Thursday, January 24, 2008

Let's Make an Ideal

Derek Chollet and Tod Lindberg lay out the case for an American foreign policy driven by our ideals; tempered by realpolitik, but not governed by it. This has been my consistent thread through the years.

The end of the Cold War made it possible as never before. Yet at the same time the end of the Cold War -- the very way the mighty Soviet Union evaporated in the face of tribal religious fanatics and spontaneous action by Polish dockworkers and East German church groups and worldwide TV cameras -- punctured the myth of the all-powerful state and the notion that military might is the sole measure of power. America's first real chance to live in the world on the strength of its ideals arrived just as the moment when America's power seemed more vulnerable than ever.

So I wonder if this dream has any hope, or if it will be stillborn. Iraq certainly set it back severely. But still it struggles to be born. Along the way, Chollet and Lindberg describe what a truly self-interested American foreign policy, bereft of ideals, would look like. It's not pretty. And it gives the lie to the many who claim we are doing such a thing already. Using "Acirema" ("America" spelled backwards), they show that such a policy would be very different from the one now pursued with regard to, say, Israel:

The policy of Acirema toward Israel is a specific case of what would be a more general revision in alliance policy. The essential question for Acirema with regard to any ally is whether Acireman security is improved, on net, as a result of the alliance. The notion of an alliance as an all-purpose mechanism for securing the cooperation of others in mutual pursuit of security objectives would need to be reassessed.

What, specifically, is the value of “cooperation”? Needless to say, Acirema will harbor no prejudice in favor of cooperation or multilateralism, instead asking whether cooperative or multilateral means would bring a benefit that Acirema cannot obtain on its own. Acirema need not be especially concerned with the opinions of states that lack the capacity to make a difference. There will be no free-riding on the provision of security, because Acirema will not enter into alliance relationships except with partners whose tangible assets improve Acireman security.

In fact, it looks a lot like the policy most nations have with regard to America -- including some of our allies in Western Europe. And in the Middle East.

Their conclusion about ideals-driven foreign policy is more upbeat than mine. But it ought to be, since they just wrote a big-assed article advocating it:

The conclusion we come to is that while an idealistic foreign policy has become harder to defend politically, it is possible to construct a forward-looking, values-based agenda that both liberals and conservatives can support. In fact, such an approach should garner more than just passive support — the policies presented above can actually serve as part of the foundation for U.S. foreign policy in the years ahead. Neither sentimental nor coldly aloof, these values comprise the core of the rules-based, liberal international order that the United States should aspire to achieve. This is about more than what we want; it is about who we are.

Yet because the political incentives against an approach to foreign policy that promotes American values remain so powerful, as we described at the outset, such a policy will not emerge on its own. Even with greater clarity about what values we want to uphold and promote, difficult questions will remain about how to do so. There will always be debates about acceptable costs and the trade-offs involved. So success will require sustained attention and steadfast leadership. With both, the American people will rise to the challenge.

I'd love to believe they're right. Which is what believing is.