Mistakes were made - part II

Mistakes were made – part II

The US is now in the process of choosing its next president. Everyone – in America and beyond – should insist that all the candidates clearly define their notion of national interest and explain how it addresses limitations as well as possibilities. Then the American people must choose very wisely. The 21st Century appears to be just beginning a wild ride.

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

A while ago, I suggested that global inequality leads to global instability. Whole groups of the human population feeling that the “modern” world has no room for them become mobilizable for identity conflicts. Identity becomes anything that explains why “we” are left out. Democracy and military force have little to contribute to restraining the resultant violence. The proper recipe: equitable redistribution of work and resource opportunities, determined efforts to achieve sustainable economic growth, shared technology for greener energy, developed country emphasis on improving its own and transnational infrastructure, political reform of the international system, and where conflicts require intervention, determined reliance on working through the UN Charter. For now, getting all this right still depends upon proper leadership from the United States and its allies.

But the US always seems to get it wrong. That US foreign policy often reflects the divisions and impulses of its domestic politics is not news. That Americans often act abroad without really understanding local realities and tends to default to use of force rather than diplomacy is certainly not news to those thereby afflicted. But beyond these, Americans suffer from two perhaps congenital weaknesses: a misguided impulse to “save the world for democracy” and an apparent inability to clearly and cogently define their own national interests. The US effort to push “democracy” doesn’t seem to actually help anyone. When the US talks democracy, it means the kind it has: Western, secular, liberal democracy. Yet, democracy cannot simply be transferred or grafted onto another country, it rather must arise from within the historical experience and political culture of a society.

The inability to define and pursue a well-focused national interest may be the greatest problem. It has led to a string of unnecessary and costly wars. Some came out of the supposed existential struggle with world communism and more recently from an emotionally and politically derived imperative to make “war” on terrorism. But through the decades, the upshot has been a series of US interventions in far off places of no direct consequence to its national security or interests: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Ukraine. Vietnam – from which the US was driven by force after 53,000 young Americans died there – was the only one of these to have worked out well in that it now looks to the US for some balance vis-a-vis China. One might even debate the necessity of the Korean War. Perhaps if the peninsula had been unified, even under “communists,” the resulting regime would have gone the way of Vietnam rather than the North becoming the realm of a nuclear-armed psychopath.

Why did the US intervene in Vietnam between two regimes fighting a local war? What was the compelling reason for the US to destabilize Afghanistan by helping the mujahideen to depose Najibullah? When Iraq invaded Kuwait, was it necessary to make war on Saddam in order to return a minor (if oil-rich) autocratic monarchy and protect a Moslem fundamentalist regime in Saudi Arabia? (Eventually deposing Saddam has not worked out well either. Neither did the bombing that drove out Qaddafi in Libya.) What were the policy imperatives for the US to encourage the opposition to Assad in Syria with “redlines” and verbal support while in the end leaving them to their fate? And what were the reasons for challenging Russia in its front yard, first with NATO expansion and now with the unrequited sanctions over Ukraine?

Simply put, the US doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. It flails around sticking its nose wherever its domestic politics and self-righteous emphasis on democracy, human rights and “free markets” drive it. The alternative would be a realpolitik policy of advancing its legitimate commercial interests while working multilaterally within the international system to help maintain a stable world order. This would sometimes mean having to simply watch as bad things happen. But the US alone cannot act as the world policeman or lawgiver and has neither the moral right or the capacity to try.

President Obama is now being criticized for not doing more to counter Russian support for Assad in Syria. But in fact, there is no way for the US by itself to do anything helpful. Russia has staked its claim to relevance. Saudi Arabia now appears ready to send in troops. Iran supports Assad. Turkey fears Kurdish power across its border. The US has so far focused on the rather hopeless task of defining who is the legitimate opposition and whether Assad should be included in negotiations. This bottoms-up approach needs to be replaced with a top-down effort to work with Russia and the regional actors – including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran – to agree on a framework and how to impose it.

The US is now in the process of choosing its next president. Everyone – in America and beyond – should insist that all the candidates clearly define their notion of national interest and explain how it addresses limitations as well as possibilities. Then the American people must choose very wisely. The 21st Century appears to be just beginning a wild ride.

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He has a PhD in political science, taught at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Arkansas, George Washington University and Drake University and now works as an independent consultant.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


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