This piece is longer and more general than I like and I've struggled over it. Please, if you have the patience (for this and perhaps the shorter foreign policy pieces of August 3 and 13), help me out with a comment or question — even a brickbat.
The most fateful national debate on overall foreign policy since the end of the Cold War may be underway.
The rise of ISIS highlights the historic dilemmas that now entangle our foreign policy. While scrambling over what to do next in response to that crisis, the United States and NATO are engaged in a perilous tug of war with Russia in Eastern Europe.
If the contours of the debate are confined to the positions staked out in the NY Times (8/31/2014) by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham on one side and Secretary John Kerry on the other, nothing but more and greater tragedy is ahead.
We desperately need a powerful and vocal challenge not just to both sets of proposed tactical choices, but to the very direction of US foreign policy. We need a fundamental change of strategic course, an alternative vision of where we should be heading.
As violence and disarray mount and the limits of US power are too obvious to be ignored, “coalition” is part of every suggested remedy. McCain/Lindsey are back again with the Bush/Cheney “coalition of the willing”, a US directed military alliance. That coalition gave us the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and brought us to the tragedy unfolding now. Kerry’s version of coalition is beset by contradictions: it doesn’t rise above differing national interests, assumes that the US determines who and what is acceptable or not. It slides back into renewed reliance on military intervention with the risk of unending war.
The coalition building that the world needs, and urgently, goes beyond how to manage current messes. It is not a matter of designating friends and enemies and choosing sides on that basis. It should aim to bring out the broadest common interests of people in all nations. The measure of success should be whether violence and war are effectively reduced: are we brought closer to a time when atop the agenda of the United Nations and most governments are the existential problems of climate change, poverty and inequality, and eliminating the danger of nuclear catastrophe?
As important as the USA is in world affairs, it cannot and must not assume that it can decide and enforce the terms of “world order”. If the emphasis of foreign policy is on punishing “foes” rather than on political and diplomatic efforts to mitigate problems, the feasibility of collective efforts in crisis situations is undermined.
The most direct resort to war and brutality in today’s world is sparked by messianic religious feuds and ethnic conflict. Extreme doctrinaire crusaders are willing to massacre “the other” whether in Damascus, Baghdad, or Gaza. A lot of history goes into this tragedy, not least the role of colonial and imperialist powers. Yet despite clashing economic ambitions and greed over control of energy resources, no nation benefits from this disastrous violence and chaos.
It is instructive to look at countries which our politicians and most of the media assume are, to one degree or another, our “enemies”, e.g. Iran, Russia and Syria. Whatever their perceived national interests and their collision with US policies, they don’t like the advance of ISIS any more than we do. There are conflicts of interests, but serious communication and negotiations cannot be shut off in favor of threats and punishment. Hard as it may be for hawks on all sides to acknowledge, we need each other and an inclusive approach to international cooperation if disasters can be averted and serious problems dealt with positively rather than exacerbated.
We have to face and learn from the failures, essentially without exception, when the response to a crisis is US dominated military intervention. To Iraq and Afghanistan, we can now add Libya. Humanitarian crises throughout the Middle East are almost as staggering as in the aftermath of world wars. There are more recruits than ever for aggressive armies committed to messianic religious crusades and sectarian warfare. And now there is ISIS.
In Europe, the main focus of US foreign policy has been expanding NATO, pushing a military alliance ever further east, aggravating traditional national and internal ethnic antagonisms. Instead of encouraging agreements based on mutual respect for differing interests and cultural histories, force and the threat of force hover over all problems. This contrasts with attitudes that made German reunification possible or that made for a peaceful transition from Czechoslovakia to the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Instead, in the Ukraine, military confrontation and aggressive nationalist ambitions prevail, hawks face off and Cold War looms again.
Similar dangers may not be far off in Asia, Africa, and Latin America if hawkish military and economic confrontations dominate foreign policies of world powers. No country wants a world engulfed in war, but only a major change of course toward international cooperation, despite all difficulties, can prevent it.
There are fundamental problems that keep fueling tensions. One is gross inequality among and within nations, mainly economic, but also political and military. Another is differing systems of political expression and recognition of human rights. However they may be mitigated, both are problems that will be with us for a very long time. Can we keep them from propelling us into repeated military conflict?
How the USA, as the most powerful of nations, could help reduce inequality is obviously a huge and complex subject. Suffice it for this essay to suggest reactivating the pursuit of collective disarmament agreements, especially toward elimination of nuclear weapons; expanding cooperative humanitarian aid and health programs; renouncing sanctions that impoverish and starve populations; recommitting to an effective United Nations.
In this day and age, the demand for freedom of expression is universal. It’s not just a political matter. Free speech may be denied by an authoritarian government; it can also be neutered effectively by oligarchic financial dominance over the political process. Despite our democratic traditions and hard-won advances over some glaring forms of oppression, freedom remains a work in progress for us.
There is no doubt that the future of every country depends upon whether its people can bring about real progress toward democracy and equality. That is a fateful issue for China and Russia, for Israel and the gulf monarchies, however varied the issue takes form in country after country. The situation won’t be improved by any country conceiving itself as the knight on a white horse, and certainly not by military intervention. When abuse of human rights creates a humanitarian crisis, there is no substitute for maximum international cooperation and assistance, as much as possible through the UN.
These are extremely difficult times. The decisions made may have consequences far more fateful than anticipated when this century began. We can flail along deciding whom to arm and whom to fight, as crisis points shift from week to week. Or we can decide not to follow those on any side of a dispute who are always ready to pour fuel on the flames. Isolating forces of aggression and brutality from whatever source demands cooperative efforts among all whose interest it is to resist and enhance prospects for peace.
It’s time to use our still great influence to help change the climate of international relations, tapping into the vast reservoir of common interest to prevent endless war.
That outlook has had some powerful champions at critical junctures in the past. Voices of reason, with a variety of social and economic views, were there when needed: from George Kennan and Michael Gorbachev as the Cold War wound down, from George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, and Jesse Jackson at earlier moments.