The Grandest Strategy Of Them All

By Daniel W. Drezner
Sunday, December 17, 2006

Two major public statements, coming less than a week apart, nicely capture the confusion besetting U.S. foreign policy these days.

The first is the report of the Iraq Study Group, released on Dec. 6. In good old-fashioned "realist" style, the report offers nothing about how to promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East, focusing instead on the single-minded, amoral pursuit of the U.S. national interest.

Just five days later, outgoing U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan delivered his valedictory address, imploring Americans to uphold human rights and the rule of law in prosecuting the war on terrorism -- idealism at its purest.

Meanwhile, the public seems to want one thing: change. A Washington Post-ABC News survey last week found that eight in 10 Americans favor a new direction for the U.S. mission in Iraq.

In this climate, policy heavyweights from Washington to New York to Boston are grasping for the Next Big Idea, the grand strategy that will guide U.S. foreign policy in a post-Iraq world and earn its creator fame and, if not fortune, perhaps a spot on the next administration's foreign-policy team. So who will be the next George Kennan? The current strategies on offer in various books and articles include new buzzwords, promising ideas -- and miles to go before a consensus emerges.

Mere dissatisfaction with today's foreign policy doesn't guarantee that a new vision will take its place. As Jeffrey Legro, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, recently pointed out in his book "Rethinking the World: Great Power Strategies and International Order," a lot is required for a real shift in worldviews. A new strategy must be more than visionary; it must provide attractive and practical solutions to current challenges. During the Cold War, containment's appeal was that it offered a coherent vision for how to deal with the Soviet Union, as well as concrete policy steps that flowed from that vision.

The main force behind the containment strategy was George Kennan, also known as "X," the author of the classic 1947 Foreign Affairs article "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." Kennan proposed countering any Soviet encroachment into the non-communist world with a mix of military deterrence and soft power, while trying to exploit divisions within the communist bloc. He cautioned against "threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward 'toughness.' " Kennan achieved something all too rare in the world of politics: At a crucial moment, he came up with a big idea that was both influential and correct. His doctrine seems measured, prudent and -- most important -- successful. In other words, containment was everything that neoconservatism isn't.

One candidate for a new grand strategy is found in "The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's Government in the 21st Century" by political scientist Michael Mandelbaum. He argues that the United States is the foundation for any peaceful global order, because only Washington can provide the security assurances, protection of vital sea lanes and large, open consumer markets that the world needs. To remain strong, he writes, the country must ease its dependence on foreign oil and control its entitlement spending.

Points in favor: Mandelbaum offers both a vision of the world and specific policies flowing from that worldview. Strikes against: This approach too closely resembles the Bush administration's current strategy, and people are looking for change. Sorry, Mandelbaum -- the nays have it.

Beltway wonks Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman offer a different perspective in "Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World." They want U.S. foreign policy to return to the realist tenets of past luminaries such as Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr and (of course) George Kennan. Ethical realists do not disdain democracy or human rights, but think that Americans should promote these goals by building a stronger democracy at home and thus leading by example, not by hectoring others to be more like us.

Ethical realism is not isolationist; Lieven and Hulsman think Washington must deepen global markets together with nations such as China, India and Russia. This would require a conscious retrenchment of U.S. power in places where it could irritate other major players, such as Ukraine or the Korean peninsula. In return, Lieven and Hulsman argue, economic interdependence will help spread peace.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company