America's Place in the World


A new order in which "nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice" -- as President George Bush puts it -- poses questions: Which nations, What justice?

The American approach to the matter remains divided. There is an unavowed tradition of American Realpolitik, to which Mr. Bush would until now have seemed to belong. This says that governments run the world and must be dealt with whatever their character. Mr. Bush has insisted upon keeping good relations with China's despite its repression of domestic dissent.

He refuses to impose serious reprisals on the Soviet government for its actions against the independence movements in the Baltic states. His coalition in the Persian Gulf incorporated a notably repressive dictatorship, Syria, with monarchies in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states and Morocco, and with parliamentary democracies.

The other American tradition is the one whose language Mr. Bush speaks when talking about his new world order: "Enduring peace must be our mission." Nations must act in concert. There must be a new dawn of freedom. This is the language of Wilsonian reformism, the tradition responsible for America's sponsorship of the League of Nations and the United Nations.

The realist approach is concerned with power. States are the actors in international politics, whether they rule democratically or otherwise. Peace is the product of relations among states. Hence concern for human rights and democracy must be subordinated to the requirement for stable, hence peace- ful, interstate relations. One does not go to war against Saddam Hussein because he is an atrocious tyrant. One does so because he broke a basic rule of international order by attempting to seize Kuwait.

The Wilsonian approach sees peace as the product of satisfied peoples' finding democratic fulfillment. Woodrow Wilson believed in 1918-1919 that universal national self-determination in the former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires would produce contented new nations and a stable order. That view reflected ignorance of the real situation inside those two empires, but was also the result of a willful underestimation of the bloody-mindedness of people.

Wilsonianism makes two false assumptions. The first is the Rousseauian, or Pelagian, fallacy: that people are naturally virtuous and peaceful, and that it is the institutions of civilization, ignorance and prejudice which cause evil and war.

The second is that an organization of states, such as the U.N., is in some real degree a valid expression of the popular and democratic will -- a parliament of peoples. In fact the U.N. is merely an assembly of governments, the vast majority of whom are wholly unrepresentative, arbitrary, undemocratic.

These two American traditions (to some extent shared by most contemporary democracies) are usually reconciled through semi-conscious hypocrisy. One speaks in the language of global reform but acts according to Realpolitik. Washington thus welcomed the Beijing democratic "springtime" 21 months ago but subsequently made no serious trouble for the Chinese government after it restored order. It defended the independence of Kuwait but ignores Syria's effective annexation of Lebanon because the alternative seems continued civil war there.

It is reasonable to think that Mr. Bush's new international order may simply add up to the United States' making greater use of international institutions while pursuing its national interests. However, a more ambitious version of this program has been put forward by the long-time policy counselor and official, Paul Nitze. This envisages "the accommodation and protection of diversity within a general framework of required order." It would make more use of international institutions but speaks of the United States, "with first-class military potential," as well as other national strengths, directing its power "to the support of order and diversity."

Although unclear, this would seem a sophisticated formulation of the idea of the U.S. as world policeman, pursuing more than simple national interest. It rests on the familiar assumption that we Americans are qualified for such a role because we are not like the others. Mr. Nitze told his audience at West Point last November that the U.S. is "unique" in having "no territorial or ideological ambitions."

Is this really true? Does the U.S. not have the ideological ambition of promoting democratic political institutions and values? Mr. Bush, and others, certainly proclaim such an ambition, faithful to the Wilsonian tradition. It is difficult to believe that the American public would accept a policy of military interventions abroad directed merely to the defense of "order and diversity."

The debate in the end comes down to the old and fundamental one of American interventionists, believers in America's exception from the international rules, and in some version of Wilsonian reform, vs. those of the "isolationists," who say that interventionism has in the past distracted the United States from its true challenges of national quality, and threatens to continue to do so in the future -- who maintain that the character and quality of a nation's society is what gives it lasting influence, while international "order" is a chimera.

The debate over the future of American policy is well begun in Washington. The striking thing about it is the extent to which it merely is finding new language to express a disagreement over the American relationship to the external world that has been alive since the 18th century.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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