Why the US fails on the world stage

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 January, 2007, 12:00am

A columnist for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, posed an intri- guing question recently: 'Why are we [Americans] so awful at foreign policy?' Kristof pointed not only to Iraq but to foreign and security policy in general, contending the 'shortsightedness is a bipartisan tradition in foreign policy'.

He gave two reasons: 'Great powers always lumber about, stepping on toes, provoking resentments, and solving problems militarily simply because they have that capability.' Secondly, he asserted: 'We don't understand the world.'

Kristof's gloomy condemnation may have been a tad too sweeping. In the six decades since the second world war ended, the US has been benevolent in the occupations of defeated Japan and Germany, and the Marshall Plan stimulated the recovery of Western Europe. In Asia, America helped end colonialism by granting the Philippines independence in 1946 and stopping the spread of communism in the Korean war of 1950-1953. Republican president Richard Nixon began an opening to an emerging China with his journey to Beijing in 1972, and democratic president Jimmy Carter completed that opening by establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979.

In stark contrast, it has been in the administrations of Democratic president Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush that US skills in foreign policy have withered. Mr Clinton achieved little during his eight years and the legacy of Mr Bush's two terms will most likely be branded by the blunder in Iraq.

In the last decade of the 1990s and the first of the 21st century, the ineptitude of the US in foreign affairs appears to have been caused by what might be called the 'Five I's'. They are:

Isolationism: Deep in the US psyche is a core conviction that this nation was founded by people who had escaped the political, economic, and social ills of Europe and Asia, and who believe that America would be better off if people elsewhere left them alone.

Idealism: Even though isolationists, Americans believe the US, as Puritan John Winthrop said in 1630, is 'a city upon a hill' that the rest of the world should emulate. In the focus on human rights, democracy and the pursuit of happiness, realism is shunted aside.

Ignorance: Kristof was right in saying that Americans don't understand the world. US education does not prepare citizens to deal with the world. And the press and TV news fail to tell about events beyond our shores.

Inattention: The US government, with its divisive politics and unending struggles for personal power, has become so fractured that it can focus on only one problem at a time. Now it is Iraq - while policies towards China, North Korea, Sudan and Darfur, and other places, languish.

Individuals: Personalities count more than bureaucracies or ideologies. Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were personally unalike but shared a midwestern common sense that steered them well. Presidents Clinton and Bush are equally different but share an indifference to foreign affairs.

Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, has been controversial for some of his policies and for his self-confidence. He has also been a keen analyst of American foreign affairs, especially of its swings between idealism and realism.

In his 1994 book, Diplomacy, he said that America's 'two approaches, the isolationist and the missionary, so contradictory on the surface, reflected a common underlying faith: that the United States possessed the world's best system of government, and that the rest of mankind could attain peace and prosperity by abandoning traditional diplomacy and adopting America's reverence for international law and democracy'.

He concluded, and the reader could almost hear a sigh escape from this passage: 'America's journey through international politics has been a triumph of faith over experience.' He added, with another apparent sigh: 'What is new about the emerging world order is that, for the first time, the US can neither withdraw from the world nor dominate it.'

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington