James Baker article

September 5, 2007 § Leave a comment

The case for pragmatic idealism By James A Baker

This is a serious attempt to lay out a future that fits the needs of leaderships and the led. Worth some detailed analysis. If its purpose is to pressure Bush to be more realistic, fine and good. But if it is a program for the US going forward with the next generation of leaders, it requires deeper analysis. My comments will follow each of his indented paragraphs.

The principles that guide American foreign policy during the coming years will determine how successful the United States will be as it addresses the complex global challenges that confront us.

Note that foreign policy leads the way. I do not think so. It is important and not far behind. But domestic achievements – economic, justice, cultural – “life liberty and the Pursuit of happiness” set the tone for how we are perceived by others and affect how we act – from fear or confidence.

A foreign policy simply rooted in values without a reasonable rationale of concrete interests will not succeed. But our foreign policy will also fail if it too narrowly focuses on the national interest and disregards the role that democratic ideals and human rights play in establishing a more secure world.

Much mixed here. What are “concrete interests?” do they include having ME oil, in keeping others from having it? “Democratic Ideals” is suspect after Bush has made “Democracy and Freedom” equal to media dominated democracy and money dominated freedom. Is Baker just coming up with the best story to preserve current patterns of wealth? Or is there some real equity and Justice being offered?

These truths will confront the next president regardless of his or her political party. He or she will face an international environment in which the use or misuse of American power in all its manifestations – military, diplomatic and economic – will bear decisively on our national security and on global stability. The United States will likely remain the pre-eminent global power for some time. But how we wield that unparalleled capability will determine exactly how long we remain at the front of the international pack.

“How we wield” – weapons are wielded. “Pack”, implies hungry dogs.

Despite setbacks and doubts associated with the ongoing Iraq war, the most significant phenomenon shaping global affairs today remains the uniquely pre-eminent position of the United States. Compared with earlier superpowers – ancient Rome, Napoleonic France and Britain just prior to World War I – we possess far greater advantages over potential rivals.

This does not feel to me well grounded. We are dispersing power into ambiguity and vagueness so rapidly and the rise of others moving along a steady pace (China, Iran, India, Brazil, Venezuela..

The United States is the world’s economic powerhouse. Our output represents almost a quarter of the global gross domestic product (GDP). Moreover, our performance over the past two decades has significantly outpaced that of our traditional competitors such as Japan and the countries of western Europe. And, despite the scandals that rocked corporate America earlier in this decade, we remain at the forefront of economic efficiency, innovation and entrepreneurship. In the past decade, American companies have created trillions of dollars in new wealth by spearheading products that are driving the information-technology revolution.

But what of balances of payments, loss of manufacturing? Housing Bubble?

No other advanced industrial power – and no rising power – can match us in the military arena. The defeat of the Taliban and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein clearly demonstrate our unparalleled ability to project decisive force across vast distances.

But we are losing both Taliban is resurgent and Iran is a mess. We lack the skills for a full military policy of entrance and management in other places.

No other countries even begin to approach this capability today, nor will they for years – if not decades – to come. China’s defense buildup, for instance, is significant and bears close watching. But Beijing is still far from being able to challenge us in East Asia, much less other critical regions like the Persian Gulf.

This leaves out that small numbers of determined people can bring own large empires.

Moreover, despite concerns about America “being alone”, we still continue to exert immense diplomatic influence in the global arena. The United States enjoys strong and durable bilateral relationships with a host of friendly countries – including key European states, Japan and, more recently, India. And we also play a leadership role in international organizations such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In each of these countries the perception of the US is not attractive. The leadership’s’ attitudes may be a question (see http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Front_Page/IH08Aa03.html on Germany) based on the felt need to remain aligned because of power, despite perceptions.

Last but not least, we represent an ideology – free-market democracy – without a serious global rival. Communism, our old international adversary, has been swept into the dustbin of history. No other ideology with a universal reach has risen to take its place. Yes, Islamic fundamentalism is a potent force. But, by definition, its appeal is limited to countries with significant Muslim populations.

This is just wrong. Free market democracy is really corporate-media control of markets and democracy. Let me be blunt. And having an ideology replaces beliefs? Erich Fromm wrote that ideology is belief that has lost its conviction.

Free market democracy is the opposite of free market democracy – because free market means corporate control of markets using national states, and democracy is a dollars controlling the media reality.

It is true that the model of free-market democracy is clearly not triumphant everywhere. But the trend over recent decades has unmistakably been in the direction of democracy and free markets – even in states that are still far from achieving these goals. Today’s China, however authoritarian, is a far cry from the China of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. We need only compare regions like eastern Europe and Latin America with what they were a quarter century ago to appreciate the broad, if imperfect and incomplete, trend toward market democracy. This is true even with the recent backsliding that we have witnessed, say, in parts of South America.

The Latin America back-sliding is because economics were so bad and deterioratig for most people, that some reform was needed.

In short, today there is no country or group of countries that can challenge our international pre-eminence in economic, military or political terms. This may change as countries like China and India acquire a greater share of world GDP and loom larger on the world stage. But for now and for decades to come, the United States is and will be the major global power.

I do think this is shallow. Things can change rapidly. Any serious terrorism in the US, San Francisco earthquake, breakdown in the agricultural supply lines through energy cost increse – all could rapidly shake the US. Also, power without respect does not go far. baker may be right – and he may be wrong. We have entered a zone of real uncertainty.

American might, however, is not limitless. The history of empires and great powers from Rome onward provides an important lesson. Power must be husbanded carefully. It is precious and finite. Spreading it too thin can lead to disaster. Choices still matter. We must be able to differentiate between our preferences and our priorities, between what is essential to preserve US national security and what is only desirable.

He fails to see that being in tune with desire is what the world will judge us on. Our separation of priorities from desire is going to cost us, internally and externally. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” requires aligned priorities, not divergent ones. Note that he seems to respond to his own story with one similar to mine, but only after the big bluster. Give the devil his due and then be reasonable?

Let me make myself clear: I am anything but a “declinist” when it comes to the United States. I reject gloomy predictions about our national eclipse and am absolutely convinced that our country’s future is a bright one. But while the United States may be the most powerful state in history, we are not omnipotent.
So the challenge confronting policymakers is how best to use our power in ways that advance both our interests and values while avoiding strategic overreach.

This past February, I delivered the fifth annual Kissinger Lecture on Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress. I outlined 10 maxims for policymakers in that address, and I would like to repeat them here.

My first maxim is that the United States must be comfortable with using its power. Isolationism and disengagement are simply not options. We are too integrated into the world, in economic and security terms, to walk away from it. If the United States does not exercise power, others will.

But this requires diplomatic skills we have lost. We have a state department that is de-skilled. Not outsourced, just lacking in area knowledge and language.

Other countries continue to depend on our leadership. This is most obvious when we consider our allies in Western Europe, East Asia and elsewhere. We need only think of our critical role in facilitating NATO expansion and the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. Even countries that are sometimes anything but friendly often seek our engagement. This is especially true as we combat the scourges of international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

But we must recognize that even US power is limited – my second maxim. The United States cannot be the policeman for the world. After all, the exercise of American power is constrained not least by the ability of our leaders to generate and sustain domestic political support.And powerful as we are, we cannot solve every problem in the world. Iraq, for instance, has shown a limit to the capability of our military. I yield to no one in my admiration for the magnificent performance of our men and women in uniform.But it is plain that our military services – which crushed the

conventional Iraqi Army within weeks in 2003 – face altogether more intractable foes in insurgent groups and sectarian militias. Our task is complicated by divisions within the Iraqi government and growing frustration among many Iraqis with the lack of basic security and services.

We did not crush the Iraqi army. It strategically – aided by some bribes to Iraqi generals – melted into the population to fight another day – that is, now.

Our power is limited in other areas as well. As strong as our economy may be, we still need the cooperation of others in such areas as expanding trade and investment, and coordinating macroeconomic policy. The same is true in the diplomatic arena, where our influence can be constrained when we are unable to persuade others. Securing the support of China and Russia, for instance, will be critical in crafting a tough response to Iran’s nuclear program.

This is an argument not just for US hegemony, but the hegemony of US financial interests.

There is an ongoing debate as to whether the United States should act alone or in concert with other powers. In the real world, we must be prepared to do both. Some might argue that my third and fourth maxims (“Be prepared to act unilaterally when the situation requires it” and “Appreciate the importance of allies”) are contradictory. Not at all.

It is self-evident that it is almost always preferable to act in concert with others. But when our vital interests are at stake we must be prepared, if necessary, to go it alone – although we should never undertake such action lightly.

It is no coincidence that the three great global conflicts of the 20th century – World War I, World War II and the Cold War – were won by coalitions. When we have allies, we have partners who allow us to spread the human and financial costs of any action. We can create what could be called an “efficient division of international labor”. Allies also help to create a sense of legitimacy for our actions

This is a good argument.

In the Gulf War of 1990-91, for instance, a military coalition of the United States, Britain, France, many Arab nations and others was bolstered by financial support from Gulf Arabs, the Japanese, Germans and a number of other western Europeans. Many forget that the Gulf War cost the United States hardly a nickel because at our request our allies provided critical financial support. Moreover, the UN Security Council’s authorization of force promoted support for action against Saddam Hussein in both the international community and, just as important, here at home.

This leads to the fifth maxim: we need to use all the means at our disposal to achieve our objectives. One size does not fit all when it comes to foreign policy. This is especially true today, as we confront the threats posed by international terrorism and the proliferation of WMD.

Bush would hear this as legitimating, arguing for, the use of nuclear weapons..

An effective foreign policy embodies a continuum of action from private demarches to military intervention. We saw this in the campaign to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990-91. Military action was a key part of it – but was not the sole solution. The United States deployed other tools – including moral suasion, bilateral talks and multiculturalism. Action took place both through formal institutions such as the UN and more informal coalitions.

Is he also hinting at mercenary armies? the rise of private armies is a bad sign. I think it was in about 2002 that the number of private police (includes guards) in the US surpassed the number of regular police.

A similar range of tools was used in the effort to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan – including cooperation with both Russia and Iran. In recent years, we have also seen good coordination with other countries of intelligence-gathering and law-enforcement assets to combat both al-Qaeda and terrorism in general.

Note that he does not claim success with the Taliban. The complexity of that region, drugs for one, and our own history in using the people as pawns in the Cold War make decent policy there hard to arrive at.

But when a particular course of action is not producing results, we should be prepared to change direction if necessary (the sixth maxim). As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “Great nations are too strong to be destroyed by their foes. But they can easily be overcome by their own pride.”

Here is he is arguing with Bush.

Consistency, of course, is an important element of foreign policy. It permits us to move beyond crisis management and facilitates the development of long-term strategies. Consistency can also foster stability by reassuring allies and setting down clear markers for potential adversaries.

But when events change, we must be prepared to change with them. The rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, for instance, marked a dramatic shift in the world view of the Soviet leadership. It was therefore only right that Washington reach out to Moscow in ways unimaginable just a few short years before. We rightly changed course. And we are doing just that now in our Iraq policy.

I wonder what he knows? Yes there is a consensus hat we need to alter the path, but no agreement as to how – or why.

My seventh piece of advice is that we need to recognize and accept that the United States will sometimes have to deal with authoritarian regimes.

In a perfect world, we could perhaps work only with other democracies. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, and there is no sign that it will become one any time soon. While freedom may be on the march, some of the most critical states in the world for US interests – in terms of their military or economic power, resource endowments or geostrategic location – are far from being Jeffersonian democracies.

To be blunt, sometimes we have no choice but to work with governments that fall short when it comes to democratic practices and protection of human rights. The most striking example of this was our World War II alliance with Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, one of the most murderous regimes in history. (Given the immediate and deadly threat posed by Nazi Germany, we had no alternative.) During the Cold War, we made common cause with authoritarian regimes in South America, Asia and elsewhere. We understood that sometimes policymakers must choose from a range of less-than-desirable options.

Today, our allies in the war on terror include countries in the Middle East and Central Asia that bear scant resemblance to the free societies we hold out as the ideal. I cannot pretend that this is a satisfying state of affairs. But there is simply no realistic alternative.

The question in much of the world’s mind, especially in Europe and Japan, is, is the US becoming an authoritarian regime?

This brings me to the eighth maxim: We must be prepared to talk with our enemies. I don’t say this because talking per se is a good thing. I do not hold to the belief that talking solves all difficulties between nations – although there is something to be said for maintaining a bilateral dialogue, if only to avoid misunderstanding and missteps.

No, the fundamental reason we should be prepared to speak to our enemies is that it is in our interest to do so. This is why we maintained an embassy in Moscow throughout the Cold War. And this is why even so staunch an anti-communist as president Ronald Reagan was prepared to negotiate with the Soviets. His motto – “Trust but verify” – remains an irreplaceable injunction for any negotiations. Talking to a hostile government, whether it was Moscow during the Cold War or Damascus today, is not appeasement.It was and still is good foreign policy.The previous two maxims can sometimes be difficult for some Americans to accept. And so my ninth maxim is that we should be mindful that values are important – but that they aren’t the only thing that should guide our policy.

Sadly, we cannot formulate or implement American foreign policy according to the principles of Mother Teresa. Foreign policy is not social work. Americans are often motivated by the most altruistic of humanitarian impulses. But when the body bags start coming home, it is extremely difficult to rally public support if there is no overriding national interest.

This sounds like a straw man. Those who are about equity are being written out of he conversation.

Promoting democracy and free markets around the world is rightly central to US foreign policy. A freer, more prosperous world is a better world for our own citizens and people everywhere. Our productive (if not always perfect) relationships with the mature market democracies of western Europe and Japan can serve as a model in this regard.But we must remember that progress toward democracy and free markets is neither inevitable nor without its own strains.

Both democracy and free markets can be decidedly mixed blessings in the short run. Economic reforms can lead to strains that prompt populist backlashes, and elections cannot be counted upon to produce stable, responsible regimes. The popular success of Hamas among Palestinians and Hezbollah in Lebanon are cases in point.

“Responsible” is being defined here as “acting consistent with market democracy, that is, corporate media globalization. “populist backlashes” are not legitimate, just something to manage.

– So should we support free markets and democracy? Of course we should. But we should be especially careful not to underestimate the difficulties countries can face as they embark on the path to democracy.

“Path to democracy” means democracy that supports the hegemonic US economy and its aligned elites. The real question is, can an evolution toward a better world happen under such a program, or will the underlying inequalities, environmental and climate problems, and energy use wreck this approach – which means we should be trying for something different.

Above all, we should always remember that in foreign policy, “stability” is not a dirty word. It can serve as the foundation for economic and political reform. Its alternative is frequently internal chaos and external conflict. Sometimes destruction can be “creative”. More often it is just destructive.

The word “reform” is also part of the program. Creating ownership of water for example.

The example of World War I is sobering. It followed immediately on the heels of a period of unparalleled economic integration that some have called the “first golden age of globalization”. One of the most influential books of the prewar period, Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion, argued that general war had become impossible because of the economic advantages of peace. Yet we know what followed – one of the bloodiest periods in human history. So we should be very wary when talk turns to “inevitability”. What man creates, man can destroy.

Note how this does not lead to any analysis of the difference between a paths forward within his brand of market democracy, between one that could avoid that destruction and one that will lead to it

A last, but by no means least, important guiding principle: domestic support is vital to any successful foreign policy.

The will of the American people is the final arbiter of foreign policy in our democracy. Generating and sustaining domestic support for foreign policy is in every way as important as the policy itself. Without that support, specific policies risk repudiation at the polls or, worse, public disenchantment with foreign engagement in general.

The polling on Americans’ views of foreign policy represents a mixed bag. Some surveys suggest a rise in isolationism. More clear is a turn against the use of force as an instrument of US foreign policy. The Iraq war has contributed to both. Whatever one’s views of the war and its conduct, it is incumbent on all who believe in US engagement on the world stage to contest any retreat to isolationism.

How might that “contesting” be done? I we look at his language throughout, “wield”, Pack” and “contest” it sounds to me like a control scenario he is building toward. A person who has spent his life fighting – aw or military – is likely to always define the present in terms of the next fight. other perspectives and vocabularies do not easily enter into the discussion.

So how do we best apply these 10 maxims in the context of an overall approach to conducting US foreign policy? The approach I suggest does not fall easily into the traditional categories of foreign policy – “realism” or “idealism”. It contains the best elements of both.

What I suggest might be called “pragmatic idealism”. While firmly grounded in values, it appreciates the complexity of the real world – a world of hard choices and painful trade-offs. This is the real world in which we must live, decide and act.

It is a world that Ronald Reagan understood. He was, famously, a man of deeply held convictions. But he was also pragmatic. When I was his chief of staff, he often told me, “Jim, I’d rather get 80% of what I want than to go over the cliff with my flag flying.” The Gipper, of course, was right.

Seems again to be arguing with Bush. I wonder what his conversations are behind the scenes. Is there a move against bush in the works?

I am not proposing a dogmatic list that must be checked off for each foreign-policy challenge we confront. On the contrary, these maxims embody a mindset marked by a realistic assessment of events and a practical response to them. They represent anything but elements of a rigid ideology that forces events into preconceived notions and creates “either/or” choices that are both false and dangerous. This approach embodies one of our most distinctive national characteristics: we Americans are a practical people less interested in ideological purity than in solving problems. Our pragmatism should inform our foreign policy.

Such a balanced approach can help us avoid both the cynicism of “realism” and the impracticality of “idealism”. It is based on an optimistic view of man but is tempered by our knowledge of human imperfection. It promises no easy answers or quick fixes. But neither did the containment policy pursued by US administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, during the Cold War. Yet that policy ultimately triumphed.

It was based, much like the approach I have sketched, on a unique melding of idealism and realism. It eschewed the temptations of both isolationism on the one hand, and rollback of communism through direct conflict with the Soviet Union on the other. And it reflected, at an important level, a confidence about the future that we need to recapture.

Such an approach does, I am convinced, offer our surest guide and best hope for navigating our great country safely though this precarious period of unparalleled opportunity and risk in world affairs.

James A Baker III was the 67th secretary of the US Treasury and the 61st secretary of state. Last year, he co-chaired the Iraq Study Group with Lee Hamilton. Currently, he is co-chairing the National War Powers Commission with former secretary of state Warren Christopher and is the author of the recently published Work Hard, Study … and Keep Out of Politics! Adventures and Lessons from an Unexpected Public Life (Putnam, 2006).

(Used by permission the

National Interest Online.)(For the original article, click here)

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