America's Global Role
Why the fight for a worldwide
begins at home
by George Soros
The American Prospect, June
On May 27, 1999, at the invitation of
then-Dean Paul Wolfowitz, I delivered a commencement address at
the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in
Washington. I spoke about my vision for a global open society
and Wolfowitz, now deputy secretary of defense, seemed to be on
the same wavelength. We had both participated in a small group
called The Action Council for the Balkans, which was agitating
for a more muscular policy against Slobodan Milosevic. We advocated
military intervention in Bosnia much sooner than it happened.
I remember a lively exchange with Colin Powell when I questioned
the Powell doctrine of "we do deserts but we don't do mountains."
I was very supportive of Madeleine Albright's activism on Kosovo,
where I was in favor of a coalition of the willing: NATO intervention
without United Nations authorization.
On March 7, 2003, on the eve of war with
Iraq, I gave another speech at the same graduate school. This
article is adapted from that speech. I was then and continue to
be in favor of the removal from power of Saddam Hussein, who was,
because of his chemical and biological weapons, an even more dangerous
despot than Milosevic. I would like to see regime change in many
other places. I am particularly concerned about Zimbabwe, where
Robert Mugabe's regime is going from bad to worse. I also see
Muammar Quaddafi as a dangerous troublemaker in Africa. I support
a project op Burma, or Myanmar as it is now called, which backs
Aung San Suu Kyi as the democratically elected leader. I have
foundations in central Asia, and I would like to see regime change
in countries such as Turkmenistan. And, of course, I hoped for
an easy victory in Iraq, if we went to war at all.
Yet I am profoundly opposed to the Bush
administration's policies, not only in Iraq but altogether. My
opposition is much more profound than it was in the case of the
Clinton administration. I believe the Bush administration is leading
the United States and the world in the wrong direction. In the
past, my philanthropy focused on defeating communism and helping
with the transition from closed societies to open societies in
the former Soviet empire. Now I would go so far as to say that
the fight for a global open society has to be fought in the United
States. In short, America ought to play a very different role
in the world than it is playing today.
Because open society is an abstract idea,
I shall proceed from the abstract and general to the concrete
and particular. The concept of "open society" was developed
by philosopher Karl R. Popper, whose book Open Society and Its
Enemies argued that totalitarian ideologies-such as communism
and fascism-posed a threat to an open society because they claimed
to have found the final solution. The ultimate truth is beyond
human reach. Those who say they are in possession of it are making
a false claim, and they can enforce it only by coercion and repression.
So Popper derived the principles of freedom and democracy-the
same principles that President Bush championed in his February
speech on Iraq-from the recognition that we may be wrong.
That brings us to the crux of the matter.
Bush makes absolutely no allowance for the possibility that we
may be wrong, and he has no tolerance for dissenting opinion.
If you are not with us you are against us, he proclaims. Donald
Rumsfeld berates our European allies who disagree with him on
Iraq in no uncertain terms, and he has a visceral aversion to
international cooperation, be it with NATO or UN peacekeepers
in Afghanistan. And John Ashcroft accuses those who opposed the
USA Patriot Act of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. These
are the views of extremists, not adherents to an open society.
Perhaps because of my background, these views push the wrong buttons
in me. And I am amazed and disappointed that the general public
does not have a similar allergic reaction. Of course, that has
a lot to do with September 11.
But the trouble goes much deeper. It is
not merely that the Bush administration's policies may be wrong,
it is that they are wrong, and I would go even further: They are
bound to be wrong because they are based on a false ideology.
A dominant faction within the Bush administration believes that
international relations are relations of power. Because we are
unquestionably the most powerful, they claim, we have earned the
right to impose our will on the rest of the world.
This position is enshrined in the Bush
Doctrine that was first enunciated in the president's speech at
West Point in June 2002 and then incorporated in the National
Security Strategy last September.
The Bush doctrine is built on two pillars:
First, the United States will do everything in its power to maintain
its unquestioned military supremacy, and second, the United States
arrogates the right to preemptive action. Taken together, these
two pillars support two classes of sovereignty: the sovereignty
of the United States, which takes precedence over international
treaties and obligations, and the sovereignty of all other states,
which is subject to the Bush doctrine. This is reminiscent of
George Orwell's Animal Farm: All animals are equal but some are
more equal than others.
To be sure, the Bush doctrine is not stated
so starkly; it is buried in Orwellian doublespeak. The doublespeak
is needed because there is a contradiction between the Bush administration's
concepts of freedom and democracy and the principles of open society.
In an open society, people can decide
for themselves what they mean by freedom and democracy. But the
Bush administration claims that we have discovered the ultimate
truth. The very first sentence of our latest National Security
Strategy reads as follows:
"The great struggles of the twentieth
century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive
victory for the forces of freedom- and a single sustainable model
for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise."
This statement is false on two counts.
First, there is no single, sustainable model for national success.
And second, our model, which has been successful, is not available
to others because our success depends greatly on our dominant
position at the center of the global capitalist system, and that
position is not attainable by others.
According to the ideologues of the far
right, who currently dominate the Bush administration, the success
of the American model has been brought about by a combination
of market fundamentalism in economic matters and the pursuit of
military supremacy in international relations. These two objectives
fit neatly together into a coherent ideology- an ideology that
is internally consistent but does not jibe with reality or with
the principles of open society. It is a kind of crude social Darwinism
in which the survival of the fittest depends on competition, not
cooperation. In the economy, the competition is among firms; in
international relations, among states. Cooperation does not seem
necessary because there is supposed to be an invisible hand at
work that will ensure that as long as everybody looks out for
his or her own interests, the common interest will look after
This doctrine is false, even with regard
to the economy. Financial markets left to their own devices do
not tend toward an equilibrium that guarantees the optimum allocation
of resources. The theories of efficient markets and rational expectations
don't stand up to critical examination. But at least these theories
exist, and they are widely accepted.
No similar theory can reasonably be proposed
with regard to international relations. There is the well-known
doctrine of geopolitical realism according to which states have
interests but no principles. But nobody can deny that there are
common human interests that transcend national interests.
We live in an increasingly interdependent
world and, due to the progress of technology, our power over nature
has increased by leaps and bounds. Unless we use that power wisely,
we are in danger of damaging or destroying both our environment
and our civilization. These are not empty words. Terrorism and
the spread of weapons of mass destruction give us a taste of what
lies ahead. The need for a better world order predates September
1l, but the terrorist threat has rendered international cooperation
all the more necessary.
That is not how the Bush administration
sees the world. Its perspective is not totally false but it emphasizes
one aspect of reality to the exclusion of others. The aspect it
stresses is power, and in particular military power. But military
power is not the only kind of power; no empire could ever be held
together by military power alone. Joseph S. Nye Jr., in his recent
book The Paradox of American Power, introduced the concept of
"soft power" to bring the point home.
I would go even further. Applying the
concept of power to human affairs is altogether questionable.
In physics, power or force governs the behavior of objects. That
is a misleading analogy for human affairs. People have a will
of their own. They may be cowed by military power or other forms
of repression, but that is not a sound principle of social organization.
Might is not right.
Yet that is the belief that guides the
Bush administration. Israel's Ariel Sharon shares the same belief,
and look where that has led. The idea that might is right cannot
be reconciled with the idea of an open society.
The objective of disarming Saddam Hussein
was a valid one, but the way the U.S. government has gone about
it is not. That is why there was so much opposition to the war
throughout the world and at home. That is why I shall remain opposed
to the Bush administration's conduct of foreign policy.
There is an alternative vision of the
role that the United States ought to play in the world, and it
is based on the concept of open society. The current world order
is a distorted form of a global open society. It is distorted
because we have global markets but we do not have global political
institutions. As a consequence, we are much better at producing
private goods than taking care of public goods such as preserving
peace, protecting the environment and ensuring economic stability,
progress and social justice. This is not by accident.
Globalization-and by that I mean the globalization
of financial markets-was a market fundamentalist project, and
the United States was its chief architect. We are also the chief
beneficiary. We are unquestionably the dominant power in the world
today. Our dominance is not only economic and financial but also
military and technological. No other country can even come close
This puts us in a position of unique responsibility.
Other countries have to respond to U.S. policy, but the United
States is in a position to choose the policy to which others have
to respond. We have a greater degree of discretion than anybody
else in deciding what shape the world should take. Therefore it
is not enough for the United States to preserve its supremacy
over other states; it must also concern itself with the well-being
of the world.
There were great tensions in the global
capitalist system prior to September 1l, but they have gotten
much worse since then. We must work to reduce the tensions and
make the system stable and equitable so that we can maintain our
dominant position within it.
That is the responsibility that we fail
to live up to. Worse, the Bush administration does not even acknowledge
that we bear such a responsibility. It attributes our dominant
position to the success of the American model in fair competition
with other countries. But that is a self-deception.
Contrary to the tenets of market fundamentalism,
the global capitalist system does not constitute a level playing
field. In economic and financial matters, there is a disparity
between the center and the periphery. And in military matters,
there is a disparity between the United States and the rest of
the world because the European Union, as distinct from its member
states, does not seek to be a military power. There are large
and growing inequalities in the world, and we lack the mechanism
for reducing them. Therefore we need to strengthen our international
political institutions to match the globalization of our markets.
Only the United States can lead the way because without U.S. participation,
nothing much can be done in the way of international cooperation.
A world order based on the sovereignty
of states, moreover, cannot take care of our common human interests.
The main source of poverty and misery in the world today is bad
government-repressive, corrupt regimes and failed states. And
yet it is difficult to intervene in the internal affairs of other
countries because the principle of sovereignty stands in the way.
One way to overcome the problem is to
offer countries positive inducements for becoming open societies.
That is the missing ingredient in the current world order. There
are penalties for bad behavior, from trade sanctions to military
intervention, but not enough incentives and reinforcements for
good behavior. A global open society would achieve certain standards
by providing assistance to those who are unable to meet them.
States that violate the standards could be
No single country can act as the police
officer or the benefactor of the entire world. But a global open
society cannot be achieved without American leadership.
punished through exclusion. There would
be a better balance between rewards and reinforcements on the
one hand and penalties on the other. In a global open society,
every country would benefit from belonging to it. Developing countries
would get better access to markets under the World Trade Organization.
Countries at the periphery, such as Brazil, would be guaranteed
an adequate supply of credit through the International Monetary
Fund as long as they followed sound policies, and there would
be a genuine attempt to meet the UN's millennium goals of reducing
poverty and improving lives throughout the world.
Providing incentives, of course, would
not be sufficient. Not all countries have governments that want
or tolerate an open society. A rogue regime such as Saddam Hussein's
was a threat to the rest of the world, and a global open society
must be able to defend itself. But the use of military force must
remain a last resort.
The United States cannot create a global
open society on its own. No single country can act as the police
officer or the benefactor of the entire world. But a global open
society cannot be achieved without American leadership. This means
that the United States must engage in international cooperation.
It must be willing to abide by the rules it seeks to impose on
others, to accept its share of the costs and, most importantly,
to accept that other participants are bound to have other opinions,
and other states other national interests. The United States will
always have veto rights due to its weight and importance.
Here is an alternative vision of America's
role in the world. It is the vision of America leading the world
toward a global open society. Such a vision is badly needed. After
September 1 l, President Bush has managed to convince the country
that it is unpatriotic to disagree with him.
The two visions-American supremacy and
America as the leader of a global open society-are not that far
apart. In fact, they are so close to each other that I am afraid
that when the pursuit of American supremacy fails-as it is bound
to fail- the vision of a global open society will also be abandoned.
That is why it is so important to distinguish between them.
Both visions recognize the dominant position
of the United States. Both agree that the United States has to
take an active leadership role in international affairs. Both
favor preemptive action. But when it comes to the kind of preemptive
action that America ought to take, the two visions differ. A global
open society requires affirmative action on a global scale while
the Bush approach is restricted to punitive action. In the open-society
version, crisis prevention cannot start early enough; it is impossible
to predict which grievance will develop into bloodshed, and by
the time we know, it is too late. That is why the best way to
prevent conflicts is to foster open societies.
The Bush administration claims to be fostering
democracy by invading Iraq. But democracy cannot be imposed from
the outside. I have been actively involved in building open societies
in a number of countries through my network of foundations. Speaking
from experience, I would never choose Iraq for nation building.
Military occupation is the easy part;
what comes afterward is what should give us pause. The internal
tensions and the external ones with neighboring countries such
as Turkey and Iran will make it very difficult to establish a
democratic Iraqi regime. To impose a military regime as Douglas
MacArthur did in post-World War 11 Japan would be to court disaster.
It would have been easier to achieve success
in Afghanistan because both the Taliban and al-Qaeda were alien
oppressors. But having won a resounding military victory, we failed
to follow through with nation building. Secretary Rumsfeld opposed
the extension of UN peacekeeping beyond Kabul, and, as a result,
law and order have still not been fully established outside the
capital. Hamid Karzai needs to be protected by American bodyguards.
His government is making slow progress, but the historic opportunity
to build on the momentum of liberation was irretrievably lost.
The war with Iraq does not help the building
of open societies in other countries, either. In our efforts to
gain allies and buy votes in the United Nations, we have become
less concerned with internal conditions in those countries than
we ought to be. This is true of Russia and Pakistan and all the
central Asian republics, not to mention Angola and Cameroon, which
are among the most corrupt regimes in Africa. To claim that we
are invading Iraq for the sake of establishing democracy is a
sham, and the rest of the world sees it as such. The Atlantic
Alliance has been severely disrupted, and both NATO and the European
Union are in disarray.
Disarming Iraq is a valid objective, but
with regard to weapons of mass destruction, Iraq ought not to
be the top priority today. North Korea is much more dangerous,
and it has to be said that President Bush precipitated the current
crisis. North Korea's nuclear program had been more or less contained
in 1994 by the Agreed Framework concluded by the Clinton administration.
In the meantime, President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea had engaged
in a sunshine policy, and it began to bear fruit. There was progress
in removing land mines along the border, and a direct train connection
was about to be opened. The North Korean leadership seemed to
become increasingly aware that it needed economic reforms.
When Kim Dae Jung came to Washington as
the first foreign head of state to visit President Bush, he wanted
to enlist the president's support for the sunshine policy. But
Bush rebuffed him rather brusquely and publicly. Bush disapproved
of what he regarded as the appeasement of North Korea, and he
was eager to establish a discontinuity with the Clinton administration.
He also needed North Korea out in the cold in order to justify
the first phase of the National Missile Defense program, the initial
linchpin in the Bush strategy of asserting U.S. supremacy. Then
came the "axis of evil" speech, and when North Korea
surprised the Bush administration by admitting its uranium-enrichment
program (strictly speaking not in violation of the Agreed Framework
because that covered only plutonium), Bush cut off the supply
of fuel oil. North Korea responded with various provocations.
As this magazine goes to press, North
Korea could soon start producing a nuclear bomb a month. In mid-April,
it backed off its demand for bilateral talks with the United States
and agreed to three-way talks with the United States and China.
But a serious rift between the United States and South Korea remains.
South Koreans now regard the United States as being as much of
an aggressor as North Korea, and this renders our position very
The Bush Administration's policies have
brought about many unintended, adverse consequences. Indeed, it
is difficult to find a similar time span during which political
and economic conditions have deteriorated as rapidly as they have
in the last couple of years.
But the game is not yet over. The quick
victory in Iraq could bring about a dramatic change in the overall
situation. The price of oil could fall, | the stock market could
celebrate, consumers could overcome their anxieties and | resume
spending, and business could respond by stepping up capital expenditures.
The United States could reduce its dependency on Saudi Arabia,
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could become more tractable and
negotiations with North Korea could calm tensions with Pyongyang.
That is what the Bush administration is counting on.
The jury is out. But whatever the outcome
in Iraq, I predict that the Bush approach is bound to fail eventually
because it is based on false premises. I base my prediction on
my theory of reflexivity and my study of boom-bust processes,
or bubbles, in the financial markets.
Bubbles do not grow out of thin air. They
have a solid basis in reality, but misconception distorts reality.
In this case, the dominant position of the United States is the
reality, the pursuit of American supremacy the misconception.
For a while, reality can reinforce the misconception, but eventually
it is bound to become unsustainable. During the self-reinforcing
phase, the misconception seems irresistible but, unless it is
corrected earlier, a dramatic reversal becomes inevitable. The
later it comes the more devastating the consequences. There seems
to be an inexorable quality about the course of events, but, of
course, a boom-bust process can be aborted at any stage. Most
stock-market booms are aborted long before the extremes of the
recent bull market are reached. The sooner it happens, the better.
That is how I feel about the Bush doctrine.
I firmly believe that President Bush is
leading the United States and the world in the wrong direction
and I consider it nothing short of tragic that the terrorist threat
has induced the country to line up behind him so uncritically.
The Bush administration came into office with an unsound and eventually
unsustainable ideology. Prior to September 1l, it could not make
much headway in implementing its ideology because it lacked a
clear mandate and a clearly defined enemy. September 1l changed
all that. The terrorist attack removed both constraints.
Terrorism is the ideal enemy because it
is invisible and therefore never disappears. Having an enemy that
poses a genuine and widely recognized threat can be very effective
in holding the nation together. That is particularly useful when
the prevailing ideology is based on the unabashed pursuit of self-interest.
By declaring war on terrorism, President Bush gained the mandate
he had previously lacked to pursue his goals. The Bush administration
is deliberately fostering fear because it helps to keep the nation
lined up behind the president. We have come a long way from Franklin
Delano Roosevelt, who said that we have nothing to fear but fear
But the war on terrorism-which is supposed
to include the war on Iraq-cannot be accepted as the guiding principle
of our foreign policy. What will happen to the world if the most
powerful country on earth-the one that sets the agenda-is solely
preoccupied with self-preservation? America must play a more constructive
role if humanity is to make any progress.
Acting as the leader of a global open
society will not protect the United States from terrorist attacks.
But by playing a constructive role, we can regain the respect
and support of the world, and this will make the task of fighting
The Bush vision of American supremacy
is not only unsound and unsustainable, it is also in contradiction
with American values. We are an open society. The principles of
open society are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
And the institutions of our democracy are protected by our Constitution.
The fact that we have a bunch of far-right ideologues in our executive
branch does not turn us into a totalitarian dictatorship. There
are checks and balances, and the president must obtain the support
of the people. I put my faith in the people. But in the end, open
society will not survive unless those who live in it believe in
GEORGE SOROS is the chairman of Soros
Fund Management and the founder of the Open Society Institute.