Saturday, November 1, 2008

Advice to the next president

I suspect there will be a whole pile of articles written in the coming weeks about the foreign policy challenges faced by the new president. I also suspect that most of them will focus heavily on Iraq and Afghanistan (and maybe by extension Pakistan), and I fear little else. And that’s been a problem with the current administration, while they made the War on Terror their main priority; the rest of the world went rolling along, and with America absent, our influence diminished in the process. So in an attempt to stem that tide and go about rebuilding our standing, I humbly offer the following suggestions:

Never use the term “the world’s only superpower” again. It’s a concept that has been coloring America’s foreign policy since the Soviet Union folded in 1991, mostly for the worse. Why? Because it’s given us an outsized view of our place in the world where we don’t view other countries as partners to be respected, but either as adversaries to be tamed or clients to be taught. Besides, the past eight years have shown being a superpower isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Being a superpower didn’t stop the terrorist attacks on 9/11, it didn’t make Afghanistan or Iraq bend to our will, it didn’t allow us to form true and lasting multi-national coalitions for action in either of those two countries. This summer should have let the last of the air out of the superpower balloon when Georgia apparently acted under the mistaken assumption that being our new best friend in the region would be enough to keep Russia from retaliating against them over actions in South Ossetia (it didn’t).

Since the superpower thing isn’t winning us friends or scaring our adversaries, why not drop it? While the US still has the largest economy and most powerful military in the world, the world is catching up. Cooperation is going to be the key term for the next four years, coalitions of countries will need to form up to address problems ranging from terrorism to global warming, and unlike the Cold War era there won’t be two well-defined camps. It will be possible to be allies on one issue while being rivals on another (since countries ultimately do tend to act in their own best interests). Ditching the superpower talk will be a powerful signal to the rest of the world that America wants to work with them, not lecture to them.

Rethink how we spread democracy. I have to give President Bush credit for making the spread of democracy around the world one of the goals of his administration. Unfortunately we have been taking a top-down approach to a bottom-up process.

In a functioning democracy the power ultimately lies with the people since they are the ones who choose the leaders. In our recent attempts at starting democracies though (see Iraq and Afghanistan) we have looked for someone we think will make a decent leader (or at least one we think we can work with), then we lay out some ground rules, hold an election, which our chosen candidate invariably wins, and then we celebrate the birth of a new democracy.

The problem is that were doing this in places with little or no experience with the democratic process, we set the election up as a means to an end (putting our guy in power “legitimately”) but ignore the real work of getting the citizens involved in the democratic process. They’re not engaged with democracy (for example the Shiite voters in Iraq who simply voted the way the mullahs told them to). The leaders in the new democracy tend to come from whatever elite existed before our involvement; they don’t come from the masses (for lack of a better term) like you would hope for in a functioning democracy.

The result is like the situation you now have in Afghanistan, where the democratically elected Hamid Karzai (his qualifications for office were that he was formerly an executive for a Western oil company) presides over a weak, ineffective, and corrupt regime. There are no successors from the Afghan heartland waiting in the wings to run in the next elections to lead a new, more effective Afghani government. Or you get a situation like you have in Ukraine where four years after the democratic (and Western-supported) Orange Revolution the president (Yushchenko) and prime minister (Tymoshenko) are locked in a fight for power that will likely continue until at least the next presidential election in 2010 - while the country’s economy is faltering and the public is becoming apathetic. Where, you have to ask, are the next generation of leaders?

By all means Mr. President keep spreading democracy, but don’t forget that the roots of a good democracy run deep, so put in programs that work to establish town councils and other grassroots institutions and bring young people to America to study political science and other civic programs so that they can bring those lessons back to their homeland. Remember, a country’s second democratically elected leader is perhaps more important than its first.

End the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Okay, you’re probably hearing this one from a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, so let me try a new one. Let’s end the wars because neither country wants our troops there anymore. Even with a host of concessions, the Iraqi government still doesn’t want to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to keep US troops there through 2011, while Karzai in Afghanistan has been growing more and more critical of the presence of foreign troops in his country.

So, let’s end our large-scale military involvement in both places. Are the two countries up to the task of maintaining stability on their own? Probably not, but the point of our involvement in both places was to establish democratic, independent governments. They need to be free to make their own choices, even if they make bad ones – otherwise they’re not really independent governments now are they? Yes, there’s a good chance that the Iraqi government will tear itself apart along Sunni-Shia-Kurdish lines, but that will be just about as likely two years from now as it is today, if all sides know they just need to maintain the appearance of working together for two more years, they will.

The point is that while the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan face great challenges, they are challenges for the Iraqis and Afghanis themselves to solve.

China and Russia. Both countries are rising powers, and both are relationships we’ve mismanaged for the past eight (and honestly longer) years, so the start of your term will be a great chance to relaunch both.

One of the first calls I would make as President would be to China’s President Hu Jintao. I would congratulate Hu on China’s rise to the status today as one of the world’s great powers. Then I would remind him that with great power, comes great responsibility – so it’s time that China starts showing more leadership in a host of areas. I’d start with their support for some of the worst regimes in Africa: Sudan and Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe, neither of which would likely continue if not for China’s support. I’d also ask Hu for a pledge to take a leading role in the fight against climate change, since China by most accounts has now become the world’s leading polluter. If China wants to be regarded as a leading nation in the world, then simply, it has to lead.

As for Russia, yes we haven’t been happy with some of their actions recently and yes the relationship between our governments has sunk to a post-Soviet low, but becoming more adversarial (the tack the Bush administration has been taking) isn’t going to improve things.

I remember a panel discussion I helped organize while I was in grad school with Jack Matlock, the United States’ last ambassador to the Soviet Union. Amb. Matlock said that some people were amazed with the critiques would give to the Soviets on some of their actions, and were more amazed that the Soviets would listen. He explained it was because he had a genuine respect and affection for Russian culture and the Russians knew it, so they regarded him as a friend. They were much more willing to listen to criticism from someone they thought of as a friend rather than a lecture from someone they regarded as an enemy.

We need to keep in mind that Russia views our relationship differently than we do. Vladimir Putin feels that he extended a great hand of friendship to the United States after 9/11 – he was the first world leader to call George Bush after the attacks and Russia offered important technical assistance for US forces trying to establish a beachhead in Afghanistan in late 2001. In response though the United States has pushed NATO membership to Russia’s doorstep and tried to install a missile defense system that Russia is bitterly opposed to in their former satellites Poland and the Czech Republic, all actions Putin has viewed as overtly hostile.

That has colored our relationship these past few years. So since being adversaries hasn’t worked why not try a more friendly relationship if we really want to affect some change in Russia’s actions? More belligerent talk certainly won’t help things.

I won’t say that’s all Mr. President, far from it. You will face a number of challenges in a world that is more dynamic than ever. Keep that in mind and remember something that President Bush forgot in his pursuit of the War on Terror – the world doesn’t stop just because the United States is busy with something else.
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