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Prof. Richard Kohn (UNC)

Indecision Is Our
Fatal Flaw

Richard H. Kohn

Richard Kohn, a member of the Editorial Board of American Diplomacy, is professor of history and director of the Curriculum in Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.  ~ Ed.
ECRETARY ALBRIGHT’S FIVE “TESTS OF INTERNATIONAL WILL AND AMERICAN LEADERSHIP”  are problems today, but they are relatively short-term and largely unresolved predicaments left over from the Cold War and the collapse of communism.  The unenforced (and probably unenforceable) Dayton Accords and Saddam Hussein are substantially the result of earlier American indecisiveness. 
Much more important is the need for our country and government to come to a more explicit understanding of what our relationship to the rest of world should be. Diplomacy is a process, not an end in itself. While it requires vision, pragmatism, and spine, it also requires policy: a set of goals supported by operating principles and a steadfastness of purpose on which to meet the momentary challenges of the day.And that policy needs to be understood and accepted by the American people. 

The upheavals involved with the end of the Cold War changed our role in some ways; in others, it remained the same. No longer are we the leader of an international coalition engaged in an indefinite struggle against totalitarian autocracy. Our foreign focus is much more economic. Our diplomacy is much more multilateral. Our instincts are more humanitarian. Our policies are more uncertain, more patchwork, more reactive and frankly more incoherent than at any time in the past half-century. 

The United States is unsure about its role in the world beyond vague generalities (“continued security prosperity and freedom of our people”) and initiatives to meet particular threats, like terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. 

The lack of any unifying themes to her “five tests” or any formulation of an overall vision of America in the world in her essay reflects this uncertainty. 

We maintain the most powerful military establishment in the world without clear agreement on its pur poses or under what circumstances we will use it in pursuit of our ideals and national interests. And yet the United States still acts as the guarantor of stability in many areas of the world, particularly those where during the Cold War our presence prevented the spread of communist influence or propped up allies who seemed vulnerable to our adversaries. 

Our leadership and sometimes even our intervention are still sought but also more frequently ignored than in the past. Much of the world is as ambivalent about our role as we are ourselves. 

The failure to meet our financial obligations has tarnished the country’s reputation in the United Nations but hardly undermined its influence. And certainly cutbacks in funding for our foreign policy agencies have impaired our diplomacy on a superficial level. 

But the decline in our influence is more the result of exogenous conditions, such as the dissolution of the Soviet empire, and self-inflicted wounds, such as inattention and lack of consistency of purpose. When we ignore problems, it’s because we lack the will or the vision or the ability to intervene, or the ingenuity to devise solutions, or because our allies and partners will not fulfill their responsibilities, or because it’s neither in the national interest nor the domestic political interest of our leadership to become involved.

And the Clinton administration has never made a convincing case to the American people about what our foreign policy needs and interests are, so Congress has felt free to use funding as a means of extorting certain courses of action from the White House.

In her essays, Secretary Albright omits mention of a central feature of the Clinton foreign policy: the advancement of democracy and free trade/open markets around the world. Those are commendable goals, consistent with our security and prosperity.

A policy of “engagement and enlargement” contains an inherent danger, however. By pressing the spread of our own habits, customs, values and institutions, we intrude on other cultures and peoples. We provoke suspicion of our motives, not that we seek some universal dominion of the United States, but of “Americanism.”

The more aggressively we promote democratic government, personal freedom, political liberty, and free market capitalism, the more we will provoke resistance, even hostility; to the United States and, ultimately, we will spark the very rivalry and conflicts we are seeking to avoid.

To many, the United States seems today like a hegemon determined to remain unassailably the most powerful and influential nation, spreading its political and economic arrangements over the rest of the globe. We can champion our system and beliefs, but to promote them actively in many parts of the world will backfire on us.

Secretary Albright is the most appealing, persuasive and effective public advocate for foreign policy we have had as secretary of state in many years. She will make an even larger contribution to her country if, in her writings and speeches, she articulates a more unified, coherent, and substantive vision of America’s role in the world and takes it to the American people.

If she were to inspire and lead a nationwide discussion of American foreign policy, the next administration might be better prepared to assist in the transition to a new, more stable and peaceful international environment and pursue American national interest at the same time. 

Originally published in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) Sunday, November 8, 1998, pp. 25A, 27A. Republished by permission.

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