Harry C. Blaney III
This last year and much earlier and certainly during this coming election year we have seen and will see a battle royale over the purpose and direction of America’s role in the world such as we have rarely witnessed in the last several decades. The question is not so much “if we should be involved” but that too in some cases. There are those on both the far right and on the far left who, for very different reasons, would like to see America either go back to “fortress America” or treat the rest of the world with what my old boss called, in a highly misunderstood memo, “benign neglect.” Yet that position leads us in any case to a dead end and is truly impossible to maintain in the fast moving 21st century world.
Then the question is what kind of engagement we should have, what challenges should we address, and with what goals and with what tools? To simplify the question, there are two broad groupings of stances or schools on strategic and international issues. The first is an “internationalist”perspective which means fully engaged, with a often liberal stance, towards the risks, problems and opportunities for America. The proponents believe that America can and should be a power for good and initiate efforts to solve problems preferably by diplomacy and other “soft power” tools and use the military as a last resort. It accepts that international organizations like the United Nations, OECD, IAEA, UNDP, and NATO are important and cooperation with friends and allies are key to global problem solving.
The second school dominated by a kind of ideological based perspective is that America is and should be the predominant power of the world and that we can and should use military power to that end when it is seen as in our own interest. It is often seen by proponents as our best option. While this group says it support democracy and human rights, in fact, its support for military and dictatorial governments, both in the past and now, shows that its interests are not with the poor people of the developing world, but rather with oligarchs and authoritarian regimes favoring the rich and ruling classes. It supports a raw form of “capitalism” as a favored solution to almost all problems. It also detains international organizations, especially the U.N., but also treaties like the Law of the Sea, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and generally multilateral engagement to solve global problems like our present efforts to defuse war in the Middle East and our concerns about Iran.
We have seen some of this group’s influence at work in the recent Department of Defense and State and foreign operations (USAID and related programs) appropriations bill for FY 2014 that is before Congress now. It is filled with cuts to our diplomacy and “soft power” and it tries to dictate to the administration on a host of issues like Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and other issues. It cuts funding for the United Nations and UNESCO. On the other hand, the Defense Appropriations part includes added funding that the DOD did not ask for and does not need; it puts unneeded funding into nuclear weapons that are not needed and could indeed be cut in major ways with no loss to security. It dictates spending on low priority very expensive systems that the military-industrial companies want to enrich their executives but are likely never to see any action or real use. This robs our defense forces from resources that they really need, especially money for our troops, training, and logistics in the post cold-war world.
We are still in a narrow box of our strategic policies and objectives being dictated by Congressional types who in turn are run by the lobbyists, their military industries paymasters out for their own interests rather than that of the nation as a whole. We are going into a period when both the Departments of State and Defense will be undertaking major “rethinking” documents of their policies and their strategy in the coming years. The call for reform of this dysfunctional and dangerous decision-making and indeed of our political system is urgently needed if America is ever to become the nation it aspires to be in its domestic life and reach abroad. We need decision making aimed at real risks and dangers and human needs rather than that which is dictated by crazy selfish ideology and those with money and power, controlling our political life and making profits without any true social or global benefits.
In the end, in the international sphere, the fundamental question remains what are the objectives and values America is most interested in upholding? Is it, as we have often proclaimed, to provide security, prosperity, protect human rights, fight poverty, deal with climate change and a host of other key goals? Or is it to simply proclaim our dominance, send our troops into harms way willy-nilly to gain some narrow advantage, ignore scientific truth about the danger of climate change and environmental detraction, turn our back on humanitarian crises, ignore the problems of global poor health care and its costs to the poorest, and not least, not support international efforts against nuclear weapons or peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts as a key objective rather than choose “war-war” as our first tool in almost any upheaval.
As a professional “policy planner” in the Department of State and much of my “think tank” positions, I had to also wonder of how little thought, experience, study, and wisdom went into past disastrous decisions by the civilian (including in the White House where I once served), the military that I often worked with, and sometimes in the DOS. We all had to acknowledge that most of the decisions we faced were not easy and the consequences of action or inaction were often horrendous — in short, we do need to do better within our government and the quality of our civil servants. But we need less myopic perspective, narrow self serving partisan values, and more understanding of the costs of poor judgment.
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