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The death of foreign policy

It’s been nearly ten years since the Cold War was transformed from an ideological conflict into a convenient excuse for incoherent U.S. foreign policies. Michael Moran sets things straight.

It’s been nearly ten years since the Cold War was transformed from an ideological conflict into a convenient excuse for muddled U.S. foreign policies. Four secretaries of state, two presidents and countless “crises” and “turning points” have had their chance to set the world’s dominant nation on the right course for the new millennium. Now, it’s my turn.

AFTER A BRIEF SPELL of irrational exuberance now known as “the new world order,” the United States has settled into a period of incoherence in its foreign policy.

Important precedents — like the recent intervention in Kosovo, a sovereign province of Serbia, or the granting of a visa to the president of Taiwan in 1996 — now are set haphazardly. Both actions may have been correct. But neither one was properly explained to the American public or the world at large. The result: muddle.

Officials past and present describe this as the inevitable result of the end of the Cold War’s “bi-polar” world — that frustrating but familiar landscape in which policymakers could be pretty sure that anything the United States did the Soviet Union would oppose and vice versa. Informal rules of engagement developed during the Cold War years that became almost comforting to policy makers.

Those protocols are now gone. Yet still, it seems, the institutions of U.S. foreign policy — the State Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the CIA and other intelligence agencies — seem to pine for them.


In virtually every corner of the globe, the United States continues to pursue policies with little relevance to its true interests — consolidating democracy, resolving conflicts, fighting terrorism and weapons proliferation and opening closed economic markets. Even a short list is revealing:

In Europe, 100,000 U.S. troops and a formidable military alliance, NATO, still guard the wealthy European Union against the Soviet Union, an enemy that no longer exists.

In Latin America, the United States pursues a self-defeating economic embargo against the poverty-stricken island of Cuba, allowing its dictator, Fidel Castro, to blame the island’s problems on Washington rather than on his own misrule.

In South Asia, Washington continues to snub India, the world’s most populous democracy, in favor of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country converting itself into an Islamic state and the primary ally of the Afghan Taliban movement and its unsavory guests, Al Qaeda.

In the Middle East, the United States refuses to demand democratic reforms from authoritarian Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in exchange for U.S. military assistance. Additionally, the United States continues to pour $3 billion annually in military and economic aid into Israel, a country with living standards approaching those of western Europe and facing a dramatically reduced threat of war with any of its Arab neighbors.


To be sure, some of this muddle is a product of the times. We are in a transition between the Cold War and something else. It does make sense that some policies easy to skewer in print — tolerating the intolerant Saudis, for instance — are pursued for other reasons (oil or military bases to check Iraq).

But nearly seven years into the Clinton administration, the United States has yet to explain what it hopes to achieve with all its military and economic dominance in a way its own people can understand, let alone the rest of the world. The results: apathy at home, suspicion and resentment abroad. U.S. interests abroad, to a greater extent than ever before, are viewed as self-interested, Machiavellian efforts to sustain a favorable status quo.


All of this criticism is easy to say. But what to do? Where should the United States be heading?

Here are five suggestions that would shake up the world, shake off some dust and set the United States on better footing when the Y2K bug kicks in.

RECAST THE MESSAGE: The goals of U.S. foreign policy cannot afford to be fuzzy. If the United States decides it will not tolerate ethnic cleansing, it had better not turn its face the next time Rwanda or Kosovo heats up. The truth is that the United States wishes the world were free of ethnic cleansing, but won’t go to war in every case to stop it. The same is true of weapons proliferation, human rights abuses and protectionism. The message has to be airtight, the mantra repeated without amendment: The United States will fight against genocide and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and defend its interests around the globe.

The United States may, in practice, do more or less. But if it keeps the message clear, it won’t be accused of breaking promises.

CHOOSE YOUR ENEMIES: The Serbs made a great foil, but not all places are so easy to read. The aforementioned Taliban certainly fit the part, and al Qaeda may be the most overlooked (and underpublicized) threat of all. Neither is likely to "evolve" much, particularly since they both define evolution in terms of a return to the Islamic Caliphate of the Middle Ages. Iran and China, on the other hands, which are political targets of convenience for American leaders, could develop into productive partners under certain conditions. It is equally possible for clumsy American diplomatic or other pressure to reinforce the hard-liners in both places. Deftness, not our strong suit as a nation, is in order with both.

AN AMERICA THAT CAN SAY NO: The United States should advise Europe and its allies in Asia that it will expect them to take the lead managing conflict in their regions. The European Community of 1990 clearly could not handle the challenges posed by Bosnia, though it clearly was an issue of vital interest to them. The United States was correct to step in, but such interventions will succeed in the future only if it is willing to push Europe to develop a capacity to deal with such problems with minimal U.S. help. The first steps have been taken, but the United States remains torn between its desire to maintain a dominant role in Europe and its distaste for deploying troops there. Time to decide.

ABANDON ECONOMIC SANCTIONS: They didn’t work in the 1930’s when the League of Nations tried to punish Japan for invading Manchuria.

They don’t work today either. In Iraq and Cuba, they have impoverished the common people, while giving the regime an excuse for its economic failures. In Serbia, sanctions have spawned black markets that grease the political machines of Serb and Bosnian Serb nationalists (who control the choke points). Finally, in North Korea, they have helped starve to death as many as 3 million people. Their benefits to the U.S.? So far, zero.

REFORM THE MILITARY: The Cold War continues to dominate the U.S. military, both in doctrine and its physical assets. The military’s challenge no longer lies in its combined firepower but in its mobility, flexibility and durability. Therefore:

All land-based strategic intercontinental ballistic missiles should be retired. With submarine-based missiles now equal in performance, land-based missiles are no more than invitations to strike the territorial United States.

All strategic bombers should be retired. Missiles and stealth technology make the B-52 and B-1 expensive luxuries.

U.S. armored divisions, because of the high “kill ratios” of M-1 Abrams tanks, should stress mobility over bulk by trimming down by half.

U.S. military bases abroad have become targets and political liabilities. They should be eliminated in every possible instance.

The frigate, destroyer and cruiser classes of warships should be phased out in favor of a single surface class. The distinctions between these ships long ago lost meaning. A single surface escort vessel would provide huge production savings and optimize performance.

SUPPORT A WAR CRIMES TRIBUNAL: Harboring a somewhat irrational fear of being prosecuted itself, the United States essentially blocked creation of such a court at the United Nations this summer. The argument is silly. In practice, no international court will be able to enforce its rulings without Security Council help. Yet creation of a standing war crimes tribunal would send an important message to those contemplating ethnic slaughter. The Hague tribunal on former Yugoslavia is one of the few good things to come out of that horror. It was the first of its kind since the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. They may be the last, too, if the United States does not reverse its opposition.

There is something on this list for everyone to hate, but none of the proposals is so radical that it hasn’t been advocated by experts on both sides of the American political divide. Breaking old habits is hard to do — especially when the “post-Cold War world” provides such a good excuse for not doing it.

Michael Moran is MSNBC’s international editor.