TCS Daily

Tipping the Foreign Policy Balance

By Carroll Andrew - January 25, 2005 12:00 AM

President Bush's inaugural address has reignited the most basic of foreign policy debates; should American foreign policy include efforts to change the nature of foreign governments? President Bush clearly thinks that the answer to this question is yes,

        "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success 
        of liberty in other lands".

Condoleeza Rice, Bush's Secretary of State nominee, expressed this idea in a more diplomatic manner during her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing,

        "We must use American diplomacy to help create a balance of power in 
        the world that favors freedom".

Though clearly in line with the President's vision, Rice's formulation expressed a measure of respect for the foreign policy tradition less concerned with the promotion of liberty.

The balance of power is a "realist" idea. Foreign-policy realists believe that the United States best guarantees its security by working to balance the interests of other states against one another. America's foreign engagement should seek to maintain an overall balance of world power that favors the United States. To traditional realists, the quantity of power controlled by governments that restrict the freedoms of their citizens is, at best, a minor concern.

A world that favors freedom, on the other hand, is a "liberal" idea. Foreign policy liberals believe that the United States best guarantees its security by consciously influencing dynamics within states, moving them towards more liberal political practices. The overall threat to the United States is reduced when more and more people live in free and prosperous societies, leaving fewer and fewer people interested in making war against the US.

Though it has become fashionable to treat traditional European alliances as America's leading big-picture foreign policy problem, America's key choice in the near term is whether to apply realism or liberalism to the developing world. The strained alliances are only symptoms of this problem. The strain was created by the Bush administration's commitment to advance political liberalization in the Middle East, where it had shown little hope of advancing without an outside push. The leaders of continental Europe prefer realist diplomacy in the Third World and expect the rest of the world to share their preference. Rebuilding alliances will require either convincing Europe to meaningfully support Third World liberalization or accepting European pressures to be more realist when dealing with the Third World. The President's inaugural address made it clear that his administration intends on continuing its pursuit of the liberal option,

        "Division among free nations is a primary goal of freedom's enemies. 
        The concerted effort of free nations to promote democracy is a prelude 
        to our enemies' defeat".

Realists believe that the international landscape is increasingly vindicating their worldview. In the Western hemisphere, a realist-type realignment is centering around the government of Venezuela. Venezuela is seeking to strengthen its economic engagement, particularly its oil ties, to the People's Republic of China, including allowing Chinese firms to directly operate dormant oil fields within Venezuela. Venezuela is wooing China, in large part, because its government wants its economy to be less dependent on business with the United States and its allies (Venezuela currently sells about 60% of its oil to the United States). This is also part of a trend of China behaving increasingly like a realist "great power". China and Iran, for instance, co-operate not just in the realms of trade and energy, but through sales of military equipment. And governments that have little in common but their dislike of America are increasing their level of cooperation. The government of Zimbabwe has received about 40 million dollars in loans from the government of Iran.

Realists claim that these developments are not only expected, but inevitable. According to realism, the structure of the international system compels the world to align against the dominant power -- in this era, the United States. Diverting the tremendous energies necessary for democratic "nation-building" in Iraq has focused American resources too narrowly on one country, leaving America dangerously inattentive to the balance of power in the world. A responsible American foreign policy must return its focus to the overall balance of power, and must not overly concern itself with the internal politics of potential allies while managing that balance. In an international system inherently hostile to its interests, the United States needs every ally it can get.

Liberals have a response. The internal dynamics of states do matter. The Venezuelan government would act differently if it were pursuing the interests of its people, rather than pursuing the ruling oligarchy's goal of becoming a dominant regional power. If the government had not alienated the country's labor unions and middle class, scared foreign investment away, and helped shrink the Venezuelan economy by 35% between 1999 and 2003, Venezuela would be able to get its oil out of the ground without directly turning its oil fields over to foreigners. Had Venezuela remained democratic, Venezuela would be working cooperatively with its neighbors, rather than supporting rebels in Colombia and encouraging Bolivia to take territory from Chile, policies which do nothing to improve the security or quality of life of the Venezuelan people.

Likewise, the growing ties between Iran and Zimbabwe are examples of the internal dynamics of states influencing international alignment. Iran's opportunities for influence are strongest where individual freedom is weak. Do the mullahs of Iran have any opportunity to influence events in free, prosperous countries where governments truly represent their citizens? If the people of Zimbabwe had a voice in their country's government, is there any doubt that they would trade their 40 million dollars in Iranian loans for the freedom to interact with the rest of the world -- especially given the percentage of that 40 million that will ultimately end up in the coffers of Zimbabwe's ruling oligarchy.

Ultimately, the fundamental question of American foreign policy is whether America will treat the world as a collection of governments or a collection of societies. Allying with foreign governments at the expense of foreign societies -- the realist choice -- would not be a novel practice in American foreign policy. It is the basis for American relations with countries like Saudi Arabia, but it is not a formula for lasting alliances, or even lasting stability. Governments rise, fall, and -- especially in the case of dictatorships -- vanish. Societies are more permanent, and their memories are much longer. Strong alliances require not just that governments interact, but that societies interact. The choice between liberalism and realism is the choice of trusting American security to the commitments of societies or to the promises of dictators.


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