VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — I spent a week earlier this month in Vladivostok, Russia, lecturing to university students. Focusing on U.S. foreign policy, I was trying — honestly, I can say — to convince them that American foreign policy was less unilateralist than it seemed, and that the U.S. didn’t deserve much of the criticism heaped upon it in recent months. Whatever progress I made was probably undone last weekend with the publication of the long-awaited report “National Security Strategy of the United States.”
This document details the Bush administration’s view of the world and its framework for national-security policy. It’s a spirited defense of U.S. activism in international affairs and a virtual call to arms in defense of the values and policies this administration champions. It is sure to harden the view of those who believe the U.S. is an arrogant and unilateralist power. I worry that they may be right.
The report is unabashedly muscular. It notes that “the United States enjoys a position of unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence.” Fortunately, it tempers that position by noting that “we do not use our strength to press for unilateral advantage. We seek instead to create a balance of power that favors human freedom: conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty.” Given the questions that followed my talks this week, those assertions are not likely to be believed.
The administration’s approach is hard to criticize. Optimists will take hope from language that stresses multilateralism. The report explains that “there is little of lasting consequence that the United States can accomplish in the world without the sustained cooperation of its allies and friends in Canada and Europe.” It stresses the values that unite democratic nations and the common interests that unite the “great powers.” Those shared objectives could provide the foundation for concerted action and a new multilateralism.
Unfortunately, there is plenty to worry about in the report. First, it focuses on the military component of security. In an era of “new” threats to national security, the outlook is pretty conventional. While it decries the inadequacies of deterrence and highlights the significance of nonstate actors, the security framework is still limited. When it says the U.S. will use “every tool in our arsenal,” it seems to have a pretty narrow range of options in mind: “from better homeland defenses and law enforcement to intelligence and cutting off terrorist financing.” Public diplomacy, a critical component in the battle to win the hearts and minds of citizens around the world, is only mentioned four times in a 33-page report.
More worrisome is the starting point for the report: American pre-eminence will not be challenged. “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” That seems like a sweeping mandate.
Worse, “new” security threats oblige the U.S. to use that power in new ways. According to the report, deterrence, the foundation of strategic stability during the Cold War, no longer works when enemies are nonstate actors with nothing to lose. Thus, the U.S. must “as a matter of common sense and self-defense . . . act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.”
In other words, the U.S. must take pre-emptive action. “We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends.” Ideally, those actions are taken with the support of the international community, but the U.S. “will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country.”
That logic seems flawed: It presumes there are failed states that cannot enforce the rule of law. It’s a seductive argument, but it can be challenged. The classic example involves al-Qaeda, which flourished under the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban might have been able to shut down Osama bin Laden — if it had taken U.S. threats seriously.
Bin Laden had been operating in another “lawless” state, Sudan, during the ’90s. When the U.S. made it clear that that government’s willingness to turn a blind eye to his activities would have serious consequences, Sudan kicked him out.
In other words, it is not that deterrence cannot work. Rather, it fails in certain situations — such as when the U.S. fails to communicate its concerns. This is not new. Strategic theorists have pointed out this weakness for decades. Thus, the solution is not a new doctrine but better communication. (The National Security Strategy concedes as much by noting that states have to be convinced or compelled to “accept their sovereign responsibilities” and deny “further sponsorship, support and sanctuary to terrorists.”)
Worse, the doctrine of pre-emption is a potentially risky one. It is hard to see how U.S. justifications for action cannot be used by other countries: Russia last week warned that it was ready to take action against Georgia for providing shelter for separatist rebels using language that was almost identical to that used by U.S. President George W. Bush to describe Iraq. India is certain to employ the same logic when dealing with Kashmir.
The national security strategy unveiled last week is unlikely to surprise any observer of U.S foreign policy — least of all the students I talked to last week.
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