Commentary Magazine

American Power-For What?

A Symposium

Foreign policy has once again become a matter of consequential dispute in American political life. But as Norman Podhoretz observed last month in “Strange Bedfellows: A Guide to the New Foreign-Policy Debates,” any number of well-known figures at different points on the political and ideological spectrum seem to have altered their accustomed views of the U.S. role in the world. His essay drew a taxonomy of these shifting attitudes over the last quarter-century and especially over the last few years, before articulating a position of its own (in a phrase, “post-Reagan Reaganism”) with regard to the uses of American power in the period we have lately entered.

In an effort to broaden and extend this discussion, the editors solicited reactions to Mr. Podhoretz’s analysis, mostly but not entirely from the diverse individuals whose positions he cited. Our invitation to them noted that, in addition to commenting on specific points raised by “Strange Bedfellows,” “we’d be especially grateful for a reasoned statement of your own ‘take’ on the current American role in the world and on the proper direction of American foreign policy now and in the years ahead.

The responses, 21 in all, appear below in alphabetical order.

This symposium is sponsored by the Edwin Morris Gale Memorial Fund.



Elliott Abrams

Anyone instructed in international relations during the last two centuries would know about the centrality of the balance of power. But the recent emergence of the United States as the dominant world power constitutes a radical change from that condition. The key question we now face is whether to preserve this dominance, or whether to view it as a danger to ourselves and others.

As a neoconservative and neo-Reaganite, labels Norman Podhoretz places on me and that I accept, my own answer is obvious: preserving our dominance will not only advance our own national interests but will preserve peace and promote the cause of democracy and human rights. Since America’s emergence as a world power roughly a century ago, we have made many errors, but we have been the greatest force for good among the nations of the earth. A diminution in American power or influence bodes ill for our country, our friends, and our principles.

What might threaten our leading role? I am less sanguine than Podhoretz may be and than Henry Kissinger clearly is about the People’s Republic of China. Just as during the cold war the problem was not Russia but Soviet Communism, in the PRC today the problem is rule by a Communist elite whose interests contradict those of its own people—and ours. As the strategist Coral Bell notes in the Fall 1999 issue of the National Interest, items at issue in the “possible collision course” between Washington and Beijing include the survival of Taiwan, the fate of North Korea, the U.S. alliance with Japan, the American naval and troop presence in East Asia, the prospect of a missile-defense umbrella over Japan and Taiwan, and PRC human-rights violations, not least in Tibet. With all these very much in mind, the PRC has increased its military spending by half during a decade when the rest of the world has used the post-cold-war calm to reduce defense expenditures. Chinese rulers are rushing to build a modern force that can dominate East Asia, and are supplying pariah states around the world with the latest missile and nuclear technology.

The Chinese regime, like all Communist regimes, is fundamentally insecure because it does not rest on popular support. Although it is trying to win a measure of legitimacy by improving living standards and allowing some additional personal autonomy, this will not work: as always with “goulash Communism,” whatever the local recipe, people will like the goulash but not the Communism. The recent crackdown on the apparently harmless Falun Gong movement and the continuing refusal to allow freedom of religion demonstrate how limited personal autonomy is likely to be and how extraordinarily insecure the government feels. As in the Soviet case, the regime will seek military power and success as a means of improving its legitimacy—and of cowing both its own people and its Asian neighbors.

In the Chinese case, however, there is a key difference Podhoretz does not mention: American business is pro-Chinese in a way in which it was never pro-Soviet. Too little money was at stake in Russia. By contrast, the corporate community has persuaded itself that, despite current setbacks, there are vast fortunes to be made even in a Communist China. Consequently, those promoting a tough line toward China’s human-rights violations and its aggressive foreign policy face resistance not only in Beijing but in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. As reaction to the recent agreement on Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization suggests, this is already causing divisions within the Republican party between the business community and all stripes of conservatives.

Pointedly acquitting Henry Kissinger of the “scurrilous charge that his ideas about China have been shaped by the commercial interests some clients of his consulting firm have there,” Podhoretz also assures us that realists like Kissinger will advocate containment of the Chinese if the latter “show signs of developing imperial aspirations.” But what “signs” do we need, beyond the extraordinary buildup of conventional ground and naval forces as well as strategic nuclear forces, and China’s renewed threats to Taiwan? To say that this suggests no “imperial aspirations,” not even in Asia, is reminiscent of the line (properly dismissed by Kissinger and Podhoretz alike) that Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe was “really” defensive and was motivated by fear of the West.

An issue to which few commentators other than Podhoretz have devoted adequate attention is changing notions of sovereignty. Commenting on Kosovo, he writes: “I find it hard to quarrel with the emerging idea that the principle of sovereignty should no longer embrace the right of political leaders to butcher their own people.” Coral Bell, too, points to the “new norms,” especially concerning human rights and the environment, that “legitimate great-power intervention in the crises of lesser powers to a degree seldom envisaged in previous diplomatic history,” and optimistically concludes that “Washington’s current and immediate future generations of diplomatic strategists have as large an opportunity (and as complete a set of tactical choices) before them as those of 1946-47.” But there are real dangers here in addition to opportunities. These “new norms” can be invoked to challenge American power as easily as to justify its use.

If, for instance, a single judge in Spain can force the seizure of General Pinochet in London against the wishes of both the Spanish and Chilean governments, what have we wrought? Can a system in which sovereignty may be breached not only by great powers but by any ambitious jurist really survive, and—a no less urgent question—can it be counted on to protect the rights of Americans? The new International Criminal Court, which treats sovereignty as a mere formality, presents similar difficulties. A long list of treaties now regulates matters once thought to be questions of domestic law.

Podhoretz likens our situation to that of 1919. I lean to Coral Bell’s comparison of the coming decade (or the next presidential term) to the fateful period of 1946-47. Whichever analogy one prefers, in this period, as Podhoretz notes, we will surely face painful decisions about when and where to intervene. But I come out as he does: better to face those decisions than the far worse ones we will encounter if we let our position slip away. Whether the current generation of politicians and strategists is up to the task before them, we shall soon find out.



William F. Buckley, Jr.

Manifestly, Uncle Norman is having trouble outlining a paradigmatic foreign policy, and I do not blame him. He is very good at noting contradictions, anomalies, inconsistencies, and we have had many of them during the Clinton years. They have not, however, resulted in the crystallization of a foreign policy agreeable to—whom? Whom do we want to satisfy? God? Locke? The Founders? Americans with continuing fire in their compassionate bellies? Or maybe the old soldiers, who echo John Quincy Adams in urging Americans concerned for freedom abroad to wish its prospects well, while cultivating it with manual effort only in our own garden.

We know now more clearly than we did when perestroika took over in the Soviet Union and annulled Lenin that the mix that harnessed the energies and direction of so many of us during the cold war—traditional isolationists, traditional interventionists, traditional anti-militarists and their opposites—is gone and is not prospectively replaceable. When all is said and done, Podhoretz concludes that he would rather ally himself with an idealistic interventionism than with a prudent isolationism—a very insufficient term, for which I would substitute measured internationalism. But the difficulty he confronts in sorting things out and coming to this conclusion rests in part on his determination to face the comprehensive problems of foreign policy—what to do when, to whom, under what circumstances—a priori.

That is the intellectually challenging way of doing things, to seek out policy templates. As in, “When a nation threatens other nations, we will intervene.” Or even, “When a nation threatens its own people, we will intervene.” Or maybe even, “When a non-democratic nation can reasonably be assumed to be developing an ABC (atomic/biological/chemical) weapons capability, we will intervene.” How to intervene, at risk of how much sacrifice, is a subordinate question, and of course subordinate questions generate sub-subordinate questions. Podhoretz balks at answering categorically any of these questions, leaving us only with his inclination in favor of an interventionist over a restrictive policy.

Well, coward that I am, I am going to proceed not a priori, but a fortiori: not by laying down constitutional formulations, but by asking one question. What are we going to do about Taiwan? In exploring that, perhaps light will be shed on structural questions as well.

About once every two years, beginning in 1962, I have counseled a foreign policy encouraging Taiwan to declare its independence of the Communist mainland. I knew how adamantly secession was opposed by Taiwan itself after my first visit there in 1962, and was still opposed, though with less than unanimity, when I was last there in 1992 on my fourth visit. Although it violates my rule against retrospective improvisation, I nevertheless observe that if we had succeeded in the 1960’s in persuading the Taiwanese to take progressive steps to detach themselves from Communist China—seminars, rallies, plebiscites, declarations of independence, applications to the United Nations—the gestation of a democratically governed independent state of twenty million people, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of their intentions and unfurling their own flag, would have considerably hampered Chinese irredentism.

But now there is the critical problem that the China of the new millennium will be making its claims with an arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles and will be asserting jurisdictional sovereignty over an island that itself claims to be the legitimate government of China but that successive United States administrations, bowing to Beijing, have treated as a constituent part of China—whatever the peculiarities of a Chinese province that governs itself, has its own army and navy, and swears not to submit to the political authority of Beijing until there is a change there of counterrevolutionary dimensions.

At the same time, we are “pledged” to the qualified defense of Taiwan. It is fair then to ask what we will do if the day comes when Beijing issues an ultimatum—for instance, by demanding that Taipei must disband its military forces and receive a mainland delegation that will take effective control of the government. We all know that the object of statecraft is to abort crisis, and so far this has worked—Taiwan is self-governed and we are at peace with China. But what will we do when, confident of its resources and of its cause, Beijing looks us in the face and asks, Do you want Taiwan so badly as to countenance a nuclear bomb on Honolulu?

Podhoretz might plead that, in such a hypothetical situation, we are simply back to a reenactment of Mutual Assured Destruction. But I want to hear it said: do we favor running the risk of nuclear war in order to preserve Taiwan’s independence? My own answer would be yes, an answer given not in anticipation of the probable loss of Honolulu but in anticipation of a Chinese backing-down. But I solicit debate on this point, after which—arguing, as I say, a fortiori—I will be able to reason back to fundamental assertions concerning U.S. foreign policy.

Lacking a consensus, would we at that point start asking questions like: is Taiwan really vital to our strategic position? Or, what is a vital interest in a nuclear age? On the other hand, what about our tacit pledges to the continuing integrity of Taiwan? Did we not pass the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, and have we not reaffirmed our commitment to ensure its de-facto independence? Are there other Taiwans here and there about the globe, little Kuwaits we are pledged to defend?

In a symposium like this one, we are, perhaps, castrated by the knowledge that things change. Governments change—ours, theirs—and language changes. The State Department in mid-November gave out the word that we would consider ending our blockade of the former Yugoslavia if there were free elections there, even if these renewed the mandate of Slobodan Milosevic. The same President who okayed this compromise told us a year ago that Milosevic was this day-and-time’s equivalent of Hitler. So if Hitler is democratically reaffirmed, Hitler becomes okay? Or was “Hitler” just an inappropriate metaphor? Are there other inappropriate metaphors hanging around? Our commitment to Taiwan?



Eliot A. Cohen

The cold-war foreign-policy debate offered its consolations, not least of which were those of comradeship. Conservatives of all stripes could band together in the knowledge that the foreign enemy really did represent a streak of evil in human nature; domestic opponents seemed, and often were, naive or worse. True, by the late 1980’s, splits had begun to appear in the conservative camp, as some began to realize that the Soviet Union was, in fact, in very sad shape indeed; but by and large, we were all in it together.

No longer, as Norman Podhoretz’s essay makes clear. But although I sympathize with his attempt to distinguish schools of thought—isolationist/realists versus new-American/imperialists—I have doubts about the enterprise. Would the “realist” Charles Krauthammers of this world watch Taiwan be bullied into submission without wanting American power to have a say? I doubt it. Would the “interventionist” William Kristols of this world endorse the dispatch of American troops to keep the peace in the now-independent former Soviet republic of Georgia? I doubt that, too. There are, to be sure, tendencies, sensibilities, and predilections at play, but these do not amount to doctrines. Nor should they.

The international environment in which the United States operates does not lend itself to programmatic statements. Take the case of China, which does loom as a foreign-policy problem for the U.S. It is not the evil empire of the cold-war past, but rather a complex, turbulent society burdened with a corrupt and ideologically bankrupt regime that is, nonetheless, tolerating (or unable to resist) the gradual spread of some political as well as economic freedoms. There is nationalism and paranoia—and a tremendous desire to attend Western colleges and universities and to take advantage of the fruits of the West’s economic system. Some nuanced mixture of confrontation and engagement is surely the right policy, and sweeping concepts will not tell us what that mix is.

Or take Kosovo, where, on balance, military intervention stopped some truly dreadful events in their course, although it did not (and could not) bring about the multiethnic, autonomous-but-not-independent Balkan Switzerland sought by the Clinton administration. The critical judgments required in that case were prudential: what price would the United States pay for intervening, and what for refraining? The Clinton administration got it right, and its opponents, on the whole, got it wrong, but theoretical rigor had nothing to do with it.

The world is a far more complicated place today than it was during the cold war. The creative destruction of information-driven capitalism; the deeper forces of demography and Americanization; the undeniable (if not altogether desirable) increase in the power of international media and non- or supra-state actors; the working-out of the long-term consequences of the collapse of old empires; the impossible-to-anticipate shocks of disease and ecological disaster—all have created a messy world that doctrines do not fit. There are, of course, a few first principles. No one (probably not even some members of the Chinese Politburo) would like to see the United States lose its status in the international system as the fundamental guarantor of an open trading order. By and large, democracy is better than dictatorship, not only in terms of fundamental decency and civil rights but as a source of peaceful relations among states. For the application of these and a few principles like them, however, no hard and fast rules can be found.

Prudence, then, should be the unsatisfactory and platitudinous watchword of American foreign policy. Podhoretz’s anxiety about American isolation, which he shares with so many commentators on American foreign affairs, is excessive. America has been engaged with the outside world since the founding of colonies more than three and a half centuries ago. No President for the last 50 years, and no serious presidential candidate now or in prospect, has advocated anything like isolationism. None has proposed that this country be anything other than the world’s dominant military power, or that it simply disregard the political problems of distant regions like the Persian Gulf or East Asia. There is a great deal more healthy good sense out there than one might think, and although one side may run foreign policy more or less competently than the other, even an administration as prone to pratfalls and as anti-realistic (in the foreign-policy sense) as the current one has done not too badly, all things considered. Saddam Hussein is still under constraint; our alliances are intact; China has been deterred from muscling Taiwan too much; Russia, if disgruntled, is not actively hostile.

The poisonous legacy of foreign-policy partisanship left by the cold war obscures the fundamental consensus that is a tremendous source of national strength. A season of presidential campaigns will probably heighten artificial distinctions between the parties, as well as highlighting the real ones that do exist. But sober sense would suggest that Americans acknowledge their good fortune in being able to agree about many things.

This consensus will prove necessary, because considerable foreign-policy problems loom ahead. The rise of China will require a sophisticated blend of measures to shape, accommodate, and in some cases contain the emergence of this new power with no previous experience of operating as an equal in the international system. The collapse of states as different as Colombia and Pakistan—and others may follow—will pose severe challenges to neighbors and ultimately to the United States. The diffusion of weapons of mass destruction is real, and with it the possibility of ghastly attacks on civilian populations. The tight linkage of financial markets through the new information economy may produce unanticipated economic calamities, while the disparities between rich and poor states may only grow.

All of these, however, are large problems to be managed and handled; pragmatic skill, not ideological clarity, is what the times call for.



Francis Fukuyama

In his usual incisive way, Norman Podhoretz has dissected the strange permutations and combinations of attitudes toward foreign policy that have arisen in the decade since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There are, however, three gaps in the story that need to be filled in.

The first has to do with isolationism on the Right, which Podhoretz tends to underplay. He is, of course, quite correct to denounce the Clinton administration’s shortsighted partisanship in attacking “Republican isolationism” in the wake of the Senate’s failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And it would be convenient if right-wing isolationism began and ended with Patrick J. Buchanan. But Buchanan is not a major force in American politics, while the Republicans in Congress are; and there lies a problem.

Many in this group are not, like Buchanan, isolationist out of principle. Rather, they are driven to the same position simply by catering to their constituents. It is a Republican-majority Congress that has been complicit in underfunding the military, with budget hawks like John Kasich leading the charge. This is the group that routinely gets applause lines by attacking foreign aid (the lion’s share of which continues to support Israel and Egypt and the peace process). Their small-mindedness is similarly on display in repeated efforts to cut the National Endowment for Democracy’s minuscule funding. During the Kosovo conflict, the House Republicans voted, just as congressional Democrats had done in the early 1970’s, to cut off funds for U.S. forces already deployed in the field. Although there was a time when Republicans could be counted on to support free trade against Democratic opposition, today, in spite of record low levels of unemployment and high levels of U.S. competitiveness, their enthusiasm has eroded substantially.

How serious right-wing isolationism is remains to be seen. Many congressional Republicans have been driven crazy by President Clinton and, in the wake of the impeachment scandal, will simply oppose anything he supports. Since this is an opportunistic rather than a principled isolationism, it may be that a Republican President in 2000 could lead them out of their morass. Or it may be that Republican internationalists are actually much more alone in their own party than they realize.

The second gap in the argument is related to the first. The relative value of realism (in its various versions) as opposed to what Podhoretz labels the “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy espoused by the Weekly Standard has to be assessed not just in terms of the intrinsic merits of each position but also by the extent to which one or the other can serve as the basis for a conservative internationalism, and thus as a means of guiding conservatives back from the isolationist abyss.

Podhoretz quotes William Kristol and Robert Kagan to the effect that “Without a broad, sustaining foreign-policy vision, the American people will be inclined to withdraw from the world and will lose sight of their abiding interest in vigorous world leadership.” Well, maybe. There is a fundamental ambiguity at the core of the Weekly Standard position concerning the exact mix of “interests and ideals” that should define American foreign policy. Podhoretz is right that the neoconservative position is more hard-headed than that of (say) Anthony Lewis, insofar as it recognizes the importance of American credibility and prestige. But the ends this policy serves are expansive ones that often amount to support for “humanitarian intervention.”

In such circumstances, the need to defend U.S. credibility becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you intervene in areas not vital to your strategic interests, your credibility will indeed be tested. Had the U.S. not threatened to bomb Kosovo in support of the Rambouillet accords (something the realist Henry Kissinger opposed at the time), NATO would never have faced the severe credibility crisis that ensued, from which it emerged by the skin of its teeth.

It is fine to be nostalgic for Reaganism, but Reagan (like Churchill before him) was rhetorically successful because he actually faced an evil empire against which he could rouse a sleeping public. It is not clear that the American public can be similarly roused in situations that amount to humanitarian intervention, disguised as it may be by a thin coating of national interest. More than the different varieties of realism, a policy that cannot clearly define where we should not intervene risks being seriously out of touch with the American public.

A final gap in Podhoretz’s account is his silence on the subject of globalization. Twenty-five years ago, when I was studying international politics in graduate school, high politics revolved around nuclear alerts and Henry Kissinger’s shuttlings to the Middle East. Today, high politics is IMF Director Michel Camdessus jetting off to Seoul or Jakarta to arrange a bailout. Save for Buchanan and Edward N. Luttwak (both of whom seem to have gone off the rails when it comes to economics), none of the figures mentioned in Podhoretz’s article has tried to come to terms with the global economy or has anything particularly interesting to say about it.

True, the old world of power politics does rear its head occasionally, in peripheral areas like the Balkans or Transcaucasus; and it may come roaring back in a big way among the great powers at some point in the future. But in the meantime, the major issues in global affairs will concern exchange-rate stability, wage inequality, the World Trade Organization, institution-building in transitional economies, the impact of information technology, capital controls, and a host of other difficult policy issues. Today, internationalism and engagement are more properly matters of how the U.S. and the international financial institutions can help Russia or China or Ukraine build free markets and democracy, rather than the conditions under which the U.S. will or will not use military force.



Frank J. Gaffney, Jr.

The old line, “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard,” never seemed more apt than at present, in what might be called the post-post-cold-war environment, with its bewildering array of specialists, pundits, and practitioners. Norman Podhoretz has performed a singularly useful service in providing such an annotated scorecard, and it is delicious that, in the process, he has settled a few scores as well.

I have few serious disagreements with the way Podhoretz has parsed the various schools of thought and explicated the often torturesome paths by which some have arrived at their present stances and intellectual alliances. His most helpful contribution, however, may be the attention he has focused on the two camps that have deviated the least from their principles—those determined to leave no stone unturned in the cause of constraining American military power, and those who believe that American power is indispensable not only to protecting our interests but to promoting a relatively peaceable world.

To be sure, as Podhoretz recounts, some prominent adherents of the first school—variously described as unilateral disarmers, aggressive multilateralists, and Utopian One Worlders—have prominently backed U.S. participation in controversial military operations from Haiti to Kosovo. These include Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Samuel Berger. I would argue, however, that in such advocacy they have actually deviated less from their policy roots than might appear at first glance.

In fact, the diversion of America’s might and its dissipation in the service of “selfless” international causes have been hardy perennials of the self-described “global-security” camp. In the past, this predilection has taken the form of support for a standing UN army, to which the assets and personnel of our armed forces would be permanently assigned or subordinated. The hallmark here is the proposition that only military operations authorized by the Security Council are “legitimate.” Although Albright and Berger have on occasion found themselves sharply attacked by others who share their objectives (famously at Ohio State University when the Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, together with Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, tried haplessly to sell Clinton’s war option for Iraq to jeering antiwar activists), their agenda in toto is largely indistinguishable from that of their sometime critics on the Left.

This reality can be seen most clearly in the microcosm of arms control, where no perceptible difference separates the Clinton administration’s stated ambitions for ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction through negotiated agreements from the position of more radical activists. The Senate’s courageous rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—no product of partisanship, let alone isolationism—offered proof positive of how far removed Clinton and Gore are from sensible and responsible thinking about nuclear deterrence and its requirements, and how squarely they fit into the traditions of the ban-the-bomb and nuclear-freeze movements.

I am proud to be placed by Norman Podhoretz in the second of the two policy schools that have remained true to their principles—the so-called “neo-Reaganite” camp. While, as he notes, there are some differences within this group, they mostly center on how to apply those shared principles in specific cases, rather than on the principles themselves.

Fundamentally, we agree that the main threat arises not from the United States’ being too powerful but from its being perceived abroad as weak and irresolute. That perception, alas, is generally the result of our acting that way at home—a phenomenon all too much in evidence during the Clinton years. It is no coincidence that during this period we have witnessed serious erosion in America’s alliances, escalating proliferation, an ominous “strategic partnership” being forged between the Russians and Chinese, and the growing power of rogue states and terrorist organizations. These are tectonic shifts in the geopolitical plate structure with which we will have to contend for years to come.

Given history’s harsh treatment of the “disarm-the-one-you’re-with” school, and its general vindication of the school of peace-through-strength, it is remarkable indeed that there is still something to debate. And yet, the former camp is not only still a factor in policy deliberations; it is having a disproportionate influence over them. This is due in part to the fact that many in the senior ranks of the Clinton administration are among its adherents. But it is also a byproduct of an effort that has not received the critical attention it warrants: in an increasingly coordinated manner, left-of-center philanthropies are investing more than $140 million per year in the work of academic and activist proponents of an agenda variously called “Human Security,” “Global Security,” “Cooperative Security,” “One World,” and “Secure World.”

Thanks in particular to the sustained generosity of the MacArthur, Ford, W Alton Jones, Ploughshares, Hewlett, Carnegie, Merck, and Rockefeller foundations, thousands of professors and graduate students have been trained to advance revisionist views of the Reagan legacy, to argue the illegitimacy of American power, and to promote the necessity of global governance. Dozens of think tanks and organizations—some of whose more radical views were in evidence last month during the demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization—have been underwritten to espouse and legitimate these ideas, and efforts are being expended to cultivate sympathetic treatment in the media. Absent a comparable effort in behalf of more realistic and robust security policies, those who remain committed to what Jeane J. Kirkpatrick once rightly ridiculed as a “blame-America-first” philosophy may exploit the confusion and incoherence of the contemporary debate to dictate its outcome.

Already, the Clinton-Gore administration is far along in its efforts to institutionalize multilateral arrangements that threaten sharply to limit American sovereignty and freedom of action. Its phony arms-control agreements and generally vapid “peace processes,” its hollowing-out of the U.S. military, and its coddling of adversaries at the expense of America’s allies portend a legacy frighteningly reminiscent of the prewar period of the 1930’s. Norman Podhoretz is to be commended for warning of this danger, and for pointing the way if we are to avoid a calamity that might, if anything, exceed that which followed an earlier heyday of pacifism and utopianism.



Owen Harries

Norman Podhoretz’s essay is mainly about discontinuity: how, over the last decade, positions have altered and alignments shifted, and how strange and unpredictable the ideological landscape has become.

As usual, Podhoretz gets to the heart of the matter, even if he does so in slightly loaded terms. For the current divisions among conservatives about foreign policy are essentially between those who believe that the policies and habits of mind that characterized the cold war are still valid and appropriate, and those who do not. This division cannot be usefully discussed in terms of “steadfastness” and “abandonment,” as if what is involved is some test of character. What the argument should be about is not consistency but appropriateness—the appropriateness of old policies and assumptions in radically changed circumstances.

For over 40 years, we anti-Communist cold warriors insisted that the United States, and indeed Western civilization, faced a life-threatening crisis. Our adversary was powerful, ruthless, and bent on our destruction. His values were inimical to ours. The struggle was global.

In these very special circumstances, and as a matter of survival, we insisted that foreign and defense policies should be given overriding priority, that an extraordinary level of global commitment and activity was justified. The exceptional nature of the times required exceptional measures.

Then, abruptly, the cold war ended. This left the United States victorious, supreme, and about as unthreatened as a great power can be in a system of independent states. In these entirely changed circumstances, it seemed to me that a fundamental reassessment of American foreign policy was not only desirable but essential—certainly in terms of the country’s needs, but also in terms of our moral and intellectual integrity as cold warriors. For if the existence of the cold war had been so special, requiring a profound reevaluation of our role in the world, then the same was surely true of the ending of the cold war. To turn around now and treat as normal and permanent policies that had been adopted and justified because of an existential crisis seemed fraudulent.

Those who now argue for continuation of cold-war levels of activism and commitments usually invoke one or more of three grounds. First, they maintain that while there is no longer one great threat facing us, there are a number of smaller ones and that these are collectively as dangerous as the threat posed by Communism a generation ago. This, I believe, is nonsense, and its nonsensical character is exposed by the pathetic efforts to inflate the significance of petty tyrants by representing them as “Hitlers” or “Stalins.” Moreover, the arithmetic of this kind of aggregation is specious: a bad head cold plus a skin rash plus a slipped disk does not add up to a brain tumor.

Second, it is argued that as the world is intrinsically an incredibly dangerous place (for this purpose, anti-realists suddenly adopt the most extreme form of Hobbesian realism), the United States must involve itself everywhere and always, in every issue large and small, because, to quote Robert Kagan, otherwise “[t]here is no certainty that we can correctly distinguish between high-stake issues and small-stake issues in time to sound the alarm.” Thus a policy of relentless, universal, and perpetual busyness is advocated because of a complete lack of faith in the ability of the American government and people to exercise any judgment, foresight, or discrimination.

Third, there is the argument advanced by Podhoretz at the end of his article—that “we are in a situation resembling the one that developed after the end of World War I,” when the withdrawal of the United States helped create a power vacuum in which totalitarian systems were able to thrive. Such a mistake, it is insisted, must not be made again. As an argument against isolationism of the kind that prevailed in the United States between the wars, this is irrefutable. As an argument against a policy of discrimination and prudence that advocates stopping short of democratic crusades and hyperactive hegemonism, it is irrelevant. Indeed, the amount of attention Podhoretz devotes to isolationism strikes me as extravagant. Isolationism is surely a red herring, for no serious participant in the conservative foreign-policy debate advocates it. The real arguments take place in that broad territory that lies between the extremes of gung-ho crusading and isolationism.

In the case of NATO, for example, what is at issue is not the alliance’s continued existence, or U.S. membership in it, but its rapid and extensive expansion. Looking back at the 1970’s, Podhoretz makes the point that he disagreed with the Kissingerian policy of working with China to counter Russia because it confused the central issue: that the enemy was not Russia but Communism. Indeed, as he reminds us, far from Russians as a nation being the enemy, they were the first victims of Communism. That is certainly the way I saw things, and that is one principal reason why I now oppose the expansion of NATO eastward, at a time when Russia is struggling, however imperfectly, to find its feet as a democracy. But why, in terms of his own distinction between Communism (enemy) and Russians (victims), does Podhoretz support that expansion?

The reasons I urge restraint and prudence on the United States have nothing to do with isolationism. They are threefold. First, I have serious doubts concerning the willingness of the American people to sustain the level of engagement now being advocated vigorously by some of my conservative colleagues.

Second, I believe that, in any case, many of the goals being urged upon us to justify the extravagant commitment of resources and prestige are not sensible or sustainable ones. I am not an admirer of humanitarian wars; policies that result in semi-permanent American garrisons in the Balkans strike me as ill-considered; and a country that has signally failed to establish democracy in Haiti, after years of trying, should surely consider a more modest approach to democratic crusading.

Third, and most compelling, I advocate restraint because every dominant power in the last four centuries that has not practiced it—that has been excessively intrusive and demanding—has ultimately been confronted by a hostile coalition of other powers. Americans may believe that their country, being exceptional, need have no worries in this respect. I do not agree. It is not what Americans think of the United States but what others think of it that will decide the matter.



Jacob Heilbrunn

Imagine a wealthy businessman who has been fending off his main competitor for several decades. He has endured family feuds as well as industrial espionage, all the while managing to create a thriving enterprise. Suddenly his rival is revealed to have completely bungled his own affairs and is forced to plead bankruptcy. Overnight, our businessman goes from being merely wealthy to being a Croesus, able to buy, hire, and fire at will. But how do the business journals and the professors of management advise him to behave? You’ve never been in greater peril, they caution: sell off your assets, lest you provoke a coalition against you; better to run the risk of penury than to overextend yourself.

Does this sound ludicrous? It is essentially what newly revived isolationists have been counseling ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. To be fair, the Nation has been sounding a similar dogma since Vietnam, but now elements on the Right have adopted it as well. In fact, the single most important development in the post-cold-war era may be the alacrity with which some leading conservatives have embraced a leftist set of beliefs that had seemed to sputter into insignificance with the disappearance of the Soviet Union. From Trent Lott declaring it was time to give peace a chance in Kosovo, to Charles Krauthammer sounding a Walter Lippmann-like warning about our commitments being out of balance with our means, to the crackpot fringes of Buchananism, isolationism, often in the gilded form of “realism,” has made a comeback.

In his penetrating essay, Norman Podhoretz provides the historical context that has been missing in most discussions of where American foreign policy is headed. One of his most important points is that the activist party in the 20th century has been not the GOP but the Democrats. The cold war, which really began not in 1945 but with the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, was finally countered by the Truman administration, even as Robert Taft & Co. on the Right, echoing Henry Wallace on the Left, called for the U.S. to stay out of Europe. Did some of the Republican zeal for prosecuting the cold war in the 1950’s derive from a realization that the GOP had been tardy in its response to the Communist threat, and that now it either had to outflank the Democrats or relegate itself to the sidelines?

As Podhoretz observes, Democratic ardor for confronting Communism did not begin to wane until Vietnam, when academics, journalists, and politicians seemed to perform ideological somersaults. But perhaps Vietnam was the aberration, albeit one with a profound effect on American elites, and perhaps the demise of the Soviet Union, coupled with Yugoslav ethnic cleansing, has jolted mainstream Democrats back to reality. Maybe the Republicans, as William Kristol and Robert Kagan have argued, are in danger of forfeiting their dominance in foreign policy, while the Democrats charge ahead, unafraid to challenge dictators and stand up for human rights.

Not exactly. True, the record of the Clinton administration in exercising American power abroad has not been unimpressive on its face. As Podhoretz notes, Clinton stared down the Haitian junta, sent destroyers off the Taiwanese coast, bombed in Afghanistan and Sudan, carried out an air war against the Serbs in Kosovo, and continues to conduct attacks against Iraq. To critics like Charles Krauthammer, this represents not only dangerous overstretch but most of all a quixotic commitment to justice and human rights. Yet if this is what it takes to get Democrats to act, then I am all for it.

The truth is that the realists vastly overblow the potential perils to the U.S. of intervention abroad. The American public does not. As a study carried out by the Triangle Institute and excerpted in the Washington Post reveals, the American public can distinguish between suffering casualties and suffering defeat, and what most Americans are interested in is victory. Still, the timorousness with which the Clinton administration has approached its foreign ventures, backing into rather than decisively entering them, does not inspire much confidence that any future Democratic administration will take a tougher stance toward dictators around the globe, particularly in China.

But neither would a George W. Bush-led administration be much different. Indeed, given the coloration of Bush’s present foreign-policy advisers, it might be even more cautious than a Democratic one. (Though it is often claimed that academia has no influence on the real world, academic models of realism have in fact had a profound effect on American foreign policy, whether we are speaking of Henry Kissinger’s conception of détente and triangular diplomacy or the desire of the elder Bush’s administration to preserve a supposed balance of power in the Middle East by leaving Saddam Hussein in the saddle.) The only consolation offered by the prospect of a second Bush administration is that it would at least not succumb to outright isolationism.

If, however, Bush (or John McCain, should he become the Republican nominee) were to lose the election, then I fear isolationism might well take hold in the GOP. And here is where Podhoretz may have pulled his punches. Despite Bill Clinton’s manifold imperfections, which hardly need to be enumerated, he of all people is closer to Podhoretz’s robust conception of American foreign policy than is much of today’s GOP. The virulence with which the Kosovo war was greeted among people like Jack Kemp amounted in my view to downright anti-Americanism. At a time when the United States has never been more flush economically, the claim of the realists that we are about to overextend ourselves is as fanciful as comparable warnings sounded by liberal doves in the 1980’s.

The new realists have it backward. America is not overcommitted. It is not committed enough.



Robert Kagan

Early in his outstanding essay, Norman Podhoretz expresses some amazement at the “unprecedented” reversals of the foreign-policy views expressed by both Left and Right over the past decade. Actually, such reversals are part of a long and honorable American tradition.

In the first two decades of the American republic, Jeffersonian Republicans and Hamiltonian Federalists altered their positions on foreign and defense policy rather dramatically, depending on which side was in power. (Jefferson, for instance, wanted to build a strong navy in the 1780’s, only to oppose a naval buildup when the Federalists held the White House in the 1790’s; Federalists returned the favor by opposing the Louisiana Purchase, thus reversing their own previously held position.) In the early part of this century, erstwhile Republican internationalists like Henry Cabot Lodge delivered their party to isolationists like William Borah in a fit of (perhaps justifiable) pique at Woodrow Wilson, while the previously pacifist and isolationist Democratic party of William Jennings Bryan rallied to Wilson’s internationalism.

There has been much serious and interesting debate over foreign policy among conservatives in recent years. But let us not pretend that this debate has been unaffected by political developments. For all the high-minded theoretical disputes that have filled our intellectual journals, the realist or neoisolationist tendencies of most conservatives (Patrick J. Buchanan notwithstanding) can be traced not to 1991 and the breakup of the Soviet Union—not, in other words, to an earnest attempt to grapple with the new realities of the post-Soviet strategic environment—but to the election of Bill Clinton.

Why, for instance, was the term “international social work,” coined by a disgruntled former Clinton adviser, applied by Republicans only to interventions that occurred after 1993? Perhaps the purest form of “humanitarian” action ever conducted by the United States was George Bush’s intervention in Somalia in 1992 to stop a politically-induced famine, but I do not recall much conservative outrage over that deployment of American troops on a humanitarian mission. A couple of years earlier, Bush had sent thousands of American soldiers to Panama to remove a thug from power and to establish a more functional democracy there. (Contrary to Republican revisionist history, the invasion of Panama was not aimed at protecting the Canal.) Panama was, in essence, Bush’s Haiti. Where were Republican criticisms then of our reckless adventures in “nation-building” and “democracy-promotion”? If a Republican President had taken the United States to war in Kosovo last year, I believe a majority of Republicans and conservatives would have supported him—and supported not just that specific intervention but the broad rationale for such interventions.

Now, there is much reason to prefer almost any Republican’s interventions to Bill Clinton’s, just as there was much reason to prefer Hamilton’s navy to Jefferson’s. But is the distinction really a matter of principle? Where many conservatives have erred these past eight years has been in elevating their justifiable mistrust of Clinton’s leadership in specific cases to the level of a general theory about how America ought to conduct its foreign policy.

Instead of opposing Clinton’s internationalism, such conservatives have opposed internationalism. Instead of opposing Clinton’s ineffective methods of intervention, they have opposed intervention. They have erected what they insist are enduring principles of American foreign policy—no “humanitarianism,” no “nation-building,” no exporting of democracy—for the purpose of indicting Clinton. The price of using doctrinal elephant guns to shoot a political flea is that conservatives have driven themselves into a neo-isolationist corner where they have no business being.

This may sound a bit cynical, but actually it is good news. Such politically-driven “reassessments” of American foreign policy are easily reversed. If George W. Bush or John McCain occupies the White House next year, we will find a majority of Republicans and conservatives largely cured of their neo-isolationism and even, I imagine, of their parsimonious “realism.” (By the same token, I suspect a Republican President in 2001—at least, a Republican President of internationalist disposition like Bush or McCain—will cure most Democrats and liberals of their current internationalism.) Anyone who watched or read Bush’s speech at the Reagan Library in November knows that he left much room for American intervention in future Bosnias and Kosovos. It was the episodic, inconstant, and ineffective nature of Clinton’s interventions that Bush criticized, not the appropriateness of the interventions themselves.

I do not wish to make light of the arguments advanced by our most astute and articulate realists. There has been and remains a legitimate theoretical debate over the principles that should guide American foreign policy in the post-cold-war era, over whether the United States should intervene abroad more or less frequently, and for what reasons. But I would suggest that the real test for conservative realists of the 1990’s vintage will come after January 2001, when a Bush or McCain leads the country to war in some less-than-central part of the world out of the same uncertain mixture of principle and interest that led his predecessors into Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

Then it will be clearer if there has been a genuine shift in conservative opinion on foreign policy, or whether what we have witnessed over the past eight years has been just another spin of the electoral wheel. Maybe, with a Republican in office, conservatives and liberals alike will return to their respective beds and leave the company of strangers.



Zalmay Khalilzad

Norman Podhoretz describes the writings of recent commentators on foreign policy as marked by contradictions and inconsistencies, in contrast with the more cohesive postures taken during the cold war. Podhoretz is puzzled by this development. I am not. The fundamental reason is that nothing has jelled to replace the central strategic fault-line of the cold-war era—essentially a strategy of opposition to the Soviet Union.

The reason a grand strategy has not emerged is that we do not face a global adversary who threatens our very existence, and we therefore have the luxury of not being forced to choose among alternative designs. It is also true that, given the absence of a clear enemy, our political culture is disinclined toward any such designs. Although strong presidential leadership would have overcome this constraint, President Clinton has not provided it. In any event, the absence of an agreed-upon framework has placed the U.S. in a largely reactive mode, and this is what explains the inconsistencies and contradictions Podhoretz captures.

What might such a framework look like? In essence, three realistic alternatives are available: to give up leadership by facilitating the rise of a multipolar system; to embrace isolationism and focus on promoting prosperity at home; or to consolidate American preeminence by precluding the rise either of a global rival or of a multipolar system. In various writings since 1992, I have favored the last as the best long-term guiding principle for our national security.

The United States today is the most powerful state in the international system. Although preserving this position is not an end in itself, a world in which the U.S. continues to be the preeminent power will be more receptive to democracy, free markets, and the rule of law, and also will have a better chance of avoiding another global cold or hot war.

Three sets of interrelated factors could pose threats to this design. First, if one or more major countries became more powerful and challenged the United States. Second, if there were to be a substantial relative decline in U.S. economic and military power brought about, for example, by overextension. Third, if a hostile power were to gain control of a critical region.

Let me focus here on the first set of factors, with a comment about overextension. At present, our potential rivals are either too weak or are already our allies. In the near term, this situation is unlikely to change significantly, but for the longer term we need to maintain our alliances by focusing on current and emerging threats to joint interests. In Europe this means stabilizing the new democracies in Eastern Europe; increasing our common ability to deal with challenges from the South—threats to the energy supply, terrorism, weapons proliferation, and religious or political extremism; and hedging against uncertainties in Russia even as we encourage the rule of law, market reform, and democratization there. Together we must also incrementally extend the zone of democracy, peace, and prosperity.

In Asia, our alliances have not adapted to the changing environment. In addition to the threat from North Korea, the U.S. and its allies face the risks of Balkanization in Southeast Asia and the long-term possibility that China might seek regional hegemony. How China evolves will have the greatest impact of all.

Given the inherent uncertainties in China, a pure engagement strategy that seeks expanded relations in the hope of positively influencing Chinese policy or changing China into a friendly democratic power seems to me quite risky. By helping China to develop economically and technologically, it can create the basis for future strength, and if the assumption about democratization proves incorrect, it will also help China become a more threatening regional—and perhaps global—rival.

But a pure containment strategy is also unwise. Fatalistically assuming that China is bound to be an adversary overlooks the possibility of domestic change and of a positive evolution in our relations.

Instead of pure engagement or containment, what seems to me appropriate is “congagement”—a strategy somewhere between the two with elements of both. Under such a policy, we would continue to enhance economic, political, and cultural ties with China, but we would be less solicitous of Chinese sensitivities on issues like human rights. By tightening our export controls, we would do nothing directly to help increase Chinese military capability. We would also seek to strengthen relations among states that could form the core of an alliance against China should it push for regional hegemony, and likewise strengthen our own security relations with these countries. On Taiwan, we would preserve and stabilize the status quo for as long as China’s future remains uncertain. Through these measures, and by strengthening our own military posture in Southeast Asia, including, in the long term, establishing a military base there, we would point out to China the costs of turning hostile.

A strategy of precluding the rise of global rivals will not succeed unless we maintain our military and economic strength. But one major risk we face is overextension, a mistake made by some great powers in the past. Given the absence of a systemic rivalry, the U.S. can be quite selective in its military involvement, but during the past several years we have not been selective enough. Unless recent trends are reversed, we will either have to fund a much larger armed force or erode our capability of dealing with threats to critical interests, such as in the Persian Gulf. Emphasizing greater selectivity does not mean indifference to humanitarian interests in places like Bosnia; but in such situations we should consider other options, including arming and training the victims of aggression.

Since the end of the cold war, the idea has gained ground that the world is now more uncertain. That is only partially correct. In the past the enemy was known, but it was not easy to predict either his behavior—“Kremlinology” was an almost mystical science—or other threatening developments around the world. We were, however, relatively certain of our overall objectives and the priorities among them. That is no longer so; it should be again.



Jeane J. Kirkpatrick

James Q. Wilson has observed that “elite beliefs are probably more important in explaining foreign-policy decisions than in accounting for decisions in other policy areas.” He is right as usual. Elites interpret our problems and our duty. They even try to tell us who we are and why it matters. When their views change, we know our culture has changed.

The views of our political elites seem to have changed dramatically since the end of the cold war, but the extent and character of the change have not been adequately explored. Like an earthquake of gigantic proportions, the collapse of Communism in the West shook all manner of political, strategic, and metaphysical certainties from their foundations, leaving questions and problems where dogma and habit had ruled. It is therefore a good thing that COMMENTARY is sponsoring this discussion.

On no issue is the change so marked as the use of force. When the Reagan administration offered arms and training to the Nicaraguan resistance, law professors all over America pronounced the policy illegal and utterly rejected the argument that force could under certain circumstances be used to restore or protect democracies. As late as 1989, when the U.S. intervened in Panama under George Bush, leading liberals in and out of Congress described this action as the clearest possible violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition on force, and professors of international law reminded all and sundry that the use of force against another state is never justified except in self-defense, a concept that was itself to be very narrowly interpreted.

These extremely negative attitudes also colored the liberal response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, even after the UN Security Council authorized force against him. And when, Security Council resolutions in hand, George Bush sought authorization from the U.S. Congress—as required by the U.S. Constitution—the outcome of the Senate vote remained in doubt to the very end, even though Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait across an international border was as clear a case of aggression as could be imagined. The vocal opposition of leading Democrats to the U.S. role in the Gulf was finally silenced only by enthusiastic popular support for the performance of American armed forces and high-tech weapons.

But then came the great change. By the time they reentered government with Bill Clinton, a generation of 60’s liberals had rethought their views on force and intervention. With the definitive end of the cold war and the arrival in power of a new foreign-policy team, liberal isolationism was—almost overnight—replaced by a new doctrine of global engagement. Hostility to the use of force gave way to doctrines of “peacekeeping,” “democracy-building,” and “nation-building.” Over the past few years, force has been justified in the pursuit of diverse causes: separating parties to a conflict, disarming warlords in remote countries, “restoring democracy” (Haiti), “containing” conflict (Macedonia), providing “advisers” (Bosnia), and delivering Kosovo from ethnic cleansing.

And yet—not everything has changed after all. I believe the most important issues confronting America today are those of identity and survival. Because the United States is the strongest country in the world, more than a few foreign governments and their leaders, and more than a few activists here at home, seek to constrain and control American power by means of elaborate multilateral processes, global arrangements, and UN treaties that limit our capacity both to govern ourselves and to act abroad. Moreover, although most of the policy positions developed in the long bipolar competition with the Soviet Union are now obsolete, some—as it happens, the ones touching especially on the twin cardinal issues of our identity and our survival—are still preserved in the Washington policy community and among the intellectual elites like beetles in amber.

Missile defense is the most salient issue here. No hostile power of comparable size or strength to the Soviet Union exists today, but several dictatorships of violent tendency and hostile intent—Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya—are working hard to acquire ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. North Korea has demonstrated its potential to cross the ICBM threshold. China must also be considered. But Democrats still oppose an effective missile-defense system to protect America and its allies.

From the time the Soviet Union developed the capacity to reach the United States with its nuclear weapons until today, leading liberals and Democrats have taken the view that there should be no defense against such an attack. In the past, they supported a strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction that left everyone vulnerable. In this mutual vulnerability they paradoxically saw common security. That common security, they still argue, is what will be destroyed if one side develops defenses against a nuclear attack by the other. That was the rationale behind the 1972 Antiballistic Missile treaty with the USSR, which was intended to prevent the “destabilizing” development of an effective defense, and it is the rationale we remain wedded to today.

True, some liberals and Democrats are quietly altering their stand on missile defense, but they still basically prefer to reinforce the balance of terror in the world by means of agreements to limit offensive weapons of all types, chemical and biological as well as nuclear. The problem with this arms-control approach to security is that the same governments against which we most need to protect ourselves are those most likely to violate the treaties—as the Soviet Union violated the ABM treaty, as Iraq and North Korea have violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty, and so forth. The fact that Iraq and North Korea, India and Pakistan have ignored the “nonproliferation regime” in which we so fervently believe has had, thus far, remarkably little effect on the debate. Nor has the reality of our ongoing vulnerability penetrated the consciousness of many of our foreign-policy intellectuals. Perhaps we need to discuss that, too.



Charles Krauthammer

The principal practical disagreement between the “globalist” and “realist” schools of foreign policy concerns what Eliot A. Cohen calls “imperial policing.” This involves “ill-defined and usually secondary or tertiary national interests.”

Realists believe that superpowers don’t do windows. Globalists counter first by citing American credibility: if we do not act to stop the war in Bosnia, or sovereign savagery against a rebellious province in Kosovo, others will be emboldened to do as the Serbs have done. The Russians, for example.

Well, we did intervene in Bosnia, and in Kosovo, and the Russians then blithely ignored our example and ravaged Chechnya. So much for deterrence.

The other argument is psychological: we should exercise our power because we have it. If we allow ourselves to turn away from relatively minor conflicts, then, when the real test comes, we will be flabby and unprepared. Shirking becomes a habit, then a policy, then an ideology. A policy of national greatness requires the continual assertion of that greatness. We have the power. Use it or lose it.

The answer to this kind of psychological theory of interventionism has been best given by Francis Fukuyama. He makes the point that “the much greater danger is use it and lose it. That is: intervening for secondary and poorly-thought-out objectives and therefore wasting the political capital we have for large interventions later. We cannot work our way up to [large serious interventions] by swatting flies in anticipation.” The worst thing that we can do in the name of keeping ourselves globally engaged is to squander our strength and political capital on tasks as remote from the American national interest as reconstructing Somalia, democratizing Haiti, and pacifying the Balkans.

The only sound theory of global engagement for the post-cold-war world is a dry-powder theory of intervention. In a country with strong isolationist tendencies, you do not squander blood and treasure on teacup wars.

This is an anti-isolationist theory of (relative) noninterventionism, or, as I would prefer, of prudent and selective intervention. Why? Because one needs to preserve one’s strength for major exertions. In an era of relative quiet, you do not run around putting out small fires just because they are the only ones burning. You save your resources for the real strategic threats.

What are they?

First, containing, deterring, and, if necessary, disarming rogue states that are acquiring weapons of mass destruction, states that could threaten with unprecedented power not only our allies and our troops abroad, but eventually America itself.

Second, containing a rising China, a country whose position on the globe at the turn of the 21st century is comparable to that of Germany at the turn of the 20th—a large, growing, former have-not, seeking its place in the sun, pushing inexorably against its neighbors.

Third, maintaining vigilance against the possibility of a resurgent, revanchist Russia.

Fourth, maintaining order as the ultimate guarantor of international peace and stability. As the only nation that can project power anywhere in the world decisively and overwhelmingly, our role is to husband our resources to meet supraregional challenges—i.e., those that threaten not just a country or a region but the stability of the international system itself.

A prime example is the Gulf war. We went to war over Kuwait not because we were opposing aggression in the abstract but because we were trying to prevent a radical enemy from gaining control of the greatest oil reservoir on the planet and from feeding its appetite for weapons of mass destruction. This was no teacup. Saddam threatened to become a supraregional threat. It was therefore the role—the unique role—of the United States to intervene to slap him down. No one else could. That is our job.

In many ways, the strategic role of the United States is comparable to the role practiced classically by Britain. Britain was the balancer of last resort in Europe. The United States is the balancer of last resort in the world. We are needed to balance otherwise unbalanceable rogue states like North Korea and Iraq; to shore up the periphery against an expanding China; to guard against Russia until its destiny is settled. This role requires huge resources to maintain the forces that will stand ready to thwart those threats. And these are the resources that are being stretched and squandered on humanitarian missions best left to Sweden.

Is imperial policing not stabilizing? In some limited sense, yes. Any intervention is presumably triggered by some existing instability that could be at least temporarily suppressed by policing. Unfortunately, however, the stabilization is likely to be temporary. Our efforts in Somalia and Haiti have been written on water; we leave those places much as they were when we came. And the reason we are stuck in Bosnia and Kosovo is precisely the same: we know that if we leave, the deluge returns.

Moreover, the harm done by these minor interventions to the stability of the larger international system can be great. Note only the damage that Kosovo caused to American relations with Russia, China, and Greece. Much higher still is the long-term cost to the United States of these discretionary wars, the distraction from our primary and unique mission and the drain on the military, diplomatic, and domestic political resources necessary to sustain that mission.

The essence of the neorealist position is this: we shall have no lack of challenges. During the relative quiescence that has followed victory in the cold war, we should not dissipate our energies looking for trouble where it matters little. Trouble will soon come looking for us—from rising powers, from regional conflict in a place we may not even anticipate, and from the spread of weapons of mass destruction to outlaw states. We had better gird ourselves for those threats with our powder dry.



William Kristol

Do strange bedfellows make the best bedfellows? I really wouldn’t know. So far as I can tell, it has been pretty much the same old band of monogamous bedfellows hanging around the neo-Reaganite camp for the last few years. Perhaps that will change when prospective recruits learn from Norman Podhoretz how “ardent” Robert Kagan and I have been in advancing our cause; we can only hope.

Kagan and I have argued a very simple proposition: U.S. foreign policy was successful in the 1980’s because it was militarily strong, strategically robust, and morally assertive; and it should continue to be all of these things in the post-cold-war world.

To two groups of conservative critics, this proposition seems not just simple but simpleminded. The first group, who range from Charles Krauthammer to Owen Harries to Patrick J. Buchanan, could be called cold-war exceptionalists. Despite the considerable differences among them, all regard the cold war as a strange interlude for the U.S., requiring extraordinary foreign-policy measures and ambitions. Krauthammer, Harries, and Buchanan supported a vigorous political and ideological prosecution of the cold war, and do not (on the whole) regret having done so. But now they want a return to normalcy—to “a republic, not an empire” in the case of Buchanan, to a foreign policy based not on any form of “idealism” but on a modest (Harries) or a hard-headed (Krauthammer) view of our vital national interests.

In their focus on national interest, the cold-war exceptionalists find themselves in bed with the conservative realists, led by the redoubtable Henry Kissinger. The cold-war exceptionalists were willing to countenance “Wilsonian” means to fight Soviet Communism; not so the realists, who were fighting Russia, not the Soviet Union, all along. Indeed, the realists expended a lot of effort trying to ensure that Wilsonian rhetoric never corrupted their hard-headed policy prescriptions. Now that the cold war is over, the realists have redoubled their effort to extirpate America’s Wilsonian impulse.

So, adding liberals to the picture, one can group today’s foreign-policy debaters into three pretty distinct bedrooms: America as first among the United Nations (the Clintonians), America as a normal country (the conservative realists, joined by the cold-war exceptionalists), and America as an exceptional nation and world leader (the neo-Reaganites). We neo-Reaganites divide our time between explaining that there is a fundamental difference between us and the true Wilsonians—between, that is, the muscular patriotism of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan and the Utopian multilateralism of Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton—and battling the realists over the future of the Republican party.

The two fights tend to merge. While in theory one might think the realists and the Clintonians far apart, in practice both tend to default to a foreign policy dominated by commercial interests. The realists can never really persuade Americans to follow the lead of Metternich, and the Clintonians can never really persuade us to defer to Kofi Annan. So they agree that we should trade with everyone and hope (in either a realistic or an idealistic way) that commerce will lead to peace and will minimize the challenges we face around the world.

Against this inclination to reduce the business of America to business, we neo-Reaganites try to make the case for freedom and greatness. We could use a few more bedfellows in that endeavor.



Michael Ledeen

It is America’s inescapable mission to fight for the spread of democracy, and therefore against tyranny. This is so because of who we are: the most successful democratic society in history. Our specific policies are usually beside the point; tyrants hate us because their legitimacy is undermined by our very existence. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Stalin’s heirs knew this, and so did the Japanese warlords and Saddam Hussein. The Chinese tyrants and Slobodan Milosevic know it today. Oppressed people everywhere care so deeply about the fortunes of the United States because they know that if we fall, they are doomed.

Whenever I hear policy-makers talk about the wonders of “stability,” I get the heebie-jeebies. That is for tired old Europeans and nervous Asians, not for us. In just about everything we do, from business and technology to cinema and waging war, we are the most revolutionary force on earth. We are not going to fight foreign wars or send our money overseas merely to defend the status quo; we must have a suitably glorious objective. We are therefore not going to stick by a government that conducts foreign policy on the basis of Realpolitik. Without a mission, it is only a matter of time before public opinion will turn against any American administration that acts like an old-fashioned European nation-state. Just ask Henry Kissinger.

That is why I find the realist position highly unrealistic. The only truly realistic American foreign policy is an ideological one that seeks to advance the democratic revolution wherever and whenever possible. I was sickened by the Bush administration’s failure to celebrate our victory in the cold war, and by the grotesque spectacle of President Bush asking Russians and Ukrainians to support a Communist regime instead of seeking freedom. I was discouraged when we failed to pursue the Gulf war to the logical and necessary conclusion of removing Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime, just as in the 1970’s I had been dismayed at our policy of détente with the Soviet Union. In like manner, I have been appalled by the Clinton administration’s appeasement of China’s Communist dictators, and by its refusal to use military power to destroy the Milosevic regime in Serbia.

That said, I often agree with the realists on questions of tactics. I was opposed to the bombing in Kosovo because I did not believe the Clinton administration was capable of using military power correctly (that is, to bring down the Milosevic regime and replace it with something more civilized). I was in favor of using military force early in the Bosnian conflict, and I found the various agreements and the ultimate deployment of “peacekeepers” to be unworthy of the world’s lone superpower. These were stopgap measures, not serious policies. Add to them Clinton’s shameful betrayal of the democratic forces in Iraq, and you have a dangerous message being sent to our enemies: America can be challenged, and you will live to fight another day.

China is the true litmus test for policy-makers and thinkers, and I was therefore disappointed that Norman Podhoretz dealt with it only briefly. None of us is smart enough to know with certainty what China is going to look like ten or even five years from now. Yes, it could effect a transition to democratic capitalism and become our greatest Asian ally. But it could also become a very nasty tyrannical enemy. And of course it could explode or implode; surely China’s problems are grave enough to produce a massive convulsion. In any case, we must do everything in our power to ensure that China does not have enough military power to destroy us.

But that is precisely what Bill Clinton and his henchmen have not done. With a singlemindedness that will astonish future historians, this administration has sold the Chinese our finest military technology, often at bargain-basement prices. We have sold them more supercomputers—the central nervous system of modern warfare—than we possess in our own military and intelligence agencies combined. We have sold them nuclear-modeling software, missile-guidance systems, MIRV technology, underwater sensors, fiber-optic cable, the technology for global positioning systems, and multi-axis machine tools to produce the special “skin” for advanced aircraft and cruise missiles.

This is the greatest crime committed by the Clinton administration, in cahoots with Congress, with a flock of distinguished realists who assure us there is nothing to worry about, and with a popular press that can only focus on one scandal at a time. If we get a real change in the executive branch next year, the new President will have to order a detailed damage assessment to figure out what sort of Chinese threat we may conceivably face, and how much time we have to field an army that can beat it.

It is hard to be optimistic, because the pattern of American interventionism in this century is remarkably consistent: we have not initiated action against major powers, but rather waited for them to attack us. We are never ready for the next war, and believing, against all the historical evidence, that peace is the normal condition of mankind, we demobilize after every victory.

If we were serious about foreign policy, we would never have dismantled the export-control system that deprived the Soviet Union of advanced military technology. Instead, we have unilaterally junked the system and armed China. If we were serious, and true to our national mission, we would encourage the democratic forces in China, and we would clearly support the democratic government of Taiwan. Instead, we find excuses for Chinese domestic repression, and waffle on Taiwan. In short, although we certainly have the wherewithal to advance the cause of the democratic revolution, it remains to be seen whether we have the wisdom, and the courage, to act.



Edward N. Luttwak

Norman Podhoretz is a good and wise man, whose well-known pugnacity derives not from mere temperament but rather from the intensity of his beliefs, most of which I share. Always guided by solid common sense in addition to intellect, he has long been the straight arrow in America’s discourse on foreign affairs, never captive to the modish temptations that many other intellectuals have failed to resist.

My business, however, is strategy—the realm of paradox, irony, and contradiction, in which nothing is solid and nothing is straight, because the presence of reacting adversaries confounds every straightforward proposition. Because Norman Podhoretz always made the right choices during the cold-war years in which I knew him (after 1972), I assumed that he understood strategy as well as so much else. For example, he was unimpressed by the widely influential contention that nuclear superiority was useless merely because none of its possible manifestations (multiplicity of warheads, expected accuracies, energy yields) could be exploited operationally in realistic scenarios. That the measures in question were purely theoretical meant nothing: any balance of power is a matter of perceptions unless and until war breaks out, when quite other capabilities come into effect. Podhoretz understood that, just as he understood that the “arms race” was not to be deplored or actually limited for it served to keep the peace, by nullifying optimistic war plans and by venting pressures that might otherwise induce far more dangerous land-grabs.

But as soon as the cold war was over, Podhoretz reverted to commonsense logic, i.e., unstrategic thinking, while I remained wedded to strategy, and thus we parted company. When Kuwait was invaded, he saw the opportunity to destroy Saddam Hussein’s vicious regime, and apparently did not ask himself what would happen in the aftermath. I instead saw the opportunity to use Saddam Hussein’s highly circumscribed power to good effect, as well as the disadvantages of defeating him too well. If you have an especially horrible enemy, destroy him by all means if you can, but only if you have no other enemies and rivals in the region and the world. But if you do have other acknowledged or insidious enemies and rivals (the normal predicament), it is usually advantageous to do no more than contain the horrible enemy and leave him strong, for he is horrible to others as well—who are therefore forced into cooperation with you, or even subservience—whereas destroying his power leaves others only slightly less dangerous free to inflict harm and releases the arrogance of former dependents, who may make all sorts of demands instead of praying for the continuation of their own protection.

While employed in the Pentagon as a target-selection consultant before and during the Gulf war—an essentially operational-level function at best—I did not stop thinking about the direct, indirect, and second-order repercussions of different outcomes at the level of grand strategy. For example, if the supply of Gulf oil as a whole should become nullified by blockade and reciprocal attacks, the United States, with oil now at $100 a barrel, would have had to become self-sufficient in energy, incidentally generating much high-wage employment to produce the needed coal, shale oil, etc.; Mexico, Venezuela, and indeed much of Latin America would have gained much in oil revenues, and so would the Russian Federation, whose democratic evolution would have been greatly favored thereby. It was chiefly the commercial rivals of the United States in Europe and the Far East that would have been the losers—all very prosperous countries with elastic economies that could easily afford the costs of oil substitution.

There were many other second-order repercussions to be calculated as well, including the end of Saudi oil revenues and with it the flow of money to Islamists everywhere. In the Arab-Israeli context, Yasir Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan would have been locked into place as Saddam Hussein’s allies instead of becoming claimants of American benevolence. Nor were my speculations dominated by the fear that Iraq might unveil competent strategic forces; the chaotic profusion of its efforts that seemed sinister to others I interpreted as evidence of massive incompetence. Just before the war, I wrote in the New York Times that even if the Iraqis launched every ballistic missile in their arsenal at Israel, there would be fewer than 50 fatalities at most, and not much destruction; in the event, the Iraqis employed only a part of their inventory against Israel, and the only fatalities were caused by the decision to distribute gas masks to the entire population, including people with impaired breathing, while most of the damage to housing was caused by the debris of Patriot missiles falling back to earth. (That, incidentally, reflects one more paradoxical rule of strategy: no defense can be cost-effective against an ineffectual threat.)

Today, at the level of grand strategy, Norman Podhoretz wants to make the United States stronger by achieving a greater degree of coherence in its foreign policy, and by spending more on the armed forces. I fully agree that it is chiefly the incoherence of its foreign policy that diminishes the perceived power of the United States. But I believe that American interests are well served thereby.

It was an accident of history that left the United States as the world’s only superpower. If its potential economic leverage (now mostly hijacked by commercial interests), cultural influence, and military superiority were employed coherently, in a disciplined, power-maximizing way, its weight in world affairs would be such that all political entities desirous of retaining their independence would coalesce against it, to oppose, resist, sabotage, and undermine all its initiatives (as the French already do), finally diminishing net U.S. power below present levels.

Not being a public official, it is not my duty to explain my particular applications of the paradoxical logic of strategy to all and sundry, but I had entertained the hope that Norman Podhoretz would understand, just as during the cold war he understood the usefulness of unused weapons and the beneficial role of the arms race.



Walter A. McDougall

Although I, too, cherish the memory of those heady days when we all fought the good fight together, Norman Podhoretz’s reading of the recent past cannot go unchallenged.

He begins by assuming that “historians have never stopped quarreling” over whether the United States has been or is by nature “isolationist.” In fact, few serious diplomatic historians would describe America’s relationship to the world as isolationist in any era, and none would do so without carefully defining the term. Unfortunately, Podhoretz forces the reader to tease out what he means by this dirty word, and ends up committing the same misdeed for which he faults Bill Clinton: reckless and promiscuous use of the term in such varied contexts that it ends up meaning nothing, or whatever his polemics need it to mean.

Thus, Podhoretz dismisses the Eisenhower administration—which made alliances all over the world, threatened aggressors with “massive retaliation,” lost no ground to known Communists (Castro hid his allegiance), and kept the peace—as all talk and no action, while implicitly praising the Democrats of that era for their bellicosity. Then, when Democrats turn dovish because of the Vietnam war, it comes as a “shock.”

What Podhoretz does not grasp is that the crusading ethos that intoxicated Democrats from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon Johnson is the flip side of isolationist moral disarmament, as opposed to the businesslike internationalism of Republicans from Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Evans Hughes to Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Thus, as soon as the Democrats lost faith in their own moral superiority, they lurched to the other, “Come Home, America,” extreme.

But instead of concluding that the real lesson of 1968 is that isolationism is a close cousin of self-righteous moralism, Podhoretz links it instead to pacifism. This false linkage allows him not only to condemn the McGovernites but to describe the efforts of Nixon and Kissinger to extricate America from Vietnam as reluctant bows to the new isolationism, culminating in their belief “that military intervention in analogous conflicts was now politically out of the question.” That would have come as news to the North Vietnamese under American B-52’s in 1972, not to mention the Israelis in 1973, for whom Nixon was willing to go on nuclear alert. For that matter, Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights and third-world problems was no ostrich strategy, either.

It was Reagan, of course, who turned us around, but Podhoretz does not understand how. He calls it a “great irony” that Reagan wanted to abolish nuclear weapons, and an “even greater irony” that his “nuclear pacifism” contributed to the fall of the USSR. But it was not ironic at all: the Reagan arms buildup, climaxed by SDI, targeted the expensive arsenal of fear and extortion to which the Soviets had mortgaged their economy. Otherwise, Reagan, like Eisenhower, was extremely cautious, waging no wars and employing force only in Grenada and Libya—operations Podhoretz himself calls “mere pinpricks.” What helped to bring down the Soviet empire was Reagan’s brilliant combination of Wilsonian rhetoric and hard-headed geopolitics, with an assist from the bust-up of OPEC.

After the cold war, when “everyone seemed at sea where foreign policy was concerned,” Podhoretz predicted that the absence of a clear enemy would “give rise to a more blatant and widespread pacifism than we had seen since the 1930’s.” Hence it was to his “amazement” that George Bush waged the Gulf war, and even “more amazing” that Bush won public support for it. He would have been less amazed if he had questioned his working assumption about Americans’ innate isolationism and instead appreciated that their willingness to lead abroad is a function of leadership at home.

Having been amazed by Bush’s success, Podhoretz then failed to anticipate the Clinton phenomenon, which initially seemed to him to reflect “a full-fledged resurgence of isolationism and pacifism” after all. He is now forced to confess that he got Clinton wrong, too. Both Clinton and the liberals have emerged as “positively bloodthirsty” in their zeal to use the military abroad, a phenomenon Podhoretz found “incredible” until he figured out that they just favor multilateral, humanitarian wars in which, presumably, no real American interests are at stake. That, in turn, is what has sparked an apparent flip-flop on the part of some conservatives who are now opposed to crusading abroad.

But who are the floppers? Not Henry Kissinger, whom Podhoretz credits with geopolitical consistency. And not Charles Krauthammer, Peter W. Rodman, or Fareed Zakaria, whom he describes as realistic internationalists trying to adjust to the end of the ideological cold war. So the “strange bedfellows,” the new isolationists of the Right, the avatars of this terrible trend are reduced to just two, one of whom, Edward N. Luttwak, is dismissed as not influential. That leaves Patrick J. Buchanan, a minority of one.

Podhoretz concludes by restating his claim that “many liberals and conservatives alike” have made significant, even 180-degree, shifts. But his own evidence disproves this: the realists have been consistent, the only rightists to flip-flop are the inconsequential Luttwak and Buchanan, while leftists of the Anthony Lewis persuasion have been dogged in their opposition to the U.S. national interest. The purpose of invoking the myth of a “180-degree shift” seems to be to praise the sole group—the neoconservatives—that, in Podhoretz’s estimation, “has held steadfastly” to its perspective. That said, he proceeds to list all the issues on which neoconservatives disagree, coming around in the end to embrace the muscular Wilsonianism of William Kristol and Robert Kagan.

I have argued elsewhere that the Kristol-Kagan case for a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy aimed at imposing a “benevolent American hegemony” is wrongheaded from the standpoint of history, strategy, and even domestic politics (Orbis, Winter 1998). Here let me say that the crusade preached by Kristol and Kagan is not the only alternative to isolationism, and that it does not amount to “making the world safe for democracy.” If it did, I would be on board myself. It amounts, rather, to “making the world democratic,” and differs from Clintonism only in the correct supposition that a crusade of such magnitude requires rather more weapons than we now possess.



Joshua Muravchik

The cogent taxonomy offered by Norman Podhoretz sent me back to his “Neoconservatism: A Eulogy” (COMMENTARY, March 1996). There he argued that on most issues, foreign policy included, neoconservatism was no longer distinguishable from conservatism. “[O]nly a tiny handful,” he wrote, “still advocate the expansive Wilsonian interventionism that grew out of the anti-Communist passions of the . . . cold war.”

Today, Podhoretz places himself and a number of others, including me, in a group that believes that “the proper strategic objective of the United States is ‘to make the world safe for democracy.’ ” My own impression is that most of those who once made up the distinctive neoconservative camp now identify with this position, albeit with notable exceptions like Charles Krauthammer. Perhaps, then, the eulogy was premature. Now that the smoke from the implosion of Communism has cleared, a peculiarly neoconservative foreign policy has indeed reemerged.

Podhoretz calls this position “post-Reagan Reaganism,” but we might also call it Wilsonian Reaganism or Reaganite Wilsonianism. The linking of the names of these two Presidents—one of them, as Podhoretz says, “a pillar of the liberal tradition, the other of the conservative”—underscores his point that what is distinctive about our position is that it aims to assert both American interests and American values. (In contrast, conservative realists would give more emphasis to the former, liberals to the latter.) This dual emphasis reflects not merely an effort to find a middle position or to avoid choices but rather the view that America’s interests and values are much easier to separate in theory than in practice.

The extension of American power and influence has been the most important engine of the advance of American values. This is hardly to deny that American power has been sometimes misused. Rather, it is to assert that American power has been the linchpin of the remarkable global spread of freedom and prosperity and the prevention of a third world war. As a corollary, the perdurance of these welcome circumstances is far likelier in an atmosphere of continued American power and influence.

Conversely, America has done well by doing good. Old World diplomats and their “realist” cousins on this side of the Atlantic often look upon America’s approach, with its strong admixture of idealism, as naive. But how do they account for America’s remarkable success? In truth, the higher content of idealism in U.S. policy is a source of strength. It has helped to evoke great sacrifice from the American people and to build a body of sympathetic opinion in other lands, and it has made the presence of American power more often welcomed than feared by other governments.

This is the answer to Owen Harries’s warnings about “the historical tendency . . . for other states to gang up on and challenge the No. 1 state.” He is thinking, I suppose, of Napoleon or Hitler, or perhaps of the USSR. These were conquerors posing a very real danger to all. But America poses no threat to the freedom or independence of others, only to their pride or their own imperial ambitions.

Still, there is a germ of truth in Harries’s argument: America’s vast supremacy surely does breed resentments that were suppressed as long as the USSR presented a repulsive counterweight. Such feelings may not lead others to fight America, but they can make them truculent. One need entertain no starry-eyed images of UN-based multilateralism to appreciate that effective U.S. policy requires cooperation from other states.

How can we accomplish this? The key is to devote our power to purposes that embody our interests and values and that can appeal to others as well. The essence of our platform must be peace and democracy.

That the spread of democracy serves American interests is proved by a wealth of experience; that it is also good for other nations is all but self-evident. One does, of course, hear that people in this or that society “don’t want” democracy; but such arguments, appealing as they must to the purported wishes of the people, are hopelessly self-contradictory. Promoting democracy is a goal that emphasizes our commonalities with other democracies and also brings us friends among those striving for democracy in places lacking it.

Peace is a trickier desideratum. Although it is universally proclaimed, there are conflicting ideas about how to pursue it. Rare are the cases where one must repress for the sake of democracy; many are the cases where one must “kill for peace,” as mocking anti-Vietnam protesters used to think themselves clever for saying. Thus, if we are to be taken seriously, we must spell out what we mean.

The cornerstone of our peace policy ought to be international law. Article 2.4, the heart of the UN Charter, defines and forbids aggression. Short of committing ourselves to going to war reflexively, we ought to strive to see this law upheld. That is what President Bush did in Kuwait, then failed to do in Bosnia.

The discouragement of aggression, while entailing risks, will serve our self-interest by deterring the emergence of regional hegemons able to threaten our most tangible interests. To be sure, we will incur the wrath of those whose malign ambitions we thwart, but the majority of other nations and people will honor such a use of our power.

In Kosovo, it was we who violated article 2.4. That is why, as Podhoretz notes, I dissented from the prevailing pro-interventionist view within the Wilsonian Reaganite camp, much of which was and is (understandably) dismissive of international law. But, Kosovo notwithstanding, my view is that international law offers us more advantages than disadvantages. The UN Charter itself acknowledges an “inherent right of individual or collective self-defense,” and, in addition, most authorities recognize the legitimacy of “humanitarian intervention” in extreme cases of human-rights violation.

These tenets give us adequate latitude to justify resorting to force, with or without the approval of the UN Security Council, in almost all cases in which we would want or need to do so. By resting our actions on a legal basis (and accepting the correlative constraints), we can make the continued exercise of our disproportionate power easier for others to accept.



Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

Norman Podhoretz is right: despite the rhetoric, the current foreign-policy debates are not about isolationism. Polls show that a large majority of the public favors active American involvement in the world. The real debate is over what principles should guide our use of power. To my recent effort in Foreign Affairs (July/August 1999) to spell out these principles, Podhoretz gives an honorable mention: “valiant but not altogether successful.” Fair enough, I thought. I looked forward to what he would offer as an alternative. To my surprise, it is the “elevated patriotism” and “global hegemony” advocated by William Kristol and Robert Kagan of the Weekly Standard.

Now, I like Kristol and Kagan’s commitment to an active American role abroad. A decade ago, when predictions of American decline were the intellectual fashion, I demurred; my 1990 book was entitled, Bound to Lead. I also reject the realist dichotomy of interests- versus values-oriented foreign policy. Our values are part of our interests; the prudent promotion of democracy and human rights serves American interests.

But the problem with Kristol and Kagan is that their vehicle has a powerful accelerator and weak brakes. It is unlikely to stay on the road. And when it crashes, it may lead to a public overreaction that can damage our long-term involvement and interests. What the American public is seeking are principles that will keep us involved in the world without our becoming the global cop or hegemon. Here Kristol and Kagan offer precious little help.

Crusaders in foreign policy are stronger on good intentions than on good consequences. Podhoretz is wise enough to recognize this. Though he breaks with the prudence of Owen Harries, he also admits to doubts about Kristol and Kagan’s “unabashed enthusiasm.” He asks the right questions: “What are the limits that should be set for American intervention? Where, if anywhere, are the lines to be drawn?” Unfortunately, he does not answer them.

Foreign policy involves trying to accomplish varied objectives in a complex and recalcitrant world. This means trade-offs among objectives. A human-rights or promotion-of-democracy policy is not a foreign policy; it is an important part of a foreign policy. What must command priority in the balancing act are threats to survival. Without survival, all other values vanish.

Preventing attacks on the United States by countries or terrorists; preventing the emergence of hostile hegemons in Asia or Europe; preventing the emergence of dangerous situations on our borders—these deserve priority because they can threaten our survival. To be sure, differences can arise as to how much insurance to buy against the threats. And, in addition to threats, there are also opportunities to consider in shaping foreign policy.

How should we set priorities in such a world? Classical realists like Hans Morgenthau taught us to start with understanding our power. Well into the next century, the United States is likely to remain the preponderant but not the dominant nation. We will want to influence distant governments and organizations on a variety of issues—the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, drugs, resources, and the environment—while also promoting values congenial to our interests.

A basic proposition of public-goods theory is that if the largest beneficiary of a good (such as order) does not take the lead in devoting disproportionate resources to providing and maintaining it, smaller beneficiaries are unlikely to muster the wherewithal to do so. This means that, more than other countries, we have systemic interests to protect. Here we can learn something from Great Britain in the age when it was the preponderant but not the dominant power. Three public goods advanced by Britain in the 19th century were: (1) maintaining the balance of power among the major states; (2) promoting an open international economic system; and (3) maintaining open international commons like freedom of the seas. All three translate relatively well to the current American case.

In terms, first, of the distribution of power, we need to continue to shape the international environment. That is why we keep 100,000 troops forward-based in Europe, another 100,000 in Asia, and some 20,000 near the Persian Gulf. Our role as a stabilizer, insuring against the rise of hostile hegemons in important regions, has to remain a top priority.

Second, promoting an open international economic system is good for America and good for other countries as well. In the long term, economic growth is also more likely to foster stable, democratic, middle-class societies in other countries, though the time scale may be a lengthy one.

Third, the U.S., like 19th-century Britain, has an interest in freedom of the seas. But the international commons now also include the global climate, the uses of outer space, and, increasingly, cyberspace.

I would add to this list our systemic interest in developing and maintaining international regimes of norms, laws, and institutions to organize actions relating to trade and the environment, weapons proliferation, peacekeeping, and human rights. Those, like Charles Krauthammer, who denigrate the importance of such regimes ignore soft power and the extent to which legitimacy, too, is a reality of power. Hans Morgenthau would not have made such a mistake. Finally, as a preponderant power, the United States can provide an important public good by acting as a mediator and convenor.

To repeat: values like human rights and the promotion of democracy have to be melded and traded off with insurance of our survival and our systemic interests. Otherwise, the so-called CNN effect is likely to support waves of humanitarian sentiment a mile wide and an inch deep—enough to get us into conflicts, as in Somalia, but not to sustain our involvement. This means that the foreign-policy debate we need is over how to integrate our values with our other interests. Who knows? Such a debate might produce more strange bedfellows—and that would be a good thing.



David Rieff

The sense of incongruity Norman Podhoretz experienced in finding his own name alongside that of Anthony Lewis’s on a petition calling for U.S. military action in the Balkans is entirely understandable, and would, I imagine, be shared by Lewis. The debates Podhoretz charts, beginning in the early days of the cold war, reaching critical mass during the Vietnam war, and continuing even after the collapse of the Soviet empire, were so bitter and unforgiving that both liberals and conservatives still tend, mistakenly, to construe the current U.S. role in international affairs through the prism of those times.

For my own part, I remain unpersuaded by much of Podhoretz’s account of the earlier controversies. He writes as if the fact that the struggle against Communism was fundamentally a just and moral crusade manumits him from considering whether its ends justified its means. But it was this concern, far more than the isolationist currents that he anatomizes in such detail, let alone what neoconservatives call anti-anti-Communism, that, beginning in the 1960’s, caused so many liberals to reconsider the legitimacy of the cold war. The American officer who during an engagement in Vietnam told a reporter, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it,” epitomized, for many, the dangers of an interventionism that seemed contemptuous of the moral restraints that just-war theory and modern international humanitarian law, not to mention commonsense morality, should have imposed.

And yet, having registered my demurrers, I wonder, after reading Podhoretz’s piece, how relevant these disputes over the past remain. Perhaps he does as well. To be sure, he endeavors to establish a fundamental continuity between positions taken by neoconservatives like himself during the cold war and what he calls the “post-Reagan Reaganism” of writers and activists like William Kristol and Robert Kagan. But here again, such a continuity is no more intellectually or politically sustainable in the year 2000, already a half-generation removed from the fall of the Berlin Wall, than the old antinomies of political Right and Left that Podhoretz himself concedes now make a poor guide for determining where people stand on any particular issue.

In effect, the Kristol-Kagan prescription demands that the U.S. remain in a crusading mode after Jerusalem has been liberated, or, in this case, the Soviet empire has not only been defeated but ceased to exist. But a crusade cannot be based on historical analogies, like Podhoretz’s likening of the period we are entering to the one that began in 1919. Nor does a slogan like “making the world safe for democracy,” which Podhoretz deploys toward the end of his essay, have any specific gravity in the post-cold-war context, or approach the coherence of the old American ambition to prevent more of the world from becoming Communist.

When Podhoretz speaks of democracy or of the American mission in the world, what does he actually have in mind? Is he, for instance, talking of free elections, like the ones that, had they been allowed to proceed, would have brought Islamic fundamentalism to power in Algeria? Since he argues that the principle of sovereignty should “no longer embrace the right of political leaders to butcher their own people,” is he advocating an international human-rights regime, up to and including military intervention to enforce it? On a practical level, this would inevitably involve collaboration with allies, some subordination of U.S. law to international law, and an increased role for multilateral institutions like the United Nations.

The problem is not so much that Podhoretz is a Wilsonian, an epithet against which he indignantly defends himself. The problem is that the perfect coherence he yearns for is simply unattainable except in the special circumstances of a crusade. Politicians understand this instinctively, which is presumably why President Bush had to compare Saddam Hussein to Hitler when he obviously knew better, or why Clinton had to trumpet the intervention in Kosovo as the first of many wars of values, not interests, when the U.S. has neither the intention nor the capability of acting consistently elsewhere as it did in the Balkans.

Neither Podhoretz nor Kagan and Kristol seem willing to confront how anomalous were the conditions—including the ideological conditions—of the second half of the century we have just left. In my own view, the era we have entered is, both for better and for worse, much closer to the historical norm. As such, it calls for much more modest goals. Even if the U.S. is unlikely ever again to be the hegemon it was during the cold war, it will always be a great power. Sometimes it will use that power purely in defense of interests, as in the Gulf war (although the Gulf war was also an exercise in defense of international law). Sometimes that power can be used, proportionally and with good effect, to right a wrong. But just because the humpty-dumpty of American hegemony cannot or will not ever be put back together again need not be a cause for despair.

The issue, in other words, is not American hegemony but rather the attempt to craft a foreign policy that will coherently articulate both American interests and American values. That is no easy task. The very fact that our foreign policy is subject to so many new pressures—from the false promises held out by a consumer society, to the superficial immediacy of the “live-from-the-battlefield” reporting of CNN and the Internet, to the fracturing of American society along fault lines of both ethnic and elective affinity—is an enormous challenge in itself, for how is one to make foreign policy intelligible not only to our allies and our adversaries but to the American public itself? Certainly, none of the major candidates for the presidency is up to the task. All the more reason, then, to believe that if we can achieve such coherence, we will have achieved a great deal, and certainly more than we will achieve by trying to fan the embers of a hegemony that is anyway rapidly waning.



Peter W. Rodman

Norman Podhoretz’s brilliant survey of the intellectual terrain of American foreign policy leads me to two principal reflections. One has to do with the important degree of political harmony that I now see on the Right. The second has to do with the state of the debate between neo-Reaganites and realists.

Both in content and tone, Podhoretz’s essay pays a kind of tribute to the easing of many previous intramural disputes on the Right. This is one of the positive developments of the present period. Differences there certainly are (as over China and humanitarian intervention), and they are not trivial. But Podhoretz’s historical survey also reminds us of the much more glaring gulf between Right and Left. The cliché that the end of the cold war has abolished this distinction is mistaken.

As the Clinton administration has brought home to us with a vengeance for seven years, Right and Left in America (even the internationalists among them) still have very different worldviews. The Left retains a certain liberal guilt about American power, which it assuages by an assertive faith in multilateral institutions (the UN, international law), in diplomatic nostrums like multilateral arms control, and in an agenda of New Age issues like environmentalism. The Right is more strategic-minded, less naive about our ability to abolish the factor of power from international politics, and unapologetic about American strength, American sovereignty, and American preeminence. The Right puts more faith in military defense (including missile defense) and greater stock in the geopolitical components of our security (facing down Saddam Hussein and North Korea; preserving our alliance system). Clinton has been reported to dismiss this kind of strategic analysis as “Old Think.”

Liberal guilt about American power also translates into a particular kind of scruple about the use of force. Here I have in mind not just the liberal assumption that the legitimacy of our use of force can come only from some international organization (as when the Clinton administration obtained UN Security Council authorization before occupying Haiti in 1995). Nor do I mean only that the Left sees U.S. intervention as tainted if any “selfish” strategic interest gets in the way of humanitarian goals. In addition to all that, there is a moral discomfort with the actual use of force that leads liberal Democratic Presidents always to cut corners, to do the minimum, and to yearn for “surgical” or “calibrated” ways to do it.

This is the Bay of Pigs syndrome, the albatross of LBJ’s “graduated escalation” in Vietnam, the bane of Jimmy Carter’s abortive helicopter raid on Iran, and the pattern of Clinton interventions from Somalia to Iraq to Kosovo. By contrast, conservative Presidents have always had a more clearheaded understanding that, once one has made the decision to commit American power, the categorical moral as well as strategic imperative is to prevail.

Despite policy differences among conservatives, this picture illuminates the significant philosophical consensus that today unites them. We can thank Bill Clinton for setting this in such sharp relief.

The second observation I would venture is that the intraconservative debate over humanitarian intervention is also becoming more moderate. Where Norman Podhoretz sides, on balance, with the more ideological enthusiasms of William Kristol and Robert Kagan, I see the tide shifting in the other direction. I think realism is making a comeback.

For better or worse, neither Congress nor the country exhibits an eagerness for humanitarian intervention. The more expansive Kristol-Kagan definition of America’s sense of mission has not taken root. The public seems quite hesitant about new ideological crusades (even against China). Clinton’s military interventions have prompted many Americans to ask: what is our national interest in this? (Sam Donaldson of ABC News asked this question repeatedly during both the Bosnia and the Kosovo crises. Vox populi.)

The American people seem to want reassurance that their leaders can tell the difference between what is important to us in the world and what is not. Indiscriminate humanitarianism seems unsustainable. If President Clinton was afraid to risk any American casualties in Kosovo, what more damning confession could there be of how thin even he knew public support to be?

The Kristol-Kagan view deserves the label Wilsonian because, even while it clearly represents a muscular, strategic-minded Reaganite rather than Clintonite variant, it is part of a 20th-century trend that has emphasized the moral/ideological well-springs of American international engagement. Indeed, it vigorously rebuked the Nixon-Kissinger brand of Realpolitik in precisely those terms. But just as Nixon and Kissinger’s attempt to win the country over to their realist philosophy failed during the Vietnam era (spawning the resurgence of Wilsonianism that was reflected in both Carter and Reagan), now Bill Clinton’s misadventures have triggered a reaction to Wilsonianism. With humanitarian intervention quite discredited in this country after Kosovo, it is intriguing to see Podhoretz toward the end of his article, and Kristol and Kagan in an October 25 New York Times op-ed piece, all running away briskly from the Wilsonian label.

It is the Republicans’ task (in the next presidency, one hopes) to rebuild the American people’s self-confidence about American international leadership and engagement out of the wreckage that Clinton has wrought. Probably this will require some selectivity rather than universalism, some re-emphasis of the national interest rather than moral and ideological enthusiasm. American predominance in the world is fine with me. But we need to sustain the domestic base for it.



Robert W. Tucker

Are we in a situation, as Norman Podhoretz believes, resembling the one that developed at the end of World War I? The problem of security in Europe after World War I was that of an imbalance of power. Only France was fully committed to enforcing the Treaty of Versailles, and its power was insufficient for the task. Great Britain had increasingly turned away from the continent. The United States, having rejected Versailles, had once again distanced itself from the politics of Europe. Thus the stage was set at an early date for World War II. All that was missing was the political movement and leader that would channel Germany’s defeat and humiliation into a war of conquest. From the war that followed, there emerged the cold war.

Today, a decade after the end of the cold war, the alliance that won the conflict remains intact. The United States shows no signs of an intention to abandon its commitment to Europe. Whatever the faults of America’s European policy, there has been no replay of the post-World War I period. The nation has rejected a return to isolation. Far from resembling the situation that developed after World War I, the present situation is seen by many as dominated by an intrusive America. American leaders, Samuel P. Huntington writes in a recent indictment of American foreign policy, “believe that the world’s business is their business.” The critics of American hegemony reject the assumption that, in William Pfaff’s words, “American responsibility for world order is the inevitable consequence of American power.”

These expressions register opposition to the equation of power and order in international society. While they cannot be dismissed, they do not and cannot rest on the reality of a multipolar world. We do not have a multipolar world, nor do we have the imminent prospect of one. Yet the need for order persists. How is it to be met? Globalization cannot provide the answer. Even if it is the case that everyone wants to preserve the global system of technology and trade, that system is not self-sustaining. It requires a security framework that only a political order can bring.

America’s hegemonic power does create a special responsibility for world order. That responsibility, it is true, cannot in some cases satisfy the multilateral condition. Nevertheless, it seems quite doubtful that, as Robert Kagan argues, “multilateralism must be preceded by unilateralism” if American interests and world order are to be preserved. That unilateralism will beget multilateralism is surely not a self-evident proposition, although it may seem such if one assumes a near-identity of interest between leader and led. This is, of course, what today’s unilateralists usually assume. Given that assumption, it is but a short step to the conclusion that what we do for ourselves we not only do for others as well but what others would also do were they to bear an equal responsibility for order.

This is a dangerous argument, even if it sometimes happens to be true. In acting alone, it is much safer to assume that we are acting in pursuit of our own interests and not—at any rate, not necessarily—in the interests of others. For if we were truly intent on acting in the interests of others as well as our own, we would presumably accord to others a substantive role and, by doing so, end up embracing some form of multilateralism. Others, after all, must be supposed to know their interests better than we can know them.

During the long period of the cold war, the justification of American power was the defense of the independence of states from the threat posed by a hostile and expansionist Soviet Union. The policy of containment responded by and large to the time-honored compulsions of the balance of power. The order defended by American power was inseparable from containment.

It is the case that the identification of threats to this order provoked periodic disputes with allies. Unilateral action taken by the principal guarantor of containment did not go without criticisms, at times even harsh criticism. On balance, though, disaffection was limited by the visible threat of Soviet power.

The understandings of this earlier period no longer hold. Although the United States remains the principal guarantor of the post-cold-war order, this order, save for its economic dimension, no longer has the compelling character that the Soviet threat gave to the cold-war order. Our difficulties in obtaining support for more effective sanctions against Iraq testify to this.

Unless we are very lucky, a sustainable foreign policy in the years ahead will require either increasing the means of policy or invoking the greater cooperation of others. And since there is little reason for believing that the means of policy will be increased, we are left to rely on the greater cooperation of others. But the greater cooperation of others will mean that our freedom of action is narrowed. This would already appear to be the price in Europe of greater mutuality, as the Balkan wars have shown. In turn, European cooperation has been a necessary condition of American domestic support. Unilateralism would forfeit this cooperation.

Invoking the cooperation of others for the maintenance of a liberal order is not exactly an exciting task. Nevertheless, it is the task to which we are apparently fated. Are the American people ready to support such a policy with its inevitable compromises? According to the Kagan-Kristol-Podhoretz outlook, the answer must be no. Lacking a grander purpose, the public will seek (in Kristol and Kagan’s words) “deeper and deeper cuts in the defense and foreign-affairs budgets and gradually decimate the tools of U.S. hegemony.”

The past decade, however, has already cast doubt on this prophecy. The public has not insisted upon deeper and deeper cuts in the defense and foreign-affairs budgets. On the contrary, it has shown a remarkable steadiness, reflecting a national consensus on the desirability of our remaining the premier global power. The day is long past when a return to isolation is a meaningful prospect.



Paul Wolfowitz

Norman Podhoretz’s perplexity over the “new foreign-policy debates” is characteristically sincere and honest. In no way should it be confused with President Clinton’s phony nostalgia for the allegedly simpler days of the cold war or with presidential candidate Bill Bradley’s confidence that “Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, . . . we knew where we stood on foreign policy.”

Such statements are truly astonishing from the leaders of a Democratic party which, for most of the last 25 years, had largely turned its back on the robust internationalism of Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Senator Henry M.Jackson. Theirs was the party that voted in overwhelming numbers for the Mansfield amendment to withdraw U.S. troops from Europe, and against the Gulf war; the party whose leaders attacked Ronald Reagan for declaring that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire,” and (in an episode of lesser historical significance in which I was involved) the Bush Pentagon for suggesting that we should seek to prevent any hostile power from dominating those regions whose resources could become a source of global power.

Ironically, there is far broader consensus today on issues like the U.S. presence in Korea and Europe than ever during the cold war. Even the notion of American military superiority is taken for granted and seemingly welcomed by people who not many years ago regarded it as dangerous. This has happened partly because the Democratic party, under Clinton’s leadership, has tried to contest the foreign-policy mantle won by the Republicans through the successes of Presidents Reagan and Bush, and thereby to reclaim the center of American politics. For opportunistically leading his party away from some of its previous stances, we should perhaps be grateful to Clinton.

While it is surprising that this consensus about American military power has developed at a time when the need for it has become less evident, perhaps the explanation is that these commitments now involve less risk and demand less courage. When Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” not only did he cause outrage among those on the Left addicted to moral equivalence, but he was attacked as a warmonger: offending the Soviet Union was a dangerous business. Confronting Saddam Hussein took leadership and great courage from President Bush because no one knew that victory would come at such a low cost. It is only recently, when confronting Iraq seems relatively easy, that everyone has become a “hawk.” The debate over Kosovo was mild compared to what it would have been had the U.S. been suffering serious losses or even facing that possibility.

Among conservatives, many are now divided by the concern that the U.S. may be undertaking commitments whose importance to the national interest is unclear and which we may abandon if they prove too costly to sustain, as Clinton did in Somalia and as even Reagan did in Lebanon. Or, if we persist, we may find ourselves confronting horrendous costs that we failed to anticipate, as happened in Vietnam. In this connection, it is surprising and a bit unsettling to observe the ease with which Democrats who once embraced George McGovern now speak in a pale echo of President Kennedy’s call to “pay any price, bear any burden” in behalf of freedom. Military forces are spoken of as instruments for diplomatic signaling, and even for nation-building. Such talk should make any sensible conservative nervous, and even more so when force is actually used with the gradualism that characterized the war in Vietnam and without any sense of how to “win.”

To this I would add the qualifier, however, that the dangers of American overextension do not seem to me comparable to what they were in Vietnam, and I would agree with Podhoretz that it is far more dangerous to underestimate than to overestimate the risks of a major war in the future. Still, in order to complete his very useful guide for the perplexed, one would need to specify more precisely the mission he sets forth—protecting and preserving freedom, and spreading its blessings—even if doing so may create new fault lines among conservatives.

In particular, when it comes to putting American soldiers in harm’s way, there is a big difference between protecting freedom where it exists and spreading it. There are no less important differences between places like the Persian Gulf that could be the sources of major threats to U.S. security and places like Haiti that are not. When it comes to armed intervention, similarly, there is a difference between giving others the means to fight for themselves, as we should have done in Bosnia, and fighting for them. And when it comes to promoting democracy, there is a difference between defending it where it is established, as on Taiwan, and promoting it where it has not yet taken root. In the case of China, our limited influence on that country is more likely to be effective if we take the milder course that President Reagan followed in dealing with authoritarian regimes like the Philippines and South Korea than the approach he took toward our ideological rival in the cold war, the Soviet Union.

Finally, if pressed, I would be more inclined to analogize our own time to 1899 than, as Podhoretz does, to 1919—in the sense that the looming danger over the next twenty years is more likely to be a resurgence of great-power conflict than the ideological crusades of Nazism and Communism that produced World War II and the cold war. But while we cannot be certain what the greatest dangers confronting us will be, the worst imaginable indictment would be if future generations, looking back, were to conclude that our generation could have prevented a global conflict, but failed. It may be hard to measure our actions by so severe a standard at a time when dangers of a global magnitude seem remote. Nonetheless, it is the right standard, and the task of leadership should be to remind the American people that these are indeed the stakes of American preeminence in the world.


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.