What Next for U.S. Foreign Policy?

Power, stability, and the post-Iraq world order.


It's been clear since September 12, 2001, that U.S. foreign policy was going to change radically. The only questions were which direction it would move in and how far. The invasion of Iraq has answered some of those questions but raised still more, as analysts debate whether such wars will undermine the stability of the Middle East, whether that status quo is worth preserving in the first place, and how seriously to take the president's talk of making Iraq a beacon of liberty and democracy.

The deeper question, of course, is not what the administration will do but what it should do. As American troops massed outside Iraq and then entered it with guns drawn, Associate Editor Jesse Walker spoke to three men with very different ideas about the emerging world system. One is an Iraq hawk who thinks we shouldn't make a fetish of sovereignty or stability. One is an Iraq dove who wants a stable, multipolar balance of power, even if that means dictatorships sometimes prevail. And one is a dove—not just toward Iraq but virtually everywhere—with little interest in any stability that serves the interests of autocrats.

The Hawk: Ralph Peters

Since retiring from the U.S. Army in 1999 at the rank of lieutenant colonel, Ralph Peters, 51, has been a prolific author of essays on geopolitics and of military fiction. His two books on strategy, Fighting for the Future (1999) and Beyond Terror (2002), have been both controversial and influential—sometimes among the same readers.

Writing in the military journal Parameters in 2001, Peters declared, "Historically, instability abroad has been to America's advantage." The Spanish-American War, he argues, was one of the great watersheds in U.S. history, heralding both the welcome death of the old European empires and the rise of America as a global power. "With that war," he writes, "we became an imperial power, if a benign one, thus denying our heritage as the key anti-imperial power in history." Today, he argues, Washington has an opportunity to fuse its military might with its anti-imperial origins, by using its armed forces to bring self-government to people suffering under repressive regimes.

reason: Is stability an important foreign policy goal?

Ralph Peters: There are certainly times when stability is very important. But not always. I just came back from South Africa and Zimbabwe. South Africa right now is very worried about stability in Zimbabwe, because they don't want a flood of refugees coming to the south. And so they're supporting Robert Mugabe, a nasty dictator. But in fact, the longer Mugabe rules, the greater the clash may be—and South Africa may have a greater flood of refugees.

In the United States, because of our short-term election cycles, we tend to want near-term solutions. So there's always the temptation to go with the "stability now" option that ends up being detrimental to U.S. interests. Take Iran in the 1950s. We were absolutely obsessed with stability, to the point that we helped depose a prime minister, Mossadeq, who was a lefty but not really a menace. Or take some of the regimes we supported in Latin America. There was simply no way that the Soviet Union was going to take over Paraguay or Brazil and use it as a launching pad to attack the U.S. But we were very tolerant of extremely repressive regimes, because they were "our" dictators. The Cold War's over. We don't need to do that anymore.

We've supported oppressor regimes in Indonesia for mining rights, in the Middle East for oil rights, and so on. Bad move. In the short term, supporting human rights in a place like Saudi Arabia may mean that the Saudis give their oil contract to someone else or crack down even harder or deny us bases. In the short term, that's painful. But in the long term, supporting human rights is not only morally correct, it's good for business and foreign policy. It's much easier to do business with people whose human rights struggle you've supported.

I support the Iraq campaign strongly on human rights grounds: the liberation of the Iraqi people and the example it sets for other dictators that they literally cannot get away with murder. If that sets a new pattern, it's going to change absolutely all of the rules. It will put dictators on notice that they cannot slaughter their own people with impunity and then hide behind sovereignty. To me, the only legitimate reason that should allow a state to claim full sovereignty would be that the government is of the people, by the people, and for the people.

reason: That hinges on what emerges after Saddam, doesn't it? There's a tension between the drive to democratize and the feeling we should just bring in a loyal regime.

Peters: Of course. And anyone who expects a perfect result is foolish, because this isn't a perfect world. In the first few months, there's going to be confusion and retributions. Everyone's going to rush to declare defeat—to declare that the occupation, the rebuilding, is failing. That's just the way our 24/7 media works.

You have to stand back and take a long-term view. In Afghanistan in the first few months, you had all these reports that Afghanistan was falling apart. It wasn't true. Is Afghanistan perfect today? No—it's still Afghanistan, for God's sake. But it is a safer, more peaceful place than it was before we intervened.

You cannot expect that Iraq will suddenly turn into one big New England town meeting. But we can expect a state will emerge in which the people have a greater role, moving toward democracy; in which human rights are observed; in which minorities have protections; in which the market, not merely a ruling family, rules the economy.

reason: How easy is it to liberalize or democratize a country from the outside?

Peters: I do not believe that anyone can successfully impose democracy from the outside. What we can do, with our allies, is give people the opportunity to construct their own democracy. We cannot design the Iraq of the future. We can create an environment in which Iraqis design the Iraq of the future. And they'll work through the growing pains.

One of the crucial reasons why authoritarian regimes like Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are so opposed to our going into Iraq is because they fear the example of an Arab state that's reasonably democratic, has a market economy, observes human rights, and has a free press. That is more terrifying to Mr. Assad or Mr. Mubarak than Saddam is. The Saudis are even afraid of the gradual liberalization we've seen in Qatar.

reason: For most Americans, the No. 1 foreign policy concern is our safety. One of the reasons 9/11 happened is because the United States has been involved in these battles in the past and has made enemies in the process. We're going to make a lot more enemies this way, and a lot of the enemies we're going to make have a history of alliances with terrorists. So even if this is better for Iraq in the long run, and maybe even destabilizes these other dictatorships, couldn't you be reducing U.S. security?

Peters: I disagree entirely with that. First of all, 9/11 happened because of cultural divides. The United States is hated for its success, for its liberal policies, for the roles it allows for women. The United States' presence in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world matters, but it's a secondary issue.

As for making more enemies: Under President Clinton, our enemies were allowed to see the United States as weak-willed. The world has to learn about American resolve. If you are perceived as strong, then the fellow travelers and also-rans don't sign up to oppose you.

There will always be hard-core enemies of the greatest power. But this idea that if we just retreat to Fortress America and don't get involved anywhere, they won't come after us, is wrong. The terrorists' hatred is really about their internal demons and not so much about America. They're coming after us anyway. And the best defense is a good offense.

reason: Isn't there a difference between going after people who've proved their intentions toward America, such as Al Qaeda, and fighting people who haven't attacked us?

Peters: When it comes to America's security—and that of its allies, because we're all interrelated—you have to act vigorously. And pre-emption is important. When people openly want to kill as many Americans as possible, you can't just sit on your farm and wait for it to happen.

The rules are changing. What we're doing here—and this is one reason I think this war is such an epochal event—is we're casting off sets of rules that were designed from the 17th through the 20th centuries in Europe. They don't work anymore. Enough. It's as silly as having France on the United Nations Security Council when obviously India should be there instead.

reason: Let me ask you about one of those rules. You've raised the idea of assassination as an alternative to war. Right now, that violates international law.

Peters: The problem is with the word assassination. It brings the image of Lee Harvey Oswald or John Wilkes Booth. So give me a new word.

You may decry it instinctively. But wouldn't the world be better off had we been able simply to kill Saddam Hussein, his two sons, and a dozen of his top henchmen? Wouldn't it be better to kill 13 to 15 people than to have a massive war that no matter how cleanly executed will still cause human casualties, dislocation, and suffering?

The rule against assassination was an agreement among kings, emperors, czars: "Well, we may take Alsace or Lorraine, but we won't eliminate the ruling family. Live and let live among us kings." It even made practical sense to the extent that, in the past, armies didn't have the ability to reach beyond the other foot soldiers and get at the king. Well, increasingly, we have that ability—instead of killing the draftees, to kill the guilty.

What do human rights really mean? Is it our job to protect the human rights of one dictator while 22 million people suffer? Or is it more commonsensical to protect the rights of 22 million people and get rid of the dictator?

The Realist: Benjamin Schwarz

Benjamin Schwarz, 39, is a former staffer at the RAND Corporation, a former executive editor of World Policy Journal, and the current literary editor of The Atlantic Monthly. The most cogent statement of his foreign policy views is "A New Grand Strategy," written with foreign policy analyst Christopher Layne and published in The Atlantic in January 2002. There and elsewhere, he and Layne have argued that the United States should reduce its commitments around the world and allow other powers to maintain their own spheres of influence. The result, they argue, would be a safer and more stable world.

reason: You've written that "the very preponderance of American power may now make us not more secure but less secure."

Benjamin Schwarz: There has never been a power as dominant as the United States today. As we see with the international opposition to what the United States is taking on in Iraq, that power itself makes other countries nervous. Eventually, you run the risk of a combination of states forming in opposition to America. For now our power may make us more secure and advance our interests in the world, but it creates a situation in which our interests are thwarted and other powers form a coalition against us.

Clearly, the more we muck around in the Middle East, the more we are going to be a lightning rod for the grievances of the people in the area. That's even if we do, in fact, build a prosperous and democratic Iraq. We helped build a prosperous and democratic Israel, and it's now seen as a Western outpost in the Middle East. For American security, this is a part of the world that we should just stay away from if it's at all possible. The fact that we haven't stayed away from it in the past has exacerbated the ill feelings directed toward the United States. A lot of Osama bin Laden's anger toward the United States is clearly related to the first Gulf War—that we brought troops into Saudi Arabia. Just in itself, even though this military presence is extremely unobtrusive, it still angers a great many Muslims. The fact that we have launched what will be seen in the Arab world as an aggressive war against an Arab regime will anger people more.

reason: The president obviously isn't following the strategy you and Layne laid out. Is it possible to shift gears right now?

Schwarz: I don't think so. Now that the United States has assumed this role of disarming Iraq, it's very difficult for it to tell other countries that it will look to other powers to police those regions of the world that they're particularly concerned with themselves.

You can't say, after conducting this war in the face of tremendous international opposition, "All right, guys, you take care of the mess." They would say, and they would be correct to say, "Why should we take care of this? You created the mess, you clean it up yourself." If the United States believes that a reconstructed Iraq is an important national security interest for the United States, it's going to have to do that largely for itself.

reason: One argument people have made for the Iraq war is that it is a matter of cleaning up a mess. The United States helped build up Saddam. Even if in the long term it would be a good idea for the United States to reduce its presence in the Middle East, they say, it has a moral obligation to remove the tyrant it aided.

Schwarz: Yes. Christopher Hitchens makes this argument. I don't buy it, but I understand it.

reason: Why don't you buy it?

Schwarz: Washington didn't say, "We want a nasty, bloody dictator to take control of Iraq." The reason we supported Saddam years ago is because we were worried about Iran, so we threw our support to Iraq as a counterbalance. It's not as if we liked him, or encouraged him to torture and rape. We supported him for our own geopolitical reasons, and countries are allowed to do that without incurring a moral obligation.

On the other hand, I fail to understand how people could support U.S. action in Kosovo for moralistic reasons and then not support action in Iraq. I mean, clearly this is a far more bloody and terrible regime.

I'm an opponent of this war, but I don't understand why most of the people who are opposed to it take that stance. The strategy Chris Layne and I outlined is one where you'd accept that other regional powers would develop military capabilities that we are now not comfortable with. Chris and I are perfectly willing to accept that world. The U.S. foreign policy establishment isn't willing to accept that world, and I can understand their reasons. But if you don't want that world—if you think that, de facto, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a bad thing—then I don't understand how you could oppose this war. Sanctions only worked because there were a quarter of a million troops on Iraq's border. Obviously, we can't keep those troops there forever. So if you're worried about Iraq acquiring certain military capabilities, it would seem to me that you have to be willing to go to war to prevent that.

reason: Do you think pre-emptive war is ever justified?

Schwarz: If a power believes it's threatened by another state, there's no reason it should have to wait for that other state to launch an attack on it. Bush's rhetoric, I think, is completely right—it's just wrong in this particular situation. He is responsible for the security and well-being of the American people, and if there were a mortal danger to the United States, it's his obligation to meet that challenge.

reason: Your basic argument is that a multipolar world is probably inevitable, so it's better if the United States takes the lead in establishing it while we still have a chance to say who the other powers will be and how they'll be allied.

Schwarz: This tremendous power we have presents us with an opportunity to, in an orderly and well-thought-out way, somewhat disengage militarily from the world.

There isn't a single power that exercises control or dominance over the Middle East. That's one of the reasons why it's a messy area. But if you encouraged Russia to take care of the area that's adjacent to it, and India to take care of the area that's adjacent to it, and so on, we would have a more stable situation. Europe has a greater stake in a stable oil supply from that area than does the United States, and in the long run you'd want Europe to do some of the policing there as well.

reason: Europe failed to intervene decisively in the Balkans before the United States got involved, and that was in their own backyard. Why would you expect them to deal with instability in the Middle East, when they obviously didn't want to intervene there either?

Schwarz: That's a disingenuous argument, because the United States has never wanted Europe to play a powerful and independent role in world politics, or to develop the kind of military capabilities it would need to police its sphere. Because that would create a more—from the U.S. point of view—unstable situation, where you have different great powers with somewhat competing interests. There's no reason to assume that Europe's interests will always be America's interests. And while I think that the United States would always be able to challenge a united Europe, that would be at a very high cost.

reason: I can imagine lots of people listening to you and saying, "That sounds pretty awful. The United States should be able to get what it wants. It acquired all this power for itself, and that means it's able to project its will in ways that benefit Americans. What's wrong with that?"

Schwarz: If the United States could establish and maintain that position indefinitely, then the answer is, "Nothing." The problem is, it doesn't make us more secure. I mean, Argentina was part of the coalition in the first Gulf War. But Al Qaeda doesn't view Argentina as a mortal enemy the way it does the United States.

France and Russia are opposed to what the United States wants to do in Iraq largely because they're worried about an America that's throwing its weight around the world. China is too. Now, those powers haven't coalesced in a way that is truly dangerous to the United States. But there's no reason to assume that in 20 or 30 years they won't, if the United States maintains its position.

reason: The other hot spot right now is Korea.

Schwarz: This is a small area of the world where countries with advanced economies are cheek by jowl, with competing interests. There is no reason, though, to make that dangerous neighborhood into our dangerous neighborhood. If American troops were withdrawn, why would North Korea challenge the United States? If either North Korea or a united Korea had nuclear weapons, it's going to have plenty to worry about, because its immediate neighbors also have nuclear weapons.

The idea that a Korean state has nuclear weapons does not in itself alarm me. A nuclear-armed Korea or Koreans is something that would make the Japanese nervous, and is one of many reasons Japan should have its own nuclear capability.

reason: Right now, South Korea and Japan are almost entirely dependent militarily on the United States. Doesn't that mean you'd be giving Russia and China not just the ability to dominate North Korea but the ability to dominate South Korea and Japan?

Schwarz: They don't need our assistance. The conventional understanding is that Japan could develop a nuclear capability very quickly.

The United States could play a positive role in some of this. There are ways that we can help these other powers enhance their command and control capabilities, ways we can help them enhance deterrence. And I think we should. This is a perfect example of how the United States can enter into productive international relationships that will enhance peace without playing the role of global gendarme.

The Pacifist: Gene Sharp

In countless essays and books—most notably The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973) and Social Power and Political Freedom (1980)—Gene Sharp, 75, has investigated the many ways citizens have overthrown dictatorships and repelled invaders through organized, nonviolent noncooperation. (His next book, not yet completed, will explore 23 such case studies.) His life's work has been to synthesize these historical experiments into a body of strategic theory, so that dissidents under other tyrannies can overturn their rulers as well.

The chief outlet for this work is the Albert Einstein Institution, where he is senior scholar. Sharp has given on-site advice to dissidents as well, from nonviolent protests in the West Bank to the successful independence movements in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

reason: Is pre-emptive war ever justified?

Gene Sharp: It's mostly kind of stupid. Because you don't need it. If we had been spreading the know-how of nonviolent struggle throughout the Arab world, things would be different.

There are significant Arab and Muslim nonviolent noncooperation movements. There have been in the past. The Pakhtuns lived in the northwest frontier province of British India; they're very tough cookies. And they adopted nonviolent struggle against British rule. Gandhi said that was better than what the Hindus had been doing in the rest of India.

reason: Suppose George W. Bush called you the day before the war and said: "All right, I'm listening. What are some peaceful ways that Iraq might become a more democratic society?" What would you say to him?

Sharp: That he should have called me a few years ago. If you're on the edge of the cliff, it's a little hard to say, "Turn a sharp right."

But there are other ways of getting rid of dictatorships. Karl Deutsch, the political scientist, pointed to the fact that even totalitarian systems have weaknesses. One has to encourage the people in the country to focus on identifying those weaknesses and then concentrating resistance on those, rather than trying to fight them where they're strongest, which under most circumstances is militarily.

reason: What are some examples of these weaknesses?

Sharp: Legitimacy, for one thing. One thing that the Otpor resistance movement in Serbia did was undermine Milosevic's legitimacy, so he no longer had authority. They worked on undermining the reliability of the police and the troops, so they would not obey orders for extreme repression. Slowing down the reliability of the bureaucracy and civil servants. People not obeying, not cooperating.

reason: Suppose Bush says: "Well, maybe that would work. But we've got superior military force. We can defeat this dictator. Why is what you're talking about better?"

Sharp: I would argue that it's more practical. And it would produce a better society.

reason: How so?

Sharp: The democratization experience of people participating in resistance diffuses power in the society. In Serbia the Allied forces did lots of bombing and destruction of bridges and so forth, but that didn't do in Milosevic. It was the organization of popular resistance that did.

You can destroy all kinds of things with war and bombs. To actually change to a more democratic system is always difficult, but you have a better chance with this sort of resistance that depends on the participation of the people and building up the strength of institutions that are outside state control.

reason: A lot of revolutionary transformations—I guess the most obvious example would be the American Revolution—are a mixture of the two approaches. You have this rise of parallel institutions, and you have a military conflict as well.

Sharp: Those were sequential. The building of the alternative institutions, and the formulation of three major massive noncooperation campaigns from 1764 to 1775—there was next to no military resistance then. There was no major fighting against British troops until after Lexington and Concord. We [the Albert Einstein Institution] did a book on those 10 years, requiring about eight years of research: Resistance, Politics, and the American Struggle for Independence, 1765-1775.

It's a very remarkable 10 years of struggle. British governors wrote to their superiors in London things like, "Everything was OK when I got here; now I have no power outside of my own house." Because the people had organized all these institutions, even governments, completely independent of English authority.

reason: The civilian-based resistance that you're talking about is rooted in independent civic institutions. Is there any way those can be advanced by an outside power? Or is it something that has to come from within?

Sharp: It has to come from within, but outside groups can assist in careful ways. For one thing, by spreading the know-how of this kind of struggle—the ways it works, the importance of strategic planning. In Serbia someone we work with very closely—a former Army colonel, Robert Helvey—conducted a workshop in nonviolent struggle in Budapest, when it couldn't be held in Serbia.

reason: Do you think there's a role for Washington here?

Sharp: There was an article two years ago about the Serbia case, by Roger Cohen in The New York Times Magazine, that rather exaggerated the amount of U.S. government money that went in to finance parts of the Serbian resistance. If there's going to be governmental involvement, it has to be done very carefully. It can be dangerous, because not everybody in government understands very much about nonviolent struggle. And they may offer advice that is stupid and dangerous.

reason: How?

Sharp: Most governments think that violence is the real power. They try to train opposition groups in guerrilla warfare or supply them with guns, and things like that can be very bad. They don't always appreciate the practical importance of keeping nonviolent discipline, so that the popular resistance will win fights with its own best weapons, which are not military.

reason: How can free societies protect themselves from the ambitions of tyrants?

Sharp: We need to learn, number one, how to prevent the rise of new dictatorships. Just a few weeks ago, we republished something on coup resistance. A coup d'etat is how Saddam Hussein came into power. So how can you block coups, where a military group or a political minority like the Bolsheviks seizes the state apparatus?

Another way that military regimes expand is through military aggression. So we've done work on defense based on noncooperation and defiance, what we call civilian-based defense. I've been working on that for about 40 years.

reason: So what are some of the methods you're talking about? How do you stop invasions and coups?

Sharp: Refusal of collaboration. If they issue orders, you don't obey them. You do not allow your bureaucracy and civil servants to be taken over and then obey orders. You don't let your police obey orders from the new would-be dictator. It's blockage of control by noncooperation and disobedience—a persistent maintenance of the independence, the autonomy, of civil society.

These aren't ideas out of thin air. These are all rooted in historical experiences where people improvised resistance. We asked how you could consciously prepare people and lay plans for keeping the government and civil institutions out of invaders' hands. How you'd educate the population about the danger signals, and when we need to launch noncooperation and civil disobedience and strikes.

reason: How could civilian-based defense resist terrorism? I don't see how noncooperation could be useful in dealing with someone who's blowing up a café.

Sharp: No, it's not. Of course.

There would be several possibilities. One is to spread the know-how for nonviolent struggle so widely that the people who now end up being terrorists don't. They choose to use this other method.

There was no terrorism in Poland, in the struggle against the Soviet Union and the indigenous Communist government. There was no terrorism in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. There was no terrorism in Serbia. Because they chose a different way to struggle.

I think it's a nonsense assumption that you can get rid of terrorism with war. Because terrorism is taking the lives of noncombatants, innocent people, to gain your objective. War is basically the same thing on a larger scale. And using military means to fight against terrorism simply teaches future terrorists that they weren't cruel enough. That they didn't kill enough.

If you don't want them to use terrorism as their means of fighting, you have to make it clear that there are alternatives.

reason: But once a group has already started using terrorism—once planes collided with the World Trade Center—you've passed a boundary. How do you respond to an attack like that?

Sharp: That's a little bit like, "How many feet are you from the cliff?"

reason: Let me rephrase the question, then. Once you're on the cliff, what can someone who wants to stop the terror do?

Sharp: I don't have the answers. I'm not sure anyone else does either. Under those kind of circumstances—once the bomb's already been dropped from the airplane and it's on the way down, what do you do? It's that kind of a situation. Of course you have to do things to deal with casualties and take care of people and all that.

reason: How would you describe your politics?

Sharp: I think everything from political structure to the scale of governments has to be re-examined. I think the unification of all Europe under one government is really very unfortunate, for example. I lived in England and Norway, back and forth, for 10 years, and I appreciate relatively small countries. Putting all the populations of Europe under one government—which has to be military, which has to have police, which has to have a massive inaccessible bureaucracy, where people have little control over the central government—that's really crazy.