by Benjamin L. Landis
United States foreign-policy makers have failed to understand the significance of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China from an ideologically driven state to a pragmatically driven one. They failed to grasp the significance of these events at the times they occurred. They have not yet, decades after the events, grasped their significance. On the contrary, they have stubbornly, in the face of a contrary reality, clung to the foreign policy that they mounted at the beginning of the Cold War against a Soviet Union attempting to convert the world’s governments to Communism, abetted by a newly Communist China that wanted to establish its predominance in Asia.
Since the beginning of the Cold War, United States foreign policy has been reactive, not proactive. United States foreign policy makers have allowed events to dictate foreign policy. They have not formulated United States foreign policy on coherent long-term objectives based upon the fundamental principles of American democracy and human rights. This practice continues to exist. It has been exemplified by the Obama administration’s reactions to the popular revolts and manifestations throughout the Arab world this in recent months. It is exemplified by the United States’ enduring support of dictatorial governments throughout the world. It is exemplified by the United States government’s refusal to recognize and deal with the major shift in global geopolitics caused by the development of China and the shift in its world outlook, the descent into insignificance of the former Western European powers, and the emergence of India and Brazil.
The driving force of United States foreign policy during the last half of the twentieth century was paranoia; its instrument was militarism. Today, decades after the geopolitical forces of the world changed abruptly and radically, the United States government still acts as though they never occurred. Listen to Mr. Robert Gates, the recent long time Secretary of Defense, in his address to the graduating class of the University of Notre Dame on May 22, 2011: “If history – and religion – teach us anything, it is that there will always be evil in the world, people bent on aggression, oppression, satisfying their greed for wealth and power and territory, or determined to impose an ideology based on the subjugation of others and the denial of liberty to men and women… the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators, and terrorists in the 21st century, as in the 20th, is hard power –the size, strength, and global reach of the United States military.” Listen to President Obama: “As President, I have often said that I have no greater responsibility than protecting the American people,” wrote President Obama in the new “National Strategy for Counterterrorism” …[recently] released by the White House…”, as cited by Steven Aftergood in Secrecy News of June 30. . Parenthetically, as Mr. Aftergood also points out, the President was obviously incorrect in making this statement. Section 1, Article II, of the Constitution prescribes that the President-elect will take an oath of office swearing or affirming that he/she “will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Therein lies his true and only responsibility—to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. No mention is made or implied of protecting the American people.
Paranoia. Militarism. The time is long overdue for American foreign-policy makers to take a long, hard, fresh look at today’s world. If they were to do so, what would they see? First and foremost, they would fail to discover any threat against the territorial integrity of the United States and American society by any other nation. Who could be the possible suspects? Russia is not the Soviet Union, even if the policy makers try to make the American people think it so. Russia is not attempting to spread the dead doctrine of Communism around the world. Russia today has a population of about 142 million versus 290 million for the Soviet Union just before its collapse. Russia’s population is falling and by mid-century is projected to be only about 116 million, thanks to a fertility rate of only 1.4 per woman, far below the replacement rate. By the end of the century it is likely that the Russian population will be less than 100 million, while that of the United States is likely to exceed 450 million. The life expectancy for a Russian male today is only 62 years, 3 years less than for a Soviet Union male in 1990. Russian society has major problems with high rates of alcoholism, cardiovascular disease, and HIV/AIDS. Governments at all levels are notoriously corrupt. Russia’s GDP per person in 2008 was not among the 70 highest in the world, even though it has the world’s eighth highest aggregate GDP.
Russia represents no actual or potential, no present or future, threat against the United States. The one vestige of the Soviet Union that gives geopolitical importance to Russia is its possession of the world’s largest nuclear weapons arsenal. But it is an arsenal that can serve no useful purpose against the United States.
The China of Hu Jin Tao is not the China of Mao Tse Tung. The Chinese government is not trying to spread the doctrine of Communism throughout Asia. In fact, China, like Russia, is not even any longer a Communist country. It is an oligarchic dictatorship striving to manage and control an emerging capitalist economy. With the disappearance of Mao Tse Tung and the advent of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese government moved very swiftly to de-Communize the Chinese economy. It is apparent that Deng Xiaoping and his successors made a deliberate decision to address the centuries-old problems of Chinese society that were only worsened under Communism. The attention of the Chinese government is focused on the well being of the Chinese state and society. It has shown no inclination to impose itself on other countries by military force. In any case, it represents a zero military threat for the United States. In other words, China is and will be totally incapable of launching an invasion of the United States.
Are there other candidates menacing the American people? India? Indonesia? Brazil? Nigeria? Mexico? Japan? Bangladesh? Pakistan? These are the only other countries with present populations of more than 100 million. Are any of them a threat to the territorial integrity of the United States and to American society? It’s ridiculous to even pose the question. So what countries are Mr. Gates and Mr. Obama afraid of? And why are they afraid? [See my article “A National Defense Policy for the Twenty-First Century” archived on this site for a more detailed discussion of the threats facing the United States.]
In the absence of a quantifiable, tangible threat against United States territory and the American people, and unwilling — or psychologically unable — to overcome the paranoid militarism that directed United States foreign policy in the last half of the twentieth century, American foreign policy makers have allowed their imaginations to create out of whole cloth the myths of American-hating ogres who are only awaiting an opportunity to attack and subjugate the United States. These are Mr. Gates’ evil forces, undefined, but there, awaiting their moment. Therefore, in the logic of today’s foreign policy, the American people should be afraid and should be maintaining armed forces of extravagant size, since no one wants to identify or quantify a real threat.
It needs to be stated that the only forces in the world today actively attempting to harm American society are few in number, cowardly in action, and limited in their resources. Above all, they are not susceptible to defeat by the use of large military forces. Yet American foreign policy is based on the concept that wherever these outlaw bands are located, conventional military forces are needed to eliminate them. As a matter of experience, the use of such forces tends to increase, rather than reduce, the number of these terrorists.
When Mr. Gates talks of evildoers “determined to impose an ideology based on the subjugation of others and the denial of liberty to men and women…” is he thinking of the adherents of the Muslim faith? If so, he is again very wrong. Whereas the Soviet Union and Mao Tse Toung’s Tung’s China actively attempted to spread the ideology of Communism throughout the world, the nations of Islam are not attempting to proselytize the Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist worlds. The cry of “Jihad!” spouted by Islamic terrorists is not a call to convert; it is a call to fight.
The single phrase that best epitomizes and summarizes American foreign policy of the last sixty years was uttered by Mr. Gates on May 22, 2011: “…the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators, and terrorists in the 21st century, as in the 20th, is hard power –the size, strength, and global reach of the United States military.” In the beginning, militarism was deemed the necessary instrument to stop the spread of Soviet sponsored Communism. However, over the decades, and especially since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, foreign policy has become the justification for militarism. It is the desires and needs of the military-industrial establishment that are determining American foreign policy.
The premise of this article is that there exists no threat—quantifiable and tangible, actual or potential, present or future—against the territorial integrity of the United States or against American society, other than a small number of fanatical terrorists. And they are best dealt with by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and state and local police within the United States, and by the CIA and military special forces outside the United States. Thus, the question becomes: If paranoia and militarism are no longer valid bases for United States foreign policy, what should be?
The obvious, easy, simple, and quite correct answer is: the best interests of the American people. Unfortunately, correct though this answer may be, it raises a myriad of problems. What are the best interests of the American people? Who is to define those interests? There may be short-term best interests as well as long-term best interests. These may not always coincide. Should long term best interests always prevail or should short term interests be the dominant factor in foreign policy? Or should foreign policy bounce between short term and long term interests depending on internal politics as well as global geopolitics?
Fortunately, the American people need not wait for the politicians and geopoliticians to tell them where their best interests lay. Over two hundred years ago the not-yet American people created a government with the mandate to “… form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” They also mandated the head of this government to “…swear (affirm) that I…will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
What sounder basis for American foreign policy than the adoption of these declared and affirmed aims of the American people? Of course, the question immediately comes to mind: How can these idealistic aims be translated into a rational and practical foreign policy? Let me first address, however, what these aims do not cover. They do not, first and foremost, create a mission for the United States to install democratic governments around the world. They do not give the United States government a mandate to overthrow dictators, regardless of what Mr. Gates implies. It is interesting to note, in passing, that despite Mr. Gates’ qualification of dictators as “evil”, the government of which he was long a part supports and encourages dictatorial regimes around the world.. Dictatorial regimes are evil in places like Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, but admirable in places like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, as well as in Egypt and Tunisia until the Egyptians and Tunisians took matters into their own hands.
These Constitutional aims do not give the United States government a mandate to save the world from itself. Again, Mr. Gates clearly states that the United States government, and particularly, the United States military, should actively attempt to thwart and overthrow evil dictators and oppressors. Yet he has been quite untrue to his basic philosophy of the United States’ mission to save the world. He certainly supported our intervention during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Yet did he advocate our intervention on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Rwandans who were slain? Did he encourage the President to intervene on behalf of the Darfurians? Mr. Gates is not alone in his hypocrisy. The United States government frequently criticizes the undemocratic tendencies of the Chinese government, while remaining totally inert and silent with respect to the oppression of the Zimbabwean people by its government.
In other words, those individuals, such as Mr. Gates, who are prone to United States intervention throughout the world, have been very hypocritically selective in their interventions. They state that it is a matter of humanitarianism, but it is, in fact, a matter of opportunism. No successful foreign policy can long be based on such a shifting platform.
If paranoia with its haphazard recourse to military intervention cannot successfully define the best interests of the American people, what can? As I have written, those interests were explicitly defined more than 200 years ago in the Preamble to the Constitution. Not only were they defined, they were mandated. It is incumbent on all the branches of the federal government to govern in accordance with that mandate. Unfortunately, American history demonstrates that this mandate has not been regularly followed, either domestically or internationally.
The issue, therefore, is not how to determine the best interests of the American people, but how to transpose those already defined and mandated into the world of international politics. The guiding principles of American foreign policy have never been constant; they have never systematically reflected long term interests. They have essentially been reactionary and opportunistic. A propitious moment for adopting a long term rational foreign policy concept was presented to the United States government at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The moment was not seized. The half-century old policy based on paranoia and militarism continued to rule American international relations. The two decades that have passed since then have revealed the inadequacy, even danger to the best interests of the American people, of continuing this policy. It is based on chimeras and a willingness to destroy American society in the name of militarism.
To transform the best interests of the American people, as defined in the Constitution, into a viable foreign policy, the President needs to direct the Secretary of State to establish for every nation and for every international organization the aims of American foreign policy with respect to that nation or international organization. And these aims must be based on the defined and mandated interests of the American people as set forth in the Preamble to the Constitution. Obviously, the State Department must give first priority to establishing the bases of American foreign policy for the top tier, about twenty nations and international organizations with major geopolitical significance, and then second priority to a second tier of nations and organizations, and third and fourth priorities to nations and organizations with little geopolitical significance.
This foreign policy charter would consist of five parts: (1) The definition and description of United States foreign policy aims with respect to the country or organization; (2) the political, social, cultural, and economic conditions in the country or organization that are conducive to the achievement of American aims; (3) obstacles that exist in the political, social, cultural, and economic makeup of the country or organization that will impede the accomplishment of American foreign policy aims; (4) the resources available, both actual and potential, to achieve the aims; and (5) the actions, present and future, to be taken to achieve these aims.
The effort to create this basis for United States foreign policy must be guided by three premises, in addition to the constitutional mandate. The first is that the aims defined in this foreign policy charter must be long term aims. They are not goals that are amenable to immediate and swift achievement, except in very unusual circumstances that would be essentially unpredictable, such as the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the outburst of revolt in Arab nations in the spring of 2011, etc. There may well be short term interests that conflict with American long term interests. These must not be neglected, but should be addressed either as obstacles to achieving the long term aims or as enhancements to their achievement.
The second premise is that the long term interests of the peoples of the world are compatible. I emphasize the word “peoples” in lieu of “governments.” It is incumbent upon the national governments to which the world’s peoples have entrusted their well being to foster the achievement of these long term interests. The charters would include means to be used to encourage and induce governments to meet the long term interests of their people.
The third premise is that all matters concerning the relations between the United States military establishment and that of the country or organization, to include cooperation, assistance, aid, etc., must be an integral part of the foreign policy charter. Since the beginning of the Cold War there has been an unavowed, but real, tug-of-war between the Department of State and the Department of Defense for control of American foreign policy. The conflict has waxed and waned, but has been predominantly in favor of the Department of Defense. With the advent of the change in Chinese policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the consequent disappearance of any real threat against American territory and American society, it would have been reasonable to expect a decline in the influence of the military establishment on United States foreign policy. Just the contrary has occurred. For the last twenty years American foreign policy has been based primarily on military considerations. The establishment of the proposed country-by-country foreign policy charters would return the determination and management of American foreign policy to the Department of State under the direction of the President. The United States military establishment would thus return to being an instrument of foreign policy, not its determinant.
The responsibility for preparing the long term foreign policy aims of the United States government, and hence the American people vis-à-vis other countries, must be placed on the Secretary of State under the direction and guidance of the President. The Secretary would be free to choose the method to be used, but logically the most practical and efficient method would be to create small task forces, one per country or international organization, chaired by a senior representative of the Department of State with representation from the Department of Defense, the CIA, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, and other departments and agencies as appropriate and useful. The representation of these other departments and agencies does not mean that they would have veto power over the recommendations of the task forces. It means simply that they would be present to explain and defend their interests and requirements The task forces would also be free, and even encouraged, to get input from non-governmental scholars, retired Foreign Service officers, businessmen, and any other persons having deep knowledge of the particular country or international organization being considered.
The recommendations of the task forces would be established by the heads of the task forces, with as large a consensus as possible among the task forces members, but without a requirement that a majority of the members be in agreement,, and would be submitted directly to the Secretary of State with dissenting opinions, if any. The products of these task forces would be first approved by the Secretary of State and then submitted to the President, again with any dissenting opinions that have not been withdrawn through inter-departmental consultations. Administratively, they could well pass through the NSC before going to the President, although I believe that such a channel is unnecessary. First, all the agencies represented on the NSC would have been represented in the task forces and second, it would tend to downgrade the role of the Secretary of State as the primary formulator of foreign policy and advisor to the President.
Once the recommendations were approved, they would become the bases for the foreign policy of the United States government. They would be communicated to appropriate personnel in the various Departments and Agencies concerned and to the Ambassadors and appropriate members of their staffs in the countries and international organizations concerned. Obviously, the detailed contents of these charters would be classified with a limited “need to know” distribution. This classification would not impede the President and the Secretary of State from making statements on broad, non-country-specific policies that encompass the thrust of America’s positions on the major challenges facing the world, such as climate change, poverty, freedom for people to govern themselves, the use of resources, globalization, etc.
It is reasonable to expect that a task force could accomplish its task, i.e., the preparation of a document as outlined above, with quasi-daily activity in three to four months. Another three to four months would undoubtedly be required to obtain the approvals of both the Secretary of State and the President. If major revamping of the recommendations were directed either by the Secretary or the President, another three to four months would probably be needed. In any case, within a year of beginning the process, the charters for United States foreign policy for the approximately 20 most geopolitically important nations and international organizations would become effective instruments for diplomatic action. For the second, third, and fourth tier nations, it would undoubtedly require an additional one to two years to establish the initial charters.
Since it is the sitting President who determines the foreign policy of the United States, he/she could direct that these charters be modified at any time. An incoming President would be briefed very promptly on the contents of the foreign policy charters for the top tier of geopolitically significant countries and international organizations. He/she would direct such modifications as he/she believed necessary in order to make them compatible with his/her foreign policy views and intentions. For the second, third, and fourth tier countries and international organizations, the review by the President of these charters would most appropriately be conducted by the incoming Secretary of State, who would make recommendations to the new President for any desired changes.
Since these foreign policy charters would represent the long-term, constitutionally mandated interests of the American people, major changes in them should be very few when a new President took office and should be subjected to very critical analysis as to their responsiveness to the country’s long term interests as mandated by the Constitution.
It would not be sufficient, however, simply to document the long-term interests of the American people in their relations with the rest of the world. It would also be absolutely necessary to create a structure that would enable a coherent, continual effort to translate the prescriptions of the charters into actions in the countries and international organizations concerned. The basic element of that structure would be the enhancement of the authority of the American Ambassador to a country or organization. The Ambassador would need to become the exclusive responsible authority in his/her country or organization for all United States governmental activity. The only exception would be a Presidential directive exempting specific CIA activities, defined in their nature and in their duration, from Ambassadorial control. These should be very rare. The activities of all governmental departments and agencies in a specific country or organization would be under the approval, supervision, and control of the Ambassador. The only exception, in addition to the one cited above, would be in a country in which the United States was conducting military operations. In such a situation, the President would determine the areas of responsibility between the Ambassador and the senior military officer conducting the operations.
The second element in the new foreign policy structure would be the adoption within the Department of State of a system of monitoring and guidance of US foreign policy representatives and implementers around the world, either through a reorganization of the Department of State or through enhanced guidance to the elements of the present organization. Obviously, the monitoring and guidance would be based upon the Presidentially approved charters
The adoption of the above proposed plan would enable the directors of United States foreign policy, from the President through the Secretary of State and the Ambassadors to the lowest levels of Foreign Service officers, to act in the best interests of the American people coherently, consistently, worldwide, and, above all, in keeping with the constitutionally mandated role of the President and the government. This would be the plan’s primary benefit, but not an exclusive one.
It would also create a proactive, rather than a reactive foreign policy and one not based upon militarism.
It would re-establish the Secretary of State as the director of United States foreign policy in accordance with guidance from the President, rather than the Secretary of Defense, who has been the de facto foreign policy chief since the beginning of the Cold War.