Five years is too long for the United States to search in vain for its post-Cold-War bearings. But don’t count on the current discussion in the American political mainstream to help. The President’s penchant for serving up a little something for everyone makes his foreign policy muddy, while the Secretary of State’s case-by-case method makes it choppy. Not that the opposition has offered a coherent plan. Its critique is less about strategy than technique, and even that has lost its edge since the administration overcame its rookie jitters.
Commendably, the public has not taken this lack of direction as a cue to lurch toward isolationism, despite its alluring simplicity. The people have been clear enough about their fundamental interests, namely, the quality and safety of their lives, yet have given the benefit of the doubt to overseas commitments of dubious value to those interests-witness Bosnia.
It is high time the foreign policy establishment crafted a rationale and strategy for U.S. international involvement worthy of the public’s comprehension and support. The task will require isolating three questions and answering them with internal consistency in light of the world we can observe:
- What factors will shape the international environment over the next decade or two?
- What American interests are at stake in this environment?
- What is the best option for the United States to secure those interests?
The pages that follow offer one set of answers: The information revolution is both integrating and extending the world’s core economy, offering thepromise ofmproved security, political and economic freedom, and better living conditions on much of the planet. The paramount interest of the United States is to encourage this trend while safeguarding the economic core from disruption and external threat. The wisest U.S. strategy is to enter into partnership with America’s “successful friends”-those with similar interests and the means to promote them. Other approaches come to mind-independent defense of vital (and only vital) interests, unilateral global leadership, blocking the rise of another great power, broad-based collective security-but none are at once adequate and realistic.
This reasoning reflects hard-headed optimism. One can foresee the success of American ideals in an international commonwealth of political and economic freedom yet be sober about limiting U.S. responsibilities. One can favor working with other nations, sharing both burdens and prerogatives, without being naive about their aims or about Americans’ tolerance for relying on foreigners. One can be enthusiastic about American power but thrifty about its use.