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A Foreign Policy for the Common Citizen | The Nation

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A Foreign Policy for the Common Citizen

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A quarter-century after the end of the Vietnam War, and eleven years after the collapse of the Berlin wall, it has become commonplace to say that we Americans have no consensus on foreign policy. Across the political spectrum, left or right, most Americans still cling to whatever assumptions they held during our long journey through the cold war. Having inhaled the sweet narcotic of a false triumphalism, Washington's foreign-policy elite talk as if America's "soft power" can prevail in nearly every instance. And where it cannot--as in Colombia's narco-civil war or against the specter of "international terrorism" in Afghanistan or Sudan--Republicans and Democrats alike sanction cruise-missile diplomacy or outright military interventionism reminiscent of Vietnam. Naturally, such behavior reinforces the anti-interventionist instincts of citizens on the liberal-left. But here--as in many aspects of foreign policy--I believe the American left has failed, perhaps understandably, to face up to a new set of post-cold war imponderables. It has also failed to take advantage of this post-cold war period to put forth truly fresh ideas on matters ranging from nuclear weapons to the environment.

About the Author

Kai Bird
Kai Bird is a Nation contributing editor, a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and the author, most recently, of...

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Two decades ago, nearly one-sixth of the population was forcibly expelled. How did King Wangchuck escape any real censure?

How did Hosni Mubarak manage to stay in power for three decades?

It is one thing to be against unilateralism and against nonhumanitarian interventionism--but it is quite another thing to be against humanitarian interventionism. To put it bluntly, the lessons we learned from Washington's bloody-minded intervention in Vietnam have little relevance in dealing with ethnic cleansing or oppression in Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, East Timor and Kosovo. And though the victims of these internal wars cry out for our help--and the aggressors are invariably thuggish regimes--the American left remains divided on how to respond.

This is understandable precisely because the duration and intensity of the cold war make it difficult to remember what might have been. Sadly, in our determination to oppose nuclear brinkmanship and other idiocies that marked Washington's foreign policy for forty-four years (1945-89), we have forgotten our basic radical principles and the common-sensical path not taken at the end of World War II. Most Americans have no memory of the designs Franklin Roosevelt's New Dealers had for postwar American foreign policy. Human rights, self-determination and an end to European colonization in the developing world, nuclear disarmament, international law, the World Court, the United Nations--these were all ideas of the progressive left. Even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were initially conceived as vehicles for internationalizing the New Deal.

And then in the spring of 1945, Harry Truman became the accidental President. A narrow-minded man--a product of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City--Truman purged Washington of New Deal visionaries. An insecure liberal, Truman felt compelled to protect his right flank by authorizing internal security review boards. The subsequent witch hunt that we call McCarthyism was very much a bipartisan affair, designed to suppress dissent against the growing consensus of cold war liberalism. We can blame Truman and his supporters in the foreign-policy establishment for a host of missed opportunities during the cold war. They slammed the door on nuclear disarmament by deciding to make nuclear weapons the centerpiece of the nation's defense. They militarized the cold war by deciding to divide Germany and rearm West Germany within a NATO alliance, a policy that prolonged the cold war at great cost to life and treasure. By closing the door to trade and engagement, by hardening the lines of cold war confrontation, they postponed for years the very real potential for liberalization within the Soviet Union after Stalin.

Elsewhere, Truman reversed Roosevelt's support for decolonization of French, British and other European outposts in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Instead, Washington spent billions of dollars propping up any regime of corrupt mandarins willing to mouth the slogans of anti-Communism. In short, the cold war legacy begun by Truman was a democratic disaster. Nor were these policies inevitable. There was a choice. In 1945, at the beginning of the cold war, our leaders led us astray. We need to think of the cold war as an aberration, a wrong turn. As such, we need to go back to where we were in 1945--before we took the road to a permanent war economy, a national security state and a foreign policy based on unilateralism and cowboy triumphalism.

This collection of essays underscores that we on the left, for all our differences, share common instincts. All of us are profoundly suspicious, as Bruce Cumings puts it in his sweeping essay on the America Ascendancy, of what he calls "the celebration of a 'globalization' that is uncomfortably close to Americanization." As Robert Borosage argues, our foreign-policy budget priorities are irrational. We should be spending far, far less on defense against nonexistent enemies and investing far, far more on economic development abroad--as well as at home.

We desperately need to engage with the world--and not just dominate it with our marketplace. The problem, as Sherle Schwenninger, writes, is that the United States is both a revolutionary force in global culture and a status quo power: "A revolution as sweeping as globalization simultaneously creates the need for a new order." Some kind of global governance is necessary--but to be effective and to command any legitimacy it will require "international bodies that pool state sovereignty." As Jonathan Schell has earlier argued in these pages, the United States needs to revisit its first comprehensive approach to nuclear weapons--their abolition, as proposed in 1946 by the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan. That plan--drafted by J. Robert Oppenheimer--was derailed by Soviet-American tensions that would shortly fracture the World War II alliance and bring on the cold war. "The end of the cold war," Schell says, "has presented the most promising opportunity of the entire nuclear age to deliver the world from nuclear danger. The alternative, heralded by the new nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan (the first nuclear arms race having no relationship to the cold war) and the stalemate of traditional arms control, is unlimited, uncontrolled proliferation leading toward what some have called 'nuclear anarchy'--a state of affairs incompatible with any tolerable vision of the world's future."

Similarly, the World Bank and the IMF should not be abetting those governments that spend scarce resources on buying weapons instead of educating their children. We need an authentic UN, a viable International Criminal Court and a standing UN army to enforce recognized international law. And all this means lending pieces of our sovereignty to the global community. We need to work cooperatively with all countries, rather than see them as, at best, temporary allies.

As William Greider writes in his essay, "The choice is not between global engagement defined by the multinationals and right-wing, pull-up-the-drawbridges nationalism. The historic opening--ironically, advanced by the globalizing marketplace itself--is to envision a world without empires of any kind." Mark Hertsgaard argues that we should use our vast power in the international marketplace to penalize those who pollute the environment. And Kumi Naidoo suggests that much of this agenda can be pushed by using our resources under international law to encourage civil society.

In all these issues of global governance, America needs to share its power. On this much we agree. Many of us will remain in disagreement, however, on the divisive question of humanitarian interventionism. This hot-button issue is discussed in a round-table debate by Holly Burkhalter, Mahmood Mamdani, Ronald Steel, Mary Kaldor and David Rieff. Even here, there is more common ground than one might think.

Most of us will agree with Burkhalter's instinct that the prevention and suppression of genocide is a vital interest. In principle, this means we need to aid fellow democrats, particularly those democrats defending a secular, multicultural society from the attacks of ethnic cleansers. In some instances--as in Rwanda's horrifying genocide or Serbia's meticulously planned campaign of ethnic cleansing--this may mean, as Rieff maintains, going to war. But in most cases, I think Kaldor is right to suggest that "humanitarian intervention is much more like policing than warfighting." And in any case, many of us will agree with Steel's and Mamdani's reservations. Foreign intervention may be necessary when a whole nation or tribe is targeted for genocidal extermination. But as Steel puts it, "A humanitarian impulse could, through abuse, become a geopolitical nightmare."

The world is a complicated place, and, as Rieff argues, we can't take the politics out of foreign-policy-making. There are difficult political choices to be made in pursuing a foreign policy based on human rights. Nevertheless, the painful human costs associated with the rush to globalization--as well as the costs associated with ethnic conflict and environmental pollution--can be salved by the messy, even cumbersome, judicial tools of a democratic civil society. Whatever the cultural context, civil society is defined by certain universal principles common to every human community. So maybe, after all, we do have some consensus. Certain truths are indeed self-evident: Ultimately, our foreign policy should be wedded to a radical defense of all human rights. Such a policy was broadly defined by Franklin Roosevelt when he talked about an attainable world in which there would be not only freedom of speech and worship but also freedom from want and fear. We are at a crossroads--much like the crossroads Roosevelt faced in 1945. Our nation's wealth and power are such that Americans can't escape responsibility for good or ill in this new century. We should be making bold, openhearted choices now, in the light of day--lest we be forced to choose a path in the dark crisis of some new and different cold war.

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