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The editor reviews Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s valedictory article in Foreign Affairs, and offers comments.

by J. R. Bullington, Editor

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has published a somewhat precocious valedictory in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. Entitled “Rethinking the National Interest: American Realism for a New World,” the article summarizes and defends the Bush administration’s evolving policies of the past eight years and the underlying philosophy that has guided them. It is accessible on the Foreign Affairs website at: 20080701faessay87401-p0/condoleezza-rice /rethinking-the-national-interest.html

The article covers a lot of foreign policy ground, and is thus lengthy. Some highlights from the global tour d’horizon:

  • While its internal evolution has been a “considerable disappointment,” we must remember that today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union and that it is “neither a permanent enemy nor a strategic threat.”
  • China is moving slowly to “a more cooperative approach on a range of problems,” and its growing strength is “something we have no reason to fear if that power is used wisely.”
  • Regarding NATO and other allies, “I believe Lord Palmerston got it wrong when he said that nations have no permanent allies. The United States does have permanent allies: the nations with whom we share common values.”

The heart of the article, however, concerns what Secretary Rice calls “democratic development.”

First, she harkens back to her January 2000 Foreign Affairs article outlining the intended foreign policy of a prospective Bush administration, and acknowledges that significant changes to these plans were required as a result of the 9/11 attacks, when “the United States was swept into a fundamentally different world.” Because of this “new reality,” she writes, “We recognize that democratic state building is now an urgent component of our national interest.”

Secretary Rice defines democratic development as a “unified political-economic model” that is “not only an effective path to wealth and power; it is also the best way to ensure that these benefits are shared justly across societies.” She acknowledges that some authoritarian countries are doing well economically, but she remains skeptical that “authoritarian capitalism” is sustainable in the long run. She maintains that for the United States:

“Promoting democratic development must remain a top priority. Indeed, there is no realistic alternative that we can — or should — offer to influence the peaceful evolution of weak and poorly governed states. The real question is not whether to pursue this course but how.”

How (and under what circumstances) to promote democratic development is indeed the rub.

Most Americans would probably support the proposition — stated eloquently in President Bush’s second inaugural address and here reaffirmed by Secretary Rice — that U.S. foreign policy works best when it is guided by both idealism and realism, by our values as well as our interests; and that “Even when our interests and ideals come into tension in the short run, we believe that in the long run they are indivisible.” And yet, the Bush administration’s application of this eminently reasonable foreign policy philosophy has led to internal and external opposition unmatched in both fervor and extent since the Vietnam War.

Secretary Rice cites some policy applications of this “American realism” philosophy that are widely supported, even by many of those strongly critical of the administration. For instance, she points to “creation of a bipartisan consensus for the more strategic use of foreign assistance,” marked by the Millennium Challenge Account initiative and programs to fight AIDS and malaria, and backed by the near tripling of U.S. official development assistance worldwide since 2001.

More controversial is how the administration has addressed the broad challenge of violent Islamist extremism. Secretary Rice affirms that:


“This is more than just a struggle of arms; it is a contest of ideas….Our theory of victory, therefore, must be to offer people a democratic path to advance their interests peacefully….In this sense, the fight against terrorism is a kind of global counterinsurgency: The center of gravity is not the enemies we fight but the societies they are trying to radicalize.”

Many supporters of this “theory of victory” would nonetheless have to question how well the administration put it into practice, particularly in its first six years, when military approaches were dominant and counterinsurgency doctrine had yet to be rediscovered, at least by the political leadership.

And most controversial of all, of course, is the administration’s Iraq policy. Secretary Rice admits that “we have made mistakes” and that the cost of the war “has been greater than we ever imagined.” She states that “The United States did not overthrow Saddam to democratize the Middle East. It did so to remove a long-standing threat to international security.” But she does not identify that threat as the presumed weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s hands. Rather, she connects it to the broader struggle against Islamic extremism:


“So, too, was the war on terror linked to Iraq, because our goal after September 11 was to address the deeper malignancies of the Middle East, not just the symptoms of them.”

The decision to invade Iraq was initially supported by a majority of Americans and their representatives in Congress, including many who now vehemently oppose it; but central to that support was the intelligence about WMD that proved to be so faulty. Without WMD, it’s hard to see how the threat to U.S. interests from Iraq justified going to war in 2003. Rationalizing that decision as an effort to address root causes of Islamic extremism and other “deeper malignancies of the Middle East” not only has an ex post facto ring but also is highly questionable as a reasonable means of achieving the desired ends. Even if some of the “neocons” in the administration may have believed that invading Iraq was justified on these grounds alone, Colin Powell and others surely did not; and in any event it was only the WMD argument that most Americans found convincing as a reasonable cause for going to war.

History will be the ultimate judge, and with the new counterinsurgency strategy implemented in early 2007 it now looks as though we may be successful, after four years of costly failure, in achieving some degree of “democratic development” in Iraq and leaving behind a reasonably stable country (unless a new administration decides on a precipitous, damn-the-consequences withdrawal). But it’s hard to see how the decision to go to war in the first place can be seen as anything other than a mistake based on bad information.

Secretary Rice notes that in her 2000 Foreign Affairs article she decried the role of the United States in nation building; but now, she says:


“It is absolutely clear that we will be involved in nation building for years to come. But it should not be the U.S. military that has to do it. Nor should it be a mission that we take up only after states fail. Rather, civilian institutions such as the new Civilian Response Corps must lead diplomats and development workers in a whole-of-government approach to our national security challenges. We must help weak and poorly functioning states strengthen and reform themselves and thereby prevent their failure in the first place. This will require the transformation and better integration of the United States’ institutions of hard power and soft power.”

Unless one is an isolationist, it is difficult to disagree in principle with this assessment. Indeed, many nonpartisan commissions and think tank studies in recent months have focused on the need for the next administration to rebuild American soft power — the ability to persuade, influence, even inspire, as opposed to coerce — in order to better meet our national security challenges. The difficult and controversial decisions will involve when, how, and under what circumstances we should undertake the sort of nation building and democratic development work that Secretary Rice envisions.

What should not be controversial is the proposition that if and when we decide we must engage in nation building, we should do it as effectively as possible; and that to achieve this end we need stronger diplomatic and other institutions to project our soft power and enable us to avoid over-reliance on military power. The Bush administration, with Defense Secretary Gates as well as Secretary Rice in the lead, has now begun to move in this direction; but the task is massive and long term, and it will need sustained support from Congress as well as from the next administration.End.


J. R. Bullington
J. R. Bullington

Ambassador Bullington has been editor of American Diplomacy since July, 2007. His Foreign Service career was concentrated in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. After the Foreign Service, he was at Old Dominion University, and was Peace Corps Director in Niger, 2000-2006. He is currently retired in Williamsburg, VA.

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