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The Palmerstonian Moment

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
January 2, 2008
The National Interest


The 44th president of the United States will assume the job at a time when the country he (or she) leads will be stretched militarily, dependent on enormous daily inflows of oil and dollars, vulnerable to many of the darker manifestations of globalization and broadly unpopular. Few previous inhabitants of the Oval Office have started off with a situation of comparable difficulty.

But first, a rare piece of good news. Noticeably absent from the agenda will be great power conflict. This was the central dynamic of international relations for the past few centuries. But it no longer is and need not be for the 21st century. This will allow the next president to focus his energies on the signature challenges of this era, many of which are fostered by globalization. He can work not just with traditional friends like Europe, Japan and Australia, but also on occasion China, Russia, India, South Africa and Brazil—as partners rather than rivals.

The bad news for the United States is that support from its long-standing allies is far from assured. In the 21st century, formal alliances will increasingly count for less. Alliances require predictability: of threat, outlook, obligations. But it is precisely these characteristics that are likely to be in short supply in a world of shifting threats, differing perceptions, and societies with widely divergent readiness to maintain and use military force.

This is in no way an expression of unilateralist sentiment. But it is a recognition that many in Europe disagree with some U.S. objectives, how the United States goes about realizing them, or both. Such disagreements will prove more fundamental and enduring than the recent improvement in transatlantic relations resulting from the coming to power of more centrist and pro-American governments in Germany and France. As a result, the United States often will not be able to count on the support of its traditional allies. Also weakening Europe’s centrality to U.S. foreign policy is that its capacity for global intervention is diminishing, especially in the military field, even on those occasions it does find itself inclined to act with or in support of the United States. Much the same holds true for Japan, although there the principal dynamic stems more from a lack of domestic political consensus to act globally than it does from an unwillingness to invest.

As a result, Americans will have to become comfortable with the notion of “selective cooperation.” Not too long ago I told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars that “we are entering an era of American foreign policy and indeed international relations that is almost Palmerstonian in certain ways, where countries are not clear adversaries or allies with the automaticity or predictability of either. ...They may be active partners on one issue and largely inactive observers on another.” Or they may carry out alternative or even opposing policies.

The post–Cold War world, in many respects, is far more dynamic and fluid than the relatively stable and predictable bipolar arrangements of the Cold War. It thus demands a much greater degree of flexibility from policymakers. All of this is in keeping with Lord Palmerston’s dictum that a nation has neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies—just permanent interests.

But there is a silver lining. Opposition from former adversaries is also not assured. Indeed, one-time opponents may become limited partners. Take, for example, the assistance given by China in pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. Beijing, in this case—not NATO—was and is the most important partner for Washington in its efforts to denuclearize North Korea. This does not, however, mean that China is on the verge of becoming a U.S. ally. This, too, is an example of a “Palmerstonian moment”, one that served U.S. objectives.

Increasingly, policymakers will need to come to terms with the reality that the defining challenges of this era stem from globalization. Globalization has led to an increase in the flow of people, ideas and goods across borders—along with greenhouse gases, drugs, weapons and viruses, computer as well as the more familiar kind. Globalization is best understood as a reality, not a choice. In such a world, every country, no matter how powerful, is vulnerable to transnational threats. No country can shut itself off. (North Korea is something of an exception, but only at an enormous cost, and even then Pyongyang cannot fully insulate itself as much as it might try.) The United States, in particular, cannot embrace protectionism given its dependence on the inflow of dollars, oil and goods. Nor can it flirt with isolationism given its inability to insulate itself from various threats that may originate elsewhere, but have the ability to reach American soil or harm American interests.

Yet, there is a pronounced lag between the realities of globalization and the U.S. (and, in particular, congressional) response. There is a discernible spike in protectionist sentiment—against trade, investment and people. None of these biases stands scrutiny. Most of the jobs that disappear do so because of technological innovation, not cheap imports or outsourcing. The proper response is doing more to make mid-career education and training available and affordable. Portable health care not tied to employment would also help. The next president needs to push for renewed Trade Promotion Authority and to push back against agricultural subsidies and anachronistic tariff and non-tariff barriers. If the price of achieving most or all of this is building an extensive safety net, it is worth paying given all the strategic and economic benefits to this country that would accrue from a successful conclusion to the Doha round.

The growth in investment protectionism—dramatically highlighted by the opposition to proposed acquisitions by the Dubai Ports Authority and the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company in the United States—also makes little sense. Absent clear and overriding national-security concerns tied to specific investments, the United States needs to remain open to dollar inflows. Such openness is good for the U.S. economy, gives others a stake in good and stable relations with the United States, and helps spread good business practices. The case in favor of remaining open to immigration is similarly strong. Immigration is one of the factors that has made this country what it is. Immigrants perform jobs that in many cases Americans are unable or unwilling to fill. Deporting the 13 million immigrants who are here without documentation is inconceivable. Some compromise that allows for earned citizenship but that also provides for enhanced security and larger legal flows of immigrants remains the only way to move forward.

Absent amidst all this protectionism is a concerted effort to take desirable and feasible domestic measures to reduce U.S. vulnerability to another dimension of globalization, namely, energy dependence. The new administration and Congress should take meaningful steps to reign in skyrocketing demand for energy—not simply to reduce the American contribution to climate change, but also to reduce the vulnerability of the American economy to supply interruptions and price increases and to slow the flow of dollars to governments that in many instances are pursuing policies inimical to U.S. national security. Energy policy is at the core of national security. Even climate change is assuming national-security dimensions. Some within the traditional security community do not see some of these issues as major threats on par with the challenges of the Cold War. It is true that countries are unlikely to go to war over levels of greenhouse gas emissions. But they may well go to war over the results of climate change, including water shortages and large-scale human migration.

Finally, no country can contend successfully with globalization on its own. This debate is largely settled—and in many ways it was a faux debate to begin with. The United States can achieve few if any of its foreign-policy objectives via unilateral action. It is not simply that there are limits to American power and resources; it is that the challenges themselves are not amenable to being met by anything less than a collective response. The next president of the United States will be forced to adopt a more multilateral approach to foreign policy.

Multilateralism as a response to globalization should not be equated with global or universal arrangements. As we are seeing in the trade realm, it is increasingly difficult to generate consensus when the number of participants swells. The result has been the proliferation of regional and bilateral accords. Something similar is possible or even likely when it comes to climate change. It will be extraordinarily difficult to negotiate a single successor to the Kyoto Protocol, one that includes all developed as well as developing countries and that addresses all of the principal dimensions of the challenge. Instead, what is likely to emerge—or, more accurately, evolve—is an amalgam of national policies, corporate programs, and regional and global arrangements limited in scope (say, devoted to one functional aspect of the challenge, such as encouraging forestation and discouraging deforestation) and participation. As a rule of thumb, global order is best served by effective and permanent institutions with broad membership, but in many instances coalitions of the willing and other such ad hoc arrangements are the best that can be achieved in the near or medium term. Again, it is important to note the Palmerstonian dimension of this approach—a successful coalition of states coping with one specific issue should not be expected to be transformed into a permanent alignment where there is agreement on all issues.

This is why it should also be stressed that not all standing bodies promise to be all that helpful. One suggestion that is not promising is the call for various assemblages of democracies to assume a more central role in U.S. foreign policy. Aside from questions of what would qualify as a democracy and how to get anything done with so many in the room, a democracy-based foreign policy makes no sense in a world in which the cooperation of non-democracies, above all China and Russia, is often essential if we are to prevent rogue states and the dark side of globalization from gaining the upper hand. A democracy-based foreign policy also makes little sense given how difficult it can be to promote successfully and how dangerous partial democracies can be in their behavior toward their neighbors and their own citizens.

Several years ago, in these pages, I discussed how a doctrine of “integration” might replace the Cold War vision of “containment” as the main organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy.1 A policy of integration would aim to create a cooperative relationship among the world’s mid-level and major powers, built on a common commitment to promoting certain principles and outcomes. It would seek to translate this commitment into effective and lasting arrangements and actions wherever and whenever possible. Nomenclature aside, and whether one speaks of “stakeholders” or a modern-day “concert”, the idea of integration is gaining currency. Integration is the only way to tackle the challenges of a new era, especially those generated by globalization, such as protectionism, proliferation, terrorism and climate change.

But coming to terms with the foreign-policy choices demanded by a strategy of integration is not just for the United States. Other major powers will also be confronted with serious choices. Again, China is a good place to start. Traditionally, foreign policy has been approached by China’s leaders through a domestic prism. The goal of foreign policy has been to create a secure environment in which domestic economic growth could occur. But Beijing is moving to an appreciation that it has a stake in the world, that what happens elsewhere affects China and that increasingly China will be held accountable for its actions. As work on a post-Kyoto framework intensifies, China will find itself on the defensive if it becomes the principal obstacle to new climate change arrangements. It is already on the defensive over the value of its currency and its failure to meet all of its trade-related obligations. Chinese officials and intellectuals are increasingly aware of China’s integration into the global system—after all, any country whose economy is so dependent on imports and exports cannot help but be concerned with how the international system is organized. Questions remain, though, about the extent to which this awareness will translate into policy, and about how China’s leaders will react if and when there is tension between the demands of domestic and foreign policy.

This is in contrast to more recent developments in Russia. Moscow, now flush with energy wealth, enjoys a degree of autarky on many issues and can choose more often than most to opt out of the global system. China does not have that luxury. As a result, it is less difficult to see China as an “integrated country” in the near future than Russia. Of course, Japan and many of the Europeans are already committed to the strategy of integration, since multilateral arrangements are at the core of their foreign policies, although in the Japanese case in particular there is a gap between this orientation and the narrower focus of its domestic politics, a focus that tends to limit what Japan is prepared to do in the world. India, for its part, is also increasingly integrated, but mostly in the economic realm.

This gap or lag between the realities and politics of globalization is widespread and holds for democracies (including the United States) and non-democracies alike. Lobbies and special interests continue to be less than willing to give up privileges, protected positions or preferred outcomes in the name of finding compromises with other countries. The truth is that, with all of the benefits globalization has wrought, it also brings risks and constraints. Even for superpowers like the United States, the international order brought into being by globalization limits the range of choices and options available to any one individual state to pursue its own course of action. But this is a necessary and, on balance, desirable trade-off if globalization is to be successfully managed.

In thinking about this agenda, however, we should not assume that we must wait until January 2009 and a new presidential administration. On the contrary, talk about President George W. Bush being a “lame duck” and therefore unable to achieve much is exaggerated. It ignores the Constitution’s bias in favor of the executive when it comes to foreign policy, the potential for unexpected developments (to create opportunities or pressures to act) and the proclivities of Mr. Bush. For better or worse, he retains the ability to shape the world that will await his successor.

The Greater Middle East will continue to absorb the lion’s share of the administration’s attention and resources during its final year. (Iraq, ironically, may be the one matter that actually receives less attention.) We appear to be on the cusp of a consensus, a “reduction strategy”, one that lies in between the surge (which appears to have improved the security situation but has not altered the underlying political dynamics of the country) and complete and sudden withdrawal (which could not only lead to chaos in Iraq but also cause the entire American position in the Middle East to be undermined). This involves a recasting of the U.S. mission toward a residual force that would aim to contain the violence, secure the borders and train Iraqi forces, in the process scaling back the U.S. combat role and relocating U.S. personnel away from Baghdad and other Iraqi population centers. This consensus may calm the debate in Washington, but it is unlikely to change the fundamentals in Baghdad and across much of central and southern Iraq, which will remain messy and violent and influenced more by militias and sects than by a national government, national forces or a national identity.

There is greater uncertainty when it comes to U.S. policy toward Iran. We may end up moving toward a situation where the United States would be faced with two choices, both highly unattractive—either having to tolerate Iran with a nuclear weapon (or the means to construct one in short order) or having to use military force to prevent or, more realistically, delay this from occurring. Either policy would run enormous risks and costs for U.S. interests in the region and beyond. The Bush Administration deserves some responsibility for this state of affairs, having allowed five years and various diplomatic openings to pass while it held out for the desirable but predictably unrealistic option of regime change. Beginning in 2005, though, Washington began to pursue a diplomatic option, but then only through the UN Security Council and contingent on a demand that Iran suspend all enrichment activity, a precondition Iran rejects. New multilateral sanctions, quite possibly without Security Council support, will be necessary to help sway the Iranian government. But so, too, is a new flexibility in Washington’s stance on Tehran. The real question for the Bush Administration (or, more likely, for its successor) is whether the United States will drop its requirement that Iran first suspend its nuclear program and instead open direct talks with Tehran to negotiate verifiable limits to Iran’s enrichment program, which would leave Iran well short of a nuclear-weapons capability (and outsiders the means to verify this judgment), in return for a reduction in Western economic sanctions and the provision of security guarantees. There is no guarantee Tehran would accept such a package, but it might if it faces broad international pressure and if the terms of a fair compromise are made public and resonate with the Iranian people. Regardless, this approach is worth exploring given the two costly policy paths otherwise available and the importance of demonstrating that all other options were fully explored before choosing either of them.

The administration (and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in particular) has decided to concentrate considerably more attention on the Israeli-Palestinian question than in the past. It is a surprising amount of activity—some might consider it to be a “Hail Mary” pass on the part of an administration that has had so many other setbacks in the Middle East—but it also rests on an assessment that Israelis and Palestinians both are desperate enough to take the steps needed to get the peace process back on track. The new emphasis also reflects a judgment that many of the Sunni regimes (including Egypt and Saudi Arabia) are sufficiently anxious about the reach of Iranian influence to play a helpful role. It is not clear, however, that Israelis and Palestinians are prepared to agree to terms the other side could accept—and even if they are, it is not clear they have the means to sell the number and scale of compromises that any accord would require to their respective domestic bases. Some “sorting out” will almost certainly be necessary from both sides before the situation moves closer to being ripe for resolution. This process could be facilitated by U.S. articulation of the basics of final status, something that would help moderate Palestinian leaders justify opting for negotiations over violence. And if a Palestinian leadership emerged that was both willing and able to compromise, the Israelis would likely follow suit. In the meantime, the United States would do well to reconsider its coolness to engaging Syria, where a leadership does exist that is strong enough to negotiate and that might be prepared to enter into a peace accord with Israel.

Even outside the Middle East, this administration continues to face a daunting array of challenges. North Korea is one. The administration has made progress, albeit belatedly, in what appears to be a successful strategy of conditional engagement, linking concessions to Pyongyang to verifiable proof that its nuclear program has ended. The challenge obviously lies in the extent to which this agreement is actually implemented. What is certain, though, is that the United States and others will have to contend with a closed North Korea that possesses nuclear weapons and at least intermediate-range missiles for years to come.

Pakistan is another. Or rather “Pakistan-Afghanistan.” These are two countries increasingly joined more than divided by a long border. In both countries, the challenge is to promote economic growth and political reform amidst difficult security challenges stemming from the strength of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and local extremists. The lack of adequate military and policing capabilities limits any progress either government can expect to realize. Growing nationalism and anti-Americanism also tend to limit what the United States can accomplish. The stakes could hardly be greater, though, given that this area is now a sanctuary for the world’s most dangerous terrorists and, in the case of Pakistan, home to dozens of nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s political crisis, by dividing and distracting the country, will only make it more difficult for the government to confront its real enemies. On these and a host of other trouble spots, like Venezuela, Cuba, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Kosovo, to name a few, it is clear that the Bush Administration is going to hand off unfinished business to its successor.

This puts a tremendous premium on statecraft. It means that future administrations will have to become much more comfortable and adept at meaningful consultations and building coalitions with other states. The biggest danger is that the United States and other countries will not be able to find ways to cooperate together where they can and should because of the spillover from where they disagree. It makes for a challenge that Lord Palmerston could readily appreciate. Navigating this reality will be anything but easy given the geopolitical setting we are living in. But it will be essential if integration is to come about and if globalization is to be managed on terms we desire.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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