NOTE: I was struck when reading this for the first time several months ago. To say that this Kirkpatrick essay–which is the finest short piece on foreign policy I’ve ever read–presages Donald Trump is true, but it’s selling it short, too. Where had it been all my life? Where was this warning–this strong, articulate, dissenting voice–during the confused decades since the end of the Cold War? Its disappearance speaks to the power of meta narratives that can, when the topic is big enough, swallow civilizations whole. As time passes, I come to realize that so many of the ideological and political pathologies that we’re working our way through right now have their immediate roots in an intense orgy of self-congratulatory Kool-Aid drinking that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. But more on that later.
It is the first time since 1939 that there has been an opportunity for Americans to consider what we might do in a world less constrained by political and military competition with a dangerous adversary. I am pleased that The National Interest has provided a forum for this discussion.
The United States arrives at the end of the Cold War with some obvious assets. We are a powerful, affluent country with real strengths great but limited resources, some bad habits, and a few real problems. We have virtually no experience in protecting and serving our interests in a multipolar world in which diverse nations and groups of nations engage in an endless competition for marginal advantages. This is precisely the kind of world now taking shape.
Assuming our resources and their limits–what kinds of goals should Americans and the U. S. government pursue in this post-Cold War period in which there is no pressing need for heroism and sacrifice? Some preliminary observations should help in answering the question.
American purposes are mainly domestic.
A good society is defined not by its foreign policy but its internal qualities—by the existence of democracy, opportunity, fairness; by the relations among its citizens, the kind of character nurtured, and the quality of life lived.
Foreign policy becomes a major aspect of a society only if its government is expansionist, imperial, aggressive, or when it is threatened by aggression. One of the most important consequences of the half century of war and Cold War has been to give foreign affairs an unnatural importance. The end of the Cold War frees time, attention, and resources for American needs.
America’s chief collective purpose should be to make: a good society better: more productive, more cohesive, more caring, more safe, more challenging, more serious.
Our purposes in the world are merely human, not transcendental.
Unlike countries with a long complex history and a clear national composition, the United States is the quintessential eighteenth-century contractarian society—a people who constituted themselves by political will, who defined themselves in terms of their purposes and organized a government—all much as John Locke described. The U.S. Constitution is the act of incorporation whose preamble defines and limits our collective purposes. Only one of the purposes stated there unambiguously applies to foreign affairs: to “provide for the common defense.”
There is no mystical American “mission” or purposes to be “found” independently of the U.S. Constitution and government. There is no inherent or historical “imperative” for the U.S. government to seek to achieve any other goal—however great—except as it is mandated by the Constitution and adopted by the people through elected officials.
To be legitimate, the American government’s purposes must be ratified by popular majorities.
Except in the case of urgent, unanticipated events of great importance, the U.S. government cannot legitimately devote taxpayer monies to any cause not authorized by democratically elected officials—not to the establishment of democracy around the world, nor the elimination of war, hunger, and chaos, nor the establishment of a stable world order, nor an orderly global trading system, nor any other worthy good except as these issues are discussed and endorsed by majorities of voters and adopted by their elected representatives. It can be expected that policies so adopted will reflect U.S. national character and basic values.
It is frequently argued that foreign policy is so different from domestic policy that majority rule should not apply. It is certainly true that foreign policy has distinctive characteristics. Its objects are more remote and exotic than the objects of domestic politics. Because most people know less about foreign than domestic affairs, the issues can more readily be distorted and manipulated. And as Tocqueville noted, the common sense and everyday experience of ordinary people is less readily relevant. It is also true that foreign policy decisions may be uniquely catastrophic. Major mistakes in economic policy may cost people their jobs and income, but major mistakes in foreign policy cost people their freedom and their lives.
Under the conditions of global interdependence and proliferating weapons of mass destruction, U.S. foreign policy has become progressively complicated, expensive, and dangerous. More nations, more civilizations, more horrors are involved. American civilians—like the passengers on the Achille Lauro—have been sucked into foreign affairs in new ways as the U.S. became involved with countries and people who consider us all combatants in an ongoing war for the liberation of somewhere.
It has become more important than ever that the experts who conduct foreign policy on our behalf be subject to the direction and control of the people. We should reject utterly any claim that foreign policy is the special province of special people—beyond the control of those: who must pay its costs and bear its consequences.
Like many other aspects of social policy, foreign affairs requires expert knowledge from those who frame issues and options and implement policies. But this is no reason to exempt it from democratic controls.
Only elected officials, continuously reminded of their immediate dependence on the people, can ensure that government does not impose inappropriate, excessive, or unbearable demands on the polity. Elected officials must therefore accept responsibility for foreign policy, and we the people should hold them responsible for its conduct. This means that discussion of the broad issues of foreign policy should have an important place in any election campaign. Such discussion is not the rowdy intrusion often charged; it is an essential element of democratic government in an interdependent world.
Foreign-policy elites may have distinctive views.
Maintaining popular control of foreign policy is especially important because foreign-policy elites often have different views than those of popular majorities. In the long years of World War II and the Cold War, the United States developed a foreign-policy elite based in the bureaucracy, academic institutions, and heavily associated with nonprofit institutions. Members of this foreign-policy elite grew accustomed to thinking of the United States as having boundless resources and purposes which transcended the preferences of voters and apparent American interests—expansive, expensive, global purposes—and eventually developed a disinterested globalist attitude which became identified with the liberal position in foreign policy.
In American discussions of foreign policy, “internationalism” is often identified with this “disinterested globalism,” and opposition to it is thought of as “isolationism.” But disinterested globalism is only one American variant of internationalism, rarely practiced by other governments, most of which practice another variety of internationalism.
As for isolationism, most Americans know it is not a viable alternative in the contemporary world. The isolationism vs internationalism debate is in reality the debate among the various types of internationalism: that which aims frankly to serve the national interest, as conventionally conceived (to protect its territory, wealth, and access to necessary goods; to defend its nationals); that which aims to preserve and defend democracy; and a brand of “disinterested globalism” which looks at the world and asks what needs to be done—with little explicit concern for the national interest.
Today, when the Soviet Union has lost its political dynamism, when democracy is growing in strength, when Europe, Japan. Taiwan, Korea are strong and friendly, the United States is free to focus again on its own national interests without endangering the civilization of which it is a part. That is a normal condition for nations. It is not incompatible with playing a constructive global role.
What should we do?
The U.S. should first clean up the residue due of the Cold War and the communist threat: eliminating Soviet troops and weapons from Eastern Europe, negotiating the dramatic reduction of strategic weapons, drawing down American forces and commitments overseas, and assuming no new obligations in remote places.
There are two major tasks which U.S. foreign policy should address. It should support the U.S. economy and work to strengthen democracy.
First, the U.S. government has the responsibility for writing and negotiating rules under which American business can compete effectively internationally. It is the U.S. government’s responsibility to negotiate rules which give U.S. products fair access to foreign markets and give foreign businesses no better than fair access to U.S. markets; to make certain that U.S. laws (such as antitrust laws) do not handicap U.S. industry in competing with European and Asian firms; to ensure that the patterns of trade competition do not undermine the United States’ industrial and technological base; to provide a strong, stable dollar which does not handicap American businesses seeking to deal in foreign environments and does not give foreign competitors an advantage in acquiring resources on the American and international markets. This is a government responsibility which cannot be ignored because of anxieties about an “industrial” policy.
Second, while it is nor the American purpose to establish “universal dominance,” in the provocative formulation of Charles Krauthammer—not even the universal dominance of democracy—it is enormously desirable for the U.S. and others to encourage democratic institutions wherever possible. Democratic institutions are not only the best guarantee that a government will respect the rights of its citizens, they are the best guarantee that a country will not engage in aggressive wars. Democratic institutions are the best arms control plan, the best peace plan for any area. A democratic Soviet government would quickly resolve outstanding problems in negotiating verifiable, mutual arms reductions. Democratic governments in the Middle East would resolve the so-called Arab-Israeli problem.
It is not within the United States’ power to democratize the world, but we can and should make clear our views about the consequences of freedom and unfreedom. We can and should encourage others to adopt democratic practices.
What we should not do:
A decent regard for the interests of American taxpayers and national interests also indicates that there are some things the U.S. government should not do.
The United States should not seek comanage the political evolution of the Soviet Union. It is a large, sovereign country, very different from our own, with whom we have no special influence, and in which we have no special interest (except as a military threat). There are several reasons we should not offer significant financial aid.
We should not imagine that we can “save” Gorbachev, either with massive economic aid or any other way, because his tenure will depend on internal political factors beyond our control.
Economic aid not necessarily help the Soviet economy out of its current crisis. Almost everyone understands that the sweeping structural changes required for the Soviet economy to grow have been slow in coming. So has the needed reorientation of incentives.
Americans do not know at this stage what is best for the Soviet people. Who would be more likely to move the peoples of the Soviet Union toward self-government and self-determination? Who would be more likely to provide self-determination to the constituent “republics” of the Soviet Union seeking autonomy? Who would be more likely to remove Soviet troops from Eastern Europe? Who would be more likely to reduce and destroy arms?
Any notion that the United States can manage the changes in that huge, multinational, developing society is grandiose. It is precisely the kind of thinking about foreign policy which Americans need to unlearn. We should also not get nervous, but understand that a period of instability in Eastern Europe is a necessary price of freedom for those long-suffering people.
The United States should also not try to manage the balance of power in Europe—we should neither seek to prevent nor assist Germany in reestablishing a dominant position in Europe or in Central Europe. We could not control these matters if tried, and there is no reason to try. A united democratic Germany is a threat to no one. There have been forty years for the United States and Western democracies to encourage democratic political culture and institutions. There have been decades of careful step-by-step movement toward a European Community and Atlantic Alliance, one of whose functions is to integrate and reinforce democratic institutions of member states. If those have not accomplished the task, there is not much we can do now.
The United States also cannot eliminate the anxieties of Germany’s neighbors—only positive experience with a powerful, sovereign Germany can do that. Neither can the U.S. be expected to sustain an expensive role in an alliance whose chief role is to diminish European fear of a resurgent Germany. Americans have more pressing priorities.
The relative strength and weight within Europe of the various European countries will be settled—peacefully, one trusts—by European countries in European arenas in which the U.S. will have a small role. This should be regarded by Americans as liberating rather than depriving the U.S.
The U.S. should also not seek to balance power between Japan, China, and, say, India, in North or South Asia, nor try contain Japan’s role in Asia and in the world. Our concern with Japan should above all be with its trading practices vis-a-vis the United States. We should not spend American money protecting an affluent Japan, though a continuing alliance with Japan is entirely appropriate.
A normal country in a normal time.
The United States performed heroically in a time when heroism was required; altruistically during the long years when freedom was endangered.
The time when Americans should bear such unusual burdens is past. With a return to “normal” times, we can again become a normal nation—and take care of pressing problems of education, family, industry, and technology. We can be an independent nation in a world of independent nations.
Most of the international military obligations that we assumed were once important are now outdated. Our alliances should be alliances of equals, with equal risks, burdens, and responsibilities. It is time to give up the dubious benefits of superpower status and become again an usually successful, open American republic.
This is, in any case, the: American purpose today—as I understand it. I believe these views are broadly shared by the majority of Americans.
Should that not be the case, I would, of course, respect their decision.
Originally published in the National Interest, Fall 1990.