« The Presidential election in France. | Main | Does Wolfowitz need to go? »

American Foreign Policy and its Leadership in Crisis

Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower by Zbigniew Brzezinski, was published recently by Basic Books. What does it say? How useful is it?

Brzezinski was Carter’s National Security Advisor, and although Brzezinski has his own story to tell (he was opposed to the invasion of Iraq from the outset) this is not essentially a partisan book. Whilst it is an attack on George W. Bush’s foreign policy in general and in the Middle East in particular, it provides a useful context for thinking about America’s role in the world. This in underscored by his approach to evaluating the policies pursued by Bush, Carter and Bush in terms of global leadership style and substance. His thesis is that American global leadership (the outcome of the collapse of the Soviet Union) needs to rest on both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power. ‘Soft power’ is maintained by constant and focused efforts in diplomacy, by understanding the global and historical contexts within which power is brought into play and by working on problems and solutions multilaterally. Military power is, of course, most effective when it is least used.

A central issue is about the nature of leadership. George H. W. Bush gets a ‘Solid: B’ judgment on his tactic skill. Clinton gets an ‘Uneven: C’ given the ‘Major gap between potential and performance’ and George W. Bush gets a ‘Failed: F’ for a ‘simplistic dogmatic world view’ that ‘prompts self-destructive unilateralism’. Over-estimating what can be achieved by force, under-estimating the cultural context needed for democracy to flourish and refusing to talk with unsympathetic regimes can only frustrate American policy. The invasion and occupation of Iraq is a rerun of British and French colonial policy in circumstances, such as the rise of religious fundamentalism bound up with nationalism, that are much more problematic and dangerous than they faced. Furthermore, the uni-polar world, created by the fall of the Soviet Union, is shifting. China is asserting itself in the East, in Africa and in Central Asia. It will soon, according to Brzezinski, be asserting itself in the Middle East. China has the tactical advantage that it does not lecture others on how to behave. Russia is re-assessing its global role in terms of economic power achieved through its significance in gas and oil and is looking to balancing out its interests in Asia and Europe. Brzezinski is clear about the shifting context: ‘Global political awakening is historically anti-imperial, politically anti-Western, and emotionally increasingly anti-American’. The ‘political passivity’ essential to maintenance of past imperial systems no longer holds. The United States it seems has squandered the resources that it brings to the international leadership role. It has overestimated its raw power. It has rattled its friends as well as its enemies. The performance trend is downwards. Rather than looking for a model in the past, the nation needs a ‘second chance’ to get it right.

What is involved in the ‘second chance’? Brzezinski has been criticized for making few practical policy recommendations. Such criticism is to misunderstand what is intended by the idea of the challenge of global leadership in a rapidly changing and potentially unstable world. Such leadership will involve adaptation and change and leadership thinking that is sophisticated, focused and flexible. Brzezinski is concerned not with particular polices but with context and leadership style, with style really as something substantive (though it must I think avoid the Clinton gap between aspirations and reality). Such leadership will operate multilaterally rather than unilaterally and needs to act in ways that show sensitivity to other cultures and contexts. It will require a re-assertion of diplomacy. It will require a long-range view (a view that is difficult to achieve given the way in which American democracy works) and the building of a consistent as well as coherent policy-making framework. Domestically the United States needs to face-up to the issues of ‘material self-indulgence’ and to the consequences that this may have for foreign policy development (such as I suppose protectionism versus trade). Western institutions need to adjust and to think more widely about membership issues (by including Japan, for example, in what is otherwise an Atlantic aliance). G8 has not much significance as the economic base shifts internationally. China ought to be there. Brzezinski ends with a tall order and one that grows beyond American exclusiveness, calling as it does upon a higher-order interpretation of American interest. The main global power in the world needs to be pursuing a policy that is ‘globalist in spirit, content and scope’ and to have the domestic policy-making framework that makes this possible.