Wednesday, January 5, 2000

If there is anything more difficult to untangle than the Washington foreign policy debate in the post-Cold War era, it would have to be the staff holiday vacation schedule. Christmas and New Year’s being behind us, however, this would seem a good time to tackle the thorny question of the U.S. international role as the world’s remaining superpower. It is a debate that has been waged on the op-ed pages and in political journals all through the ‘90s, and which is yet far from reaching a consensus.

To its great credit, Commentary magazine has delved into the discussion in the most comprehensive way yet of any of the intellectual and academic journals. Those interested in the shifting policy terrain could not do better than consult the December and January issues of this distinguished journal.

In the last issue of the 20th century, Norman Podhoretz undertook the Herculean task of sorting through shifting foreign policy allegiances in “Strange Bedfellows: A Guide to the New Foreign Policy Debates.” As Mr. Podhoretz writes, “[M]any people, on both the left and the right, have sided with ideas they once battled against with all their might, and have allied themselves with longtime ideological enemies.”

Summary defies this brief space, but basically Mr. Podhoretz focuses on the strains of interventionism and isolationism in 20th century American foreign policy. In the course of the Cold War, they emerged at different times among Republicans and Democrats, with conservative anti-Communists in the end being the strongest advocates for internationalism. With the end of the Cold War, that fairly predictable ideological model collapsed. What we have found instead, most notably in the debate over U.S. intervention in the Balkans, is a newly interventionist liberal consensus based on humanitarian grounds siding with great-power conservatives in defense of American involvement, while a school of conservative “realists” opposed it.

In the end Mr. Podhoretz decides, maybe not too surprisingly, that given this ideological split, he would chose the “benevolent hegemony” advocated particularly by William Kristol and Robert Kagan in the pages of the Weekly Standard, sustained by an “elevated patriotism.” He would use America’s unprecedented strategic and ideological predominance to protect American values and institutions and to spread these blessings to as “as many others as have the will and the ability to enjoy them.” Which may seem to be a little vague as the foundation of a foreign-policy framework.

In the January issue, Commentary carries responses from 21 foreign-policy experts, many of them the subject of Mr. Podhoretz’ analysis, primarily on the right, but also some on the left, like Jacob Heilbrun and Francis Fukuyama. It makes for fascinating reading, though the diversity of views on the right is still likely to leave your head spinning.

Particularly interesting are the submissions by Messrs. Kagan and Kristol, for the very good reason that they have pushed the issue of interventionism to the forefront of the debate in articles and editorials in the Weekly Standard, having had harsh words for Republicans of an isolationist stripe. For any number of reasons, some of which have to do with the far-from-perfect NATO air campaign in Kosovo, great-power interventionism as they define it would seem to be on the wane against Wilsonian liberalism and conservative realism. “We neo-Reaganites try to make the case for freedom and greatness,” Mr. Kristol writes, sounding a little forlorn. “We could use a few more bedfellows in that endeavor.” (Among contributors to Commentary, Joshua Muravchik and Michael Ledeen leap to the rescue.)

Mr. Kagan meanwhile shifts the ground from ideological to political grounds, choosing to argue that the whole muddle is the result of the Clinton presidency and that Republicans will revert to their traditional internationalist stance once they have a Republican, someone they can trust, in the White House. In that event, “conservatives and liberals alike will return to their respective beds and leave the company of strangers.” (Perhaps in the post-Clinton era we could get rid of metaphors involving sleeping arrangements.)

Mr. Kagan may well be right. Foreign policy in Washington for the past seven years has been mired not just in uncertainty and inconsistency but also intense partisanship. Yet, if you turn to the contribution of Paul Wolfowitz, dean of international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and one of the main architects of George W. Bush’s foreign-policy program, you find a more cautious internationalism. “In particular when it comes to putting American soldiers in harm’s way, there is a big difference between protecting freedom where it exists and spreading it.” With Mr. Bush being the Republican most likely to lead the troops in the next administration, those words are worth noting.

Others like National Interest editor Owen Harries, columnist Charles Krauthammer and the Nixon Center’s Peter Rodman argue the realist position. And Francis Fukuyama reminds us usefully that the whole issue of economic and technological globalization has been basically ignored in this debate. William Buckley and Eliot Cohen reject the idea that an ideological foreign-policy framework is possible or even needed in the post-Cold War world.

Part of the confusion of the Clinton era, however, is a lack of an overarching foreign-policy doctrine. Every attempt at definition has been too diffuse to mean much, from “muscular multilateralism” to “democratic enlargement” to the Clinton doctrine of humanitarian intervention. We are still searching for this model, but Commentary has done a real service by giving us a sweeping analysis of the present debate as we struggle towards a future definition.

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