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Anyone could be forgiven for listening to President Obama’s just-completed speech to the UN General Assembly and wondering what on earth he thought he was doing. Even given the tendency for the most down-to-earth American presidents to turn into gasbags when addressing the world body, and his own quasi-messianic streak, Mr. Obama’s offering seemed noteworthy for ethereal boilerplate.

Especially at a time when aggressors are on the march in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, just what did the president think he was doing in urging the assembled delegates to “reject fatalism or cynicism,” to throw away “a rule-book written for a different century,” to recognize “that we gain more from cooperation than conquest,” to “lift our eyes beyond our borders,”and to “meet our responsibility to observe and enforce international norms”?

After all, seated before him were representatives of the very governments responsible for so many of the woes and threats he bemoaned – whose leaders are, as per that famous 1960s saying, part of the problem, not part of the solution. Did the president really think that his inspiring words would convert regimes not only behind so much international violence, but that came to and maintain power through the barrel of a gun?

The best answer is “Of course not” – but not necessarily because Mr. Obama may be a closet cynic, or may be a mindless prisoner of American diplomatic convention, or may be trying to score some easy global propaganda points. All these characterizations may apply to the president. But he’s also remaining true to a longstanding principle of the internationalist ideology that has shaped American foreign policy since Pearl Harbor – and that also, worrisomely, is a major illusion. It’s the belief that the very structure of world politics, not just individual regimes, is not only in a state of flux, but moving steadily towards needed revolutionary change – and the corollary conviction that enlightened U.S. policies can hasten its arrival.

The change anticipated by President Obama, all of his predecessors, and the rest of America’s foreign policy establishment, is that the unit that has organized world politics for centuries – the nation-state – is not only fundamentally harmful, but transient. Therefore, Washington within reason should be actively undermining it and planning for its demise and replacement by global systems of cooperation.

At first, this sounds as naïve as Mr. Obama sounded in New York earlier today. After all, it’s common knowledge that the UN and other international organizations and international law itself are institutions and arrangements to which U.S. leaders pay lip service and ignore whenever convenient. And often this common knowledge is true. But often it’s not true, and in ways as important as they’re neglected.

The clearest example by far is the notion popularized by the president and Secretary of State Kerry, and mentioned again this morning, that the world is well on the way to adopting a set of new rules of statecraft that have made war obsolete and that center on peaceful dispute resolution. As is now painfully clear, China and especially Russia haven’t bought on – and the administration has clearly been surprised by their stubbornness.

International organizations themselves offer another important example. Not that the UN, in particular, hasn’t become almost completely marginal to American foreign policy. It has. Once the Cold War began, it was clear that the Security Council’s authority to prevent or end aggression could never be used in conflicts that really counted (the Korean war was a notable exception), and even after the Berlin Wall fell, it’s generally been too difficult to forge consensuses that include Russia and/or China (the first Persian Gulf war was a notable exception).

Nevertheless, in the early 1990s, the United States spearheaded the creation of another international organization – the World Trade Organization – that does have major enforcement authority. And even though success in the global economy has become ever more important to both American prosperity and security, the WTO has frequently ruled against the United States and Washington has adopted and observed a policy of abiding by these decisions.

Yes, the WTO has strongly served the interests of offshoring U.S. multinational corporations – by ensuring that the U.S. market will remain almost completely open to all the goods they produce in their foreign factories. But most trade policy critics in Congress also regularly vote to maintain America’s membership. And although their support reflects the power of inertia in politics and policy, it also stems from the view that, whatever short-term or individual losses may result, the entire U.S. economy’s long-term interests are best served by creating a durable system for legally resolving international trade disputes.

This belief in a better global future lies behind American policy towards another kind of arrangement – military alliances. America’s main alliances – with NATO’s European members and Canada, and with Japan – have been in place for some six decades. As frequently declared, their main purposes were coldly pragmatic – to keep these strategically and economically valuable regions in the free world, to ensure that the United States would not be fighting its enemies alone, and to maximize the odds that aggressors would be fought “over there” rather than “over here.”

But Washington had an agenda that was never fully voiced to the American public: Although U.S. leaders constantly sought greater allied defense contributions, they also wanted to make sure that America predominated, and in fact would obviate the need for Germany and Japan in particular to take major responsibility for their own security in the first place. If these wartime enemies could be freed to concentrate on their own peaceful development, the main sources of instability and conflict in these two major regions would be eliminated, and transnational economic integration and collective security regimes could emerge. (These U.S. hopes have proved far more realistic in Europe than in Asia.)

All the strategy required were military expenditures that badly strained U.S. and ultimately global finances, and trade policies that gave these regions unreciprocated access to U.S. markets and helped hollow out America’s productive economy.

And yet, transformational hopes also unmistakably explain why, after the end of the Cold War, America’s alliance strategy literally never skipped a beat. After the overriding security reasons for these arrangements’ very existence either disappeared or morphed dramatically (in the case of China), Washington worked overtime to concoct series of new rationales and missions, continuing to run outsized risks and pay outsized costs in order to turn the age-old political dynamics of Europe and the Far East into…something better.

President Obama’s UN speech today prominently displayed another dimension of this belief in the transience of nation-states – the conviction that the importance of their national governments is on the wane, and that non-governmental actors are on the rise in world politics. In this sense, for much of his speech, Obama didn’t view his principal audience as the delegates seated in Turtle Bay. Instead, he was addressing “the Lebanese factions rejecting those who try to provoke war;” “ young people across the Muslim world”; entrepreneurs in Malaysia; the young Iraqi man who “started a library for his peers”; civil society in Senegal; and the like.

He was addressing these inspirational individuals and groups to help spread their example. But he was also sending a message that Washington has continually transmitted to the developing world – often albeit inconsistently and uncertainly – that the United States will be just as happy to do official business with non-government actors as with their repressive leaders. And the reason has not only to do with a feeling of moral satisfaction, or a confidence that these individuals and groups represent the future, but because the institutions and networks they create are thought to matter greatly in the here and now.

Mr. Obama’s former chief diplomat, Hillary Clinton, recently provided a sense of how central to American foreign policy this cultivation of what’s called civil society has become.

As she wrote in her Washington Post review of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s new book on American foreign policy, she took the helm at Foggy Bottom recognizing that “new technologies” could “help citizens hold leaders accountable” as well as “help dictators keep tabs on dissidents.” She understood that “non-state actors,” including “courageous NGOs” were steadily growing in influence. She realized that “International problems and solutions are increasingly centered, in ways both good and bad, on nongovernmental organizations, businesses and individual citizens.”

And because “foreign policy is now as much about people as it is about states,” America’s “levers of leadership are not just about keeping our military strong and our diplomacy agile; they are about standing up for human rights, about advancing the rights and role of women and girls, about creating the space for a flourishing civil society and the conditions for broad-based development.”

The promise inherent in these insights should be self-evident, simply because the list of consequential international actors has expanded qualitatively. Unfortunately, the dangers are easily overlooked. They could blind U.S. leaders to difficult but inescapable tradeoffs, leading them to pursue the (supposed) perfect instead of the good. They could addict them to grandiose, unattainable, and unnecessary schemes and obscure the viability and often the necessity of mere muddling through. They could prevent them from promptly pulling the plug on loser projects. And they could turn reduce the nation’s approach to key individual and clusters of challenges into complete mush – not least of all in the eyes of leading adversaries.

A great example: Secretary Clinton’s description of the Asia strategy she and the president pursued – which she writes “centered on strengthening our traditional alliances; elevating and harmonizing the alphabet soup of regional organizations, such as ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and APEC (the ¬Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization); and engaging China more broadly — both bilaterally, through new venues such as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and multilaterally, in settings where regional pressure would encourage more constructive behavior and shared decision-making on matters from freedom of navigation to climate change to trade to human rights. Our ‘pivot to Asia,’ as it came to be known, is all about establishing a rules-based order in the region that can manage the peaceful rise of new powers and promote universal norms and values.”

To which one can only reasonably respond “Huh?” and “No wonder the Chinese are on the move.”

American leaders are often admonished (especially by each other) to deal with the world as it is, not as they would wish it to be. But it’s increasingly clear that a big problem with U.S. foreign policy is a strong penchant for defining this distinction out of existence to begin with.