Garry Wills. Foreign Affairs. Volume 78, Issue 2. March/April 1999.
Since World War II, the US has styled itself the leader of the free world. But to get its way, the US has ignored the American public and used covert action, sabotage, and threats against hapless foreign countries. This is not true leadership. To lead in the 21st century, the US will have to learn to acknowledge the world outside its borders and listen to others’ opinions, act in partnership with other nations, and get used to persuading allies rather than browbeating them. Given its penchant for secrecy and long history of avoiding entangling alliances, the US does not seem up to the challenge.
Habits of Hegemony
“Foreign policy leadership” has become an ambiguous phrase. It once meant leading the American people in the formation and execution of national policy. But some now use it to state a less obvious idea: the United States leading other nations in the international arena. Why should other nations follow U.S. leaders rather than their own? Leadership involves some common stake between the leader and the led, some basis for agreement on goals to be sought and prices to be paid. The more recent meaning of foreign policy leadership has thrust itself to the fore because of America’s claim to be “the leader of the free world.”
That claim arose during World War II, when the United States was the de facto leader of the Allies. It made sense to have a dominant partner in the military alliance for the duration of the war effort, and even after 1945 there have been military alliances, such as NATO and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, in which the United States could properly be called the leader. But the term “leader of the free world” came to have a more grandiose meaning, extending to nations with no formal alliance with the United States. In the global struggle between two ideologies, only the capitalist nations could be described as free. We aspired not only to lead them all but to entice socialist countries to join us as well.
There has never been a more universal agenda. America was the champion of freedom anywhere freedom was valued or challenged or losing-covering all situations for all peoples. The United States considered itself not only a legitimate leader but actually more legitimate than indigenous leaders who did not meet the U.S. definition of freedom-loving behavior. Washington “led” people by removing inauthentic leaders-the enemies of freedom-even when the people had chosen them. Over time, American leadership substituted for that of Muhammad Mossadeq in Iran, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Salvador Allende in Chile, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Maurice Bishop in Grenada, and Manuel Noriega in Panama.
This is what was considered leading the free world. But however justified these acts may have been strategically, they cannot be called leadership. Leaders persuade followers. The United States used covert action, sabotage, and threats. To say that America led Chile because it undermined its elected government is like saying that President Nixon led the Democratic Party because his minions burgled its party headquarters. What is the proper description of what the United States was doing? “Imperialism” does not seem the right word, since an empire usually absorbs subject states and takes their natural resources, markets, or labor. The United States, in contrast, wanted a network of perches for military action against the Soviet Union. It did not want to annex the countries but to use them-call it “security imperialism.”
This approach began with the Strategic Air Command, whose bases had to be guaranteed if the U.S. military was to be able to deliver nuclear weapons. Naturally, any facility servicing U.S. planes or warships had to be protected by the United States, even if it was on foreign soil. And America clearly needed friendly regimes at those sites. From this it was a short step to removing unfriendly officials or promoting subservient ones. All this was done in the name of freedom, and it did not look sufficiently like old-fashioned imperialism (at least to us) for Americans to question it. Instead, it was called leadership.
The Lonely American
Thus “leader of the free world” came to infect American language and thinking. Even with the end of the Cold War, many have not jettisoned the idea, although it is heard less often. As the world’s only superpower, America is told that it must act like “a great nation,” which still means defending freedom around the world. That is a difficult enough task for any nation. It is even more difficult for America, not only because of its established Cold War pattern but also because of its long-standing tradition of holding aloof from international partnerships. The view that the United States acts authentically only when it acts independently has recurred, from Thomas Jefferson’s warning against “entangling alliances” through the Monroe Doctrine, manifest destiny, and rejection of the League of Nations to the current distrust of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Criminal Court, and any agencies set up to monitor seas, pollution, or land mines.
Whatever else this suspicious attitude does, it cripples America’s ability to lead other countries. A leader must understand followers and be able to enlist their energies so that they are willing to do something for the greater good. Force, subversion, and defiance are not the traits of a leader. No one can lead people without listening to them, reasoning with them, and showing respect for them. The wisest diplomatic advice in America’s founding period is also its most neglected. It was enunciated by James Madison in The Federalist, No. 63:
An attention to the judgment of other nations is important to every government for two reasons. The one is that, independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable, on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy.
In other words, the concerns of others should be taken into account regardless of the particular policy at issue. If support cannot be elicited, at least there should be no needless hostility aroused or misunderstandings fostered. But Madison, not content to say just that, continues: The second is that, in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed.
In short, if we listen, we may learn something, discover our own error, or at the least, learn what objections it would be wise to consider. Now that is leadership talk.
Madison was talking about the need to have a senate of older members with longer tenure who could ponder foreign relations with some knowledge of other countries in order to deal with them intelligently-an institution lacking in the unicameral Congress of the Articles of Confederation. States under the Articles ignored or defied international agreements on foreign debts, Indian relations, and navigation, actions that should sound familiar at a time when the United States is refusing to pay its share of the U.N. budget. But how many politicians today would say that the United States should go to international forums to learn rather than to dictate? World opinion, Americans are constantly told, should be defied when it does not match the U.S. view of reality. (Of course, one reality this view most needs to acknowledge is that there is a world outside the United States.) Therefore, for example, the fact that world opinion advised America to leave Vietnam became an argument for staying there: Are we to be led by others’ views? We must go our own way.
What can explain this unwillingness to accept partnership, a prior condition of leadership? Travelers often notice the contrast between foreign papers’ coverage of international affairs and America’s exiguous reporting on things beyond its borders. Even the best newspapers have skimpy reports of any but a few international events. This stems partly from the fact that the United States has so few immediate neighbors. The nations of Europe jostle along in close proximity to a dozen other countries and languages, while Americans refuse to school themselves in any foreign tongue, even in the Spanish of their nearest neighbors. Another factor behind this ignorance of other nations may be America’s lack of an overt empire. European habits of reporting began when uncles and grandfathers remembered serving in India or the Congo or Indochina.
American elections are decided mainly on domestic issues, except in times of war. Even then, public interest in the world is so minimal that the relevant geography is fuzzy. How long did it take for Americans to discover where Laos was, or Cambodia? Who can tell exactly where Kosovo is? How many citizens have atlases that reflect the extensive changes in national boundaries over the last decade? It is not surprising that foreign affairs become matters of electoral concern only when they project domestic disputes. Our relations with other nations now wait on the agenda of the Christian right, which will not allow a qualified ambassador to be confirmed if he is gay, or let aid go where it might be given to a family planning program, or trade to continue with China if Christians are being persecuted there, or relations to be normalized with Cuba if that will lose Florida voters. There can be no greater absurdity than for the United States to dictate to other nations that they cannot have abortions or abortion counseling when these are both perfectly legal here. This is a classic case of the “leader” demanding, “Do as I say, not as I do” and thereby disqualifying itself as a leader.
When the people lack interest in foreign affairs, foreign policy elites tend to conclude that the subject is beyond the capacity of all but a few. This tendency has been vastly accelerated by the growth of secrecy in national security matters. Only those cleared to read classified material feel qualified to make decisions, and they rudely demand that the electorate stay away from the delicate work of its betters. They claim that citizens at large do not need to know the arcana of international policymaking but must simply trust the privileged few to do what needs doing. Indeed, citizens at large must be prevented from knowing. That was the whole point of the Pentagon Papers controversy. For years Americans were assured that they would understand and support the Vietnam War if only they knew the bases on which it was formed, which by definition they could not know. The Pentagon Papers’ revelation was not that it betrayed any fundamental knowledge, but that there was no such knowledge. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) describes this very well in his recent book, Secrecy: The American Experience. He argues that secrecy, once a necessary evil to protect dangerous knowledge, has become a positive recommendation. Now, any policy is good precisely to the degree that it is based on knowledge too precious to be dispersed. This process of secrecy grows by feeding on itself. As Moynihan points out, the number of secrets has not shrunk with the end of the Cold War but has expanded, reaching “a stunning 62 percent increase in new secret documents-almost six million in all, and all of them deemed threats to national security if ever disclosed.”
The continuing emphasis on the cult of secrecy was demonstrated in the Gulf War. Admiral William Crowe, the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, registered doubts about that venture to a congressional committee, only to have then Secretary of State James A. Baker III dismiss his testimony because the admiral no longer read classified cables. If Crowe, with his wealth of military and political experience, was not qualified even to voice an opinion, where does that leave the rest of us ordinary citizens? Obviously, with no right to any say in the matter. Not only does the U.S. government dismiss world opinion, it dismisses the opinion of its own voters.
America the Rudderless
So should foreign policy leadership mean leading other nations or leading this nation in the diplomatic arena? The United States does not do either very well at the moment, yet leading the American people is the necessary prelude to addressing others in the world. And a necessary condition to leading Americans is consulting them, recruiting their support, and persuading them when they doubt or hesitate. This is more important than ever now that the Cold War is over.
Patrick J. Buchanan and others saw the end of that conflict as a signal that the United States could safely disengage from the rest of the world. Lacking the Soviet threat, they argue, America has no great stake in what happens elsewhere. There are currently two main responses to this attitude. One is to say that America is still in great danger-as Richard Mellon Scaife, a right-wing philanthropist, told George, “We are a sitting duck for missiles from North Korea or China.” Other Republicans argue that unless the United States creates President Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile shield, it will be exposed to rogue states with nuclear weapons. And this sends us down the same path toward more of the same old secrecy, more elitist arrogance, and more concentration of power in the hands of the military-industrial complex.
The other response to Buchanan is to argue for economic internationalism. President Clinton has tried to make this case, although he admits he has not been able to break through public resistance to it. When I interviewed the president last April, he said,
I think I have not succeeded yet in convincing the core majority of the country that there is no longer an easy distinction between domestic policy and foreign policy… These factors argue for a vigorous, engaged America at this moment, which will not last forever, when we are the dominant power in the world. We should use this opportunity to put America at the center of all the emerging trade networks of the world both for our national security, our global position, and for our economic health. Thirty percent of our growth over the last five years has come from expanded trade.
The Internet is integrating the world; issues of population, health, and the environment do not recognize national boundaries. And the interaction works both ways. Protectionists cannot simply ignore American ties with other economies, nor can believers in free trade ignore the political need to ensure that jobs stay at home.
Cutting Off Our Nose
If, as president Clinton says, the United States should be at the nexus of trade exchanges, it must also place itself at the points of political intersection. National security will depend on the ties that bind people together. A framework of mutually enriching exchanges protects far better than nuclear weapons in space. To argue for such exchanges, the United States must go to the places where nations are gathered for discussion-the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, and other such organizations. The United States cannot make its case if it is not present. America’s historical distrust of international organizations often provokes it to storm off and take its own course when it does not get its way. But failure to make its case should induce the United States, as Madison recommended, to reconsider that case, rephrase the case more persuasively, or look for other matters that will mitigate, obviate, or wear down the opposition.
But America cannot bring other nations into any kind of dialogue until its internal discourse is active and informed. The president has admitted he did not convince the public about the importance of engagement. He did not convince Congress either. As a leader, well before scandal immobilized him, he needed to work with his own party and the congressional leadership in ways that his talk of “triangulation” undermined. Triangulation was an affront to the very idea of partnership: you do not win followers by saying you are going to go around them.
Instead, the president’s foreign policy successes have occurred where he has acted as an honest broker-in Ireland, the Middle East, and the Balkans-because a broker is a neutral, impartial negotiator. In other words, he has succeeded in situations where he had a free hand because America’s own resources were not being committed. But he has had a far more difficult time in situations that might cost Americans something-as in using the military in Iraq-because those situations require convincing others to follow. With the Desert Fox strikes against Saddam Hussein, Clinton has reverted to the old pattern of acting without congressional or U.N. mandate.
President Bush offended many Republicans by submitting the Gulf War to congressional debate and international diplomatic approval. Doing so exacerbated right-wing fears of the “new world order.” In reaction, conservatives passed resolutions barring American soldiers from serving under non-American U.N. commanders, a perfect example of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Suppose there were some worthy goal for which we could enlist support from other nations, relieving Americans of bearing the whole burden. If the perfectly reasonable condition of such partnership were some shared leadership, then these restrictions would exclude the United States from either the action or the assistance. Besides, what self-respecting people would want to assume its share of risk without any share of responsibility? Leaders should always shy away from asking others to do what they would not.
The perfect antidote to such demands is Madison’s recommendation that American leaders consult the views of others and try to see themselves through their eyes. The United States is currently the world’s most powerful nation, but that power will be sustained only by soliciting cooperation. When Paul Kennedy, a Yale historian, wrote The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, he was accused of predicting America’s decline. He was instead saying that international power must be diffused to be maintained, as new power centers will extend U.S. power by buying America’s products and supplying it with goods and labor. Diffusion of power is a benign process, admitting that a nation does not prosper in the long run by suppressing any and all rivals.
President Clinton should have learned something about making foreign policy from his failure in health care reform. He formulated his plan as if it were top-secret foreign intrigue, expecting the public to accept a fait accompli. The plan supposedly came from those possessing wisdom not granted to ordinary citizens. But in this matter, unlike many foreign policy debates, the secrecy could be challenged. When the plan was brought down from Mount Sinai, it was easy for lobbyists to distort it. Although failure to include the people is unusual in domestic politics, it remains the standard in establishing foreign policy. Admittedly, diplomacy does at times call for “secrecy and dispatch.” But the times calling for it are few compared with the times when it is invoked. Henry A. Kissinger established a model of foreign policy expertise that emphasized the correct conceptual framework and the latest intelligence reports. These tools have nothing to do with leadership. Having the clearest and best policy vision does not get others to do it. For that, the support of the nation must be won not by dictating policy but by earning trust.
The best illustration of this truth is G. K. Chesterton’s play The Surprise. In it, a holy monk comes across a master puppeteer whose life-size figures act out a romantic tale of love and adventure. The puppeteer laments that his characters, so dear to him, cannot move independently. The monk prays for a miracle, and the puppets begin to move on their own, acting out the very same story. But little things go wrong and accumulate until lovers quarrel and friends become violent. The puppeteer then shouts out, “Stop! I’m coming down!” The curtain falls just when the puller of strings must for the first time be a leader.
The puppeteer, like Kissinger or the writers of the Clinton health plan, thought he knew what was best for the characters he was manipulating. He had all the available information about these creatures and their environment. What he did not have was the friction of other independent minds. He was not leading but dictating, just as the United States did to the countries whose leaders it knocked over. But at the end of The Surprise the puppeteer has to accommodate the recalcitrant desires, doubts, and objections of the puppets-turned-actors. That is the arena every leader must enter. Until America’s leaders address the American people and other nations with that kind of respect, attention, and persuasion, we shall lack foreign policy leadership of any sort.