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America’s Greatest Foreign Challenge?

What is America’s number one foreign-policy challenge?  If you’re Stephen Hadley, your answer is Pakistan.  The national-security adviser put it this way in the text of his remarks, delivered yesterday in Washington: “Stabilizing Pakistan must be the first priority for the new administration–as it has been ours.”  Hadley further explained his views in a pre-speech interview with the Wall Street Journal by describing how turmoil in Pakistan radiates throughout south and central Asia.

Pakistan, as consequential as it may be, is not America’s most important external-agenda item.  That honor goes to either Russia or China, which have the most potential to either support or undermine the international community.  The outgoing national-security adviser, however, cannot speak frankly about either Moscow or Beijing because President Bush was not able to do so.  As a result, Hadley’s summary of eight years of Bush diplomacy failed to describe the world as it is.

This is not to say Pakistan is not a problem.  Militants in its tribal areas destabilize Afghanistan, Pakistani terrorists launch attacks against India, and Islamabad’s technicians still appear to be disseminating nuclear technology.  So fixing Pakistan–not easy under the best of circumstances–would go a long way to solving critical problems.

Yet Pakistan, which often acts to further Beijing’s objectives, is more of a symptom than the disease.  The real challenge of American foreign policy is getting its relations with the authoritarian powers right.  Condoleezza Rice, first as Hadley’s predecessor and then as the nation’s chief diplomat, understood that.  She was at times able to achieve friendly relations with the Russians and the Chinese but failed at something far more important–moving them in constructive directions.  We don’t need to be friends with Moscow and Beijing.  We just need to get them to do what we want.

If we get Russia and China right, almost everything else, including Pakistan, should fall into place.  If we fail to win Moscow’s and Beijing’s cooperation–and so far we have not been overly successful in this regard–then everything will remain difficult.  So Hadley should have cut out the generalities and self-congratulatory assessments in his speech, which means he would have had to scrap most of his text, and concentrated on what is important.

Hadley said almost nothing about China and very little about Russia.  So why did anyone bother to turn up to his talk?  Washington, as others have said before me, just likes to listen to itself.  That’s not good enough these days.


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