Monday, May 31, 2010


Harry Targ

The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction-and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively (from The National Security Strategy of the United States, September 20, 2002).

…power, in an interconnected world, is no longer a zero sum game. …we will pursue engagement with hostile nations to test their intentions, give their governments the opportunity to change course, reach out to their people, and mobilize international coalitions….The belief that our own interests are bound to the interests of those beyond our borders will continue to guide our engagement with nations and peoples (from The National Security Strategy, May 2010).

The Globalist and Pragmatist Approaches to United States Foreign Policy

The United States emerged from World War II as the “hegemonic power” in the international system. This meant that international institutions and law, diplomatic practices, and the emergence of a global political economy were largely shaped by United States interests. Of particular relevance to global capitalism was the routinization of “free trade,” open doors to foreign investment, access to cheap labor, and the use of multi-billion dollar programs of economic and military assistance to further the penetration of friendly countries around the world. In our own day capitalist states including the United States have pursued the globalization of financial speculation.

The “golden age” of United States economic and military hegemony began to unravel with the quagmire of Vietnam, the oil shocks of the 1970s, and the rise of capitalist competitors to the United States. And, of course, throughout the period from the end of World War II to the present, popular resistance to capitalist hegemony spread from Southeast Asia, to the African continent, to Central America and the Caribbean, to the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf.

Each United States administration sought to maintain global hegemony in the face of growing challenges from the Global South, from Socialist states, and from capitalist competitors. But administrations adopted different strategies and tactics to achieve their hegemonic goals. No better comparison of the two primary programs of foreign policy action can be identified then examining the key foreign policy statements of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

The former represents the “globalist” tradition in United States foreign policy. Globalists, alternatively referred to as “neoconservatives,” believe that the United States, based on its military superiority, can and must impose its institutions and policies on the world. This means acting unilaterally to maintain United States hegemony, whatever the reactions from friend and foe alike. This is no better illustrated than the Bush “doctrine of preemption.” The United States reserves the right to act unilaterally when it believes that an enemy, a nation or a people, may in some undetermined future time, threaten the United States.

Also, the globalist agenda assumes that unilateral military action replaces diplomacy as the primary tool of international relations. This rejection of diplomacy challenges the four hundred year tradition of international relations.

Therefore, globalists declare their hostility to alliances, international institutions and norms, and hundreds of years of international law. In other words, the globalist approach to foreign policy, much like the metaphor of the lone gunslinger of the Wild West, emphasizes unilateral action, force, insistence that others accept U.S. domination, and the “zero-sum” view of the world; that is nations and peoples are with the United States or they are with the enemy. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy statement is a powerful reflection of this globalist stance.

In general the pragmatist approach to U.S. foreign policy regards diplomacy as an essential tool of a nation’s foreign policy. In fact, military means are used to achieve goals only when diplomacy fails. Diplomatic tools, dialogue and negotiation, may be effective devices in dealing with enemies as well as friends.

Pragmatists see alliances, international institutions and norms, and the selective obedience to international law as central to the pursuit of national interests.

Finally, the pragmatists are more likely to see international relations as a “non-zero sum” game; that is, through negotiations with adversaries both the United States and the other party or parties may be beneficiaries of negotiation.

National Security Strategy Documents: 2002 and 2010

The 2002 NSS document submitted as required to Congress generated enormous attention. Buried in the familiar language of promoting freedom, markets, and other “universal values,” the Bush administration announced that it reserved the right to attack targets, nations or groups, which were perceived to be possible threats to the United States. The NSS declared that this had always been United States policy; the unilateral declaration of the right to peremptorily attack any target. In other words, Bush declared, foreign policy in his administration had not changed from prior ones.

Progressive analysts agree that the United States has acted peremptorily many times. But they say that for the most part official declarations throughout the period since World War II claim that U.S. policy has been to deter possible aggression rather than to unilaterally launch military strikes on perceived threats (the Reagan administration being the exception rather than the rule). Therefore to the extent that the former policy of deterrence had been replaced by preemption, United States policy had changed significantly. In combination with other elements of strategy, using force not diplomacy, ignoring allies and international institutions, and seeing the world in terms of winning or losing, the 2002 NSS statement seemed dangerously militaristic.

The 2010 NSS document pays homage to freedom, markets, democracy, and American virtue, and identifies terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction as enduring problems. But much of the document suggests a foreign policy shift from the globalist lens on the world to the pragmatist one. The NSS 2010 document opens with a clear commitment to deterring aggression, not initiating it. It states that no single nation, no matter how powerful, can determine the destiny of the world alone. And it proclaims that “America must prepare for the future, while forging cooperative approaches among nations that can yield results.”

The document declares that the United States must work with others to achieve a world free of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and repression. As to the latter, NSS 2010 even asserts that part of the path to a more secure world involves the United States living up to its own values at home. While tinged with Reagan’s view of the United States as the “city on the hill” the document significantly declares that:

"…the most effective way for the United States of America to
promote our values is to live them. America’s commitment to
democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are essential
sources of our strength and influence in the world. They too
must be cultivated by our rejection of actions like torture
that are not in line with ourvalues, by our commitment to
pursue justice consistent with our Constitution, and by our
steady determination to extend the promise of America to all
of our citizens. America has always been a beacon to the
peoples of the world when we ensure that the light of America’s
example burns bright."

As to relations with the rest of the world, the document declares firmly that it would be a mistake “to walk away” from the international system. It promises to work to strengthen international institutions and to galvanize collective action. “The starting point for that collective action will be our engagement with other countries.” Importantly, NSS 2010 adds that “power, in an interconnected world, is no longer a zero sum game.” And to promote engagement the United States will pursue it “…with hostile nations to test their intentions, give their governments the opportunity to change course, reach out to their people, and mobilize international coalitions.”

Do Words Matter?

NSS 2002 and 2010 reflect the similarities and differences of outlook, strategy, and tactics characteristic of United States foreign policy. For sure, the goals of United States have been in keeping with the needs of capitalism to expand. But different administrations have articulated what U.S. policy would be in different ways and to some degree would act in conformance with their descriptions. Also, some presidents would talk and act like both globalists and pragmatists, as circumstances dictated. For example, President Eisenhower made a powerful speech calling for the diminution of the Cold War with the Soviet Union in 1953. He followed it up with negotiations with the Soviet leadership later in the 1950s and warned before he left office of a rising military/industrial complex. At the same time his administration called for the “liberation’ of Eastern Europe and China from the yoke of Communism, overthrew freely elected governments in Iran and Guatemala, and began the long march toward disaster in Vietnam.

Candidate Obama excited Europeans, citizens of the Middle East, and even radicals in Latin America with his dramatic speeches calling for a new day in United States global relations. At the same time, the United States over the last 16 months has expanded its commitment to Afghanistan, launched a brutal drone war campaign against targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and backed away from the condemnation of the coup in Honduras and hoped for improved U.S. relations with Cuba and Honduras.

But the documents do reflect differences in tone and emphasis in United States foreign policy. After eight long years of globalist policy, elements of the NSS 2010 document seem refreshingly different. And while the new document does not and can not, renounce imperialism, it does offer guidelines for those who are working for a progressive foreign policy.

In the end when we march and lobby against wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, demand the end to high-technology drone murder, insist on an end to the blockade of Cuba, and cry out for an end to military and diplomatic support of Israeli brutality against the Palestinian people, we can use the words of NSS 2010 to defend our point of view.