More Ideas For A Constructive Foreign Policy Debate
Posted by David Shorr
I spent last weekend at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School for a conference the Stanley Foundation co-sponsored with three of our favorite colleagues. The main subject was the prospect and challenge of international cooperation amidst pervasive change, but there were a couple of nuggets for the domestic politics of foreign policy. The first came from Rich Williamson, a highly accomplished practitioner and pillar of the Republican FP establishment. Rich's comment offers a sort of truce for some of the most contentious strains of the debate, one well worth exploring:
America’s foreign policy properly is driven in the first instance by national security concerns and then by vital interests, many of which will be economic. Yet human rights are integral to the American character. And a world in which human rights are respected is a safer, more secure and better world. At the very least we should speak out for voiceless victims and in behalf of human rights. During my many diplomatic jobs I have spoken the truth to many bad actors who have done bad things, and they have never been surprised. They know they are doing bad things. Rather they are surprised when America does not speak up. And when America is silent on such trespass of basic human rights it gives them more space to continue their abuse of human rights.
It sure would be nice to reach some consensus about dealing with repressive foreign leaders who present other problems for us besides their abuse of rights. The "coddling dictators" trope is classic political point-scoring. And those who argue that resolute-ness is all you need to whip bad guys into line are selling Americans unrealistic ideas about how we can achieve our aims in today's world. I know for a fact that many of my conservative friends don't believe this, and I appreciated Rich saying it.
Don't anyone worry, though, about the new civility stifling all debate and eliding all differences. For a start, I have a slight unease over how Rich's above paragraph is weighted -- it pivots pretty quickly from the acknowledgment of other policy objectives to several sentences on the upholding of human rights. Now back to my Princeton conference story. In a memo that Bruce Jentleson wrote for the conference, I was struck by the following excellent summary of the Bush and Obama administration approaches to US leadership and international legitimacy, as well as the response and results they elicited:
But consider the paradox of reputation. As much as neoconservatives tried to deride concerns about Bush damages to America’s global reputation as liberal feel-good-ism, there were quite tangible foreign policy impacts, e.g., domestic political opposition in Turkey and India that constrained cooperation on the Iraq war. But while the Obama administration was being strategic not sentimental in seeing how reputation restoration would reduce this basis for opposition to U.S. policies, it has overestimated the support-inducing effect of more favorable dispositions towards the United States. The paradox is in it being more the case that negative reputation leads to non-cooperation than positive reputation makes for cooperation.
In other words, liberals didn't expect the rest of the world to respond by complying with our every wish, but we did think we'd get more cooperation than we have. Sure, I'll cop to that. Even so, we never expected moral authority to do the whole job without any need to get tough, So while, the current administration isn't given enough credit for knowing the risks associated with their policies, there's probably room for improvement in the Plan B (and C, D...) department.
Of course it takes two to discourse civilly. It's going to be hard to have the constructive debate we all want, if we keep hearing that any if we keep hearing that any adjusting of American positions in deference to others' concerns is inherently craven. Here's the choice: we can keep arguing over whether the US needs to burnish its moral authority, or we can look at the dilemmas bedeviling our country's international challenges.
Come to think of it, I tried to engage in a constructive discussion of sanctions recently, but it fizzled for some reason.