Paradigm Lost

Richard N Haass. Foreign Affairs. Volume 74, Issue 1, January 1995.

Senior Clinton administration officials are quick to point out that one reason for their foreign policy difficulties is that the world they inherited is a more complex place than what came before. Although this explanation exaggerates the simplicity and clarity of the past half century—the applicability of containment” was hotly contested throughout the Cold War, especially during the wars in Korea and Vietnam—it does contain a kernel of truth.

Global changes have undoubtedly complicated the conceiving and conducting of U.S. foreign policy. Ours is a period of “international deregulation,” one in which there are new players, new capabilities, and new alignments—but, as yet, no new rules. This international flux is compounded by political anxieties at home. The public is motivated by a pervasive sense that domestic problems warrant the bulk of America’s energies. Extensive media coverage and scrutiny have increased the pressure on the government to act while making acting more difficult. And the Republican control of both chambers of Congress that resulted from the 1994 midterm elections is certain to aggravate institutional friction between the legislature and the executive. The net result is that domestic support for foreign endeavors is contradictory, weak, and growing weaker.

In these unsettled circumstances, the Clinton administration has sought to articulate a new foreign policy doctrine—a framework for international reregulation. Its principal attempt was National Security Adviser Anthony Lake’s September 1993 statement that “the successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement, the enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies.” While arguably useful as a long-term vision, this statement falls short as a practicable doctrine, which, as containment did, must define both interests and intentions. Despite the administration’s insistence, it remains unclear that “enlarging” democracy actually qualifies as a paramount American interest. In any event, the objective is difficult—at times impossible—to translate into immediate policy while the process of democratization works its uncertain way.

The need to articulate a doctrine cannot be met by refining Mr. Lake’s vision or developing an alternative. Such a conclusion reflects the nature of the world we are entering, one characterized by a diffusion of power in all its forms, whether technological, military, or economic. The immediate future will be one in which the United States faces numerous, if limited, challenges to its interests around the world. Moreover, new and growing problems—from environmental degradation, disease, and population growth to weapons proliferation, nationalism, and the erosion of traditional nation-states—pose serious challenges in their own right to regional stability. No doctrine can hope to provide a lens through which to view most events or a compass by which to decide most policies.

But to say that there can be no single foreign policy construct is not to argue that there can be no structure. To the contrary, intellectual structure is essential if we are to determine priorities and shape policies. Case-by-caseism, even if done competently, is simply inadequate.

The Clinton administration has made the task of formulating and implementing foreign policy more difficult than it has to be. This has been done foremost by mistakes—frequent gaps between rhetoric and behavior, policy changes or even reversals, undue sensitivity to domestic political considerations. But there have also been errors of omission, including an unwillingness to speak out regularly to the American people about foreign policy. Above all, there has been a lack of clarity and consistency about priorities and what the United States should be prepared to do on their behalf.

Vital questions of policy do not lend themselves to ad hoc, short-term approaches. Sizing and shaping U.S. armed forces and foreign assistance programs require sturdy vision and consistent follow-up. International institutions and norms take years to effect. The Congress and the public must be consulted and informed if they are to support international undertakings and not retreat at the first sign of difficulty or unexpected costs. Predictability is essential if allies are going to count on us or if foes are to think twice before challenging American interests. Policymakers need bearings by which to judge international events. Without them, policy is apt to be steered by popular emotions, daily headlines or, increasingly, the latest televised image.

But what is the solution if no all-embracing doctrine is available and particularism is unwise? The answer lies in a foreign policy that is clear about ends—America’s purposes and priorities—as well as about means—America’s relationship with and approach to the world. The good news is that the potential for fashioning such a structure and applying it exist. Indeed, the elements are in place, to be found among the schools of thought now contending over U.S. foreign policy.

The Choice of Ends

At least five preferences can be identified in the current debate concerning the proper purposes of foreign policy. All five—Wilsonianism, economism, realism, humanitarianism, and minimalism—have their echoes in the current administration and the Congress. These preferences are not mutually exclusive—many people hold to aspects of each—but even those who do embrace more than one bring to them different emphases. Indeed, they are less schools than tendencies, the real issue being to determine how much weight to give any one over the other four.


This most traditional of American approaches to foreign policy reflects a desire to see other countries adopt a form of democratic governance and civil society that our own experience suggests is best for both the individual and the community. It is based upon a Newtonian notion in which authority is distributed among offsetting institutions so that individual liberty is protected. This philosophical preference is buttressed by a practical one, namely, that democracies tend to treat not only their own citizens but also their neighbors with greater tolerance. Moreover, democracies are naturally less brittle and therefore less susceptible to radical and potentially disruptive change. A more democratic world, it is believed, will be not only inherently better but also more peaceful, stable, and prosperous.

The principal problem with this thinking is that the active promotion of democracy is a luxury policymakers cannot always afford. The United States has no choice but to overlook a lack of democracy with friends (such as those in the Persian Gulf) where other interests (such as energy and security) take precedence. At the same time, a foreign policy predicated on spreading democracy can be difficult to implement vis-a-vis our foes, either because we lack the means to influence them or because we have more pressing concerns. Thus, a democratic North Korea would be nice, but in the meantime we had better focus on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Similarly, we would like to see China demonstrate greater respect for human rights, but for now we need China’s help with North Korea while we seek access to its enormous market. And even when it is agreed that promoting democracy should take precedence, the fact remains that engineering foreign societies is an always difficult and often dangerous business.


A second view of American foreign policy emphasizes the centrality of economics and U.S. economic interests. This approach reflects a sense that other traditional interests (especially those derived from strategic concerns) have receded and that we have arrived at a juncture where economic concerns need to be paramount. The purpose of foreign policy must therefore be to serve domestic economic considerations. If exports are key to this nation’s economic well-being, then foreign policy must be about opening markets and creating jobs.

The main problems with economism are twofold. First, a foreign policy based on economics can all too easily be overwhelmed. Instability in the Korean peninsula, the Persian Gulf, or South Asia can interrupt the emergence of markets and a great deal more. Amid war or revolution, the primacy of economics will come to a sudden end; “geo-economics” will take a back seat to geopolitics. Similarly, the desire to sell for economic reasons can conflict with the need to sanction or isolate a country for political or strategic purposes.

Second, economism can easily come to resemble neomercantilism. A foreign policy based on export promotion runs the risk of degenerating into a search for specified, quantifiable results—so much market share, this level of trade imbalance—that will only increase the role of domestic political forces (often protectionist) in economic relationships. Indeed, it is this inherent impatience and demand for specific, near-term unilateral satisfaction from commerce that characterizes contemporary economism and distinguishes it from more comprehensive, long-term, multilateral approaches to expanding world trade. Failure to meet goals tends to lead to retaliation and protectionism—whose adherents are still strong despite both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Such policies are economically self-destructive and inconsistent with efforts to build an open trading order on either a regional or global basis.

A policy of muscular trade promotion is also likely to harm the overall bilateral relationship with the country in question. Such spillover or contamination could well set in motion political and military trends that over time would work against U. S. interests. A Japan or Western Europe that comes to see its relationship with the United States as being more competitive than cooperative will inevitably reorient its foreign and defense policies accordingly.


The essence of the realist perspective is its focus on order among rather than within states. Realists emphasize balance-of-power considerations and matters of national interest. Alliances among like-minded governments are a favored vehicle for promoting those interests. Realists are sensitive to the perquisites of sovereignty, fearing that its weakening will only increase the threat or use of military force in international relations. They are mindful of the continuing threats posed by regional military powers and the potential strategic challenges of Russia or even China. Realists are much less concerned with the internal character of foreign societies; they do, however, support liberal trade and multilateral (rather than unilateral) remedies on the grounds that they, too, reinforce orderly interstate relations.

The strength of the realist approach is that it does not overlook existing and potential threats to U.S. interests, threats that if they were to materialize could overwhelm all other policy concerns. Realists are also correct in understanding that dealing with classical forms of interstate aggression is what U.S. military forces do best.

The principal weakness of realism is that it pays scant attention to the internal evolution of societies, something that can affect the external behavior of states. Moreover, realism provides no guidelines for dealing with important (if less than vital) economic, political, and humanitarian problems within states, arguably the potential source of most post-Cold War instability. Not all interests need be vital to be worthy of American protection. In part as a result of this narrowness, realism, with its emphasis on “stability,” lacks popular appeal.


The humanitarian approach to international affairs comes close to being post-ideological. Those of this perspective see the world less in terms of nation-states per se than as peoples. They tend to view threats less in terms of aggression than chaos. Humanitarianists focus on such concerns—the alleviation of poverty, disease, hunger, overcrowding, environmental degradation, and so on—because they are important in their own right and because these problems can lead to more traditional conflicts if their consequences go untended.

The problem with the humanitarian view is not so much its accuracy as its adequacy. Humanitarianism underestimates other concerns and threats that are more immediate and important. It is at most a supplementary world view, not an independent one. Moreover, many of the problems that animate humanitarianism are extremely difficult to fix. At the same time, these basic social and developmental problems do not normally directly threaten U.S. interests. It is thus difficult to rally domestic support for expensive efforts to address humanitarian problems abroad, especially when many of the same problems are to be found in this country.


Minimalism is not so much the embrace of a particular set of significant foreign policy goals (and the disavowal of another) as the refusal to embrace any set of foreign policy goals. It is the favored view of those who see only modest U.S. interests in the world (and only weak threats to them) and who take a narrow view of U.S. responsibility and obligation to meet other challenges. Most minimalists see the United States in decline in part because of the costs of decades of international activism and favor shifting resources to domestic needs. The real difference between minimalists (some but not all of whom are adherents of isolationism, best understood as the extreme manifestation of minimalism) of the left and right is just what those domestic priorities are.

Minimalists are correct to point out that the United States faces no threat akin to that posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They are also sensitive to the need to right many of the wrongs at home and to the public mood to do the same. But beyond any moral obligations or philosophical commitments stemming from humanitarian or political considerations, there are still problems in the world—crises in the Persian Gulf or northeast Asia, a breakdown of trade, a renewed Russian threat to Europe—that could directly and dramatically affect America’s well-being.

Indeed, a posture of minimalism, whatever its near-term savings, could increase the likelihood that critical problems or threats to vital U. S. interests will emerge. U. S. reluctance to act may well encourage others to fill the perceived void. If and when they did, the United States could well have no choice but to act—but in a context far less amenable to relatively inexpensive solutions. Also, spending on U.S. foreign and defense policy has declined sharply over the last decade by any measure, and it is doubtful that what ails us at home—crime, illegitimacy, runaway entitlements—would be fixed by further drawing down resources devoted to our presence abroad.

The Choice of Means

The debate over means—concerning this country’s approach to and commitment to the world—is no less important or intense than the debate over ends. Indeed the existence of each debate tends to reinforce the other. Here it is possible to identify three tendencies—unilateralism, neo-internationalism, and U.S. leadership—that require sorting out if the United States is to be effective in the world.


Unilateralism is an approach to U.S. involvement in the world that minimizes and wherever possible excludes the participation of other governments and organizations. Those of this tendency are uncomfortable with the compromises necessary for the smooth functioning of alliances and opposed to any transfer of sovereign authority to international organizations.

Unilateralism maximizes freedom of decision-making and implementation. It makes possible rapid decisions, improves the chances for secrecy, and eliminates problems of military interoperability with others. Unilateralism can be the best option for acting when narrow interests are at stake and where the involvement of others is not necessary logistically.

There are, however, considerable problems with the unilateral approach. It reinforces a mode of activism that can easily be emulated and abused by others, leading to spheres of influence, a weakening of alliances, and an undermining of international order. It can also lead to conflict in situations where more than one party is tempted to act. Just as important, unilateralism tends to be more popular in principle than in reality. It is costly in terms of both blood and treasure, a reality unlikely to appeal to the Congress and the American people. Few operations abroad can be conducted without at least some form of external assistance—be it intelligence, economic, military, or diplomatic support. In other areas, such as cooperation on global environmental problems, sanctions, or supplier clubs meant to stem arms proliferation, unilateralism is simply impractical and ineffective.


Neo-internationalism, or “assertive multilateralism” in the words of Madeleine Albright, the Clinton administration’s permanent representative to the United Nations, describes a foreign policy that seeks to build institutions that are more than the sum of their constituent parts. It reflects a desire that the United States remain involved in the world but at a substantially reduced cost. It also reflects a sense that the potential for international cooperation is great and that the United States can and should work with and through formal alliances and international organizations in almost all instances. Adherents favor a strong United Nations that does not simply lend its authority (and, in their eyes, legitimacy) to interventions but one that would organize or even mount them with its own resources. They also endorse the idea that other organizations could enjoy supranational powers in the legal and economic realms.

The advantage of such internationalism is that it puts into place machinery for coping with a wide range of global problems, from classic aggression to failed states. It thus eases the burdens on the United States while erecting a constraint against unwanted unilateralism by others. The drawbacks stem from the realities that sovereignty and nationalism remain powerful forces, and the United States has good reason not to want to give others—be they states or organizations—a de facto veto over its proposed foreign policy. Moreover, it would be an enormous task to create the institutional capacities—they do not now exist in the security realm—to perform many necessary jobs. Indeed, given the proliferation of weaponry and conflicts and other forms of instability, the United Nations is unlikely to be able to handle challenges beyond keeping peace where it already exists.

U.S. Leadership

This last approach (for which, alas, no “ism” applies) most resembles that of the Cold War era. It would have the United States acting as the head of formal alliances and, increasingly, informal coalitions to protect a range of interests from countering classical aggression to stemming destabilizing developments within states.

The advantage of U.S. leadership is that it offers a promise of considerable influence (although not necessarily decisive authority) without requiring that the United States bear the entire financial and human burden of action. The leadership approach also brings with it the potential to build consensus and a sense of legitimacy that encourages support for U.S. principles and actions and that discourages opposition.

The problems with the leadership approach stem from the fact that alliances can be constraining. Leadership is not to be confused with unilateralism. A commitment to lead brings with it a readiness to compromise in order to retain the support and involvement of others. Moreover, the resource requirements of leadership are still considerable. American leadership without meaningful American participation risks becoming impotent—but participation may be hard to sustain given the lack of congressional and public support for many international commitments.

Clinton’s Zigzag

The Clinton administration, in its words and deeds, has at one or another (and on occasion the same) time reflected the full range of both means and ends. This may come as little surprise, given inevitable divisions and differences stemming from personal and institutional rivalries. On some issues, things worked out fairly well; on others, not. But even if the particular issue at hand appears to have been dealt with satisfactorily, ad hocracy has its cost—in public confusion and alienation, in the uncertainty of allies and adversaries, and in the resulting failure to place political and economic resources behind a sustainable long-term approach to protecting U.S. interests. Public statements by administration officials about the purposes of U.S. foreign policy have been inconsistent or simply ambiguous. What emerges, then, is an administration that embraces large elements of minimalism, Wilsonianism, and economism alongside doses of realism and humanitarianism.

Even more pronounced has been the inconsistency over the means of policy. Neo-internationalism or assertive multilateralism has been one recurring theme. Early on, senior officials emphasized the importance of working through and with the United Nations. Yet within 18 months this impulse had lost favor, largely on account of difficulties encountered in Somalia. The new coolness was reflected in the administration’s May 1994 policy document on reforming multilateral peace operations, which listed no fewer than 17 conditions that needed to be met before the United States would commit American forces to a U.N.-sponsored operation likely to see combat.

Nevertheless, attraction to this approach never disappeared. The United States has been reluctant to break with the United Nations over Bosnia, despite the fact that U.N. participation blunts the potential effectiveness of compelling threats or punitive strikes. The United States thought it necessary to gain a Security Council resolution before invading Haiti, and sought another resolution at the end of the October 1994 crisis with Iraq—a decision that constrained its ability to impose explicit conditions on Iraqi forces in the crisis’ aftermath.

Unilateralism appeared on two fronts: in the trade area, where the administration was quick to threaten sanctions against Japan and others (including China, Indonesia, India, and France) in disputes over market access, and in the invasion of Haiti, which was largely an American-only enterprise, despite the U.N. blessing and the token participation of others.

Examples of U.S. leadership were somewhat more common: in the effort on behalf of NAFTA, in the conduct of diplomacy affecting the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and North Korea, in the decision to send forces to Kuwait in October 1994, and in persuading the NATO allies to support the administration’s policy (the Partnership for Peace) toward the former Soviet Union and other former Warsaw Pact members.

Sometimes, tensions about ends, means, or both emerged in specific issues. China policy was one, in which an initial bias toward promoting human rights was jettisoned in May 1994 when the need to export to China and engage it in a host of strategic efforts proved too significant to set aside. (That refusing economic benefits might not have been the best way to promote desired political reform is another matter.) Trade is another issue where ends and means have been confused. The realist commitment to liberal trade, embodied in both the NAFTA and GATT accords, had to compete with the more nationalist demands for specified access to foreign markets or denial of access to our own. Closely tied to this debate over ends was another over means, between the more multilateral bias of some and the more unilateralist instinct of others.

Somalia is an instance where the inherited policy of humanitarianism evolved into something more ambitious: nation-building, an extreme form of Wilsonianism. When casualties mounted, the mission there was rolled back quickly—a reflex that exposed the minimalist roots of the administration. Bosnia deserves mention in this regard. During the 1992 presidential election campaign, Bill Clinton was strongly critical of the Bush administration for its relative inaction in the face of Serbian aggression. Once in office, his administration spoke more forcefully but did not act much differently. It was unwilling to forcibly press the allies on behalf of its preferred options, apparently fearing that involvement in Bosnia would prove costly and distracting.

In Rwanda the humanitarian impulse to do something lost out to caution born of minimalism and a desire to avoid expensive overseas entanglements. The result was the emergence of a gap between what the French were willing to do—create a safe haven within the country—and the U.S. relief effort mounted outside Rwanda for refugees. As for Haiti, policy changed course several times in rapid order. But the administration did undertake an ambitious foreign intervention despite the relative absence of domestic support and interests that were anything more than moderately important. As already noted, it was an essentially unilateral undertaking on behalf of goals that were largely Wilsonian—i.e., to restore a constitutionally elected (if not quite democratic) government to power and to protect people being abused. One has to be wary of making too much of this example, however, as domestic politics—the need to do something to stem immigration, satisfy a small but powerful congressional constituency, and buttress the sagging credibility of the president—dominated decision-making.

The temptation exists for most observers to look at these and other examples of Clinton administration foreign policy and voice approval in some areas—say, support for Russian reform liberal trade, and management of the Middle East peace process—be critical in others (Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda), and suspend judgment in still others (North Korea, Haiti), where it is too soon to know what will become of U.S. initiatives. The problem with this sort of criticism, though, is that it suffers from the same particularism as the administration and has nothing to teach other than how policy might be crafted differently in the matter at hand.

What is more valuable is to look at the sum of foreign policy and not individual parts. What emerges is a pattern of competing ends and, above all, reduced means: a smaller and less ready U.S. military, strained alliances with both Western Europe and Japan, a still weak and underfunded United Nations, and little public or congressional readiness to support costly military interventions should, say, the agreement with North Korea unravel, the occupation of Haiti turn violent, the Bosnian crisis expand to the rest of the Balkans, Cuba explode, or a new Rwanda-like nightmare materialize.

The Case for U.S. Leadership

What can be done to forge a more coherent American foreign policy? The ideal is a policy of augmented realism—”realism plus,” if you will. America’s principal focus should be on threats to interstate order—classic aggression, imbalances of power, acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by rogue states, protectionism, and state support for terrorism—which pose the greatest danger to the full range of U. S. interests and where it is possible to design and implement policies that address those challenges. Such an approach calls for a continued orientation of U.S. diplomatic and defense efforts toward the Persian Gulf, northeast Asia, and Europe.

But traditional realism alone is too narrow. In particular, promoting market reforms makes sense not only economically (to expand trade) but also politically (to foster pluralism) and strategically (to foster moderation). Similarly, promoting democracy or human rights ought not be overlooked. Nor should acting to protect people who cannot protect themselves. In times of crisis, however, support for humanitarian and Wilsonian interests must depend on the severity of the problem, the simultaneous existence of overriding strategic interests, and America’s ability to do something constructive at an affordable price. In some situations, establishing humanitarian zones or safe havens offers a viable alternative to standing aloof or becoming a full-fledged participant. But any proposed military intervention would have to pass four tests: that it be worth doing, that it be doable, that likely benefits exceed likely costs, and that the ratio of benefits to costs be better than that provided by another policy.

As regards means, the preferred mode is U.S. leadership. This approach offers the best chance to assert influence, retain flexibility, and keep costs manageable. It can often best be accomplished using informal coalitions of countries able and willing to cooperate for a particular task. Such coalitions can be formed for military purposes, such as Desert Storm; to stem proliferation, as many supplier clubs seek to do; or for trade, as regional and even global groupings suggest. More formal alliances, namely NATO, should be preserved (and reserved) for core missions. What defines this approach to the world is that the United States pushes hard for its priorities, works to bring others around to them and retains national control over critical matters. Although leadership requires followers to succeed, it is no less true that the United States is entitled to promote its interests and to conduct a foreign policy that reflects its unique strengths. In today’s deregulated world, Washington is first among unequals and should act accordingly.

The two alternatives to the U.S. leadership approach are flawed, although one more than the other. Unilateralism can be valuable in special circumstances—for example, hostage rescues, responding to terrorist attacks, small interventions—but it cannot succeed in the many areas where international cooperation is essential. An a la carte approach to alliances and other international arrangements—the sort of behavior manifested by the United States in its November 1994 decision to cease participating in the enforcement of the Bosnian arms embargo or in unilateral retaliation, i.e., protection, in response to trade disputes—will soon result in the demise of these arrangements. Meanwhile, unilateralism in the military sphere is too expensive and impractical in most instances to be sustained; as a result, before long it would come to embrace minimalist goals simply because anything more ambitious would prove beyond our capacity.

The other alternative to U.S. leadership, neo-internationalism or assertive multilateralism, is preferable to unilateralism in that it at least offers a potential means of promoting international order. Indeed, the real choice facing the United States is not between unilateralism and multilateralism but between two versions of the latter: the U.S. leadership approach and neo-internationalism. What distinguishes them are matters of substance and style. Neo-internationalism places far more emphasis harnessing U.S. activism to formal on institutions, especially the United Nations and standing regional alliances. U.S. leadership, by contrast, is based more on informal coalitions and arrangements that bring the United States together with other like-minded parties. It is thus more likely to get things done. Some will argue this lacks legitimacy, but in the final analysis, legitimacy must reside in the policy and derive from the ends and means of the action, not from some international organization.

Second, neo-internationalism, despite its description by some, is inevitably less than assertive. It reflects a greater willingness to allow others to influence policy, which often translates into lowest-common-denominator diplomacy. Emblematic were the U.S. failure to push its European allies to adopt a more robust posture toward the Bosnian crisis in spring 1993 and the embrace of Europe’s capitulation to Bosnian Serb aggression in November 1994. There is a fundamental difference between basing U.S. foreign policy upon consensus and building consensus around U.S. policy preferences. Key to being able to do the latter, however, stems from possessing a willingness to act and from having viable alternatives to acting through and with the formal organization in question.

Those who seek expanded internationalism should not underestimate what it will take to bring it about. Devolving responsibility for order onto international institutions will only be a real alternative if the United States makes it a principal foreign policy objective and devotes the necessary political, economic, and military resources to make it happen. In the first instance, effective neo-internationalism is less an alternative to U.S. leadership than its consequence. The greatest danger comes if the United States refuses to do what is necessary to lead but proves unwilling to make neo-internationalism viable. The result would be drift. It would manifest itself as a mixture of unilateralism and minimalism, in which we are unable or unwilling to do most things except for the few enterprises small enough to be done alone.

But no choice of ends and means will count for much if the United States is not able and willing to act in the world—and do so consistently and reliably. The United States emerged from the Cold War as the world’s only superpower. But it will not remain one for long unless it harnesses its power to purpose. What is needed is not a new doctrine to take the place of containment, but a leadership dedicated to forging a new consensus around an augmented realism and what we as a nation will do to achieve it. This will require sustained presidential involvement—in making the case for liberal trade and necessary uses of force to the public, in approaching the Congress for adequate resources to support defense and aid programs, in cultivating political and military relations with key allies. The Republican triumph in the recent elections will make this more difficult for a Democratic president, but the president still enjoys important advantages in the conduct of foreign policy. The question is whether these advantages will be exploited. One hopes that they will, for U.S. leadership without presidential leadership is all but impossible.