Monday, September 2, 2013

U.S. foreign policy must be moral as well as prudent

This entire op-ed by Harvard professor Joseph Nye is worth reading. I especially liked his comparison of Bush 41 vs. Bush 43 [emphasis mine]:

When we cannot be sure how to improve the world, prudence becomes an important virtue, and grandiose visions can pose a grave danger. This is sometimes forgotten by those who want Obama to place bigger bets in the revolutions of today’s Middle East. It is one thing to try to nudge events at the margins and assert our values in the long term; it is another to think we can shape revolutions we do not fully understand. There is a difference between a limited punishment of Syria for breaking an international taboo on the use of chemical weapons and becoming involved in a civil war. In foreign policy, as in medicine, it is important to first do no harm. Bush 41, who lacked the ability to articulate a vision but was able to steer through crises, turned out to be a better leader than his son, who had a powerful vision but little contextual intelligence about the region he tried to reshape.

Definitely I agree with Nye that prudence is the word of the day -- of the decade -- in U.S. foreign policy.  We'll be paying for Dubya's imprudence in Afghanistan and Iraq for decades to come. What I disagree with is Nye's America-first view on foreign policy that naturally gives U.S. presidents the right or the option to intervene militarily wherever they wish, as long as their "big bets" show promising odds of success over there -- success as defined by us, over here

What Nye and others don't realize is that we are in a new era, a new wave of democratization, now continuing in the Arab-Muslim world. The arc of history bends toward democracy. The U.S. has played no small role in that. (Pat self on back). So anybody straining against that arc will feel the pain, eventually. That goes for the U.S. at home or interfering abroad.

Egypt offers preliminary evidence that Arab-Muslims refuse to go back to dictatorship.  They've had a taste of revolution and they liked it.  Certainly I disagree with the way the Egyptian military with the support of some Egyptians ousted the democratically elected President Morsi, even while I sympathize with their grievances against him.  The street protests of an active urban minority proved very effective, but it was hardly democratic or representative of the wishes of 84 million Egyptians.  Nevertheless, what did we immediately see thereafter? The Egyptian military promised fresh elections.  We'll see if the generals follow through on their promise -- and the U.S. should pressure them hard to do so -- or if the interim government will ban the Muslim Brotherhood as a political party. Nevertheless, the point is that a "new normal" has been established: elections, democracy.  Baby steps.  

Hence, Nye rightly reminds America to think of revolutions in terms of decades, not weeks or years, and to "first do no harm."  But Nye is old-fashioned in his chauvinistic belief that the U.S. can intervene boldly in other nation's affairs and still be lucky enough to avoid blowback.  No.  The world has changed. Everything happening everywhere is known to everybody; and small voices can have huge ripple effects in unexpected places.  Like our back yard.

More importantly, we must graciously accept that the international institutions of peace, national sovereignty and democracy that America helped to build in the 20th century increasingly constrain U.S. foreign policy options as they gather power and widespread recognition. That is a good thing for everybody, the U.S. included. We shouldn't struggle against those reassuring bonds; we shouldn't strain to unbend that just arc.

What I'm getting at, finally, is a plea for a moral foreign policy based on U.S values.  Yes, really and truly.  Not just words to that effect, but deeds. That is the way.  

Many will say I'm naive.  But I say: isn't it in fact naive to think anymore, post-911, that we can make agreements with dictators and hope to maintain control, through them, over millions of angry and oppressed people?  People with access to the Internet, and weapons, and relatives, friends and sympathizers all over the world?  OK, maybe for a while.  But then what?  All that anger will burst forth eventually... and do we really want to bear the brunt of it?  

No.  We must be respected by the people of the world, and not just their leaders.  And we can do that only by leading with our values that we believe are universal (and in fact God-given) and that lead to the greater happiness of all mankind.  If we really believe that, and we're right, then America should prevail.  If we only pay lip service to our values outside U.S. borders, or think they are only for white Christians surrounded by two oceans, then... By all means, let's rely on old-fashioned realpolitik and brute force to get what we want.  But then we shouldn't be shocked or outraged when others resent us or even try to kill us in response; and no more asking ourselves, then, in a pitiful mockery of self-reflection, Why do they hate us?

By Joseph S. Nye Jr.
August 31, 2013 | Washington Post

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