The diplomats and decisionmakers of the United States believe, habitually and uncritically, that stability abroad is our most important strategic objective. They may insist, with fragile sincerity, that democracy and human rights are our international priorities–although our policymakers do not seem to understand the requirements of the first and refuse to meet the requirements of the second. The United States will go to war over economic threats, as in Desert Storm. At present, we are preoccupied with a crusade against terrorism, which is as worthy as it is difficult. But the consistent, pervasive goal of Washington’s foreign policy is stability. America’s finest values are sacrificed to keep bad governments in place, dysfunctional borders intact, and oppressed human beings well-behaved. In one of the greatest acts of self-betrayal in history, the nation that long was the catalyst of global change and which remains the beneficiary of international upheaval has made stability its diplomatic god.
Our insistence on stability above all stands against the tides of history, and that is always a losing proposition. Nonetheless, our efforts might be understandable were they in our national interest. But they are not. Historically, instability abroad has been to America’s advantage, bringing us enhanced prestige and influence, safe-haven-seeking investment, a peerless national currency, and flows of refugees that have proven to be rivers of diamonds (imagine how much poorer our lives would be, in virtually every regard, had our nation not been enriched by refugees from Europe’s disturbances in the last century).
Without the instability of the declining 18th century, as the old European order decayed, we would not have gained the French assistance decisive to our struggle for independence. Without the instability of the 20th century, protectionist imperial regimes might have lingered on to stymie our economic expansion. And without the turbulence that seeks to rebalance the world today, much of humanity would continue to rot under the corrupt, oppressive regimes that are falling everywhere, from the Balkans to Southeast Asia. A free world subject to popular decision is impossible without the dismantling of the obsolete governments we rush to defend. In one of history’s bitterest ironies, the United States finally became, in the 1990s, the reactionary power leftists painted us during the Cold War.
Before examining in greater detail why instability abroad is often to America’s long-term benefit, let us consider the foolish manner in which we have descended from being a nation that championed change and human freedom to one that squanders its wealth, power, and lives in defense of a very bad status quo. […]
In all other spheres, we have been the most creative, imaginative, innovative, and flexible nation in history. How is it that our diplomats and those who must rely upon them fell in love with the past, when our national triumphs have resulted from embracing the future?
Unfortunately, it can be easily explained. In times of sudden change, men look to what they know. When, after 1898, America abruptly found itself a world power with possessions offshore and across the Pacific, our diplomats relied on the existing model–the European system of collusion and apportionment designed at the Congress of Vienna by Prince Metternich, manipulated artfully in the next generation by Palmerston and his associates, and perfected, tragically, by Bismarck, whose genius led him to design a European security system that only a genius could maintain (and Bismarck’s successors were not men of genius). Just on the eve of a new century that would sweep away the old order, we bought into the European system of mutual protection and guarantees (even defeated countries are not allowed to disappear; the lives of rulers, however awful their behavior, are sacrosanct; and states do not interfere in the domestic affairs of other states, etc.).
It was especially easy for our diplomats to accept the “wisdom” of the European way of organizing a strategic regime because, at that time, our diplomatic corps was dominated by the sons of “good” New England and mid-Atlantic families whose ties to and affinities toward the Old World were already out of step with those of their less-decorous and more vigorous countrymen. If the Army belonged to those born in Virginia and south (and west), then the Department of State belonged to those from Virginia and north, and to the aspirants from elsewhere who emulated our Anglophiles and Europhiles most sincerely. Today, in 2001, America’s diplomatic wisdom is that of Metternich and Castlereagh, brilliant reactionaries whose intent was to turn back the clock of history, then freeze the hands in place, after the Napoleonic tumult. America’s international successes in the 20th century occurred despite our diplomatic corps’ values and beliefs.
Surely there is a middle way between supporting every failing state (usually a state that deserves to fail) and hunkering down in a bunker in Kansas while genocide prevails. The greatest immediate difficulty is that any such “middle way” would, in fact, be a number–perhaps a great number–of different ways. The classical age of diplomacy, from Metternich through Bismarck to Kissinger, is finished. In truth, a one-size-fits-all diplomatic framework never really worked, but during the Cold War we expended tremendous efforts to make it function, or at least to pretend it was working. Today, in a world that is systemically, developmentally, economically, and culturally differentiated and differentiating–despite the surface effects of globalization–our diplomacy cannot rely on easy-to-use constructs or unifying ideology (a great triumph of the 20th century was the destruction of the historical aberration of ideology in the West; today’s European “socialists” owe more to trial-and-error than to Marx, LaSalle, or Liebknecht, and all but the most bigoted Americans are political pragmatists in the clinch).
Our strategic approach must be situational, though shaped in each separate case by our national interests and informed by our core values. Of course, we must recognize the limits of the possible, but our greatest problem as a global power seems to be understanding what is impossible abroad, whether the impossibility is creating enduring ethnic harmony in the Balkans through armed patrols, willing a Somali state into existence through the presence of a few thousand under-supported troops, or trying to control terrorists with blustering threats and the occasional cruise-missile spanking.
The hardest thing is always to think clearly, to slash through the inherited beliefs that no one ever examines and to defy the wise men who have built careers on exorbitant failures. All people, in every culture, are captive to slogans, but Americans must strive to do a little better. We have made a slogan of democracy abroad, imagining it as a practical means when it is, in fact, the glorious end of a long and difficult road. We speak of human rights, then wink at the mundane evil of Saudi Arabia, the grotesque oppression in China, and any African massacres that don’t leak to the press–because, inside our system of diplomacy, human rights are finally regarded as a soft issue. Yet, sincere and tenacious support for human rights is always good policy in the long term. The oppressor falls, whether in one year or 50, and it is easier to do business with a nation whose freedom struggle you have supported than with one whose suffering you ignored or even abetted.
Regarding the business sector, it is the job of Wall Street to maintain short-term vigilance. But Washington must learn to counterbalance that short-term view with a longer-term perspective. Instead of a revolving door, there should be a steel wall between Wall Street and Washington. Diplomatic and military concessions to a repressive regime that allows select US-headquartered corporations economic advantages today may prove a very poor investment for our country’s greater interests tomorrow. We need to think across disciplines, to break the dual stranglehold of diplomatic tradition and economic immediacy. Were we only to apply our own professed ideals where it is rational and possible to do so, we would, indeed, find our way to a better, safer world in time. But we must stop trying to arrest the decomposition of empire’s legacy. We are in a period of unprecedented and inevitable global change, and we must learn to accommodate and to help shape local changes constructively. But we cannot prevent the future from arriving.
Again, there is no unified field theory of diplomacy at our disposal. This is the hardest thing for Washingtonians to understand. Our responses to the world’s dramas must be crafted on a case-by-case basis and founded upon nuanced knowledge of the specific situation. There is no single framework, and the rules change from continent to continent and even from week to week. Our national interest, too, evolves. Only our core values–the rule of law, the rights of the individual, and religious and ethnic tolerance–remain constant.
ever make a fetish of stability at any cost as the Realist school of foreign policy insists we should?