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Challenges Await Next US President
By Ronald I. Spiers
October 2, 2008
This former foreign policy professional found the presidential candidates' foreign policy debate last Friday night disappointing. It was shallow, cliché-ridden and super-cautious. Sen. McCain's reiterated charge that Sen. Obama "just doesn't understand" this or that issue was just plain offensive as well as wrong. Neither of the contestants broke any new ground (so much for "change") or otherwise distinguished himself.
There is no doubt that the new administration will face a host of foreign affairs problems in the new year, but there are three overarching challenges to be met that call for serious discussion now: how we can help create the conditions for two great powers — China and Russia — to move toward more humanitarian values and more responsive democracy; how we ourselves can move away from our unilateralist instincts toward more multilateralist policies; and how we can effectively deal with a growing threat of Islamist militancy.
Dealing with Russia and China
The Cold War is over and it is now possible to achieve more normal and cooperative state-to-state relations with both Russia and China . This requires a degree of patience and sensitivity we find difficult to come by. We have to suppress our tendency to lecture and scold and try to see ourselves as others see us. We have to be sensitive to Russia 's new status as a nation-state rather than the embodiment of an ideological movement. Americans are often oblivious to their own history, but we have adopted concepts like Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine that others have found imperialist or expansionist. Russia , unlike the U.S. , has suffered foreign invasions repeatedly, from the 13th century Mongols through Napoleon and Hitler, that have inculcated a degree of paranoia that affects Russia 's view of the outside world.
Many diplomatic professionals — including the iconic George Kennan — believed our failure to disestablish NATO when the Cold War and the Warsaw Pact came to an end a mistake. It could have been replaced by an organization open to Russia and all the former countries of the Warsaw Pact and NATO with a democratic orientation and would offer a chance for Europe and North America to play a cooperative military role outside of Europe . NATO, created as a Cold War institution and carrying an anti-Russian aura, had served its purpose. Its expansion to include other former Soviet states was bound to be seen from a suspicious Kremlin as an unnecessarily hostile challenge. The potential inclusion of Georgia and the Ukraine into NATO while there were unresolved internal territorial and ethnic problems exacerbated concerns. The building of a missile defense system in the former Soviet states unwisely added unnecessary tension to the relationship.
This doesn't require us to be indifferent to Russian or Chinese policies that threaten international stability. It only argues for a calmer and less hyper-intensive reaction. Our aim should be to help both countries join us in creating a more stable and prosperous international system.
Strengthening multilateral action
This administration has belatedly softened its natural instincts for aggressive unilateralism. We don't hear so much talk about "our way or the highway" these days, and that is all to the good. But there are many ways we can improve the international system, including ratification of the comprehensive test ban and law of the sea treaties, joining the International Criminal Court and the effort to update the Kyoto agreement on climate change. We should resume efforts to lower nuclear weapons stockpiles as required by the Nonproliferation Treaty and thus give renewed impetus to the nonproliferation regime. We should focus on the reform and strengthening of the instruments of multilateral diplomacy, beginning with the United Nations, where the Security Council should be expanded to reflect current political realities (at minimum by including India and Japan, and probably Brazil and Indonesia), recreating the General Assembly by instituting population-based weighted voting, and taking the initiative to charge the Trusteeship Council with responsibility to improve governance of the global commons (fisheries, pollution, climate change and other challenges that transcend the ability of individual nations to deal with alone). We have let these institutions lie fallow and bypassed for too many years.
Islam and the West
We should stop talking about a "global war on terror" and focus more clearly on the core threat of specific terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and its copycats. We need to distinguish between them and national liberation movements that use force to achieve legitimate political objectives. We need to rely more on improved intelligence techniques and cooperative international police work than on military force. We need to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as we can do so, unless democratically chosen governments explicitly want us there, and refocus our efforts to address the root causes of terrorism: poverty and despair and unresponsive government.
The United States cannot resolve centuries-old sectarian and ethnic antagonisms with our military presence. We should respect, support and work with the moderates who are the vast majority of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. We should rethink our role in the Middle East , especially on the Israel-Palestine problem, the resolution of which is a sine qua non of dealing with terrorism's pulling power among its militants. We, together with the Quartet, should be less hesitant about putting forward concrete proposals for its resolution, either on a one-state or two-state basis. We need to face the fact that a dysfunctional Israeli government cannot mobilize the will and ability to deal with a fanatical settler movement, even though the majority of Israel 's population seems to favor creation of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza .
There is a further problem on which we need to seek an international consensus and that is the relative weight to be placed on the often conflicting principles of self-determination, on the one hand, and sanctity of borders on the other. This arises not only in Georgia and the Ukraine , but more or less acutely in the Balkans, in Russia itself, in Kashmir and Somalia . If the people of Abkhazia and Ossetia can choose to be independent of Georgia and Kosovo of Serbia, why not Kashmir of India, Somaliland of Somalia, Chechnya and Tatarstan of Russia? Other such instances will arrive. The U.S. has dealt with the similar issue in Puerto Rico by leaving the choice of independence or affiliation up to the people of that territory. We cannot have international stability if ethnic minorities who want self-rule are thwarted.
Finally, we should stop the foolish back and forth about "preconditions" for international contacts, such as with Iran or other pariah states. Of course there needs to be preparatory work for high level contacts, but direct contacts between heads of state can be useful and important. Agreement on time, place and agenda are preconditions to any meeting. But to demand preemptive capitulation on issues that are to be the subject of negotiation and discussion seems the height of fatuousness.
There are so many important issues to come to grips with that the quality of Friday's debate was far from impressive.