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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.

Points in favor: Ethical realism proposes a set of specific and prudent policies, and retrenchment is consistent with the current U.S. mood. Strikes against: Lieven and Hulsman may place too much faith in the power of markets. They think that growing middle classes will drain the swamp of terrorists when, in fact, terrorists do some of their best recruiting within these groups.

Francis Fukuyama, already immortalized for his "End of History" thesis, serves up a new buzz term in his book "America at the Crossroads : Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy ," proposing a policy of "realistic Wilsonianism." The Wilsonian in Fukuyama argues that to build a stable world order, what happens within nations matters as much as what happens between them. The United States should therefore continue to support democracy, human rights and free markets worldwide. The realist in Fukuyama, however, recognizes that outsiders have little ability to affect societies' internal affairs. The best channel for U.S. power, Fukuyama advises, "is not through the exercise of military power but through the ability of the United States to shape international institutions" such as the United Nations and NATO, thus offering Washington the velvet glove of multilateral legitimacy.

Points in favor: By proposing a "multi-multilateralism" of overlapping institutions, Fukuyama bridges realist and Wilsonian principles. Strikes against: Fukuyama seems to focus more on process than outcome, and lacks the scope and detail necessary for a grand strategy. "Realistic Wilsonianism" will be a useful adjunct to the next grand strategy, but cannot claim the mantle alone.

In "Forging a World of Liberty Under Law," G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University go further in stressing the rule of law as a way to advance U.S. national interest. The document was the final report of the Princeton Project on National Security, a multi-year effort involving hundreds of foreign-policy analysts (myself included), led by Ikenberry and Slaughter to write, as they put it, a "collective X article."

To their credit, the two make explicit a point that others have not: Kennan had it easy. In his time, the United States faced only one obvious threat, the Soviet Union. In contrast, Ikenberry and Slaughter argue that "ours is a world lacking a single organizing principle for foreign policy," with "many present dangers, several long-term challenges and countless opportunities." Multiple threats call for multiple responses. This includes using international law and institutions to channel and augment U.S. power and influence; creating a "concert of democracies"; and advocating the peaceful promotion of popular, accountable and "rights-regarding" governments.

Points in favor: They recognize that it's a complex world out there. Plus, Democrats listen to Ikenberry and Slaughter, so don't be surprised if the Princeton Project gains traction in 2008. Strikes against: The point of having a grand strategy is to prioritize, and this strategy doesn't. This problem may have been inevitable; Kennan alone will always trump Kennan by committee.

On at least one key dimension, all the contenders for Kennan's throne agree. They all stress the importance of fostering open markets to advance economic development and U.S. power. Just one problem: As Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton point out in "The Foreign Policy Disconnect: What Americans Want From Our Leaders but Don't Get ," the greatest gap between U.S. policy elites and the American public revolves precisely around international economic policy. As the recent midterm elections demonstrated, economic populism plays far better with Americans today than does free trade.

The grand strategy that wins out in the end may be the one that -- regardless of specific positions on Iraq or terrorism -- convinces Americans that it is possible to have free and fair trade at the same time. By a hair, then, the front-runner is Lieven and Hulsman's ethical realism. By economizing on other forms of power projection, ethical realism potentially frees up resources to cushion the domestic costs of globalization.

At present, however, there is little consensus on a Kennan-like grand strategy. But remember, Kennan's strategy looks a lot better now than it did during the Cold War. The precise definition of containment "was at best ambiguous and lent itself to misinterpretation," Kennan acknowledged in his memoirs. Certainly, Jimmy Carter interpreted containment differently than did Ronald Reagan, who interpreted it differently than did Henry Kissinger.

The foreign-policy establishment may be stumbling around right now, searching for the one strategy to rule them all. It is possible, however, that what looks like disarray today may appear smarter, better -- grander? -- in the future.

daniel.drezner@tufts.edu

Daniel W. Drezner teaches international politics at Tufts University and is author of the forthcoming "All Politics Is Global" (Princeton University Press).

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