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Reconnecting to the World

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A Neo-Progressive Strategy

About the Author

Sherle R. Schwenninger
Sherle R. Schwenninger is director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and a senior fellow at...

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Instead of addressing the real problems, Obama and Romney are focusing on deficit reduction. 

The crisis was caused by weak governance, excessive speculation and lax regulation. Austerity will only make the disease worse.

In the early days of the post-cold war world, advisers to President Clinton spoke of being present at the creation, much as Acheson, Marshall and the other architects of the post-World War II order had been. But unlike Acheson and Marshall, they proved better at breaking down barriers than at creating new forms of governance; at unleashing the forces of global capitalism than at creating new social contracts needed to tame it; at asserting American power in old alliances than at building a more sustainable community of power; and at talking about democratization than at helping countries achieve it. The result was not a new American century but a weakened international system.

The Bush Administration that followed has destroyed much of what remained of that system while alienating a considerable part of the world in the process. As a result, the greatest threat to the security and well-being of the American people today stems from the further breakdown of that system and the absence of anything to take its place. The rise of religious extremism and terrorist networks in the Middle East is just one product of this breakdown. The economic insecurity of working people in much of the Western world is another. So too is the disorder and failed governance that afflict parts of the developing world and that threaten to spill over into the daily lives of Americans through the spread of pandemics and criminal networks and an increase in illegal immigration. The prospect of new nuclear-weapons states and the economic rise of China and India pose yet other challenges to the international order.

The overarching goal of a progressive foreign policy therefore must be to reconnect the United States to the world by working with others to build a more durable international system. The first element of such a policy must be to recognize that the world has outgrown American power, and that the maintenance of international peace and stability must be a shared goal and burden, not an American "right" or prerogative. If anything, the cost of the Iraq War and America's mounting international debt should put an end, once and for all, to the illusion that American power can sustain a unipolar world and that we can afford both our unipolar aspirations and a decent liberal society at home. We must therefore bring America's international pretensions back into line with our domestic needs and priorities. That means we should welcome and indeed encourage a multipolar world as the best way to share the burden of international order-keeping.

The principal cold war-era institutions of collective security--NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the US-Japan Security Treaty--have limited utility in dealing with the international security problems of the early twenty-first century. And the UN Security Council, although necessary for the authorization of military force and for giving legitimacy to nation-building efforts, is often too unwieldy to deal with the security problems associated with the management of regional threats. Our goal, therefore, should be to develop regional concerts of power for preventing regional arms races and for managing potentially dangerous conflicts. The European Union, Japan, Russia, China and India must by necessity be our main partners in this effort, but we must harness the efforts of smaller nations as well.

The most pressing challenges in this regard relate to the Middle East and to the suspected nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, and thus the need for new security arrangements in the Persian Gulf and East Asia. Ironically, in the cases of Iran and North Korea, the Bush Administration has pointed the way by blessing the EU's efforts to negotiate with Iran and by relying on the six-power framework to deal with North Korea. What has been missing in each case has been active American engagement and the kind of security guarantees needed to make Iran and North Korea feel more secure and to give them a greater stake in a larger regional community.

Understandably, there are reservations about a policy of engagement with Iran and North Korea in that it would require us to overlook some unpleasant features of both regimes. The way out of this dilemma is to think of engagement as part of a larger multilateral process of establishing a new security order involving great-power cooperation in each region. In East Asia the eventual reunification of Korea must be at the core of a regional security order that further cements cooperation and forecloses new geopolitical rivalries among China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. And in the Persian Gulf the peaceful evolution of Iran is central to a new security order for containing the conflict in Iraq and for developing the oil and gas resources of the region.

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