The Great Debate of 2008
The multilateral preference is quite consistent and varies little whether the issue is terrorism or the looming crisis with Iran. When World Public Opinion asked, "Which do you think is the most important lesson of September 11?" 70 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats answered that "the US needs to work more closely with other countries to fight terrorism." There is bipartisan support for a fundamental change in the means to that end as well, with 52 percent of Republicans joining 77 percent of Democrats calling for "more emphasis on diplomatic and economic methods," rather than military might to combat terrorism. Moreover, a Chicago Council poll records a resounding 87 percent in support of "working through the UN to strengthen international laws against terrorism and to make sure UN members enforce them," with 82 percent wishing to see the "trial of suspected terrorists in the ICC."
Similarly, in the case of Iran, a Public Agenda poll conducted this past spring found only 5 percent in favor of threatening military action and 8 percent in support of taking such action. When asked how the United States should deal with Iran, a solid 72 percent favored international diplomacy or international economic sanctions. These decidedly antimilitarist views were endorsed by 68 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats.
If the public has undergone a substantial rethinking of the relationship between security and power, it has also come to an understanding of democratization that breaks sharply with neoconservative dogma. A majority are skeptical of sweeping visions that portray the movement toward democracy as inexorable and desired by all people, and even more are skeptical of the notion that this trend can be hastened by exporting "democracy through the barrel of a gun," as former Wall Street Journal editor and neocon luminary Max Boot once infelicitously urged. Quite to the contrary, in a Third Way survey in March, an overwhelming 83 percent of Americans were found to hold the view that democracy cannot be successfully instituted by force.
At the same time, the public does believe that the United States can help create a more conducive international environment for democracy to take hold, naming support for human rights and development as key factors. In a Gallup survey fully 70 percent considered "building democracy in other nations" an important foreign policy goal, with 31 percent deeming it very important. Consistent with the public's views on security issues, multilateral cooperation is the favored approach in the promotion of democracy. A large majority (68 percent in a PIPA/Chicago Council poll) held that by working through the United Nations "such efforts will be seen as more legitimate" and therefore more effective.
Anyone following the early stages of the 2008 campaign will not be surprised to learn that there is a considerable gap between the views of policy elites and the average citizen, even a lack of awareness on the part of elites that the gap exists. A Chicago Council poll reports that "leaders do not realize that the public favors participation in the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto agreement on global warming, and UN international peacekeeping forces. They are also not aware that the public favors accepting collective decisions within the UN...as well as giving the UN the authority to tax such things as the international sale of arms and oil."
It is surprising, though, that these majority views are ignored by those seeking the Oval Office. It is not as if the current course is at all sustainable and that there is a more clever way smarter people can get it right. The more the United States projects power out over the world, the more distrusting and resentful the world becomes, as America itself becomes dangerously overextended from the effort. Faced with capability and credibility gaps of the Bush years, the mythic strain of American exceptionalism, which insists that the United States by destiny and necessity must be the leader of the world--by one formula or another--over those who do not need or wish to be led, is a conceit the United States can ill afford.
Not only is hegemony unsustainable as a strategy of global governance, it is also unnecessary for electoral success. When a Third Way poll queried the public on its opinion of the exceptionalist narrative, a majority (58 percent) of Americans agreed that "It is a dangerous illusion to believe America is superior to other nations [and therefore] we should not be attempting to reshape other nations in light of our values." Only 36 percent agreed with what seems to be a bipartisan consensus among the presidential front-runners that "America is an exceptional nation with superior political institutions and ideals and a unique destiny to shape the world." The public grasps the paradox of power today in ways elites have not, defying the conventional wisdom that holds that when it comes to foreign policy the former is provincial and the latter cosmopolitan in their views. Today the reverse is true.
America's standing in the world cannot be restored by dusting off old strategies from the past for reuse in a new century. The times require more, and the public deserves better. The presidential candidate who says as much and begins to chart the cartography of "responsible globalism" fitted for the demands of a global era will find a welcoming audience abroad and a receptive constituency at home. He or she will, of course, have to buck the politics of fear and attacks from the peddlers of crisis, as well as the predictable counsels of caution from assorted policy elites and advisers. But this is where real leadership will be sorted out in 2008, and why we are in desperate need of a Great Debate to find it.