US Policy Towards The Third World

Vietnam left US foreign policy in a shambles. The most benign interpretation of foreign policy since then would see it as a groping towards the reincorporation of ideological and idealistic components, and the replacement of our role as global policeman by a more multipolar, pluralistic world vision. Yet even on this account, three major problems remain, especially as regards our relations with the Third World:

1. How to concretize and make real our liberal and pluralistic ideals, and not let them simply be the enunciation and imposition of unfeasible utopias on the Third World, or a new rhetorical mask for the old “real politic.” This is the problem of ends.

2. How to relate our resources to our objectives. We may lower our objectives to the scale of our resources, or we may choose to raise our resource commitments to the level of our goals. But relate them we must, or see these goals frustrated. This is the problem of means.

3. How to reconcile our long run ideals and objectives with our short run tactical and strategic interests. This is the problem of balancing priorities.

1. The Problem of Ends

In the long run, the basic thrust of US policy towards the Third World needs to rest on two pillars, both consonant with our basic ideological orientation: (a) liberty — human rights within an open political system, and (b) pluralism — the recognition that men are driven by myriad forces — religious, ethnic, cultural, not just economic — and that due respect needs to be given to these in any just social system.

a) The Ends of the System — Social Market Democracies

Our maximum (most desirable) foreign policy objective in the Third World is to see formed a prosperous and stable set of social market democracies. This implies working towards both their economic as well as political development, but in case of a conflict between the two preferring, in my view, their political to their economic development. The counter position is that economic development is a precondition to political development, which in the eyes of authoritarian regimes serves to justify their first achieving economic development. To my mind the counter position is unconvincing for two reasons: (1) there are countries (e.g. India) with open political systems well advanced over their economic development, and this economic development has not suffered markedly because of it (which is not to deny that in other cases an overly sophisticated political system would seem to have hindered economic development). Correspondingly, many authoritarian regimes have shown mediocre economic performances — Cuba, Haiti, Argentina, Syria, Uganda, North Korea. In short, there is a lot of play in this relation, so that economic development does not appear to be a precondition to political development, nor are authoritarian regimes necessarily more effective in achieving economic development than pluralist democracies, especially if distributive considerations are taken into account. (2) Once authoritarian regimes are established, they tend to overstay their welcome. Whatever their initial justification, they always seem to find further reason to prolong themselves. Hence, the opening of the political system becomes an increasingly delayed process (all the more so where the authoritarian regime is communist, for it then becomes virtually irreversible, and puts off political development indefinitely).

And the fact of the matter is that today most developing nations have proven themselves capable of effecting economic growth under a wide variety of political systems. Political development has been much less visible. Hence, the central issue today would seem to be not how much political development should be sacrificed to achieve economic growth but the reverse, how much economic growth need be sacrificed, if any, in order to achieve political development. For if the group of social market democracies is to grow in the world, transitions to democracies need be effected. Transitions to democracy require not only a human rights policy, but the promoting of all forms of organized participation in a society — via the strengthening of a free press and radio, a free labor union movement and the myriad of organizations that make up the institutional life of a pluralist society.

b) The Ends as Process — Pluralism

America is not just a liberal democracy, it is a pluralist society. Implicit in our institutional life is the view that man is multifaceted. No single underlying force determines man’s nor society’s evolution. Once above subsistence, family, religious, ethnic, and cultural considerations share the stage with economic forces in determining the course of society’s development. It is this multifaceted vision of man which makes pluralism an intrinsic part of our nation’s value system.

Yet pluralism has not been at the forefront of our foreign policy. A strength of communism is that it has natural allies in every country — all those that share its essentially monistic view of life. The US often and mistakenly tries to imitate this technique — looking for local allies solely among those who share America’s specific values (or more crudely simply those who define themselves as pro-American). Yet our strength lies in another direction. Insofar as the US-Soviet confrontation is concerned, pluralism suggests that all who are not against us are for us.

We need not require identity of shared values. Islamic, Christian democratic, social democratic, ethnic and nationalist movements are all our natural allies — whether they think of themselves as pro- or anti-American — for each represents a legitimate expression of an important aspect of man, and in this sense is compatible with our pluralistic vision of man even when some of these may themselves not be very pluralist. For this is the significance of a pluralistic vision — that it is open to development on all fronts, not just one; that no force is given primacy except it be that of freedom, as a condition for the possibility of realizing man’s multiple temporal ends. Since there exist in all societies a wide variety of groups and forces, working for their own specific visions, these will naturally resist the imposition of any monistic and hegemonic vision, such as marxism. Our objective, thus — at least in a minimum sense — should not be to create or support only such movements as share our own precise values in order to counter the communists, but to support all those pluralist forces that naturally will rebel against the imposition of any hegemonic structure to society (Marxism among them).

The degree of our support ought thus to be in accordance with the openness of a social movement, and not with its definition on the centrality of the East-West confrontation. For most developing nations see themselves (rightly or wrongly) as concerned with a non-geopolitical issue, namely the development of their own society. To be sure, the model they choose will ultimately affect this confrontation, yet this eventuality is not their prime concern. Indeed a prime concern of theirs would seem to be to avoid it. The US should not take this as an affront, for given our pluralistic orientation, we merely need countries that are not likely to become Soviet satellites. This achieved, we can rest assured that in the long run such a society will see itself as more closely akin to a liberal social market democracy than to the closed, totalitarian, Soviet model.

Hence, we might establish three different objectives, ranging from maximum to minimum:

1. The maximum objective: the growth of liberal, social market democracies akin to the OECD countries.

2. An intermediate objective: the growth of pluralistic, social movements (liberal or not, but democratic), be they Islamic, African socialism, communitarian societies, etc.

3. A minimum minimorum objective: the growth of non-pluralistic yet non pro-Soviet social movements, be they of the left or the right, so as to avoid the establishment of a Soviet type society. These are distinguished from the Soviet model solely because of the latter’s relative irreversibility and the strategic menace it signifies to us. Thus, military dictatorships of the right or even national communist dictatorships of a Yugoslav, Chinese or even of an Albanian sort are to be preferred, as a last resort, to Soviet satellites such as Cuba.

It will, of course, always be a matter of judgment whether we should cooperate with non-pluralistic but non pro-Soviet movements (of the left or the right) in the short run in order to avert a communist takeover, but at the risk of helping them solidify control, or whether we should pursue our first best objective and support pluralistic social forces. For it may sometimes be the case that a policy to minimize evils (pro-Soviet communist takeovers) may run counter to that of maximizing the possibilities of pluralistic social movements in the short and medium run. This is an inescapable reality, impossible to resolve at the level of principle. What can be concluded is that as far as the Soviets are concerned, those who are not with them are against them, whereas for the US, given our pluralistic ethos, all sort of pluralistic forces, even if currently anti-US, are potential allies.

Moreover, it is altogether likely, given the multifaceted and pluralistic character of society, that in general most of the forces struggling for change in a given society will be non-Marxist, though generally less single-minded and less well-organized. Thus time and the weight of numbers is on our side, so long as we can avoid quick community takeovers. Comforting as this may be, the US role is not simply to do nothing and wait — relying on the ultimate strength of such groups, for an unorganized majority can be dominated by an organized minority, if sufficient time for the majority to organize itself is lacking. Thus the US role must center on fostering coordination and cooperation among such normally disorganized pluralistic groups and help check quick communist takeovers before it is too late to act effectively. Portugal would be a paradigm for this approach (to be sure because of Western Europe’s response, not ours).

2. The Problem of Means

The US has liberal ideals; the US is a pluralist society. The former suggests the maximum objective, the latter the minimum. However, the resource level implied by each of these two objectives is quite different. The promotion of liberal, social market, democracies entails far more of a commitment than does the support of pluralist societies. Yet, I would argue that US foreign policy has tended to achieve neither of these two possible objectives, because of its disregard of the relation between objectives and resources. It has tended to use the rhetoric of liberal, social market democracy as an objective, but has committed its resources to the more limited objective of pluralism. Moreover, it has tended to let the commitment to pluralism degenerate into its simplest form — that is, to support a regime the more its professed anti-communism. Hence, our tendency, in the past to side with authoritarian regimes of the right as our safest guarantee against the advent of communism.

In any case, the point is that there needs to be a compatibility between our goals and our resources. Either we restructure our objectives to the less demanding resource needs of pluralism, or we raise our resource commitments to the far more demanding objective of promoting liberal, social, market democracies throughout the Third World, or important portions thereof. But we cannot have it both ways — maximum objectives with minimum resource commitments. Moreover, the failure to adjust our objectives to our resources, inevitably frustrates our very goals. On the one hand, by using the rhetoric of liberal ideals but only committing the resources required for pluralism, we become frustrated by our association with mediocre regimes throughout the world that are everything but liberal. This is the counterpart of our pluralistic objective — our allies are not those with whom we share close ideals but simple those with whom we only share a non-monistic ideal. This is all the more depressing when these themselves are authoritarian regimes of whatever vintage (Korea, Pakistan, China, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Somalia . . . Somoza’s Nicaragua). On the other hand, our resource commitments often get out of hand even with a pluralistic goal, for a “cure” often requires far more resources than prevention — and this is what happens when “crises” emerge: Korea, Viet Nam, the Middle East, Pakistan, Iran, Nicaragua, El Salvador . . . The pursuit of our minimalist, short run goal occasionally requires far more resources than the steady, and long run support of pluralistic, social reform forces. To make matters worse, such support is then given not only in largesse, but under pressure and often in desperation.

3. Balancing Short and Long Run Interests

One way of reconciling the above conflict between resources and objectives involves harmonizing our long and short run interests. Any such balance must begin by recognizing that the US government will always feel pressured to pursue its short run interests, even in its crudest form (the prevention of a communist takeover and nothing else) whereas the long run interest (the pursuit of a liberal, social market democracy) will normally lack short run operational bite. The reasons for this are too obvious to go into. What we must do is recognize this tendency to forego the long run interest, and act so that a long run policy be automatically built in whatever other action we might take.

Were the long run goal largely compatible with the short run, this would not be such a serious problem. But the fact is that much too often, the pursuit of the short run goal of preventing a communist takeover rests on bolstering an authoritarian regime at the expense of pluralistic social forces, thus jeopardizing consensus and legitimacy, and prolonging political underdevelopment and instability.

In order to offset this tendency to sacrifice our long run interests, I would propose defining our long run goals, specifying the nature of our commitment to them, and building in an automatic, steady and concrete form of rendering them operational, thereby letting our short run policy oscillate as needed but in accord with this built in, long term trend.

Concretely, we should state our commitment to open societies and operationalize it by pledging ourselves (and hopefully the OECD) to a policy of unilateral free trade or something similar with respect to all Third World countries in which elected governments emerged from free elections and the free play of its institutional life (free press, free unions, . . .). If such a regime is overthrown, the country would automatically lose its privileged access to the markets of the US or OECD (thereby setting in motion important social forces against coups). Therefore, only democratic regimes would be automatically entitled to this privilege. In short, we’d propose a sort of automatic, associate membership in the OECD to all democratic countries. To be sure we would still be free to extend aid or not to authoritarian regimes when we felt so impelled by strategic or tactical considerations. Yet by means of such an automatic policy, our long run commitment to aid transitions to democracy would be real, and visible to all. Only by locking ourselves in in this way to a firm, binding, specific and important commitment to democracy, could we hope to preserve the substance of our long run interests in the face of the overwhelming pressures brought about by the short run ones.


  • Joseph Ramos

    Joseph Ramos was writing from Santiago, Chile.

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