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A Diplomat's View of Foreign Policy
on January 29, 2008
Madeleine Albright's first message, and prime directive, to the President elect is: "You must begin with the understanding that our right to lead is no longer widely accepted. We have lost moral legitimacy. If we fail to comprehend this, we will...be like a lawyer who assumes that, because of past triumphs, she has the jury in her pocket when she hasn't, precisely because the jury resents being taken for granted." (p. 22) Such notions as the "right to lead" being "accepted", and "moral legitimacy," as well as the idea that international affairs is like a trial with "lawyers" and "juries" are the key to understanding Albright's vision of the world of foreign affairs. In effect, Albright equates foreign affairs with diplomacy---the capacity to create an atmosphere of cordiality and resolve that permits the United States to continue to hold its preeminent position in the world.
It is not hard to see why Albright's vision of the world might be welcome to an American public that has witnessed what is perhaps the most incompetent diplomacy every sustained by an American president. The arrogance, ignorance, and abject provincialism of the Bush administration is perhaps without equal (I'm sure an historian can set me right on that one). But, there are severe limits to the ability of effective diplomacy to solve America's problems. It would be nice to be able to say that the world consists of Good Guys (us) and Bad Guys (terrorists and dictators), while most of the world's population is the jury, who will decide which side wins. However, this is not the case.
Indicative of the diplomat's world view, there are no hard constraints, no real trade-offs to be made, no irreducibly difficult decisions that must be executed. We should oppose terrorism, world poverty, nuclear proliferation, and global warming. We should support democracy, gender equality, tolerance, and human rights. We should act as an exemplary society embodying these ideals.
Of course, these things are worth being said, and the ideals espoused by Albright are the real reason that America deserves to be given a chance at world leadership. We are the country that opposed, and defeated, the major totalitarian onslaughts of the twentieth century. We are the country that save Europe and Japan from the most horrible forms of barbarism imaginable. We are the country in which the blending of races and cultures has produced the world's premier dynamically multiethnic/multiracial society. We are the country that produced the movement for gender equality that is undermining patriarchy throughout the world. We are the country that is the dream of migrants the world over. Ours is an economy that is inclusive, welcoming immigrants and assimilating them virtually completely in less than two generations. With all of our faults, including our criminal support for human rights violators in Africa and Latin America and our propping up of despotic dictators in oil-rich countries, America still has a mission to carry out in the world.
All this is to say that it would be a mistake to counter Albright's rosy and high-minded diplomatic world view with the more traditional notions of realpolitik: Machiavellian power politics, speak softly and carry a big stick, all politics comes from the barrel of a gun. Rather, history is the history of the struggle and victory of the simple people, and social justice takes the form of the poor and the dispossessed fighting for their rights and achieving them. In that world view, the best foreign policy advice to our next President would be: support people's struggles around the world, place democracy and civil rights about all else, and recognize that in the long run, our security as a nation depends on the number and power of nations that share our form of government and our culture of freedom, dignity, and equality.
The most recent President who offered a vision of this sort was Ronald Reagan, perhaps our greatest President since Roosevelt (despite his criminal support for death squads in Latin America---the product of an overzealous but admirable anti-communism). We need a new leader who is capable of voicing this simple optimism for the American way of life.