A 'progressive realist' US foreign policy begins with modesty

Polls in the United States show low public approval for President George W. Bush's handling of foreign policy, but little agreement on what should take its place. The unbridled ambitions of the neoconservatives and assertive nationalists in Bush's first administration produced a foreign policy that was like a car with no brakes. It was bound to go off the road.

But how should America use its unprecedented power, and what role should values play? Realists warn against letting values determine policy, but democracy and human rights have been an inherent part of American foreign policy for two centuries. The Democratic Party could solve this problem by adopting the suggestion of Robert Wright and others that it pursue "progressive realism." What type of foreign policy would ensue?

It would start with an understanding of the strength and limits of American power. The US is the only superpower, but preponderance is not empire or hegemony. America can influence but not control other parts of the world. Power always depends upon context, and the context of world politics today is like a three-dimensional chess game. The top board of military power is unipolar; but on the middle board of economic relations the world is multipolar; and on the bottom board of transnational relations - comprising issues such as climate change, illegal drugs, avian flu, and terrorism - power is chaotically distributed. 

Military power is a small part of the solution in responding to these new threats on the bottom board of international relations. Resolving these requires cooperation among governments and international institutions. Even on the top board (where America represents nearly half of world defense expenditures), the military is supreme in the global commons of air, sea, and space, but more limited in its ability to control nationalistic populations in occupied areas.

A progressive realist policy would also stress the importance of developing an integrated grand strategy that blends "hard" military power with "soft" attractive power, creating "smart" power of the sort that won the Cold War. America needs to use hard power against terrorists, but it cannot hope to win the struggle against terrorism unless it gains the hearts and minds of moderates. The misuse of hard power (as at Abu Ghraib or Haditha) produces new terrorist recruits.

Today, the US has no such integrated strategy for combining hard and soft power. Many official instruments of soft power - public diplomacy, broadcasting, exchange programs, development assistance, disaster relief, military-to-military contacts - are scattered around the government, and there is no overarching strategy, much less a common budget, that even tries to integrate them with hard power into a coherent national security strategy. The US spends roughly 500 times more on its military than it does on broadcasting and exchanges. Is this the right proportion? And how should the government relate to the non-official generators of soft power - everything from Hollywood to Harvard to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - that emanate from civil society?

A progressive realist policy must advance the promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" enshrined in American tradition. Such a grand strategy would have four key pillars: (1) providing security for the US and its allies; (2) maintaining a strong domestic and international economy; (3) avoiding environmental disasters, such as pandemics and global flooding; and (4) encouraging liberal democracy and human rights at home and, where feasible, abroad.

This does not mean imposing American values by force. Democracy promotion is better accomplished by attraction than coercion, and it takes time and patience. The US would be wise to encourage the gradual evolution of democracy, but in a manner that accepts cultural diversity.

Such a grand strategy would focus on four major threats. Probably the greatest danger is the intersection of terrorism with nuclear materials. Preventing this requires policies to fight terrorism and promote non-proliferation, better protection of nuclear materials, stability in the Middle East, and attention to failed states. 

The second major challenge is facing the rise of a hostile hegemon, as Asia gradually regains the three-fifths share of the world economy that corresponds to its three-fifths share of the world's population. This requires a policy that integrates China as a responsible global stakeholder, but hedges against possible hostility by maintaining close relations with Japan, India, and other countries in the region.

The third major threat is an economic depression, which could be triggered by financial mismanagement, or by a crisis that disrupts global access to oil flows from the Gulf - home to two-thirds of global oil reserves. This will require policies that gradually reduce dependence on oil, which also take into consideration that the American economy cannot be isolated from global energy markets.

The fourth major threat is ecological breakdowns, such as pandemics and negative climate change. This will require prudent energy policies as well as greater cooperation through international institutions such as the World Health Organization.

A progressive realist policy should look to the long-term evolution of world order. The US should realize its responsibility for producing global public goods. In the 19th century, Britain defined its national interest broadly to include promoting freedom of the seas, an open international economy, and a stable European balance of power. Such common goods benefited Britain, but also other countries, contributing to Britain's legitimacy and soft power.

With the US now in Britain's place, it should play a similar role by promoting an open international economy and common efforts, mediating in international disputes, and developing international rules and institutions. Because globalization will spread technical capabilities, and information technology will allow broader participation in global communications, American preponderance will become less dominant later this century. Progressive realism requires the US to prepare for that future by defining its national interest in a way that benefits all.

Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard University and author of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics." THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (





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