Ask the Candidates—and Ourselves

Aug 31, 2004


Jan 6, 2022

Originally published on August 31, 2004.

Election seasons are a time of bromides—easy claims of moral clarity and virtue. Yet elections can also heighten our awareness of important issues, encouraging sharp debate on contested principles. To take the debate beyond the usual platitudes, the Carnegie Council offers a shortlist of questions focusing on current policy choices and the tradeoffs they entail, as well as future standards for America’s role in the world.

Is preemption now an acceptable principle of America’s national security strategy? If so, what guidelines should govern its use?
Carnegie Council Fellow Thomas Nichols argues that since the Cold War ended, we have seen “the end of deterrence in favor of prevention and preemption as strategies for dealing with rogue states and terrorists.” If Nichols is right—that preemption is the new reality—then what criteria should be applied? Should the next American president make it a priority to establish specific thresholds and design new procedures for providing legitimacy to preemptive military action? What would a principled, rule-governed strategy of the preventive and preemptive use of force look like? Would Congress and international organizations play a role in terms of conferring legitimacy?

Should democracy be promoted as a matter of foreign policy strategy and if so, how and by whom?
Democracy specialist Larry Diamond recently told a Carnegie Council audience that Western powers have “a moral obligation to encourage, foster, and promote the spread of democracy much more systematically and effectively.” However, a few weeks later, Francis Fukuyama informed us that “we know less than we think we know” about the actual mechanics of building democratic institutions, designing constitutions, and bolstering civil society. How can the United States develop a more effective policy of nation-building? And who should implement that policy? At a meeting of the Council’s Empire and Democracy Project, a panel of experts said that the United States should pursue multiple democracy promotion strategies in concert with other leading powers. Do you agree?

The forces of globalization have made us freshly aware of inequalities among nations. How should the United States address issues that have been exacerbated by global economic integration: specifically, vast poverty and development needs, public health issues, and human trafficking?
The Global Policy Innovation Project of the Carnegie Council suggests that alternatives exist for promoting economic growth while upholding social justice aims. Debt relief, social safety nets, accountability in development policy, the need for setting international labor and environmental standards, increased concerns for delineating human rights—all of these proposals are now on the table for leaders in government, civil society, and business. What are the most promising ideas you have heard for promoting a just global marketplace?

In posing questions such as these to the candidates (and ourselves), we can take advantage of the opportunity an election season provides for thinking harder, further, and more imaginatively about how to pursue a morally desirable agenda in a world of relentless power politics.

In the November/December 2004, Konstantin Medvedovsky, a student of international relations at Bard College, responds to Rosenthal’s article with some provocative observations.

Joel Rosenthal begins his piece by asking whether preemption is now an acceptable principle of America’s national security strategy. I find it hard to believe that presidents make foreign policy choices on the basis of an enduring set of principles regarding the use of force. Every four to eight years, we have a new president who sets a security agenda reflecting his views on how best to make use of the nation’s military juggernaut. This is not to imply that America’s foreign policy is bereft of any core ideology-the promotion of democracy around the world has long been an overriding ideal-but how foreign policy is conducted depends on the preferences of the nation’s chief executive.

In the past hundred years, a wide variety of American presidents have not hesitated to use preemption and prevention. From President Wilson’s forays into Mexico, to President Kennedy’s invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, to various presidents’ decisions to send troops to Vietnam, the usage of American military might has never been restricted to situations of “clear and present danger.” Moreover, a single theme unifies all of these interventions: a long-term strategy of spreading American-style democracy to other countries.

It is often said that American foreign policy goals are being redefined now after the end of the cold war. To a degree, this must be true. America is today concerned with a plethora of smaller conflicts rather than engaging in a single, all-consuming struggle against another superpower. But how does the new reality play out in the end? The same way that it has for a hundred years, with America, the crusader state, leading the world in the democracy cause.

That was essentially what the cold war was about. The United States zealously pursued the ideal of democratization vis-à-vis the Soviet empire. The battle was portrayed as one against communism, but that was mere rhetoric. Sweden today is just as close to economic socialism as the Soviet Union ever was, but the United States has never been greatly at odds with Sweden-for the simple reason that it is a democracy.

The United States now finds itself in Iraq for the same reason. This particular confrontation may be different insofar as it involved a physical invasion, but the motives for the conflict are largely the same as those seen during the cold war. There are several theories as to why democracy promotion has become such a peculiarly American obsession, the most prominent being the idea of a “democratic peace”: no two democracies have ever gone to war with each other. Whatever the cause, democratic promotion appears to be an indelible element of the American foreign policy agenda. In the past, it led us to the Soviet Union, now it has led us to Iraq, and it could conceivably lead us to China one day.

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