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Slouching towards greatness

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COMMENTS

9 November 2007 07:46

Walter Russell Mead has a charming and insightful article on American foreign policy in the 22 October edition of The New Republic. Mead compares the US to the cartoon character Mr Magoo, wandering ‘nearsightedly but relatively unscathed past one hazard after another’.

‘For two centuries’, Mead asserts, ‘the United States has astounded critics with its bad foreign policy – and, for two centuries, the United States has steadily risen to an unprecedented level of power and influence in the international system. Why does the team with the worst skills in the league  end up with so many pennants?’  Mead’s explanation is that America’s ‘core strategic interests – liberal society, global economic growth, geopolitical stability – fit well with the interests and aspirations of other people around the world.’ He provides an elegant tour d’horizon of US global policies, concluding that despite all the Bush Administration’s clumsiest efforts America’s prospects look relatively bright.

 I like the piece. It takes the reader away from the endlessly diverting details of US foreign policy (Will Condi triumph over Cheney? What was it that Karen Hughes did at the State Department again? Will Hillary declare war on Iran before the New Hampshire primary?) and makes us think about the long run. It puts George W. Bush’s failures into perspective and reveals America’s remarkable capacity for regeneration. By describing the global umbrella of security and prosperity the Americans have raised, it helps to explain why countries like Australia persist in their alliances with Washington.

But like many big pictures the brushwork is sometimes a little off. Mead says that ‘the foundations of American power have less to do with the wisdom of particular policies than with the way that the priorities of American society and the strategic requirements of American power intersect with the realities of international life. It is not how smart we are; it is how well we fit.’ I’m not sure US foreign policy is historically quite as dumb as Mead suggests, or that America’s fit with the world is quite as tight.

US foreign policy often gets a bad press – from outsiders, because no-one likes the biggest kid on the block, and from insiders, because the pluralism of the American policy-making system offends all those would-be Talleyrands. In fact, the twentieth century contains many examples of wise leadership from Washington. The process by which Franklin D. Roosevelt brought a reluctant America, inch by inch, into war with the dictators in the period 1939-1941 was a diplomatic tour de force. Roosevelt and his colleagues and immediate successors – including Harry Hopkins, Henry Stimson, Wendell Willkie, George Marshall, Harry Truman and Dean Acheson – defeated fascism, built the institutions of global order, rescued Europe from financial ruin and set the conditions for victory in the Cold War. It is a little unfair to wave this off in a sentence or two.

 Doing so also lets the Bush Administration off the hook. If American policy-makers are a conga-line of fools then we should all ease off President Bush a bit. But if there is some genius within their ranks – well, that deflects a very harsh and unforgiving light on to the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Mead’s insight about how much the world needs the US is well-taken. But Americans should be wary of complacency. Yes, all of Washington’s potential rivals have their weaknesses – but Mead would do well to focus a little more on China’s strengths. As I’ve argued in Slate, the US will  have to come to grips with a new diplomatic geometry in Asia, as old allies and friends such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and even Australia move to accommodate the rising influence of the Middle Kingdom.  These countries see something of a ‘fit’ between China’s rise and their economic and security interests. The US has proven very good at the linear application of power. In the new Asia, however, Americans will have to bone up on their trigonometry.

Photo by Flickr user alex-s, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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