Very little of what has happened in American foreign policy since September 11, 2001, has been in any way determined by underlying domestic pressures or constraints, much less by the character of American political culture. The extraordinary circumstances of the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks gave President Bush great leeway to act. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Americans felt righteous anger, extreme puzzlement that anyone should seek to do them that degree of harm and a kind of surprised pride in the unity that was expressed by the millions of American flags that suddenly appeared everywhere (above all in that center of liberal America, New York City). The country would have allowed itself to be led in any of several directions and was prepared to accept substantial risks. What it asked in return was that the leadership be effective, as indeed it was through the Afghan war and the fall of the Taliban.
The Bush Administration used its popular mandate and took substantial risks, but to solve another long-standing problem only tangentially related to the al-Qaeda threat–Iraq. In the process it squandered the overwhelming public support it had received after September 11; foreign policy has once again become a partisan and polarizing issue. At the same time, it alienated most of its close allies, who have since been busily engaged in “soft balancing” against U.S. influence.
There were other directions the Bush Administration could have followed instead. It could have created an alliance of democracies to fight the illiberal currents coming out of the Middle East. It could have revived the economic sanctions regime and gotten arms inspectors back into Iraq without going to war. It could have made a go at a new international regime to slow down proliferation. The American public was not demanding any particular course of action after the fall of the Taliban, least of all a second long and costly war. There is no diplomatic version of predestination here: The Bush Administration has made its choices freely, and now everyone is living with the consequences.
Among those consequences are not only soft balancing against U.S. power, but a significant global rise in anti-Americanism. There are any number of structural reasons for anti-Americanism today, mainly having to do with the sheer size and reach of American power. The United States with a flick of its wrist can overturn a regime 8,000 miles away, while non-Americans are unable to exert reciprocal influence. This any president would have to contend with. But the Bush Administration has made things much worse for itself through a series of stylistic and diplomatic mistakes that one would have thought so experienced a foreign policy team could have avoided.
Take one small example. The Kyoto Protocol limiting carbon emissions is without doubt a badly designed treaty; if the underlying problem of global warming is as serious as Kyoto advocates say, the treaty will do little to save us. The Clinton Administration signed the treaty, but President Clinton knew the Senate would never ratify it, and thus he never put it up for a vote. The Bush Administration could have done the same thing. Instead, it took its allies by complete surprise in March 2001 when it announced that it was formally pulling out of the accord. This policy reversal was casually mentioned at a NATO meeting without any effort to explain why the shift was being made, and without a plan that Bush could promote as an alternative to the defective treaty.
I was in Berlin at the time speaking at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the foundation of the center-right Christian Democrats who formed the bedrock of support for NATO during the Cold War. My hosts were to a person furious at Bush, believing that he was willing to impose a huge cost on the rest of the world simply because he was in the pocket of the American soft coal industry. I didn’t have the heart to explain to them that many of my conservative friends back home not only thought global warming was a fraud, but also believed the Europeans knew this and were promoting Kyoto simply as a means of undermining American competitiveness. The damage that the Bush Administration did to itself by this single act–four months before September 11–was as enormous as it was unnecessary and set the stage for much of the bad blood to come, blood brought to a boil a little less than two years later with the Iraq war.
The Bush Administration’s exercise of free will has not been much restrained by domestic political concerns, either. A great deal has been made of the emergence of “red state” America, which supposedly constitutes the political base for President Bush’s unilateralist foreign policy, as well as of the increased number of conservative Christians who supposedly dominate the President’s international agenda. I believe that in terms of the underlying social forces at work, the change has not been nearly as great as many suppose. The proportion of Americans professing belief in God or going to church regularly has always been high in the United States relative to other developed countries, and has gone up only marginally in recent years. What has changed is the way the political system represents these forces.
Up through the early 1970s, the Democratic and Republican parties were quite heterogeneous and had to appeal to a broad range of constituents. The New Deal coalition that Franklin Delano Roosevelt bequeathed to the Democrats consisted of trade unionists, Catholics, intellectuals, blacks and not a few Southern segregationists like the late Strom Thurmond in his younger days. The Republicans similarly were a coalition of social and religious conservatives, libertarians, businessmen, managers and relatively high social status “Rockefeller Republicans.” The heterogeneity of the parties inclined each to make broad appeals to the center at election time.
All of this began to change in the House of Representatives when the courts began to enforce the Voting Rights Act during the 1970s by gerrymandering electoral districts to produce districts with black majorities. They succeeded in increasing African-American representation in the House, but it somehow did not occur to the judges who wrote the new rules that, for every black House seat they produced, they would also get a conservative, white-majority suburban district. Where it has not been mandated by the courts, redistricting has been done by legislatures, as in Texas recently, with the unsurprising result that incumbents stack the rules in their own favor. The result is that a very large number of House seats today represent ideologically homogeneous districts that are in effect safe seats, virtually uncontested by the other party. Congressmen running in these districts have very little incentive to reach out to voters who think differently from their base.
Congressional redistricting thus amplifies rather than dampens ideological cleavages, and helps to explain why political discourse is nastier in the House than in the Senate (where electoral boundaries are set by the Constitution). This is why many bills, from cloning bans to trade sanctions, get started in the House and die in the Senate. The latter chamber has seen an increase in polarization as well, but Senators as a whole have to appeal to relatively more heterogenous electorates than their counterparts in the House.
In the meantime, the two parties have also become much more ideologically homogeneous. Lyndon Johnson’s prediction that passage by his Administration of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the mid-1960s would lose the South for the Democratic Party has proven true after 40 years; every election cycle has seen a drop in the number of Southern Democrats, like Max Cleland of Georgia and John Breaux of Louisiana. Meanwhile, Rockefeller Republicans have been pushed out of the Republican Party, though they are still strong in states like California and New York. Both parties have thus become far more ideologically coherent than they were 30 years ago. Winning power in either one now requires less coalition-forming and more going after core supporters. Strategies seeking to get out the party base rather than appeal to the center–as with the 2004 presidential election–are artifacts of these changes in the nature of representation and explain the apparent emergence of “red state” and “blue state” America.
Nevertheless, when it comes to foreign policy, there is heterogeneity in President Bush’s political base. Within the Republican Party, the Administration got support for the Iraq war and other controversial policy initiatives from the neoconservatives (who do not have their own political base but who provide considerable intellectual firepower) and from what Walter Russell Mead calls “Jacksonian” America–American nationalists whose instincts lead them toward a pugnacious isolationism. Sidelined for the most part were the internationalist Republicans like Brent Scowcroft who populated the Administration of George H.W. Bush.
Happenstance then magnified this circumstance. Failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the tenuous prewar connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda left the President, by the time of his second Inaugural Address, justifying the war exclusively in neoconservative terms; that is, as part of an idealistic policy of political transformation of the broader Middle East. The Jacksonian base, which provides the bulk of the troops actually serving and dying in Iraq, has no natural affinity for this kind of policy. Jacksonians are more inclined to argue as candidate George W. Bush did during the 2000 election: “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war.” If this key Republican group begins to perceive the war as a policy failure, then there will be little support in the future for the kind of expansive democracy-promoting foreign policy that the President laid out in his January 2005 Inaugural.
The situation bequeathed in 2009 to the next president will therefore depend heavily on what happens in Iraq. My prediction about this remains virtually unchanged since before the war began. The United States can control the situation in Iraq militarily as long as it chooses to remain there in force. No number of suicide bombers or assassinations will overturn the current government, and no sort of Dien Bien Phu rout is in the offing. On the other hand, American willingness to maintain the force levels necessary to stay the course is limited. The present all-volunteer U.S. Army was never designed to fight a prolonged insurgency, and in the next year the Army and the Marine Corps will face very severe manpower and morale problems. While support for staying in Iraq remains strong, there will be powerful operational reasons why the United States will want to move to lower force levels.
If the United States is forced to withdraw troops prematurely, Iraq is likely to slide into greater chaos. That would likely trigger a series of unfortunate events that would, first, damage American credibility and commitments around the world, and second, ensure that the United States will remain preoccupied with the Middle East to the detriment of other important regions for years to come. Under a more positive scenario whereby the new Iraqi government proves strong and cohesive, the United States might start to safely disengage, whereupon it will face the already problematic legacy of inattention to other crucial parts of the world.
The most important of these is East Asia. Not only is China growing in many dimensions of power (soft as well as hard), but there has been a revival of antagonistic nationalisms across the China-Japan-South Korea triangle. Time does not always heal wounds; in all three cases, younger people are more nationalistic and less likely to forgive historical wrongs than their parents. Somewhat paradoxically, Asian multilateralism is simultaneously taking shape without U.S. participation in the form of ASEAN Plus Three and the East Asia Summit, even as old bilateral relationships like the alliance between Washington and Seoul atrophy. The entire region needs a new institutional structure to anchor American influence and to embed and constrain Chinese power. The only country that can bring this about is the United States.
The second most important neglected area is Latin America. Venezuela under Hugo Chavez is turning into a new Cuba (though potentially far more dangerous because of oil revenues), sending aid and influence to far flung spots across the Caribbean and South America. Chavismo feeds off of the same disintegrative forces that are undermining other Andean countries: While Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru are all formal democracies, they are also highly stratified societies, with corrupt and out-of-touch elites. Mexico and the Southern Cone countries are in much better shape, but they will not act to contain the Andean rot on their own. As in East Asia, this is a region where American power and attention are sorely needed.
In the longer run, the greatest challenge faced by liberal democracies will not, in my view, be an external one such as defending themselves from international terrorism or managing a return to great power rivalry, but the internal problem of integrating culturally diverse populations into a single, cohesive national community. In this respect I am much more optimistic about America’s long-term prospects than those of Europe. Fear of immigration has already helped to derail the European constitution, and the violence linked to unassimilated second- and third-generation Muslims in Holland, France and Britain represents a political time bomb to which elites in those countries are late in waking up. The only possible solution is to invent a sense of national identity that is not exclusive like the blood-and-soil versions of 19th-century Europe, yet that is much more substantive than the thin gruel offered by being a “European.”
The United States in the past has succeeded in doing this; E Pluribus Unum is not just a slogan, but very much a social reality. This achievement cannot be taken for granted, however. Identity is not simply given but something actively shaped by political community. Having a president who recognizes this and sees a positive way forward will be critical once the Bush Administration has become history.