The Real Foreign-Policy Debate

It's not just Democrats vs. Republicans.
It's Locke vs. Hobbes.

by John Judis

The American Prospect, May 6, 2002


The Bush administration is on the verge of making momentous decisions in foreign policy that will shape the country's role in the world for the next quarter-century. Nonetheless, there is an astonishing lack of public discussion of these decisions, particularly among Democrats. Most Democratic senators and House members, intimidated by Bush's popularity, are afraid to discuss, let alone criticize, administration foreign policy. Even Democratic organizations are silent on many issues. Try to find out whether the United States should invade Iraq from the Web sites sponsored by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the Campaign for America's Future, or the Progressive Caucus.

The Democratic presidential candidates are no help either. Former Vice President Al Gore's address in February to the Council on Foreign Relations was a model of equivocation. And Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is desperately trying to position himself to Bush's right without committing himself to any substantive proposal. In a recent interview, Kerry descended into parody by admonishing Bush for allowing General Tommy Franks to conduct the war in Afghanistan from Tampa, Florida. "I think that's only one issue of a whole number that have made the next steps much more complicated than they necessarily have to be," Kerry said.

The person who has most tried to articulate a distinctly Democratic foreign policy is Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Some smart-ass Washington journalists dismiss Biden as a lightweight and a blowhard, but he is an earnest man who has been more willing than any other elected Democrat to engage the Bush administration in debate. He has been joined periodically by Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former President Bill Clinton, and some former Clinton administration officials. Their statements have not produced a clear and unambiguous doctrine. But underlying what seem like purely tactical disagreements with specific Bush policies is a dramatically different way of understanding foreign policy.

Bush's policy toward Israel has been a welter of confusion-on one hand, declaring support for a Palestinian state; on the other, giving assent to the Israeli army's invasion of the West Bank and destruction of the Palestinian Authority, which would govern a new state. A few Democrats, such as New York Senator Charles Schumer and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, want the United States to treat Yasir Arafat as a terrorist and throw its entire weight behind Ariel Sharon's attempt to undermine his authority. But most Democrats, including Biden and former Clinton officials, argue that the United States should resume the mediating role it played during the Clinton years. They say it should intervene forcefully on behalf of a plan that combines a cease-fire with concrete steps toward a Palestinian state. And, they contend, it should do so with the active participation of Arab and European states.

What has bothered all of these Democrats has been Bush's refusal to throw America's weight behind a solution. Before September 1l, Bush appeared to regard the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a morass from which the United States should keep its distance. Since then, he has subordinated its resolution to the war against terrorism and the mobilization against Iraq-and only sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region when the conflict threatened to plunge the Arab world into turmoil. Democrats have always believed this conflict's resolution was vital to the United States. A cynic might attribute this belief to the power that Jews wield within the Democratic Party; but it has much more to do with how Democrats envisage America's responsibility in the world than it does with narrow political concerns.

A few Democrats, including Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, have advocated ousting Saddam Hussein as part of the "first phase" of the war against terrorism. Correspondingly, a few Democrats have cast doubt on whether the United States should even worry about Iraq. But most leading Democrats, including Biden and Gore's national security adviser, Leon Fuerth, have taken a much more ambiguous position. They have not criticized Bush for advocating Saddam's ouster but for moving too precipitously and unilaterally toward that end.

At a speech in Washington, Biden laid out a three-step strategy: First, wage a public campaign to inform our potential allies about Saddam's capabilities; second, assure the Russians that we will not use Saddam's ouster to replace Russian oil companies with American ones; third, seek to win Saddam's acceptance of UN arms inspectors. But "if you do not have any response from Saddam," Biden said, "then be very straightforward about it, like [former Ohio State football coach] Woody Hayes. Here we come and what are you going to do about it? Literally begin to amass force."

Biden and other Democrats want Bush to build a coalition against Saddam. They believe that without international support, especially among Arab countries, the United States will have difficulty mounting a military operation. And, they say, if it attempts to do so anyway, it could sow instability in the countries neighboring Iraq. They also want the United States to attempt to restore UN sanctions, even if they believe-as Biden and Fuerth do- that Saddam will resist admitting inspectors and continue to seek weapons of mass destruction. They worry that Bush is determined to go after Saddam even without the support of other countries.

These seemingly tactical reservations are underscored by a deeper division between the Democrats and the Bush administration. As had become apparent before 9-11, Bush has abandoned the internationalist perspective that shaped foreign policy in the first Bush and the Clinton administrations. Instead, Bush, influenced by his Pentagon rather than by his more internationalist State Department, has adopted a foreign policy based on a cramped view of American interests and a deeply pessimistic outlook on international relations.

Bush officials such as Deputy Defense

Secretary Paul Wolfowitz envisage an America surrounded by adversaries and potential adversaries who must be deterred by superior U.S. military power. (In 199z, Wolfowitz authored a Pentagon strategy that included Germany and Japan as potential enemies.) Bush officials do not reject coalitions per se, but they do reject any idea of collective security. They have opposed both arms control and environmental agreements. They favor overseas intervention, but only when it is tied to a narrow definition of U.S. national interest. They don't like committing America to "nation-building," whether in the Balkans, Afghanistan, or the West Bank. For them, the September 1l attacks confirmed their views that a Hobbesian state of nature stirs beneath the post-Cold War I calm. They see the war on terrorism not as a collective effort to rid the world of al-Qaeda but as an American effort, aided by other countries, to destroy worldwide enemies.

Most Democrats, whatever their stand on Israel or Iraq, disagree with this approach. Democrats have not merely favored coalitions, they have seen alliances and international treaties as an essential aspect of U.S. foreign policy. Democrats seek collective security in order to create the economic and political stability in which America, as well as other nations, can prosper. They do not see a U.S. military monopoly as a prerequisite for security but rather as a waste of precious resources- and an invitation to future conflict. They believe that September 1l demonstrated that such security cannot be achieved unilaterally. But they also see the outbreak of Islamic terrorism as an eruption that-like that of Nazism-can be overcome. Theirs is a Lockean view of international relations-of a world that eventually can be governed by social contracts rather than by the threat of force. In a speech at Harvard last November, Clinton argued that, in the face of 9-11, that the world is becoming more rather than less pacific. "I for one do not believe that the twenty-first century will claim anywhere near as many innocent lives as the twentieth century did," he said.

Democrats base the necessity for collective security on the global interdependence created by the spread of market institutions and the Internet. The United States, Daschle argued last August, is "a nation as susceptible to an explosives-laden skiff as it is to nuclear weapons; a nation that can be attacked by a single terrorist or the rising tide of global warming, a computer virus or a biological one; a nation unrivaled in its economic strength, but whose strength is increasingly tied to the economic and political stability of the rest of the world." Globalization creates new dangers that only collective action can address. But it also threatens autocracies like the former Soviet Union and creates the opportunity for new kinds of cooperation and common aspiration-if (and this was the heart of Clinton's argument) it is supplemented by measures to encourage political democracy and greater economic equality. 'Democracies don't go to war against each other, and by and large they don't sponsor terrorism," Clinton declared at Harvard.

Not every Democrat has endorsed this halcyon view of globalization. Some labor Democrats, for instance, remain committed to economic protectionism; others to a more regionalized and fragmented international economy. But many new and old Democrats have adopted versions of this global outlook. The DLC has always championed free trade but is now also promoting a new global Marshall Plan to mitigate the inequality that globalization has sometimes fostered between rich and poor nations. And the AFL-CIO leadership, while favoring some interim trade protections, is now committed to the promulgation of international rules that would protect all workers.

This view, which dates back to Woodrow Wilson in 1917, underpins the Democrats' support for active intervention in Sarajevo and Ramallah, even where U.S. interests are not directly in peril. It lies at the bottom of Democrats' support for NATO and the U.N. Conversely, the Bush administration's Hobbesian view has contributed to its inaction in Israel, its enthusiasm for national missile defense, and its blind determination to go after Iraq. It's not likely that the discussion between the Democrats and the Bush administration will plumb these philosophical abstractions-Hobbes and Locke aren't commonly discussed on Face the Nation. If some Democrats besides Biden finally begin criticizing the administration's foreign policy, they are likely to focus on the specifics of administration policy. But what will underlie and reinforce those disagreements is a larger disagreement about where the world is going, and how Americans should try to shape it.


JOHN B. JUDIS is a senior editor at The New Republic

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