opposite effect in the rest of the world. At the same time Bush kept an eye on the Hamiltonian element: he channeled the Jacksonian sentiments in a more nuanced and more careful policy than hotheaded Jacksonians would have liked. This is how he carefully built up to military action without it becoming a war against Islam, and without promising that necessary action would be costless, as his predecessor did. In other words, the president needs Jacksonian passion to fight a Hamiltonian (limited) war. He accepts and even welcomes multilateralism, but always to help American interests, not to change the international system. This pick and choose attitude may enrage the rest of the world, but it is hard to argue that it does not benefit the US.
Now, this is only a model, with its limitations. But I must say, in looking at recent administrations and trying to understand what goes on and for what reasons, both Mearsheimer and Mead are helpful. Mearsheimer shows the strategic power the US wields and his model allows to predict US policy from a strategic perspective. Mead explains how the American political tradition works, as a system that, quite rightfully, pursues American interests above all others. That’s what foreign policy is all about: pursue one’s interests. They differ from ours, and that is how it is. To pretend otherwise, means living in a fantasyworld – a place where Dutch like to linger.
It is probably impossible to drag the Dutch politicians, leave alone the general public, away from more lofty notions of foreign policy. An analysis such as Mearsheimer’s is not popular in these provinces. Not because it is not realistic, but because it is not right.
I must say that I find it easier to understand the American perspective on the world than that of the Dutch. The American view of their national interests is much more rooted in rational considerations and pure power projecting than the Dutch perspective. Of course there is not much Dutch power to project so it is only natural that we take refuge in international law and multilateral arrangements.
The general public is poorly prepared for the changes that are underway. Both the US and Europe are notoriously bad in conversing with their public about foreign policy. There has not been a decent discussion about many European issues or indeed about the future of NATO. Policy had already been decided when people were informed, they were not consulted and not educated. As minister van Mierlo said about NATO-extension: that train has already left the station. Except that the public wasn’t informed about its time of leaving nor its destination. We will have to do a much better job in this area.
To conclude, if we in Holland have a hard time understanding both American politics, particularly the domestic side of them, and world politics, at least as discussed in terms of strategic realism, that is because we do not like to think hard enough about the facts of life. We might do better if we try to understand and try to explain how the rest of the world sticks together – that indeed there are different perspectives than our own and that, unfortunately, they are held by more powerful nations than we are. Acknowledging this gap in our understanding is one thing, building a Dutch foreign policy on the weak hand we are playing, is something quite different. And quite a challenge.