The apparent collapse of the Soviet and communist threat around the world raises the important question of what principles should guide U.S. foreign policy during the 1990s and beyond. Since World War II, American policy is most consistently characterized by anti-communism or resistance to Soviet (and for a time, Chinese) expansionism. Although U.S. leaders pursued these objectives with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success, the overall mission now appears thoroughly vindicated. Contrary to what skeptics maintained, Marxism-Leninism strangled prosperity and freedom in the Soviet Union and its captive nations, and now the emancipated peoples are embracing the emblems and principles of the American system.
These developments have generated sharp controversy in Washington over the future course of American involvement abroad. The trigger for the debate was State Department official Francis Fukuyama’s article “The End of History” in the National Interest, in which Fukuyama argued that the death of Marxism meant the “total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” While conceding that the Soviet Union retained a formidable military arsenal and that numerous countries continued to assert Marxist doctrine, Fukuyama noted that increasingly the world judged these regimes—and they judged themselves—according to the norms of liberal democracy. Slowly, Fukuyama predicted, the pressure on even reluctant despots to move toward liberal policies would prove irresistible. In short, the American model is now everyone’s model.
Several neoconservative analysts celebrated Fukuyama’s liberal democratic remedy, but questioned his confident assertion that its global triumph was a fait accompli. Rather, as author Ben Wattenberg put it, the U.S. should now make as its primary foreign policy goal the active promotion and evangelization of democracy. Perhaps there is movement in this direction already, Wattenberg wrote, but “as the last superpower, we ought to try to shape this evolution.” Among the political and cultural institutions that the U.S. was in a unique position to promote, Wattenberg listed individualism, pluralism, equal opportunity, free markets, and a fluid class structure. To impose U.S. political control over other countries would reek of the old imperialism, Wattenberg granted, but to export ideas and institutions that improve human rights and freedom for the native peoples hardly constituted selfishness or aggression, he wrote. What we need, Wattenberg concluded, is a new sense of mission, a new Manifest Destiny.
The democracy cheerleaders met with fierce opposition from a newly emergent group of isolationists, led by commentator Patrick Buchanan. America’s foreign mission has been accomplished, Buchanan insisted; now it is time to “bring the boys home.” In fact, Americans have wanted to retreat behind national frontiers since World War II, he said, but the cold war intervened and postponed the long march home from Europe after Hitler’s defeat. While advocating political and economic dominance in our own hemisphere, Buchanan urged the U.S. to extricate itself from European, Asian, and African entanglements which do not directly affect U.S. interests. Denouncing global democracy as a chimerical ideal that “no American would be willing to fight and die for,” Buchanan emphasized the old maxim that the U.S. can be an exemplar of liberty for everyone but custodian only of her own liberty.
A middle position in this debate between democratic proselytizing and isolationist realpolitik was staked out by Irving Kristol in the Wall Street Journal. Kristol observed that winning the cold war now meant that “the enemy is us, not them.” Although liberal democracy seemed triumphant, Kristol wrote, it remains at risk due to enduring internal problems: an unfulfilled longing for community, loss of spirituality, confusion of liberty and license, and a growing distrust of technology at the same time that people are more dependent on it than ever. Kristol suggested that addressing this domestic issue—what shape our liberal democracy will take—is more important than foisting the American system on other countries.
As the U.S. foreign policy debate has developed, positions have become more nuanced and sophisticated. What are we to make of the range of conflicting positions? On the one hand it is clear that the U.S. cannot be the “world’s policeman,” in the conventional phrase. American resources simply are not large enough, and even if they were, the enterprise would create serious problems. After all, it is not easy to take a country such as Saudi Arabia or China, which has no tradition of democracy or free enterprise, and replace centuries of tradition and cultural hierarchy with American-style institutions. The Shah of Iran, who attempted a similar Westernizing project, discovered that his pace of reform was too accelerated and brought about a tremendous fundamentalist backlash. Different countries have different cultures; Afghanistan is very different from the Congo, which is very different from Sri Lanka. Cultural recipes for transforming these nations must take into account their indigenous circumstances, and it is unlikely that American policy can effectively do this.
On the other hand, even outside the Soviet bloc, countries which have no evolved democratic or market traditions are adopting free elections and free enterprise, and quickly reaping gains in prosperity and freedom. Who would have imagined that the Buddhist and Confucian traditions of the Far East would have so malleably adjusted to capitalism? Yet Japan and South Korea and Malaysia and Hong Kong have witnessed rapid economic growth. Similarly, Latin America is a continent habituated to dictatorship, yet today virtually all of Latin America is democratic. When we see the long lines of peasants waiting to cast their votes, at rates of 80 to 90 percent participation—far higher than in the United States—it is apparent that the urge for citizens to have a voice in their government is a universal longing that is not attenuated by cultural conditioning.
What the foreign policy experts need to consider is the best possible means to promote objectives that seem universally desirable. Nobody maintains that economic and political freedom are bad things; the only question is how to promote them most effectively, avoiding both extreme moralism and extreme realpolitik.
American foreign policy cannot be animated by moral principles alone. Foreign policy is not philanthropy, as the columnist Charles Krauthammer once put it. The U.S. is neither the world’s priest nor the world’s policeman. It has no obligation to engage in every battle, fix every problem, right every wrong. Americans elect politicians to represent their families and communities, not to solve problems in Burma that do not affect U.S. interests. Yet at the same time, America cannot operate on self-interest alone. Americans do not want to advance themselves at the expense of others, which is why politicians cannot defend U.S. involvement abroad except in terms of what is good for the indigenous people. For example, President Bush’s Panama invasion was hugely popular in America in part because it was welcomed by Panamanians and enhanced their political freedoms. Realpolitik is not a sufficient basis for foreign intervention because American voters don’t just want to make good, they also want to do good.
In short, successful American policy should satisfy the requirements of both morality and expediency, both ethical justification and national interest. This means that the U.S. should advance democratic and free market principles, but not as a global crusade, rather cautiously, incrementally, in cases and circumstances where the project helps American interests and is likely to work.