December 03, 2004

A Liberal Foreign Policy... Roughly

Right then. Let's talk Islamic terrorism. Adding the usual caveat about nuclear terrorism -- and that's a boulder-sized caveat -- Kevin Drum's surely right about one thing: No Islamic insurgent group poses an existential threat to the United States. Granted, much of this debate depends on how strong groups like al Qaeda actually are. Kevin linked to some evidence the other day that al Qaeda doesn't pose the threat we thought it did. But then there's sundry counter-evidence that al Qaeda has become decentralized. I'm not an expert on terrorist groups, so I can't really say. Anyways: the strength of al Qaeda isn't necessarily the point.

What is clear, however, is that when considered in the aggregate, the larger combination of rogue states, failed states, and insurgent groups do pose something of an existential threat to the United States.

Now I don't mean this in the sense that Rogue State A will give a nasty weapon to Terrorist Group B that hails from Failed State C so as to nuke the United States. That's possible, of course, but I'm thinking more about the thousand cuts that can come from the unintegrated, largely chaotic region of the world that Thomas Barnett calls "The Gap". The cuts could come from an influx of radicalized immigrants into Europe; or constant conflicts in Africa and the Middle East that demand American intervention and end up badly draining our resources; or the constraint on First World economic growth that inevitably comes with a recalcitrant and recidivist Third World; or regional problems that can create tensions between the U.S. and its superpower neighbors (China, the EU) that eventually lead to confrontation. Any and all of these would be existential threats.

In essence, I'm echoing Robert Kaplan (in The Coming Anarchy) and Thomas Barnett (in The Pentagon's New Map) in seeing the entire un-integrated "Gap" or "Third World" as one giant foreign policy threat that needs to be dealt with comprehensively. The Islamic world is obviously a big part of this, but focusing thusly is much too narrow. The unit of focus here ought to be that entire half of the globe where the international order is either broken or non-existent. Islamic insurgents are a threat to this order, but so are lots of other things -- militias in Africa, poverty, fascist movements in India, dwindling natural resources. A liberal foreign policy, I think, ought to shuffle two steps back and take all of this in.

Pause for a second: This may be right on the merits, but would the Democrats be doing the smart political thing to try to take on this broader challenge? I think so. The thing is, it's not enough for the Dems to simply agree with Bush's goals (spreading democracy in the Middle East, defeating Islamic insurgents, disarming rogue states) and then quibble over the methods. The party will never distinguish itself in that way; the "easily-duped median voter" theorem inevitably kicks in, and voters will not discern a clear alternative here. To present that clear alternative, the Democrats need an entirely different set of goals. Bigger goals. Better goals.

With all that in mind, a Democratic foreign policy should have, in my opinion, these basic (and briefly-sketched) aspects:

1) A new conception of multilateralism. The international institutions we have now need a serious upgrade. This will entail creating new security arrangements that deal more effectively with rogue states such as Iran, proliferation networks such as AQ Khan's shop, and peacekeeping operations as in the Sudan. Maybe it means creating a new "league of democracies". It also entails, crucially, using international institutions to promote convergence among "Core" states, to prevent problems like we've seen in the Ukraine.

2) Integrating the "Gap" into the "Core". This is Thomas Barnett's territory, but it's the right way to think big. Notice that this involves not only democracy promotion, but also weaving rogue or failed nations into the sort of global institutions (such as the WTO) that promote liberalization. Trade policy goes here. Rather than using trade as a "carrot" for our allies or as a means of creating "regional blocs", as Zoellick has done, it should be used for assimilation purposes. Borg-style.

3) Not letting America fall behind. For this, see Adam Segall's recent essay on how America may be losing its technological dominance. Here Democrats really have an advantage—they can harp on not only GOP-created deficits, but the need for education, health care, and other investments to make sure we have the growth and stability necessary to undertake this sort of massive foreign policy endeavor. You can file an expansion of the military under this prong if you want.

4) Proportional intervention. This is going to be the most controversial aspect for liberals. What I have in mind is something proposed by Robert Kaplan, where the U.S. should make a policy of intervening in "trouble spots" where it thinks conflict or anarchy is likely to develop -- heading it off before it happens. The criteria to consider here are ease of intervention, strategic value, and the psychological leverage gained by intervening. (Iraq would fail on the first.) Again, if the U.S. conceives of troubled spots like the Sudan as part of the global security threat, then intervention will be a de facto intervention in the "interest of national security."

5) Strengthening "global governance" Here I'm deferring to Ann-Marie Slaughter's book A New World Order. I can't possibly summarize it in one post (read the intro here), but needless to say, integrating the "Gap" into the "Core" will require the sort of inter-government networks she describes. Law-enforcement vis-à-vis terrorism also goes here. So does preventing nuclear proliferation. So does promoting an international labor movement in non-integrated states, a nice idea Beinart touches on.

6) A focus on development. Liberals have always been big on international development. But it's never been part of a comprehensive foreign policy. (Although liberal hawks like Biden and Holbrooke have begun to think along these lines, in re: support for secular education in the Middle East. I disagree strongly with this specific policy recommendation, but it's the right idea.) A development-oriented foreign policy should entail not only aid for democracy-promotion, but also aid for things like population control, women's literacy, and resource-renewal projects that prevent phenomena like militant Islam (or Hindu fascists, or Angolan pirates) from arising in the first place.

Needless to say, there's nothing overly radical or new about all of this. But I truly think it all ought to fit together into a vision that's larger than Islamic terrorism. (Without, of course, trivializing the immediate threat from Islamic terrorism, whatever it may be.) The good news is that much of this jibes nicely with much of what Democrats already do and believe. And point #3 above plays nicely into the hands of a liberal domestic agenda. True, it's the ultimate starry-eyed "Make the World A Better Place" vision, but I don't think it's unrealistic.

But maybe I'm wrong—maybe it's too broad, or won't fly with American voters. This is merely a start; I'm open to suggestions.
-- Brad Plumer 4:37 AM || ||