If ever the time was right for a Great Debate on America’s purpose and place in the world, that time is now. But if early auditions leading up to primary season are any indication, the top contenders are either not up to the task or unwilling to take on the challenge of correcting the current course of failure in US foreign policy. Despite America’s dire standing in the world and the President’s record low approval ratings at home, leading Republican candidates have made it clear that they will deviate little from the geopolitics of fear and fantasy that have marked the Bush years. And while Democratic front-runners are quick to denounce the folly of the war in Iraq–at least in its execution–they appear reluctant to take on the worldview and logic from which it was manufactured and continues to be sold in anticipation of yet new adventures. So far, in shades too reminiscent of 2004, Democrats act as if the White House is theirs for the taking if only they can avoid missteps and duck charges of “weakness.”
Should this continue to be Democratic strategy, it will be recorded as a miscalculation of enormous magnitude and a golden opportunity squandered. Public opinion polls since the antiwar election of 2006 have consistently demonstrated an appetite for a thoroughgoing repudiation of Bush-era foreign policy, reflecting the views of no small number of disenchanted Republicans.
At the same time, this emphatic rejection does not translate into support for retreat behind US borders, as throwback conservatives would have it. To the contrary, the majority of Americans favor something between these two extremist positions–a “responsible globalism” based on partnership with, rather than rule over or withdrawal from, the world and its peoples. Instead of succumbing to a contest of faux toughness that they cannot win, Democrats must be imaginative enough to stake out new ground and confident enough to defend it by reframing the terms of strength and weakness, security and power, for the world of the twenty-first century.
The Great Debate must confront the harsh realities that the Bush Administration will leave as its legacy. The peculiarly twisted neoconservative version of power-centered realism and democratic idealism cobbled up in pursuit of empire has placed the United States in an untenable position, both overextended in the world the White House pretends to lead and isolated within it. Through their stubborn fixation on remaking the Middle East and their defiance of international law and world opinion for the better part of a decade, the Bushites have managed to shrink American power, in its hard and soft forms, while wringing “democracy” of meaning. The more the United States has acted alone or only on its own insistent terms, the more out of step it has become. While the rest of the world moves forward on the implementation of an International Criminal Court and a climate change accord, the United States stands aloof, registering objections. Networks of state and nonstate actors join forces behind the Millennium Development Goals and continue to make progress toward a “responsibility to protect” ethic as a standard for peacekeeping, while the United States drags its feet on these and other “new security” issues. Nevertheless, judged by Republican campaign speeches and the circle of policy advisers surrounding the candidates, the bluff and bravado of neoconservative doctrine will continue to be a force in the 2008 election, despite its abject failure as a framework for foreign policy.
This may seem to be good news for Democrats, but their complacency and their caution thus far suggest otherwise–and could prove their undoing. If they have been quick to denounce neoconservative fantasies of empire for having alienated much of the world, their nostalgia for a return to the hegemony of the Truman–or perhaps Kennedy, or even Clinton era–is itself a prescription for a world, and a United States, that no longer exists. True, the Democrats wish to reinvigorate diplomacy and lessen dependence on military force. They also spin out visions of a grand alliance of democracies and offer a nod to multilateralism, promising to consult with those they insist must once again fall dutifully behind America’s rightful lead.