For example, it is common to begin by explaining that powerful states like the US are typically said to have essentially the same interests in international politics. The most important interest is the preservation of national security, assured primarily by maintaining great power status.
It takes many class periods to sort through this simple claim...
1. For rather obvious reasons, great powers like the US worry that other major powers pose the largest threats to their security and survival. Throughout history, the story of international politics has been about great power rivalries and the attempts to balance power.
Then again, the US views almost all the other great powers in the world today as friends, allies, or, at the very least, trading partners. The US has more power than any of these states, so it does not have to worry about balancing any of them -- and none of those states seem to be excessively worried about balancing the US.
Well, maybe France worries about the US. However, President Bush didn't seem too concerned about France earlier this summer when sharing a microphone with French President Jacques Chirac:
Our two nations are working together to bring peace and security to other parts of the globe. We're in Haiti together; we're in Afghanistan together. We're working to ensure that Iran meets its commitments to the IAEA, and does not develop nuclear weapons. The President talked about our mutual concerns on the continent of Africa. We're proud countries with deep traditions rooted in freedom and equality and justice. These common values enable us to work together for the good of world peace.Chirac said something quite similar on that day.
So, is great power rivalry obsolete? If so, what threats should give foreign policymakers the greatest concern?
2. Weak and poor states have traditionally been viewed as relatively unimportant players on the global chessboard. The US might toss them some aid, and perhaps worried a bit if their rebel groups took assistance from the Soviet Union during the cold war, but their status has traditionally had very little to do with the security of the US.
Then again, we've all heard that "September 11 changed everything" and the US now says that weak and failed states can pose the greatest threat to American security. President Bush:
The events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.However, the Afghan and Iraq wars are demonstrating that it is far easier to create a failed state than it is to fix one.
Lesson? Some might be thinking that it might be best to allow tyrants to continue governing weak states. The US might be better off living with that arrangement than bogging down its military against new insurgencies (of "terrorists") that did not exist before tyrants were toppled.
Even weak states with their own "weapons of mass destruction" have long been deterred from using those weapons by the threat of US retaliation.
3. Yet, the lesson about authoritarian weak states would be hard to swallow. After all, American political leaders often claim that the US is "exceptional" and thus has a unique set of global interests based on its desire, if not obligation, to spread freedom and democracy around the world. Toppling tyrants empowers millions of oppressed peoples, right?
Then again, during the cold war and during the "war on terror," pragmatic concerns about threats leave the US little choice but to align with various dictators and authoritarians. This explains why the US remains friendly with horrific regimes in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, etc.
4. So, how to deal with these authoritarian regimes? American political leaders believe that free trade fosters democracy and thus should be encouraged in virtually all circumstances. As the September 2002 National Security Strategy document claims:
Economic growth supported by free trade and free markets creates new jobs and higher incomes. It allows people to lift their lives out of poverty, spurs economic and legal reform, and the fight against corruption, and it reinforces the habits of liberty.This is no partisan matter; it reflects the so-called "Washington consensus" pushed by the US since the early 1980s.
Apparently, American policymakers think that even states like China will one day democratize as a result of their failure to match economic successes with political legitimacy. President Bush again:
Our commitment to democracy is tested in China. That nation now has a sliver, a fragment of liberty. Yet, China's people will eventually want their liberty pure and whole. China has discovered that economic freedom leads to national wealth. China's leaders will also discover that freedom is indivisible -- that social and religious freedom is also essential to national greatness and national dignity. Eventually, men and women who are allowed to control their own wealth will insist on controlling their own lives and their own country.That guy is a dreamer, isn't he?
Then again, the US policy towards Cuba looks like China policy circa 1965. The trade embargo, it is argued, puts pressure on the regime and signals strong US resolve. Or something like that. For Cuba, the US promise is to provide trade after the government agrees to democratize. Seriously:
Last year in Miami, I offered Cuba's government a way forward -- a way forward toward democracy and hope and better relations with the United States. I pledged to work with our Congress to ease bans on trade and travel between our two countries if -- and only if -- the Cuban government held free and fair elections, allowed the Cuban people to organize, assemble and to speak freely, and ease the stranglehold on private enterprise.That was President Bush yet again, of course.
How should the US foster democracy? War? Hmmm, that is hard work.
Trade. Does enriching authoritarians really make them vulnerable to political change?
Sanctions? Those haven't really worked too well against Cuba or Iran.
5. Of course, the answer is multilateralism. The US sanctions against Cuba and Iran fail because Canada and the European states continue to trade with them.
We'll set aside the question of why they do that. Maybe policymakers in those countries read too many American press releases about the virtues of trade with China and became confused.
Still, multilateral sanctions might actually work, right? South Africa's apartheid regime was toppled. Iraq's WMD programs were stopped...
Then again, multilateral sanctions hurt innocent people. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children under age 5 died as a result of sanctions. Plus, didn't the sanctions help make Iraq a weak state and thus a threat to America?
Moreover, this kind of multilateralism probably means working with the United Nations, doesn't it? How else could multilateral sanctions be implemented?
Didn't the President warn the UN it would be "irrelevant" if it didn't see fit to support war against Iraq? Wouldn't this make US foreign policy vulnerable to the whims of other states, who would have to agree to act with the US?
Leaders of the major US political parties have made it quite clear that they won't leave American security in the hands of other states. Is multilateralism for "girly-men"?
6. Wait, before answering, note that the US retains a veto in the United Nations, controls more votes than anyone else in institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and is often able to build winning majorities in many cases by working with likeminded friends, allies and partners.
In other words, the other great powers often actually agree with the US about some clear foreign policy concerns. After September 11, the world seemed to genuinely agree with many US ideas about countering world terrorism.
Then again, it is quite clear that the alignment was temporary, as the US is now isolated from many of its friends and has truly ticked off the Muslim and Arab worlds.
7. Aack; it is now time for the midterm and all this nuance has only fostered confusion.
Should the US be most concerned about strong states, or weak ones?
If the US fears the strong, then why does it mostly build alliances, trade partnerships and "coalitions of the willing" with this group of states?
If the US fears the weak, should it invade these countries, even though it promotes disorder? Should it trade with them, or sanction them?
If sanctions are the answer, why do they so often fail?
If sanctions fail because they are merely unilateral, how can they be made multilateral?
If multilateral sanctions are too risky, what can the US do for itself?
If I were writing an essay about these concerns, I would be tempted to argue that the US is strong enough that it really doesn't have to worry too much about other states. Most are friendly already and the threatening ones can be deterred by the fact of tremendous American military superiority. Forget nuclear retaliation, if you must; who wants to face a wave of cruise missiles armed with conventional bombs?
Moreover, virtually every other state in the world has good reason to be concerned about networks of terrorists who aim to topple governments and build transnational movements of radicalism. Virtually no state wants to see these transnational radicals armed with weapons of mass destruction. Russia's WMD materials need to be secured, as do borders and ports. To avoid hypocrisy, the US should abandon its "mad scientist" plans to create new burrowing nuclear weapons.
Iraq is now a mess, but even states who opposed the war agree that the country cannot be allowed to become another Afghanistan. If the US owns up to its mistakes and seeks help, other countries have strong interests in promoting order, if not democracy. Nearly all would oppose theocracy.
The Orwellian Bush administration prioritizes just about everything I think should be rejected and rejects or dismisses everything I believe should be done.
Update: Kevin Drum discusses the Orwellian Bush administration today too.