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Issue No. 98-a (October 15, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Toward a foreign policy thatpreserves
the (best of the) American way of life!

One of the few good things to come out of the Iraq War has been a rethinking of American foreign policy on the part of young foreign-policy scholars and activists.

True, some of that “rethinking” merely returns us to familiar left- and right-wing positions from the 1980s. But some of it is genuinely new. Some of it would make the U.S. a true partner to other nations not for altruism’s sake, but the sake of our own long-term security and well-being.

One recent treatise along those lines -- Ethical Realism (2006), by maverick conservative John Hulsman and maverick liberal Anatol Lieven -- was discussed by us HERE. Another, The American Way of Strategy (2006), by Michael Lind, adopts an even more assertively pro-American rhetoric.

You can share it with anyone from your Rotary Club without risking negative repercussions. But it, too, would turn this country into a vital partner with other nations to the benefit of all.

Don’t look now, but I know for a fact that people high up in the Clinton, Obama, and Giuliani campaigns are pondering both books.

Lind’s passion

Although he’s just in his early 40s, Lind has already been a dedicated conservative (Heritage Foundation fellow, Reagan Administration staffer), a prominent liberal convert (author of Up From Conservatism, 1996), and a co-founder of Washington DC’s innovative radical-middle think tank, the New America Foundation, where he’s currently a chaired senior fellow.

He has the imagination you want in a 21st-century policy analyst. His book-length poem The Alamo (1997) is stirring, and his children’s book Bluebonnet Girl (2003) is about a young Comanche girl who sacrifices her most prized possession, a doll made of blue jay feathers, to bring desperately needed rain to her people.

“As a result of the war in Iraq, Americans are beginning to question our basic [foreign policy] strategy,” Lind recently said in an interview. “The American Way of Strategy is my contribution to this long overdue debate.”

Pretty basic

Lind’s central theme is so common-sensical that it’s amazing no foreign policy writer has ever put it front and center before.

“The purpose of the American way of [foreign policy] strategy is to defend the American way of life by means that do not endanger the American way of life,” he writes.

Or, more precisely:

The ultimate purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to create conditions favorable to the individualistic American way of life. [That] requires conditions of external and internal order that minimize security costs, whether for soldiers or police.

If security costs are too high, Lind says, America could turn into a “garrison state.” Our freedom could be restricted at every turn (e.g., we could be drafted) and our property taxed heavily to pay for an immense military-and-internal-security apparatus.

Alternately, high security costs could turn America into a “castle society.” Community could wither as government became increasingly incompetent and citizens tried to stay afloat as best they could via individual solutions to social problems.

So priority #1 in foreign policy should be crafting a world that keeps us safe and secure with as little burdensome expense as possible.

The American way

If you look closely at our history, Lind says, and behind our sometimes flamboyant rhetoric, you’ll see we’ve always operated that way -- until recently.

From the Napoleonic period onward, he says, we consciously rejected participation in Europe’s balance-of-power system. Why bother?

In the 19th century we rapidly expanded westward. But that was less because of imperialist, Manifest Destiny impulses than because our leaders understood that we needed to deny strategic territories on our borders to rival great powers. With nations controlled by France, Spain, or Germany breathing down our necks, we “probably would have been forced to have a far more militarized society.”

We entered World War I not in order to save ourselves (let alone the world) from German conquest, but in order to preserve our Way of Life -- survival in a world dominated by Imperial Germany would have meant constructing a costly and regimented Fortress America. The same unglamorous motive guided our leaders in World War II.

And we adopted the “containment” strategy against the Soviet Union during the Cold War (as distinct from militant “rollback” or timid isolationist strategies) because it was the only strategy that could have served to preserve our Way of Life. Either rollback or isolationism would have required the construction of a formidable garrison state.

False turn

Unfortunately, under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush we’ve gone terribly wrong.

Under both presidents we strayed from our traditional focus on priority #1 (preserving our free and individualistic Way of Life by keeping our security costs to a responsible minimum).

Democrat and Republican rationales may have been different (fighting totalitarianism abroad, bringing democracy to the Muslim world). But in practice the result was the same: “Instead of welcoming the emergence of a peaceful multipolar world [after the collapse of the Soviet Union], America’s bipartisan foreign policy elite in the 1990s and 2000s sought to convert America’s temporary Cold War alliance hegemony into enduring American global hegemony, at considerable cost to the American Way of Life.”

Engagement, but

Casual readers of Lind’s book might think he’s calling for a withdrawal or at least a diminution of intense U.S. engagement in the world. They would be wrong.

Lind wants us to remain engaged. He just wants us to engage with an eye to making the burdens on us less burdensome, and to ensuring that our engagement serves our ultimate interest in constructing a peaceful world (one that won’t require us to live in a garrison state or castle society).

First and foremost, he says, we need to move away from trying to assert any kind of hegemony in the world. We need to engage in much more cooperation and collaboration with the great powers.

Second of all, our engagement must be less than messianic, i.e. must be with peace rather than social transformation in mind. Eliminating totalitarianism and spreading democracy should not be our main goals. Creating and preserving peace is a good enough goal.

In fact, peace should be the primary goal even for anti-totalitarian and pro-democracy stalwarts. “Only in a peaceful world can liberal and democratic societies flourish,” Lind says. “Peace is not the result of liberty and democracy but their cause.”

Finally, we should usually practice and promote free trade -- it’s usually the best economic policy for nations great and small. But even here we should remember the cardinal rule: NEVER to endanger the American Way of Life. So we should strive to be “relatively self-sufficient in military industries and the strategic civilian industries on which they depend.”

Concerts of powers

It is easy to denounce hegemony on paper, harder to replace it with a strategy better designed to give us what we want. Lind’s alternative to the hegemony strategy is what he calls the concert-of-power strategy.

“A concert,” he says pointedly, “is an alliance without a permanent enemy.”

He’d have great powers work together to provide all countries with “the shared public good of peace and basic order, so that [war and disorder doesn’t] impair the ability of particular nations to establish liberty, democracy, and the rule of law by their own efforts inside their own borders.”

More prosaically, he’d have great powers work together the better to keep them from antagonizing each other.

American power will almost certainly decline (relative to that of other great nations) in the years ahead, says Lind. So one advantage of a great-power concert would be to encourage the U.S. to adjust more or less smoothly to that ego-deflating situation. Another would be to encourage rising centers of power (China, India, Brazil, etc.) to form constructive partnerships with the U.S.

And why have just one great power concert? In our pluralistic world, says Lind (echoing Lieven and Hulsman), there could be a variety of regional concerts “containing different great powers in different combinations.”

Regional great power concerts would be perfectly positioned to

  • cope with international terrorism
  • prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
  • play “an enlightened and constructive role” with regard to local “struggles for self-determination”
  • provide temporary governance in failed states
  • act to end genocide and ethnic cleansing
  • help regions address energy policy and environmental protection issues

“A world safe for American democracy need not be a democratic world,” Lind concludes. But because it will be a relatively peaceful world, it will be one “in which more countries can become democratic republics without risking their security.”

Four concerns

Along with Lieven and Hulsman’s marvelous manifesto Ethical Realism (reviewed HERE), Lind’s book can help U.S. foreign policy thinkers and activists craft a new and life-giving foreign policy for the 21st century. But I’m a bit more skeptical of it than I was of Lieven and Hulsman:

1.) The constant focus on the U.S. needs to be tempered by Lieven and Hulsman’s overriding insistence on learning to see the world through the eyes of others. The U.S. itself would be better off if our policymakers and citizens got into the habit of doing this. There’s a telling passage on pp. 118-19 of Lind’s book, where he describes the Vietnam War alternately as a “Hanoi-inspired insurgency in the South [of Vietnam]” and a “conventional invasion of South Vietnam by North Vietnam.” Both descriptions were often used by those who prioritized protecting and perpetuating the American Way of Life. A more purely Lieven-Hulsman reading of the situation would at least begin by acknowledging that the vast majority of the people of Vietnam were ready to elect Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh as their President if the elections scheduled for 1954 had taken place. Even Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States (2004) -- the hot new conservative version of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the U.S. (orig. 1980) -- acknowledges this (on p. 676), and it raises alarm bells for me that Lind fails to acknowledge it or anything like it. I’m not sure you can even address U.S. needs clearly without being able to see the world through the eyes of others.

2.) Lind uses the term “American Way of Life” positively. He means for it to convey individual freedom, checks and balances, rule of law, a market economy, an educated and prosperous middle-class citizenry. But does he also mean for it to convey (as it does to much of the rest of the world) unconscionable amounts of waste and pollution? He doesn’t say. And if he doesn’t mean for it to convey that -- then what arrangements should we make with the other great powers to reign in our (and their) misbehavior? These are not secondary questions.

3.) Lind wants to keep us from becoming a “garrison state” in part by protecting our “individualism,” but when he equates garrison state with “individual conscription” (as he does on p. 252) I wonder if he isn’t confusing individualism with good old American selfishness. As we pointed out in an article HERE, we need a universal draft not just to meet our military needs, but to meet our legitimate homeland-security needs, and most of all to meet many pressing social needs that capitalism can’t provide for (e.g., needs for tutors in our schools and caretakers for our stay-at-home elderly). At the moment, we may be closer to being what Lind calls a castle society than to what he calls a garrison state; but he’s far more fearful of the latter.

4.) Lind attacks the U.N. Security Council (“destined to fail” because the “world is too fluid,” great powers come and go, etc.), then goes on to attack the U.N. itself (“flawed from its inception,” should be “allowed to fade away”). But is a concert of great powers really an adequate substitute? Suppose the members of the concert fail to get along? Wouldn’t an organized world community be needed then more than ever? And note that Lind’s concert or regional concerts are -- unlike Lieven and Hulsman’s -- concerts of great powers only. It is a constant temptation to leave the running of things to the ostensibly successful and competent. But I suspect an aristocracy of nations will go over no better in the 21st century than an aristocratic form of government went over in the 18th. For better or worse, the U.N. is still the “council house of a gradually forming global village,” as the World Federalists’ Donald Keys put it 30 years ago; and there’s no technical reason why the U.N. Security Council can’t be restructured into something like Lind’s great power concert with additional permanent representatives from Germany, Japan, and India, and rotating representatives from all the major global regions (many U.N. reformers are advocating precisely that -- see our article on U.N. reform HERE). Regional concerts could then arise with some autonomy from -- but also some obligations to -- the Security Council.

These four concerns only demonstrate how vital Lind’s book is -- how much it focuses discussion and debate on every necessary aspect of a life-giving new foreign policy. Clinton’s, Giuliani’s, and Obama’s aides aren’t the only ones who should be thoroughly immersing themselves in Lieven and Hulsman’s Ethical Realism and Michael Lind’s The American Way of Strategy. So should every visionary activist and citizen.


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