- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 18, 2000

Glancing at the front-page headlines recently in a major national newspaper, two above-the-fold stories in the newspaper the same day caught my eye. One proclaimed, "U.S. calls Peruvian election invalid"; the second read, "Anti-drug effort stalls in Colombia." These two stories seemed to speak volumes about the American character and how it at once animates and complicates our foreign policy.

It is not a question of whether Peru's election was fair or whether anti-drug programs in Colombia are a good thing. Of course, rigged elections should not be legitimized, and who can argue against stopping the drug flow? But what does our reaction to those events say about us?

After all, our democracy in which half eligible voters do not bother to vote, and with a long history of local warlords like Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago in the 1960s manipulating the political process is hardly perfect. And it defies basic laws of economics to emphasize drug supply as the source of the problem rather than cutting demand (the United States consumes more than half the cocaine used in the world). How do other nations view our posturing while we fail to live up to our ideal?

Put aside the often-noted hypocrisy and double standards of U.S. policies and attitudes. These two headlines illustrated the remarkable American trait of appointing ourselves judge, jury, executioner not to mention savior for the rest of the world. Think about it. We have annual report cards on human rights in every country in the world. We have laws requiring "certification" on anti-narcotics cooperation, strictures on proliferation of nuclear weapons and sales of missiles, on terrorism, and even reports on religious freedom in each country. And those are just the beginning.

Of course, most of the behaviors the United States opposes are harmful to U.S. interests and/or policies. Or they offend our values. So with good cause and noble intentions, we often impose sanctions against countries deemed guilty of any of such offending imperfections. In the post-Cold War world, sanctions seem to have become the policy instrument of first resort. Over the past decade we have imposed sanctions against some two-thirds of the world's population friend and foe alike. We threaten sanctions against France for its Iran policies; scold democratic allies like Germany over its treatment of Scientologists (it's about religious freedom); and even declare India a "rogue democracy" for a time after it tested nuclear weapons in 1998.

This tendency to view ourselves as the shining city on the hill, one with a missionary impulse to right the world's wrongs, is an enduring trait in American foreign policy. It is difficult to envision any U.S. foreign policy that ignores American values obtaining adequate public support. This is what makes America exceptional. It is the source of our so-called "soft power" the appeal of the U.S. example. Defending these values against the "Evil Empire" was, after all, what the Cold War was all about. But back then, it was also a matter of survival.

In the era of America as Single Superpower when the values of free markets and political pluralism have triumphed, when there is no competing power or ideology American idealism seems a tad confused. There seems an impatience with a messy world, one that is less predictable, and nastier, but with smaller consequences. So we sanction the Perus, the Burmas, the Afghanistans, those on the periphery of the zone of globalization for violating our sensibilities. At the same time, we offer advice to those major states like Russia, China or India transitioning into the zone, while we continue to chide, cajole and occasionally sanction them.

Sometimes it seems we feel we have to spoon-feed the world our values, almost as if we somehow doubt they really do have the sort of universal appeal many claim. When our allies in Europe respond to demands to take on more responsibility by creating their own defense capabilities, we then complain they may be too independent and harm NATO.

But too often, we seem to forget that the raw power of the American economic, technological and military colossus enables us to wag that finger. But power must be harnessed for a purpose. This is where our foreign policy has stumbled, perhaps leaving a cumulative price to pay as global power gradually becomes more diffuse over the next quarter-century.

As China emerges as a major power, will the lesson it learns from dealing with Washington be that great powers must be the steward of global norms? Or will it be that they simply have to wait 40 to 50 years and they can capriciously use their power as well? A generation hence, as Europe, Russia, China, India and Japan become more consequential poles in a multipolar world, will heavyhanded or gratuitous behavior come back to haunt Washington and make it that much more difficult to safeguard American interests? And will the flipside of the American impulse to remake the world in our image the desire to withdraw from it when we do not succeed (a la the 1920s) resurface?

Confusing the prerogatives of power for ideals or norms can be counterproductive and have costly long-term effects. Defining America's role in the still-unnamed era we have entered presents the challenge of balancing hard economic and strategic interests on the one side with soft values on the other.

Enlightened self-interest would suggest global trends are broadly going in the American direction. Can the United States have the confidence in the universal appeal of its values to have the patience to let history unfold at its own pace rather than trying to fast-forward it? Or, is instant gratification also part of the American character?

Robert A. Manning, a former State Department policy adviser, is a senior fellow and director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide