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November 25, 2008

The Limiting of Options and the Broad Consensus on Foreign Policy
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

There has been a lot written in the past few days about the insufficient nature of the right-left spectrum on foreign policy.  It inspired me to go back and reread Barry Posen and Andrew Ross's classic 1996 article Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy (PDF).  Ross and Posen outline a much more intellectually honest paradigm for breaking down American foreign policy schools.  They discuss four basic strategic choices that to me break down into five separate schools of thought: 

1.  Neo-Isolationism - this is the view of complete disengagement held by some on the far right and far left.  It's an essentially marginalized group with a philosophy championed by Pat Buchanan.

2. Selective Engagement - The policy that was pushed by realists in the 1990s.  It argued for an approach focused exclusively on great power politics.  It was probably best exemplified by President Bush's first campaign where he argued for a "humble foreign policy" and where Condi Rice wrote a Foreign Affairs article that essentially outlined this view.

3.  Cooperative Security - Probably best exemplified by the first Clinton Administration and today's liberals.  It argues that international institutions and spreading democratic values and freedom are the central vehicle for achieving stability and maintaining peace.

4.  Primacy - This school believes in America's role as the undisputed global leader.  It can be divided into two schools:  hard primacy (i.e the Neocons), which is leadership achieved primarily through military means; and soft primacy (i.e the Liberal Hawks and second Clinton administration), which takes a more holistic view on primacy and uses all tools at America's disposal, including alliances and international institutions, but still believes in America as the indispensable nation.

What is interesting in my view is that what you now see forming is a broad consensus among liberals, liberal hawks and realists.  There is relatively universal agreement among these groups that we need to begin withdrawing from Iraq, focus more on Afghanistan, opt for direct diplomacy with Iran, reengage with the world, improve our image, strengthen our alliances, close Guantanamo and deal with global warming and energy security. 

That is a pretty broad consensus and it's one that politically was first pushed hardest by the left.  On the traditional right-left spectrum, you would have to call this a solidly left of center consensus that  has in fact been Obama's foreign policy platform for the last two years

It is reflected in Obama's ability to pick realists, liberals, and liberal hawks to build a coalition foreign policy team.  It's unfair to typify any of Obama's picks as absolutely from one school but roughly speaking Obama campaign advisors and folks such as Susan Rice are more representative of liberals.   Jim Jones and Bob Gates are more representative of the realists, and Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are more representative  of the liberal hawks.  Although, again, none of these labels really fit perfectly.

Anyway, this consensus didn't always exist.  It definitely didn't exist ten years ago.  The difference is that with a failed war in Iraq, another war brewing in Afghanistan, a major economic crisis, an overstretched military, and the rising influence of new powers, the United States finds itself as constrained as it has been since the end of the Cold War.  The thing about constraints is that they take away options.  They force people to take a less ideological view and focus more on pragmatic results.  Realists, liberals and liberal hawks have all taken a less ideological approach in recent years, which has brought them all closer together.

The realists have toned down their emphasis on great power politics and state centered solutions.  During the 1990s they refused to accept the Clintonian emphasis on economics, globalization and transnational threats.  But now you have realists like Bob Gates focused on transnational threats such as terrorism.  Jim Jones has made energy security an important priority, and the latest NIC report puts a central emphasis on questions of food security, global warming and resource wars.

Liberals are much less excited about the idea of democracy promotion in the aftermath of the Iraq War.  They have also toned down their emphasis on the importance of international institutions.  Mostly because international institutions are slow actors that take a lot of times to get things done and what we are staring at right now are some real emergencies that require immediate actions.

The liberal hawks have also been cowed by Iraq.  While many continue to believe that the problem with Iraq was not in the idea but in the execution, they also recognize that American power is limited and constrained by the current environment.   There is little appetite for any new adventures (Such as for example getting into a war with Iran).

So, what does this all mean?  It doesn't mean that people's general foreign policy philosophies have changed.  At their core liberals, realists and liberal hawks still disagree over some very big things.  Realists will still tell you that great power politics are the greatest long term threats and liberals will still argue that long-term peace is based on international institutions and the peaceful promotion of democracy.  But constraints have taken away flexibility and left few appealing options.  While the philosophies continue to differ, near-term policy prescriptions on most of the big foreign policy issues have converged towards a pragmatic consensus.


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In last summer's Georgia conflict it appearesd that Primacy was still the dominant ideology amongst the foreign policy establishment. They wanted France and Germany to punish Russia and harshly critized those two countries when that didn't happen. Foreign policy establishment organizations like the Altantic Council want America to cooperate with Europe only if the United States can get its way. I believe that the foreign policy establismhent professes belief in cooperative security, but they expect the European and the Asians to always accept America's primacy in world affairs.

The Influx Project, a UN Reform initative, welcomes this new co-operative approach to foreign policy. We recognise that the current economic crisis is stark evidence that no country is invincible and reveals that the only way to achieve peace, security and better properity for all is through international co-operation. The UN offers the opportunity to find common solutions to what are increasingly common problems, but needs to be reformed to make it more effective, fairer and efficient. We are working toward this at and welcome any comments, constructive criticism, advice and support that anyone might have!

Well, this is one way to look at foreign policy positions, along a one-dimensional spectrum determined by how much "engagement" people want. But this way of classifying our differences seems to leave out almost entirely a large set of equally important difference over what people hope to accomplish in the world with their engagement.

There is a lot of fanciful thinking these days about "convergence" and "consensus" in foreign policy, suggesting that once the neoconservatives are shown the door, everyone else is going to agree. This is the attitude that appeals to the collegial and clubby outlook of our self-styled foreign policy elites. But I think these thinkers are underestimating the traumatic impact of the Iraq War and other post-9/11 developments on some old coalitions, both at home and around the world, as well as the impact of other global social and economic trends and power shifts.

I don't really understand so well the divisions between the last three approaches. All of the dominant US foreign policy approaches favor primacy. The Condi Rice outlook that informed Bush's first campaign called for a "balance of power that favors freedom", where power "balancing" was to be combined with a US-dominated global regime that could gently push the global system in the direction of greater and greater adoption of US values. Many of these realists have been internationalists as well, depending on their estimation of the role of international institutions in preserving the balance of power. And on this site in the past, most of the writers have seemed to favor a global system with modest international cooperation, but with the US playing the role of "quarterback", "leader" etc.

It's pretty hard to find any real old-style internationalists in this country's foreign policy establishment, promoting a system world based on the sovereign equality of nations. The "liberal internationalists" these days all seem to want a system in which the US preserves a dominant position in the global order, and uses that dominance to propagate free markets, free trade and other liberal values, while perpetuating US quarterbackship.

My guess is that the entire establishment is in for a disorienting jolt, and that we are likely to see the continued rise around the world of a global approach that, for want of a better term, we can call "neo-socialist internationalism", which aims to establish much more vigorous institutions of international governance and global economic regulation and coordination than liberals are prepared to accept, and promotes egalitarian and redistributive economic development policies on a global scale.

I agree wholeheartedly with the first part of Dan Kervick's argument. One could count on one hand the number of actual as opposed to self-described 'realists' in Washington. I can't speak to how people care to define "liberal internationalism," but the cost to entering the Beltway foreign policy elite is accepting primacy as the ultimate objective of one's work.

What's really striking is just how divorced from the academy the Beltway crew is. You don't see such a disconnect on economics, say, or in other areas. But I'd venture to say that some form or other of "neo-isolationism" is the dominant policy preference in the academy. Waltz, Walt, Mearsheimer, Desch, Layne, Press, Gholz, Art, Jervis, and Posen himself (see here: are all currently advocating neo-isolationism.

Now, I've got a dog in this fight because I agree with those folks, but we just can't pretend that there are these stark differences between the various warring factions in Washington. It's unapologetic-Kagan-style primacy or Princeton-Project primacy. That's the menu of choices.

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