The foreign policy component of the presidential campaign will be vital–to the vote itself, and to the interests of America and the world. Future US strategy will decide the lives, or deaths, of untold numbers of Americans and of others around the globe; and it will largely determine the extent of the terrorist threat to the United States. In the short term, it will decisively influence the state of the world economy; in the longer term, it will be crucial to the question of whether the major states of the world will come together to deal with challenges like global warming, or will yet again fritter away their resources on arms races and competitions for resources and influence. Within the United States, the extent of military spending and strategic commitment will largely decide whether funds and attention can be mobilized to meet pressing social, economic and ecological challenges. And US voters know this, as their unprecedented interest in foreign and military policy demonstrates.
Tragically, the foreign policy “debate” they are being offered by the political elites and mainstream media is to a considerable degree fraudulent. None of the packages the American people are being offered by the leading candidates envisage the kind of reduction in ambitions and commitments that would allow the United States to avoid the risk of future disastrous wars and to redeploy its resources for the well-being of ordinary Americans. None of the proposals from either party envisage the kinds of compromises with other leading states that would make such a change in America’s global posture possible. Only rarely do the candidates appear to understand the concept of diplomacy, as this was understood and practiced by previous generations of American statesmen.
And it is diplomacy that American elites above all need to relearn if they are to deal effectively with the new global situation. Diplomacy not only in the narrow sense of the attempt to achieve reasonable–and therefore limited–ends by agreement with other states but in the broader ethical sense given by Sir Harold Nicolson in his classic work on the subject: “common sense and charity applied to international relations.” In other words, reasonable compromises through an understanding of the points of view of other nations, based first on a respectful study of their interests, experiences and cultures and second on a realistic calculation of US strength relative to theirs and of US ability to influence their actions. This is something that all too many leading politicians and intellectuals of both parties find difficult to understand.
That does not mean that no differences exist. For example, on the evidence of their views on foreign policy as presented in articles in the September/October Foreign Affairs, you would have to be several different kinds of damned fool not to prefer John Edwards over Rudolph Giuliani. Even if you dismiss the differences between the Republicans and Democrats as largely a matter of style, in international affairs style does matter–as any Western diplomat who has had to deal with John “I Don’t Do Carrots” Bolton can testify.
The pieces by Giuliani and Edwards (it cannot be called a debate, since they essentially argue past each other) are worth examining in some detail, for their significant differences and worrying similarities. This is especially true when it comes to “diplomacy,” a word that both candidates use frequently but neither appears to understand.