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Albright’s Position is Hard to Justify

David Thornton

Dr. Thornton is director of government studies in the Department of Government and History at Campbell University, Buies Creek, North Carolina. He earned a PhD. in international relations at the University of South Carolina in 1993.  ~ Ed.

N MADELEINE ALBRIGHT’S VISION: There are two main points that she’s trying to make.

One is that because the United States is the world’s leading economic and military power, we have to remain engaged in world affairs. That’s a basic premise of her perspective.

Another major theme is that when the United States is acting in the world, it should act in partnership with its allies, through NATO, or act multilaterally, through international organizations such as the United Nations.

I think she has a tough sell on both counts. Absent a direct and credible threat, it’s not a given that we do need to be engaged. There is a widespread perception that the United States has a lot of problems of its own to deal with internally and that it’s not really the job of the United States to play world fireman or policeman. She has to argue against this and continue to advocate U.S. activism in the face of vocal resistance to that viewpoint.

When you talk about NATO, many critics of an active U.S. role in Europe note that the Europeans are rich and competent, and ask, “Why don’t they take a more active role in solving the problems in their own region?”

It’s a hard sell for Albright that we should act along with our partners, when the common perception is that our partners should do more and that we shouldn’t have to go over there and put our troops on the ground and expose our soldiers to that danger.

There are really no foreign dragons to slay, so Albright spends most of her time trying to convince the public, to the extent it pays attention, and the Congress that we should remain engaged, that the Congress should not cut the budget of the State Department, that we should pay our dues to the United Nations.

She finds herself engaged in a sort of rear guard action, fighting the domestic political forces that would want to turn the country more inward while she argues that we must take an even more active role in world affairs.

It’s just hard to make that case in the absence of an imminent and credible threat. 

  • Take the Balkan situation. Her argument is that we have a national interest there because, if a conflict in that region spreads into the rest of Europe, perhaps even affecting the relationship between our NATO allies Greece and Turkey, this is going to damage our interests. But for most Americans, the idea that this is indeed vital to our national security is a bit of a stretch.
  • Take the Middle East. Clearly, the United States has an interest in Israel and the Palestinians coming to some kind of viable territorial and political arrangement, and in terms of diplomacy, the situation in that part of the world has been, since the creation of Israel in 1948, among the most important items on our foreign policy agenda.

But it’s a relatively costless pursuit for us to encourage the two parties to meet together as Clinton did in Maryland. Although Clinton is constantly sending envoys over to negotiate, these are not major commitments of military or financial resources. It’s relatively uncontroversial diplomacy.

On humanitarian concerns: That is one of the principal planks in her argument. She really does have a great deal of moral authority in that regard, when you think about the experience of her family in the former Czechoslovakia. She has the moral authority to argue from a humanitarian and moral standpoint that we need to address situations in which people are suffering, but she has to keep making that argument in the face of persistent criticism.

Many among the public and most members in the Republican ranks of Congress need to be convinced that there are more pragmatic things at stake.

Her whole perspective and her approach to making these arguments is very consistent with “liberal internationalism,” the whole idea that powerful democratic countries have a duty to promote peace and democracy all over the world, and connected to that is the idea that there are humanitarian concerns that require our attention to situations in which violence is being perpetrated on helpless people. The problem is that that is not a very inspiring set of assumptions for most people. Most people in the public want a more pragmatic rationale, especially when it comes to military force.

On the effects of having one superpower: The Cold War was just such a unique period in our own history, and indeed in world history. Here was an enemy that epitomized everything that was threatening and evil; they were communistic and atheistic and militaristic to the maximum degree with thousands and thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at us, our complete antithesis in a lot of ways, and now that’s gone. And so what are the threats then?

Albright talks about international terrorism, and obviously that’s a concern, but it’s not the kind of clearly defined enemy that the U.S.S.R. was, the real bogeyman.

Fighting terrorism is more like fighting a low  grade fever than fighting a malignant disease. It’s hard to stir up a lot of emotion or get a lot of attention focused on that, unless there are dramatic incidents as occurred in East Africa. Where do they live? And who are they? It doesn’t stimulate a lot of patriotic attention to foreign policy.

Dr. Thornton was interviewed for The News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) by Assistant “Q” Editor Burgetta Eplin Wheeler. Published in that newspaper on Sunday, Nov. 8, 1998, p. 26A. Republished by permission.

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