Remarks to DACOR (Diplomats and Consular Officers, Retired), February 9, 2007
In 1941, as the United States sat out the wars then raging in both the Atlantic and Pacific, Henry Luce penned a famous attack on isolationism in Life Magazine. "We Americans are unhappy," he began. "We are not happy about America. We are not happy about ourselves in relation to America. We are nervous—or gloomy—or apathetic." Luce argued that the destiny of the United States demanded that "the most powerful and vital nation in the world" step up to the international stage and assume the position of global leader. "The 20th Century must be to a significant degree an American Century," he declared.
And so it proved to be, as the United States led the world to victory over fascism, created a new world order mimicking the rule of law and parliamentary institutions internationally, altered the human condition with a dazzling array of new technologies, fostered global opening and reform, contained and outlasted communism, and saw the apparent triumph of democratic ideals over their alternatives. But that 20th Century came to an end in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the emergence of the United States as a great power without a peer. There followed a dozen intercalary years of narcissistic confusion. Americans celebrated our unrivaled military power and proclaimed ourselves "the indispensable nation" but failed to define a coherent vision of a post Cold War order or an inspiring role for the United States within it. These essential tasks were deferred to the 21st Century, which finally began in late 2001, with the shock and awe of 9/11. Then, in the panic and rage of that moment, we made the choices about our world role we had earlier declined to make.
Since 9/11 Americans have chosen to stake our domestic tranquility and the preservation of our liberties on our ability—under our commander-in-chief—to rule the world by force of arms rather than to lead, as we had in the past, by the force of our example or our arguments. And we appear to have decided that it is necessary to destroy our constitutional practices and civil liberties in order to save them. This is a trade-off we had resolutely refused to make during our far more perilous half-century confrontation with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union.
There is unfortunate historical precedent for this, as the author Robert Harris reminded us last year. In the autumn of 68 B.C., a vicious league of pirates set Rome's port at Ostia on fire, destroyed the consular war fleet, and kidnapped two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff. Rome panicked. Mr. Harris comments that: "What Rome was facing was a threat very different from that posed by a conventional enemy. These pirates were a new type of ruthless foe, with no government to represent them and no treaties to bind them. Their bases were not confined to a single state. They had no unified system of command. They were a worldwide pestilence, a parasite which needed to be stamped out, otherwise Rome—despite her overwhelming military superiority—would never again know security or peace." In response to these imagined menaces, Pompey (self-styled "the Great") persuaded a compliant Senate to set aside nearly 700 years of Roman constitutional law, abridge the ancient rights and liberties of Roman citizens, and appoint him supreme commander of the armed forces. With due allowance for a bit of pointed reinterpretation, if not revisionism by Mr. Harris, most historians regard this incident and its aftermath as the beginning of the end of the Roman republic.
The ultimate effects on our republic of our own slide away from long-standing constitutional norms remain a matter of speculation. But, clearly, our departure from our previous dedication to the principles of comity and the rule of law has made us once again unhappy about ourselves in relation to America and the world. It has also cost us the esteem that once led foreigners to look up to us and to wish to emulate and follow us. Our ability to recover from the damage we have done to ourselves and our leadership is further impeded by the extent to which we now cower behind barricades at home and in our embassies abroad. The current wave of anti-foreign and anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States also compounds the problem. A recent poll of foreign travelers showed that two thirds considered the United States the most disagreeably unwelcoming country to visit. There is surely no security to be found in surly discourtesy.
To fail to welcome the world's peoples to our shores is not simply to lose the economic benefits of their presence here but greatly to diminish both the vigor of our universities and the extent of our influence abroad. To lose the favor of a generation of students is to forfeit the goodwill of their children and grandchildren as well. And to fail to show respect to allies and friends is not simply to diminish our influence but to predispose growing numbers abroad to disapprove or even oppose anything we advocate. By all this, we give aid and comfort to our enemies and undercut the efficacy in dispute resolution and problem solving of measures short of war.
There has been little room for such measures—for diplomacy—in the coercive and militaristic approach we have recently applied to our foreign relations. Much of the world now sees us as its greatest bully, not its greatest hope. Self-righteous lawlessness by the world's most powerful nation inspires illegality and amorality on the part of the less powerful as well. The result of aggressive unilateralism has been to separate us from our allies, to alienate us from our friends, to embolden our detractors, to create irresistible opportunities for our adversaries and competitors, to inflate the ranks of our enemies, and to resurrect the notion—at the expense of international law and order—that might makes right. Thus, the neglect of both common courtesy and diplomacy fosters violent opposition to our global preeminence in the form of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and war.
With the numbers of our enemies mounting, it is fortunate that our military power remains without match. The United States' armed forces are the most competent and lethal in history. And so they are likely to remain for decades to come. Our humbling on the battlegrounds of the Middle East does not reflect military inadequacy; it is rather the result of the absence of strategy and its political handmaiden—diplomacy. We are learning the hard way that old allies will not aid us and new allies will not stick with us if we ignore their interests, deride their advice, impugn their motives, and denigrate their capabilities. Friends will not walk with us into either danger or opportunity if we injure their interests and brush aside their objections to our doing so. Those with whom we have professed friendship in the past cannot sustain their receptivity to our counsel if we demand that they adopt secular norms of the European Enlightenment that we no longer exemplify, while loudly disparaging their religious beliefs and traditions. Diplomacy-free foreign policy does not work any better than strategy-free warfare.
When war is not the extension of policy but the entrenchment of policy failure by other means, it easily degenerates into mindless belligerence and death without meaning. Appealing as explosions and the havoc of war may be to those who have experienced them only vicariously rather than in person, military success is not measured in battle damage but in political results. These must be secured by diplomacy.
The common view in our country that diplomacy halts when war begins is thus worse than wrong; it is catastrophically misguided. Diplomacy and war are not alternatives; they are essential partners. Diplomacy unbacked by force can be ineffectual, but force unassisted by diplomacy is almost invariably unproductive. There is a reason that diplomacy precedes war and that the use of force is a last resort. If diplomacy fails to produce results, war can sometimes lay a basis for diplomats to achieve them. When force fails to attain its intended results, diplomacy and other measures short of war can seldom accomplish them.
We properly demand that our soldiers prepare for the worst. As they do so, our leaders should work to ensure that the worst does not happen. They must build and sustain international relationships and approaches that can solve problems without loss of life, and pave the way for a better future. If we must go to war, the brave men and women who engage in combat on our behalf have the right to expect that their leaders will direct diplomats to consolidate the victories they achieve, mitigate the defeats they suffer, and contrive a better peace to follow their fighting. Our military personnel deserve, in short, to be treated as something more than the disposable instruments of unilateral belligerence. And our diplomats deserve to be treated as something more than the clean-up squad in fancy dress.
Every death or crippling of an American on the battlefields of the Middle East is a poignant reminder that, in the absence of diplomacy, the sacrifices of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, however heroic, can neither yield victory nor sustain hegemony for the United States. A diplomatic strategy is needed to give our military operations persuasive political purposes, to aggregate the power of allies to our cause, to transform our battlefield successes into peace, and to reconcile the defeated to their humiliation. Sadly, our neglect of these tasks, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, has served to demonstrate the limits of our military power, not its deterrent value. This is, however, far from the greatest irony of our current predicaments.
In the competition with other nations for influence, America's comparative advantages have been, and remain, our unmatched military capabilities, our economy, and our leading role in scientific and technological innovation. We spend much, much more on our military—about 5.7 percent of our economy or $720 billion at present—than the rest of the world's other 192 nations combined. With less than a twentieth of the world's population, we account for more than a fourth of its economic activity. Almost two thirds of central bank reserves are held in our currency, the dollar—which, much to our advantage, has dominated international financial markets for 60 years. The openness of our society to new people and ideas has made our country the greatest crucible of global technological innovation.
The moral argument put forward by both left and right-wing proponents of aggressive American unilateralism is that, as a nation with these unexampled elements of power and uniquely admired virtues, the United States has the duty both to lead the world and to remake it in our image. But our recent confusion of command and control with leadership and conflation of autocratic dictation with consultation have stimulated ever greater resistance internationally. Thus the aggressive unilateralism by which we have sought to consolidate our domination of world affairs has very effectively undermined both our dominion over them and our capacity to lead.
The most obvious example of this has been our inability, despite the absolute military superiority we enjoy, to impose our will on terrorists with global reach, on the several battlegrounds of the Middle East, or on Iran or North Korea. But, in many respects, these illustrations of the impotence of military power are far from the most worrisome examples of policy backfire. After all, despite all the lurid domestic rhetoric about it and the real pain it can inflict, terrorism poses no existential threat to our country — except, of course, to the extent we betray American values in the name of preserving them. The more worrisome examples are the mounting effects of unrelentingly coercive foreign policies on our political credibility, economic standing, and competitiveness.
As distaste has succeeded esteem for us in the international community, we have become ever more isolated. Our ability to rally others behind our causes has withered. We have responded by abandoning the effort to lead. We are now known internationally more for our recalcitrance than our vision. We have sought to exempt ourselves from the jurisdiction of international law. We have suspended our efforts to lead the world to further liberalization of trade and investment through the Doha Round. We no longer participate in the UN body charged with the global promotion of human rights. We decline to discuss global climate change, nuclear disarmament, or the avoidance of arms races in outer space. If we have proposals for a world more congenial to the values we espouse, we no longer articulate them. The world is a much less promising place for our silence and absence.
Our recent record in the Middle East alone includes the six-year suspension of efforts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians and a seeming shift from the pursuit of al-Qaïda to the suppression of Islamism in Afghanistan. Although we seem belatedly to be improving, we have become notorious for delusory or self-serving assertions masquerading as intelligence assessments. Our disregard for treaties abroad and the rule of law at home is leading to the indictment of our operatives abroad by our closest allies. Our scofflaw behavior thus undercuts transnational cooperation against terrorists. The bloody consequences of our occupation of Iraq for its inhabitants are too well known to require mention. We continue to provide military support and political cover for Israeli operations entailing intermittent massacres of civilian populations in Lebanon and Gaza. We sit on our hands while wringing them over parallel outrages in Darfur. We are indifferent to the views of our friends and refuse to speak with our enemies.
Taken together, these acts of omission and commission have devastated American standing and influence, not just in the Middle East but more widely. There are examples of such policy backfires to be found in every region; I will not cite them to this audience. You've read the polls. You've heard the speeches at the United Nations and the applause with which they were received. You know how difficult it now is for us to obtain support from the international community and how often we need to exercise our veto in the UN Security Council. The point is this: every leader needs followers; with rare exceptions, we have lost or are losing ours. And even a superpower needs political partners.
This is true for the economic arena as well. Our ability to do business with others in our own currency has been a unique aspect of our global economic power. But our budget, trade, and balance of payments deficits have grown to levels at which some foreigners now have more dollars than they know what to do with. The value of our currency has come to depend on central bankers continuing to play a reverse game of chicken, in which they nervously hang onto dollars while watching each other to make sure that no one can bail out without the others' noticing and dumping the dollar too. No central bank wants to be the first to devalue its own and everyone else's dollar-denominated reserves. So every day, Arab, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian officials as well as assorted gnomes in the "Old Europe" lend our Treasury the $2.5 billion it needs to keep employment here up, interest rates down, and the economy growing.
Unlike central bankers, however, businesses and private investors are notoriously bad at "coordination games." They are not willing to wait for the dollar to approach collapse before getting out of it and into other currencies and places. As a result, there are now many more euros in circulation than dollars. The euro has displaced the dollar as the preeminent currency in international bond markets. In a few years, the Chinese yuan will clearly join it in this role. Hong Kong and London have overtaken New York in IPO's. The regulatory environment in our country, including the expensive annoyances of Sarbanes-Oxley and class-action suits, does, as New York Senator Schumer has claimed, indeed have something to do with this. But an equally important factor is our increasingly frequent resort to unilateral sanctions and asset freezes based on assertions of extraterritorial jurisdiction over the dollar.
Over the past decade, we have adopted unilateral sanctions against some 95 countries and territories. Most recently, we have worked hard to shut down banking in the occupied territories of Palestine, severely curtail it in Iran, and prevent the use of the dollar in Sudan's oil trade. The nobility of our motives in each case is not the issue. But, if we assert the right to confiscate dollar-denominated wealth, and to do without due process or legal recourse and remedy, it should not surprise us that people begin looking for ways to avoid the use of our currency. There is now an active search on the part of a growing number of foreign financial institutions for ways to avoid the dollar, bank-clearance procedures that touch New York, or transactions with US-based financial institutions. Adding oil traders to the list of the dollar-averse increases the incentives for them to find alternatives to our currency.
Our ill-considered abuse of our financial power may thus have put us on the path to losing it. The dollar accounts for much of our weight in global affairs. American investors are now increasingly hedging the dollar and going heavily into non dollar-denominated foreign equities and debt.
You would think that growing disquiet about American financial over-extension would impel our government to make a major effort to boost our exports to rapidly growing markets like China. Our exports are in fact growing. But our government's present policy focus, judging from its hiring patterns, is not export promotion but an attempt to block exports of scientific knowledge and technology to China and other potential rivals. Export controllers want to require export licenses for foreign graduate students and researchers in our universities and to compel U.S. companies to conduct detailed due diligence on prospective foreign purchasers of their goods and services. These initiatives reflect the mood of national paranoia and the concomitant growth of a secrecy-obsessed garrison state that have made Osama Binladin the greatest creator of federal employment since FDR. They encourage would-be customers to buy un-American.
Along with unwelcoming visa and immigration policies, such export-suppressive measures are a small part of a much broader assault on the openness of our society. The increasing restriction of American intercourse with foreigners encourages the outsourcing not just of jobs but of innovation in science and technology, research and development, engineering and design services, and industrial production. Xenophobic policies and practices have begun to erode the long-standing American scientific and technological superiority they were intended to protect. Like economic protectionism, intellectual protectionism, it turns out, weakens, not strengthens one, and makes one less rather than more competitive in the global marketplace.
The last half of the 20th Century was, as Henry Luce had hoped, in many ways an American century. We became the preeminent society on the planet not by force of arms but by the power of our principles and the attraction of our example. The effort to replace that preeminence with military dominion is failing badly. There will be no American imperium. The effort to bully the world into accepting one has instead set in motion trends that threaten both the core values of our republic and the prospects for a world order based on something other than the law of the jungle. Militarism is not an effective substitute for diplomacy in persuading other peoples to do things one's way. Coercive measures are off-putting, not the basis for productive relationships with foreign nations. Other peoples' money can provide an excuse for continued self-indulgence; it is not a sound foundation for economic leadership. Obsessive secrecy is incompatible with innovation. Fear of foreigners and rule by cover-your-ass securocrats is a combination that breeds weakness, not strength.
More than anything now, we need to get a grip on ourselves. 9/11 was almost five and a half years ago. There has been no follow-up attack on our homeland. We are far from Waziristan and al-Qaïda's leaders are obsessed with matching, if not exceeding, their previous standard of iconic success, something even much more talented terrorists than they would find it hard to do. Perhaps in time they will succeed but our nation will endure. Meanwhile, Al-Qaïda's associates elsewhere have felt no such operational constraints, especially in Europe. Yet, despite all the bombings there by homegrown and al-Qaïda-affiliated terrorists, government offices in Europe are still accessible to the public, security measures at transportation nodes are respectfully efficient, the rule of law continues to prevail, and the rights of citizens remain intact.
The contrast with the situation here underscores the extent to which al-Qaïda has achieved its central objectives. It has unhinged America and alienated us from the world. We are apparently willing to sacrifice everything, including the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, to achieve absolute security from risks that others rightly consider nasty but manageable. Quite aside from the fact that absolute security is absolutely impossible, this is not who we were. It is not who most of us want to be.
America defines itself by its values, not its territory or ethnicity. The supreme purpose of our foreign policy must be to defend our values and to do so by means that do not corrode them. By these measures, what we are doing now is directly counterproductive. It must be changed. Let me very briefly propose a few principles to guide such change:
First, an America driven by dread and delusion into the construction of a garrison state, ruled by a presidency claiming inherent powers rather than by our constitution and our laws, is an America that can be counted upon to respect neither the freedoms of its own people nor those of others. The key to the defense of both the United States and the freedom that defines us as a great nation is to retain our rights and cultivate our liberties, not to yield them to our government, and to honor and defend, not to invade, the sovereignty of other nations and individuals.
Second, it is time to recognize that freedom spreads by example and a helping hand to those who seek it. It cannot be imposed on others by coercive means, no matter how much shock and awe these elicit. Neither can it be installed by diatribe and denunciation nor proclaimed from the false security of fortified buildings. We must come home to our traditions, restore the openness of our society, and resume our role as "the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all ... [but] the champion and vindicator only of our own."
Third, credibility is not enhanced by persistence in counterproductive policies, no matter how much one has already invested in them. The reinforcement of failure is a poor substitute for its correction. Doing more of the same does not make bad strategy sound or snatch successful outcomes from wars of attrition. All it does is convince onlookers that one is so stubbornly foolish that one is not afraid to die. Admitting that mistakes have been made and taking remedial action generally does more for credibility than soldiering blindly on. The United States needs big course corrections on quite a range of foreign and domestic policies at present.
Fourth, we must recover the habit of listening and curb our propensity to harangue. We might, in fact, consider a war on arrogance to complement our war on terror. And to demonstrate my own humility as well as my respect for the limited attention span of any audience after lunch, even one as polite and attentive as you have been, I shall now conclude.
Guantánamo, AbuGhraib, the thuggish kidnappings of "extraordinary rendition," the Jersey barrier, and an exceptional aptitude for electronic eavesdropping cannot be allowed permanently to displace the Statue of Liberty and a reputation for aspiration to higher standards as the symbols of America to the world. To regain both our self-respect and our power to persuade rather than coerce the world, we must restore our aspiration to distinguish our country not by the might of its armed forces but by its civility and devotion to liberty. The best way to assure the power to cope with emergencies is to refrain from the abuse of power in ordinary times.
All the world would still follow America, if they could find it. We must rediscover it to them. That, not bullying behavior or a futile effort at imperial dominion, is the surest path to security for Americans.
First published online by the Middle East Policy Council. Reprinted with permission.