Saturday, October 27, 2012

Nobody's Century: Rethinking American Foreign Policy

By Madeleine Kando

According to retired diplomat and former Ambassador Chas Freeman, the way America sees the world and its place in it, is a figment of its own outdated imagination, not the way the world really is today.

One of the reasons for this is that the 20th century was an American century, a century largely dominated by the United States in political, economic and cultural terms. It fought and won over fascism, it promoted the rule of law and democratic ideals throughout the world and after the Second World War, it was the defender of the ‘Free World’, made possible by the Cold War and Communism. That came to an end in 1989 when Communism imploded. There was no longer a common enemy and America was left strong militarily but weak in ideology.

Then 9/11 happened and almost by default, the US chose to rule by force, not by ideals. The need to desperately fit the world into the ‘cowboy’ mentality of the good guy versus the bad guy worked effectively during the Cold War. Now that vision is an illusion: there is no Communist threat, there is no Nazi threat, there is no bad guy out there. So we have begun to invent him.
As Freeman explains it, in the process of fighting terrorism we have created the monsters that we are searching for. By killing one, we created ten. Revenge is a powerful human emotion, especially in the ‘honor’ societies that dominate the Middle-East. Hatred based on religion is the most vicious kind. Even though Americans had accumulated a lot of goodwill during ‘the American Century’, (‘Nous sommes tous Americains’ wrote Le Monde right after the 9/11 attack), much of it has now been squandered. Would there be the same global reaction if there was another 9/11 today?

American exceptionalism is a thing of the past. It was exceptional because it showed the world how things were done here at home. Does it still do that? Does it lead by example? Freeman believes that the only way to regain our influence, is to rediscover our values and return to the practice of them.

Other than re-thinking our values, Freeman points out that: ‘We can no longer live entirely by our wallet or the brass knuckles on our fists, we must learn to live at least somewhat by our wits and charm.’ Meaning that we are basically broke and that the use of force doesn’t always work to our advantage. Iraq and Afghanistan are good examples of this. By militarizing our foreign policy we will run out of resources and there is no guarantee that the tables will not be turned on us. We should follow the Golden rule: ‘Do not do undo others as you would not have done unto you’. The world wants our leadership, but it is not military in nature.

Hence the importance of diplomacy. Coercion is never as reliable as persuasion. As a witty American woman once observed: “A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you really look forward to the trip.”

America no longer directs what happens in the world. It needs to rethink its commitments and make alliances that will benefit its current interests. Britain continues to rely on American power to its own advantage even though it is no longer prepared to reciprocate. Germany has an alliance with China, not with the US. Former allies put their own interests ahead of ours and we should do the same.

China has no political system that anyone finds appealing. It is neither an ideological challenge nor a military challenge. It is an economic challenge and if we were smart we would build a much stronger economic alliance and not badmouth them during our Presidential debates.

The irony is that America is blessed with a disproportionate amount of land, water, and mineral resources. It is surrounded by two oceans that protect it. Its neighbors have no aggressive intentions. Its population of 310 million, provides for a large pool of talent and its political system, until recently, made it the freest society on the planet. We don’t want America to become another Argentina: a country with huge natural resources that has been so badly managed that it is now almost a failed state.

Freeman speaks as a true diplomat. Although much of what he says is reasonable, some of it is hard to swallow. Should we compromise and pacify to the point of accepting a nuclear Iran? Do we sacrifice Israel for the greater global good? Is there a point where our wits and charm don’t cut it without a wallet and brass knuckles to back up our strategies? I believe there is.

** This article is based on an interview with former diplomat Chas Freeman on NPR’s Program On Point. You can find it here: ‘Nobody’s Century’ 

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