Now that the Cold War has ended and the Soviet Union is as dead as Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev, America's role in the world needs to be reassessed. Except in Korea, where Kim Il Sung continues his tyrannical ways, most of America's overseas commitments have lost their purpose. If the Red Army, for example, has proven incapable of remaining coherent during a putsch, why does the United States still have hundreds of thousands of troops in Germany? To subsidize the robust German economy? To guard against the day when the Belarusan army, piqued by Lithuanian perfidy, seeks revenge by marching toward the Rhine?
The conventional wisdom is that the debaters among foreign policy analysts divide into two camps—"isolationists" and "internationalists." But this is a false dichotomy. Outside of Patrick Buchanan and his advisers, there are few people in the isolationist camp who favor economic isolation; most of the "isolationists" are steadfast free traders. And most people who favor a limited American presence overseas are not averse to diplomatic activity; I doubt that many members of the Cato Institute's foreign-policy staff would mind if a secretary of state played "honest broker" in a peace effort, as long as his activities did not entangle America in permanent military commitments.
If the isolationists are not opposed to America's playing a part on the world stage, most of the internationalists are not jingoists. There is a great fear among the American left (most recently expressed in the January/February Utne Reader) that President Bush will get the United States involved in another war to boost his popularity. But there would be little support among the internationalists for such a move; while the Persian Gulf war may well be a modern counterpart to a Victorian "splendid little war" (in British eyes, equivalent to Omdurman; in American ones, to the Spanish-American War), there are no imperialists beating the tambourines for a swift conquest of Cuba or Libya.
The prevailing mood among the internationalist camp is what Zbigniew Brzezinski, in the fall issue of Foreign Affairs, describes as "selective global commitment." In Brzezinski's view, the changes of our time are as important as those of 1815 or of 1945; the end of communism is, for him, as important as the defeat of Napoleon or the death of Hitler.
We are now, says Brzezinski, in "the third great transformation of global politics." The first transformation (after Napoleon) created the system of European balance-of-power politics that survived for a century. The second transformation (after Hitler) replaced this system with two superpowers battling for the mastery of the world.
Whatever happens in the future, says Brzezinski, America's role will be "selective and proportionate global commitments." The age of unilateralism is at an end, Brzezinski contends. "U.S. policy will have to strike a more deliberate balance among global needs for continued American commitment, the desirability of some devolution of U.S. regional security responsibilities and the imperatives of America's domestic renewal." Thus even someone as hawkish as Brzezinski knows that America's military presence overseas must be cut back substantially.
Nor are many internationalists unthinking admirers of President Bush. In the January Commentary, George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center acidly looks at the Bush administration's "conventional realism" and finds it wanting.
James Baker, argued Weigel, went to Belgrade and preached a sermon on the sanctity of frontiers, freeing the Serbian Communists to bomb Europe for the first time since 1945. George Bush went to Kiev three weeks before the failed coup and told the Ukrainians that their efforts to free themselves from Soviet tyranny were "suicidal nationalism." (Columnist William Safire described this address of Bush as the "Chicken Kiev" speech.) And in 1989, President Bush, in the name of "stability," did nothing to defend or support the democrats slaughtered in Tiananmen Square, thus appearing to sanction (or at least not condemn) the butchers of Beijing.
Weigel would prefer that the principal goal of U.S. foreign policy be to advance democracy around the world. He believes that a foreign policy grounded in "principle-free Realpolitik will so estrange our foreign policy from the deepest convictions of the American people that they will retreat in disgust (or at the very least, confusion) into the kind of hemispheric bunker now being designed by Buchanan and his tribe."
It is as unlikely that America will adopt a rigid isolationism, complete with hefty fines for anyone who dares buy Italian wine or French cheese, as it is that America's arsenal will be privatized by the government selling time-shares in nuclear warheads. But what is clear is that John F. Kennedy was the last president to institute a foreign policy that was popular with the people. The challenge facing foreign-policy gurus is to design a strategy that will be both popular and appropriate for a post–Cold War world.
One curious attempt to devise such goals is provided by James S. Robbins in the fall Orbis. Robbins, a frequent contributor to Liberty with a recent doctorate in international relations, calls for America to adopt what he calls "muscular libertarianism."
In practice, Robbins's beliefs are not far from those of Weigel or Charles Krauthammer. Robbins approves of military force as long as it does not result in large numbers of casualties. The invasion of Kuwait, in his view, was justified because the allies' victory was achieved with very few deaths; "the war was worth the sacrifices Americans actually made." He also approves of alliances and intelligence services (with qualifications).
If Robbins were president, American foreign policy would be founded on two principles. If U.S. interests, citizens, or property are imperiled, "then state action is mandatory, in proportion to the threat." If American interests are not directly threatened, "intervention is still permissible if the action under consideration will promote the cause of freedom, and if the United States has the capacity to take this action with a good deal of success." Under these principles, the invasion of Grenada would be justified, since it had a clear mission; the Marine presence in Lebanon would be ruled out.
In a reply to Robbins, the Cato Institute's Doug Bandow uses familiar themes: Wars bloat government, and America's ability to promote democracy is doubtful. ("There is little that the United States can do to make Serbia a free country," he argues.) But there are better arguments to make against Robbins than Bandow's, and they are to be found in a forceful article by the Hoover Institution's Angelo Codevilla in the January/February American Enterprise.
Robbins's thesis rests on the assumption that intelligence services can accurately and dispassionately provide information. "Good intelligence work contributes markedly to national security," he writes.
But Codevilla charges that the Central Intelligence Agency has managed to misread or misinterpret most of the data it receives. According to Codevilla, the CIA, by relying heavily on highly sophisticated spy satellites, failed to predict the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. By the end of the 1980s, "our technical system failed to see or hear what millions of people in the East had sensed: that communist bosses would no longer kill to stay in power."
In 1990, says Codevilla, U.S. analysts could see Iraqi forces massing on the Kuwaiti frontier—but all but one predicted that the Iraqis would never invade. The same analysts then unanimously concluded that an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia was a certainty. While military intelligence could easily search for and destroy Iraqi tanks and airplanes, the civilians were unable to determine what Saddam Hussein was thinking or even how the Iraqi general staff saw the conflict. "As far as U.S. prosecution of the Gulf War is concerned," Codevilla writes, "the huge superstructure of 'national intelligence' and the CIA in particular hindered military intelligence more than they helped."
Codevilla is not a dove or a foe of spies. He would prefer that the existing intelligence services be scrapped and replaced with a leaner, more flexible force of part-timers that, by not being civil servants, might be devious enough to infiltrate a drug-dealing organization or an Indian nuclear complex. Most of America's current spies, says Codevilla, are untrained, know few foreign languages (according to one study, only 20 percent of CIA agents in Mexico spoke Spanish), and "their activities are often circumscribed by the embassy cocktail circuit."
The CIA, if Codevilla is right, is incapable of doing its job. Given the nature of bureaucracies to resist change, it is probable that American presidents, unable to rely on the intelligence agencies, must use their instincts to determine when and how to intervene. Are there any rules presidents can follow in determining when to use force?
Neither the isolationist camp nor James Robbins gives satisfactory answers. There are Americans living in most countries of the world; thus, under Robbins's rules, American forces could intervene in any country on any pretext. But strict isolation is also improbable: What would happen if a fascist or communist dictator emerges to threaten the world? Josef Stalin, after all, was not a phantom conjured by American militarists to justify defense spending.
A more reliable rule would be this: When in doubt, stay home. If a president cannot convince Congress of the need to send troops, then it may well be that an American military presence in a troubled region is unnecessary. As the Cold War fades, it is clear that many conflicts, once deemed of vital strategic importance, are now regional wars of little concern to the United States. As Irving Kristol has observed, what difference does it make to America who rules Liberia?
Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is a writer, editor, and researcher living in Silver Spring, Maryland.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Magazines: The Third Way".