Boris Ryvkin ’09: Toward a practical foreign policy

By
Friday, November 30, 2007

What Machiavelli wrote in “The Prince” applies as much to states as it does to rulers. Power continues to hold the international system together. Those who fear power usually lack the ability to wield it or suffer some other fundamental weakness. Unable to rely on direct means to balance rivals, these “vulnerable” actors use more subtle methods and couch their intentions with appeals to legalism, reciprocity and human rights. They rely on international institutions as their battlefields of choice, where the dominant state can be most effectively cornered and its legitimacy compromised.

Our world sees the United States, the system hegemon, as the main target. In challenging the 2003 Iraq campaign, French President Jacques Chirac was less interested in strengthening multilateralism and preserving the sanctity of international law than in dealing a diplomatic blow to America’s global standing. Then-Chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schroeder exploited latent anti-Americanism to win re-election. Russia and China, whose strategic partnership has little fundamentally to do with the United States, have nevertheless coalesced to challenge America via the United Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and numerous other venues. All of this is not at all surprising, since hegemons are not loved, but feared and respected. Thus the lengths to which America’s policymakers, and some in the broader society, want the country to go in boosting its global image are quite astounding. Whereas the United States should play off its rivals, resist institutional traps and wield its power in pursuit of tangible gains, there are those who want us to be a global samaritan instead of a normal superpower.

The United States was practical throughout the Cold War, and many were upset about it. Perhaps it has something to do with our county’s alleged exceptionalism. America just could not play the game the same way its rivals did and had to stay true to its liberal principles. During his efforts to overthrow the openly Marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, in the early 1970s, Henry Kissinger said, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” The public responded with outrage. For Kissinger, as for other Cold Warriors, the aims were stability, balance and concrete limits to Soviet expansion, which meant placing morality on the back-burner. Considering the dearth of genuine democracies during that period, this mentality was both logical and natural. The United States funneled money and arms to friendly authoritarian regimes, fomented coups and used its massive military might to protect its position across the globe. It was not Ghandiism, but it was the way the international system operated and, in many ways, continues to operate.

What is occurring today is a terrible distortion of America’s priorities as a superpower and global hegemon. Cries for multilateral engagement, institutionalization and diplomatic openness abound from all directions, with a growing number of Americans desiring their country be more constrained. Yet what our foreign policy really needs is thoughtful restraint and reorientation, not constraint by undesirable international pressures.

There is little doubt that the United States has overreached itself and is going against its own interests on numerous fronts. Although partition is the effective reality on the ground in Iraq and a regional balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran is advantageous, Washington clings to the fanciful goal of building a unified democratic state. American policy toward Russia, aimed at its isolation and containment, has weakened our position in Central Asia and the Far East. Nevertheless, the United States cannot retreat from the international system and should not be fooled by institutional rhetoric. We should embrace greater bilateralism and move to the politics of old, where back channels predominated over international debating clubs. America should not stop intervening, but intervene pragmatically, unlike what it did in the Balkans and with its current involvement in Israeli internal affairs vis-a-vis the Middle East Peace Process.

Robert Kagan illustrated the current situation well in his paper, “Power and Weakness.” Focusing attention on America’s relationship with Europe, he points to the latter’s abandonment of power politics and shift toward an institutional, post-modern view of international relations. Kagan writes that military weakness, not ideals, led Europe to embark on this path. America has a greater military and political capacity to tackle global challenges and, ironically, gives the Europeans the security they need to maintain their “Kantian paradise.” When America was a dwarf and the Europeans were carving up one continent after another, there was little talk of fair play and legalism in Berlin, London or Paris.

The United States needs to reform parts of its foreign policy but keep the benefits of its global position in place. It should intervene in other state’s affairs only when its narrow interests are concerned and avoid entangling itself in dangerous institutional obligations. We are envied, feared, and targeted by an international community upset by the current international order, but that should not make us want to give our demise a helping hand.

Boris Ryvkin ’09 wants the United Nations moved to Sub-Saharan Africa.