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What Does America Want?

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
May 2003
Project Syndicate


When the leaders of the world's richest nations gather in Evian, France, one unasked question will dominate: what does America want in the world? So it may be helpful to outline the principles and ideas that guide US foreign policy.

First, inconsistency is no vice. Indeed, in foreign policymaking, inconsistency is often a virtue. I speak not of principles, but of policy. The US does not have a "one size fits all" approach to the world. What happened in Iraq should not be over-interpreted as a rigid template for US policy toward countries that pursue weapons of mass destruction, support terrorism, or deny people liberty.

In Iraq, the US used force as a last resort, against a country with a clear record of aggression, and after a large degree of international consensus had developed about what Iraq needed to do. Different policies-tailored for local, regional, and international realities-will be needed to meet the challenges posed by North Korea, Iran, Syria, or elsewhere.

America's armed forces are an essential background to much of what the US accomplishes internationally. But defense policy is only one component of foreign policy. Not every threat to America's national interests can be addressed with military power. If all you have to work with is a hammer, as the saying goes, every problem looks like a nail. Success in foreign policy, as in carpentry, requires the right tools for the job.

Partnership is essential here. For all of America's power, there is little that the US can do in the world that it can't do better with the active participation of others, be they governments, international organizations, or non-governmental organizations.

Partnership facilitates solutions to problems that defy purely national responses and means that burdens are shared. America relies on partnerships in the global war on terrorism: foreign governments provide intelligence and law enforcement cooperation; trading partners ensure the security of shipping containers; private financial institutions help track the transfers of funds that sustain terror networks.

Beyond partnerships, international institutions add value-provided they are effectively organized, have realistic mandates, and contain members that are committed to common norms and aims. Such institutions can and often do advance US national interests. Indeed, it would be difficult to carry out critical dimensions of US foreign policy-from trade to non-proliferation to environmental policy-without them.

The World Trade Organization is a case in point. It provides a forum in which to negotiate new trade liberalization agreements, seek remedies against protectionist and discriminatory policies, and resolve disputes with trading partners. But the US must also ensure that existing institutions are adapted to current realities. NATO, for example, is evolving from a Cold War alliance focused solely on Europe to one suited to meeting today's security challenges wherever they may arise, such as in Afghanistan and possibly Iraq.

Multilateralism is most successful when built on a real convergence of interests and values. The UN and other global frameworks may sometimes be best placed to address US foreign policy goals. When the UN or other bodies are unwilling or unable to move against dire threats, America reserves the right to act in less encompassing alliances or flexible, ad hoc coalitions of the willing. Not even the UN has a monopoly on legitimacy, which depends most on an action's rationale and the manner in which it is undertaken.

This flexibility is needed because of the nature of the challenges that loom on the horizon. We ignore failing states at our peril, because anarchy creates an environment conducive to extremist ideologies and can offer a haven for terrorists, criminals, and drug traffickers. One of our most pressing tasks today is to prevent the implosion of weak states. Another is to assist countries that have collapsed into violence to begin the slow process of recovery.

One impulse behind America's international engagement, and one of the great sources of its global power, has been its enduring impulse to make the world a better place. Any US foreign policy must combine interests and values, because the American public always insists that US national objectives be linked to national ideals.

The appeal of US leadership abroad rests in part on the attractiveness of America's political institutions, society, and culture, and its willingness to champion human rights and democracy. At the same time, our efforts to promote democracy worldwide serve US interests, owing to the hardheaded realization that democracies settle their differences peaceably.

Today's world lacks irreconcilable conflict among the main concentrations of world power: Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and the US. This congruence of interest and agreement on the rules of international order offers a promising foundation for managing the common challenges that confront us all.

Our over-riding goal should be to create a world in which governments, organizations, and peoples embrace arrangements that allow them to realize their shared interests and that reflect fundamental universal values. Everyone has an interest in a world in which force is used only as a last resort, terrorism is regarded as beyond the pale, weapons of mass destruction do not spread and are not used, free trade becomes the norm, citizens enjoy basic liberties, democratic values triumph, and the rule of law replaces the way of the gun. Bringing such an integrated world may be optimistic, even idealistic, but it is hardly naive.

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