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Idealism Is the New Realism

How can it be that the United States emerged from the Cold War as an unrivaled superpower, but finds its moral authority withering? For two centuries it promoted ideals of equality, freedom, democracy and the rule of law as universal strivings of mankind and the ultimate solution to global ills. But now its global leadership role has been seriously diminished. What needs to be done to reverse this?

The challenges of the past decade define the starting point:

  • Russia, a former competitor turned into a reluctant ally, became increasingly disillusioned with democracy and market mechanisms as economic forces pounded it into a position of impotence. Ready to believe this humiliation was even plotted by the West in general and the United States in particular, Russia embraced a strong and increasingly autocratic leadership. Although formally committed to democratic principles, an emerging concept of "managed democracy" has justified increasingly repressive domestic measures. Then rising energy prices gave the nation a new lever of international influence while themes of Russian nationalism strengthened the leadership and promoted a more confrontational foreign policy.
  • China, with a history stretching back four millennia, emerged as a formidable economic power determined to transcend its own humiliation of a century of European domination. Its leadership shifted from basing legitimacy on a modified Communist ideology to basing it on economic performance. There is wide internal debate on building a sustainable economy and increasing popular participation, but within a concept of "deliberative democracy" which seeks to combine authoritarian Party leadership, expanded popular participation and the rule of law while rejecting universal suffrage and contested elections. Partly as a reaction against 100 years of foreign intervention and partly as protection against outside pressures for internal change, China adamantly rejects any infringements on national sovereignty and pursues a purely utilitarian foreign policy, supporting an assortment of unsavory regimes. Although it now has an enormous economic impact and proclaims its commitment to a "harmonious world," it stresses its status as an emerging nation and minimizes any responsibility for overall global harmony.
  • The rise of radical Islam as a threat in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 pushed the United States into closer pragmatic relationships with Arab autocracies, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Talk of support for democracy quietly evaporated. Continuous terrorist efforts to attack American targets, most recently personified by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with a bomb in his underpants, have the American public frustrated and fearful, waiting for the next shoe to fall, so as to speak. Nevertheless, terrorism is a side show, small change compared to real catastrophes waiting in the wings. It is a symptom of a much broader threat of global turmoil.
  • Iran has a repressive and aggressive theocracy, a highly suspicious nuclear program, and a rising democratic opposition. The first two elements have challenged US policy makers through the decade, but little attention has been paid to the third, partly to avoid giving the leadership an opening to discredit the opposition as a dupe of the West, and partly for lack of any concept on how to support a democratic movement.
  • Globalization has transformed the world economy, to the particular detriment of the Untied States. For many years, US businesses have funded overseas ventures, attracted by lower wages, more lax environmental standards, the ready availability of raw materials or agricultural lands. But now this slow quantitative shift has turned into a qualitative shift. In Thomas Firedman's evocative phrase, the world is flat. It has, of course, been interconnected for centuries, but now it is INTERCONNECTED, is it a global economy on steroids, no longer dominated by the US economy. The global recession, spawned in the United States, has only exacerbated this situation. The world looks for renewed US expansion to fuel renewed US consumption and thus renewed global expansion. But this is not going to happen. The challenge is not how to re-ignite growth, but of how to maintain a high standard of living without growth.
  • Militarily, the decade began on a high note, with the allies crushing Iraqi forces in the First Gulf War and then vanquishing the Taliban from Afghanistan in the space of a couple months. From there, everything went down hill. The invasion of Iraq was supposed to be a rapid campaign to destroy programs of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Instead the goal rapidly morphed into a replacement objective of establishing a new democratic government, but a bloody and tenacious insurgency quickly showed the futility of such an objective. Even after the expenditure of over 4,000 lives and several hundred billion dollars, as the last US combat troops prepare to leave, the outcome remains undecided, but it certainly will not be a model democracy. And the cost of the shift to Iraq includes a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan spilling over into Pakistan, with the outcome there now also problematic. But the illusion that this effort could some how deny safe haven to al Qaeda has been shattered by more recent events in Somalia and Yemen. Rather, the core objective needs to be to demonstrate sustained US commitment and support to the Muslim world.

By the end of the decade, US moral authority had fallen to a new low. It had failed to lead the international community, even to articulate any clear objectives. Widespread publicity on abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, then illegal renditions and torture of terror suspects, and finally a whole range of questionable actions at the Guantanamo prison left the nation open to charges that its vaunted ideals were simply a smoke screen to provide a sheen of legitimacy for actions taken in crude self-interest. The costs of wars incompetently waged with inconclusive and even counterproductive results (energizing radical Islam) have produced widespread disillusionment at home. And this disillusionment has been intensified by the recession which the nation has unleashed on the world. Even at home the nation's reputation has been further tarnished by the highly visible economic inequality vividly demonstrated by obscene levels of executive compensation against the background of widespread unemployment; economic stimulus efforts have clearly benefited major financial institutions more than average Americans. The nation faces a wide spectrum of internal challenges, including swollen prison population, controversial health system reforms, deteriorating infrastructure, and a dysfunctional Congress. 

Against this background there is understandably decreasing public support for global activism and decreasing international interest in following the US lead. Yet, without committed US leadership, the world is a more hazardous place. The United States has been the linchpin of an international political and economic system which was based on the principles of common security, shared prosperity and good governance. Unfortunately, this decreasing US role comes at the very time that food, water and population crises, coupled with poor governance in many countries and increasingly likely climate change effects, threaten global turmoil. Avoiding this is the primary strategic challenge of the XXI Century and only the United States is capable of providing the leadership necessary. In this situation, classical realism -- making choices based on what governments can do for you -- is woefully inadequate. Bad governments are incapable of providing the critical support necessary to promote a prosperous and competent globe capable of avoiding turmoil.

US foreign policy can no longer afford to downplay or deemphasize American ideals as they provide the only practical route to global stability. The nation certainly has to deal with governments on a pragmatic basis, but needs to make clear that we believe that only by implementing universal human ideals can governments promote the well being of their own citizens and contribute to global advancement and stability. Persuading other governments to practice good governance and incorporate human ideals is the basic challenge. Idealism is the only way forward. If basic human ideals cannot be implemented on a global basis, then turmoil lies ahead, along with famines, population displacements, confrontations and global grief. No major nation can prosper in a world in uproar.

The two most critical nations to this effort are Russia and China.  

Russia has a population disillusioned with the impact of Western democracy and market economy which is widely seen as the cause of economic deterioration, notions that the government is only too happy to reinforce. So the broad Russian public is ready to embrace its thousand-year history of autocracy and strong ruler. The government plays to this Russian nationalism, now even promoting a new respect for the leadership of Joseph Stalin. Formally committed to democratic development, the government downplays any suggestion of systematic repression. It cooperates in many areas of joint interest with the United States, including arms reduction and struggles against terrorism and Islamic radicalism. At the same time, it is using its energy wealth to solidify a Russian sphere of influence in areas formerly dominated by the Soviet Union. It supports repressive regimes in Central Asia and breakaway provinces in Georgia and Moldova. It also provides significant assistance to the Iranian government, complicating Western efforts to suppress questionable Iranian nuclear activity.

China too has a population disillusioned with the West, partly due to historical memories of a century of humiliating domination which the government is only too happy to reinforce. China's impressive economic achievements of the last decade have given it an unprecedented leverage over global affairs. The leadership works hard to reinforce this position of influence while simultaneously it does not hesitate to deviate from global norms and to set up competing organizations, such at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China also pursues preeminence in its own geographical sphere of influence, aggressively promoting territorial claims (including on Taiwan) while relentlessly rejecting any foreign critiques of its internal situation. It provides crucial support to North Korea and Burma, and more recently to Sudan. The regime has solidly based its legitimacy on economic development, but this has raised a number of significant problems, including an overemphasis on heavy industry, widespread environmental damage, internal ethnic unrest, expanding corruption, and a widening social gap. The leadership stresses popular participation in government, the rule of law, and widespread debate on economic issues, but it also firmly rejects any universality of Western values.

Both these nations see themselves as actively competing with the United States and opposing it in many areas. They both support lesser autocratic regimes and oppose international efforts to promote internal change in existing regimes. A more cooperative international involvement would be a significant element in promoting good governance globally as well as working constructively to address global challenges. Indeed, broader cooperation seems to be critical to any global transformation.

The Russian and Chinese leadership groups are both focused on retaining their positions. Both of them claim to accept basic democratic and human rights principles, but they both also claim that their own unique history and situation requires modifications of these basic principles which allow for autocratic practices and suppression of any dissenting voices. So far they have been able to use nationalistic appeals to support their positions. But they both face significant internal challenges in the decades ahead, intensified by underlying economic problems.

Russia's economy and hence its international position is built on a single raw material, energy. As the output from older fields diminishes and as the world develops alternative sources, Russia will be left with an increasingly uncompetitive economy. Already there is widespread recognition that state assets were plundered as well placed individuals from the old regime became the plutocracy of the current regime. On top of that, any new economic crises will undoubtedly generate internal stresses. This will be particularly true among the growing Muslim population which already sees itself as second class citizens. Obviously, appeals to Russian nationalism will only exacerbate this problem. The ready solution is to generate an external enemy to reinforce regime legitimacy.

China's economy is also fragile with its emphasis on heavy industry and export markets. The increasingly lopsided distribution of wealth is already stirring discontent among a huge peasant population, complicated by environmental problems and widespread corruption. Appeals to Chinese nationalism can distract some attention, but obviously would complicate relations with minority populations in Tibet and Xinjiang, not to mention Taiwan. As with Russia, a self-evident remedy for internal discord is an external enemy.

So for the United States, the core foreign policy challenge for the XXI Century is to promote democratic evolution in Russia and China. Then the major powers can all work in unison to address the looming global challenges. This, of course, is a task for decades and any results will undoubtedly reflect specific historical and cultural elements of these nations. Failing in this will unavoidably result in inadequate responses to global challenges, breeding turmoil and distress. Such a situation would only intensify internal challenges within Russia and China, raising the potential for bitter and very dangerous confrontational relations, further worsening any global challenges in a downward spiral of global disintegration.

The situation requires the same basic approach to both these nations, as well as to other repressive regimes, an approach that has to be inherently idealistic. Important elements of this will have to include:

  • A clear statement of principle that the United States is ready to work cooperatively with all governments on programs of mutual interest. But the nation believes that global harmony depends on each nation implementing basic human ideals of ideals of equality, freedom, democracy and the rule of law. The United States encourages all nations to adapt these broad principles to their own situations and will work to make shortfalls visible to the entire global community.
  • Broad cooperative efforts with Russia and China in particular on new and existing programs. The United States will have to work at continually expanding the scope and depth of cooperative and exchange programs and encouraging private travel and exchanges among these nations. It has to demonstrate that it can constructively assist nations in addressing internal economic and environmental challenges
  • Clear, frequent, and unambiguous statements to the Russian and Chinese people that the United States wants to see their countries prosper and will work actively with their governments to make this happen. At the same time, make sure that the governments understand that the United States seeks to help them develop deep seated and lasting legitimacy. The United States does not seek to replace either government, but to promote their development.
  • Continuous pressure on Russia, China and all other nations to live up to their own stated principles and values. Make maximum use of third party and nongovernmental organizations to provide unbiased evaluations of individual country performance.
  • Maximum support and publicity for positive changes and programs.

This approach raises the unavoidable requirement that the United States reinvigorates its own ideals and works hard to fix its own problems. The United States must score highly on whatever criteria are used to judge the performance of other nations and has to be able to invite evaluations of its own performance as well as the performance of Russia, China and other nations it is seeking to influence. Only these sorts of positive actions can restore the moral authority that the United States has enjoyed in the past and that is critical for leadership in the XXI Century.

Comments (2)


You miss possibly the single most consistent and damaging flaw in US moral authority, its continued support for the oppressive policies of the State of Israel.

Shalom Greenberg:

The major problem with all the democratic states in the world is written black on white in this article. It says: "But the nation believes that global harmony depends on each nation implementing basic human ideals of ideals of equality, freedom, democracy and the rule of law. The United States encourages all nations to adapt these broad principles to their own situations and will work to make shortfalls visible to the entire global community."

The RULE OF LAW should come first. Only after - the equality and freedom.

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