Skip to main content
Article

Foreign Policy in the Age of Primacy: An overview

Historians and theologians continue to debate the precise start of the new millennium, but by January 2001 the world will have marked another global milestone. When the new U.S. administration and the new Congress take office, the second decade of the post-Cold War era will be well under way. This issue of the Brookings Review focuses on the opportunities and challenges likely to face the United States from abroad and suggests how American foreign policy could and should address them.

Several articles focus on the principal centers of power in the world: China, Russia, Japan, Europe, and India. The emphasis is only natural, as these are the actors with the greatest capacity to buttress or frustrate U.S. efforts to bring about a world to its liking, one characterized by market economic policies and democracy as well as open trade, a reduced resort to military force to settle disputes, and fewer weapons of mass destruction in fewer hands.

This is not to suggest we live in or should aspire to a multipolar world. To the contrary, this is and will likely remain a world of distinct American primacy. No country or group of countries will be in a position to balance American economic, military, and cultural power for the foreseeable future. But primacy is not to be confused with hegemony, and the United States will be unable to realize the bulk of its ambitions without the support or at least tolerance of others. Unilateralism offers little promise; except in rare situations, the United States on its own cannot go to war, curb nuclear proliferation, thwart terrorism, open trade, or prevent genocide. The task for American foreign policy is to promote effective multilateralism, something that more often than not will demand strong American leadership of (and participation in) informal coalitions and regional groupings.

The bilateral relationship with China is fast becoming the most difficult for the United States to manage. Areas of cooperation, including expanding trade and promoting stability in Korea, risk being overwhelmed by differences over Taiwan, human rights, Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs, U.S. plans for both theater and national missile defense, and humanitarian intervention. Complicating matters is the political reality that in both countries there are those who see the other as the principal obstacle to a successful foreign policy and who see a competitive if not adversarial relationship as all but inevitable.

No negotiation can eliminate these differences; instead, what is required are regular consultations, attempts to cooperate in selected areas, and particular care not to let areas of disagreement spill over and affect the entire relationship. Taiwan should be singled out, however, as the one issue that could bring the United States and China into direct military confrontation. China must understand that the United States will not stand idly by if China coerces or uses military force against Taiwan. This posture needs to be balanced, however, by U.S. diplomacy that both encourages a mainland-Taiwan “cross-Strait” dialogue and discourages any unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan.

Russia also poses difficulties for U.S. foreign policy, if for different reasons. Russia is a power in decline; its economy is dismal and its domestic politics are in turmoil, including but not limited to Chechnya. It is clearly the objective of Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin, to reverse this decline and restore stability and a measure of economic growth at home as well as respect abroad. But for all its weaknesses, Russia remains a major power, one that still possesses an enormous nuclear arsenal and vast natural resources, occupies a seat on the United Nations Security Council, and, through its diplomacy and arms and technology exports, can be a force in the world for stability—or not.

The challenge is to deal with the potential problems posed by Russia’s external behavior while giving it time to try to get its political and economic house in order. As with China, the United States cannot afford to rule out cooperating where it proves possible (in the Balkans, conceivably arms control) simply because of disagreements in some areas (Chechnya, for example). Likewise, economic assistance—including new International Monetary Fund loans and debt relief—should be conditioned on sound economic reforms rather than linked to unrelated political disputes; any such linkage would provide little leverage for the United States but could block cooperation where it might be fruitful and create additional obstacles to establishing a more market-oriented and liberal Russia. Most important might be a U.S. willingness to accord Russia the attention and respect it craves; that would require only a commitment to consult regularly and to go the extra mile to take Russia’s interests into account.

There are limits, however, to what the United States can do to assuage Russian concerns. No administration can hand Russia a veto over U.S. initiatives such as missile defense or further enlargement of NATO. In the latter case, the United States ought not move the goalposts; NATO membership should be available to candidate states that meet the stated criteria for admission. To do otherwise would remove a useful incentive for reform and risk redividing Europe. What can make this less objectionable to Russia (and less likely to trigger an angry nationalist reaction there) is to condition NATO membership on protection of Russian minorities, to pledge to avoid stationing any non-national military forces on the territory of new members, and to reiterate that Russian membership in NATO remains possible.

Japan is a fundamentally different challenge. A decade ago Japan was seen as the principal economic competitor of the United States and an alternative model for much of the world. Nowadays, Japan is more likely to arouse U.S. frustration—over the slow pace of its deregulation, over monetary and trade policies that hinder Japan’s contribution to regional and global economic growth, over the difficulty of building a consensus in Japan favoring a more active role in the region and the world. Yet Japan remains a critical force in the world economy and is a valued ally crucial to U.S. efforts to promote stability in the Asia-Pacific.

The United States can do little to affect internal Japanese deliberations or decisions; what it can do is encourage Japan to become more active in the region and beyond, more commensurate with its absolute and relative strengths. More regular, high-level consultations—on Japan’s role in various contingencies, on the design of new institutional frameworks to promote stability in the Asia-Pacific—would help, as would deemphasizing the U.S. military presence in Japan and shifting the focus on trade from bilateral to regional or global matters.

Europe remains the greatest actual and potential partner of the United States in shaping the post-Cold War world. But beside considerable areas of agreement—for example, on humanitarian intervention, be it in the Balkans or beyond—are significant differences, including over trade, American plans for missile defense, sharing the burdens of military commitments, and the U.S. tendency (at least until recently) to define difficult states as “rogues” and emphasize the application of economic sanctions. Europeans also resent American unilateralism and dominance, while American officials are often uncomfortable with the reality of a stronger and more independent Europe.

The differences, while real, ought not be exaggerated or allowed to hamper cooperation on shared concerns often far removed from the continent of Europe. Europeans must follow through on their pledge to develop a greater capacity for military action, and the United States must not resist European moves to become more capable and independent. In the end, a weak and divided Europe that is either unable or unwilling to be a true partner of the United States is a far greater threat to transatlantic ties than a Europe that sometimes resists American preferences.

India is the newest of the world’s principal power centers. Although poverty is widespread among its enormous population, India is a thriving democracy that enjoys increasingly strong, market-driven economic growth. It is a relatively modest but potentially significant trading partner for the United States. Just as important, and depending on how it acts, India can affect U.S. strategic interests in Asia and beyond.

Washington and New Delhi have an opportunity to forge a new relationship of economic and strategic value to each country, but only if each is prepared to devote more attention to developing the relationship and to abandon past stereotypes. The United States will need both to accept that India’s nuclear weapons capability is here to stay and to help lessen the chance that it will ever be used. India must demonstrate more flexibility and creativity over Kashmir and its relationship with its neighbor and all-too-often rival Pakistan. A failed Pakistan and a successful India are unlikely to go hand in hand.

Missile Defense

Several themes recur in U.S. relationships with these major countries. One is the centrality of ballistic missile defense. A number of countries, including but not limited to North Korea, Iraq, and Iran, are developing ballistic missiles and possibly nuclear weapons. Depending on their range, these missiles could threaten U.S. troops in critical regions, American allies, or U.S. territory. Simultaneously, new technologies are making the prospect of intercepting ballistic missiles at one or another stage of their flight—hitting a bullet with a bullet—more real than ever before. Major questions must be resolved, however, before a new administration and Congress can determine whether and how to proceed with missile defense.

A good start is the place of missile defense in overall U.S. strategy. A realistic and reasonable goal is for robust missile defenses at the theater level—that is, for short-range use in likely combat regions—and a national missile defense that complements (rather than replaces) deterrence. Theater missile defenses would allow the United States to continue to contemplate intervening militarily on behalf of vital national interests and major allies in the Persian Gulf and Northeast Asia. Without theater defenses, deployed American forces and local U.S. allies would be highly vulnerable to intimidation and attack in any armed confrontation. A modest national missile defense, meanwhile, would allow the United States to better contend with relatively small threats posed by the long-range missile programs of several “states of concern” and by small-scale accidental or unauthorized launches that in principle could emanate from Russia or China. Such a limited capability would reduce U.S. physical vulnerability and again make it a less probable target of blackmail.

A modest national missile defense has other virtues. It would not constitute a threat to Russia’s deterrent and eliminate any prospect for large cuts in nuclear weapons. With the Cold War’s end, it no longer makes sense (leaving aside whether it ever did) for the United States and Russia to maintain nuclear arsenals capable of destroying one another many times over. Maintaining large inventories of missiles is dangerous—the chance of accidental or unauthorized launches can never be eliminated—and expensive. Reducing inventories substantially, say to 1,000-1,500 warheads apiece, appears both possible and desirable, as does reducing the alert status of systems to further diminish the chance of accidental conflict.

Persuading Russia to renegotiate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow for a modest increase in missile defenses is not out of the question. If Russia can be brought around, European resistance to U.S. missile defense plans would largely fade. If, however, Russia cannot be persuaded to participate in a cooperative transition to a somewhat revised offense-defense balance, then the United States should proceed unilaterally but openly, making clear both the schedule for deployments and the limits to what it will do.

China offers far more difficulties, as even a modest missile defense could pose a threat to the far smaller Chinese arsenal. Moreover, theater missile defense inevitably becomes entangled with the Taiwan issue, as China is sure to view U.S. missile defense plans for Northeast Asia as enabling Taiwan to declare independence with impunity. There is no way to eliminate these Chinese concerns and probably no way to avoid a decision by China to increase the size and capability of its nuclear arsenal, something likely to happen to some degree regardless of U.S. missile defense plans. But the United States can alleviate the adverse consequences, both by making clear that any national missile defense is limited (and not designed to offset China’s deterrent) and by working to discourage a declaration of independence by Taiwan.

Almost all of the above is premature, however, as it is predicated on the United States developing a missile defense worth deploying. Thus, an aggressive testing and development program, one that is not limited to any particular architecture, is in order. The United States ought to explore the potential for boost or “ascent” phase intercepts, which (and unlike defenses based on other approaches) have the advantages of a larger, slower-moving target and of not having to contend with decoys.

Humanitarian Intervention

Humanitarian intervention is in some ways the emblematic problem of the first post-Cold War decade. The United States should be prepared to use military force on a selective basis to save innocent lives. American foreign policy must have a moral component if it is to enjoy the support of the American people and the respect of the world. At the same time, the United States cannot intervene everywhere human rights or lives are threatened lest it leave itself unable to cope with contingencies involving vital national interests in the Persian Gulf or Northeast Asia.

No all-purpose set of guidelines will determine policy in every situation. As a rule, however, U.S. willingness to intervene militarily should reflect the potential or actual scale of the violence (fortunately, genocide remains relatively rare); the impact of acting (or not acting) on more important national interests; and the likelihood that an operation (with others) will accomplish considerable good at modest financial, human, and military cost to the United States.

How military force is used can be as important as whether. Normally it should not be limited to air power; it should be used early in a crisis and employed decisively rather than incrementally. Humanitarian interventions, precisely because they do not involve vital U.S. interests, should be designed to save lives. Strategies such as separating warring populations, partitioning, and creating humanitarian zones or safe havens all deserve serious consideration. More ambitious objectives, such as nation-building and promoting multiethnic societies or democracy, should normally be avoided. Exit dates should not be set in advance of interventions; a decision for forces to remain should reflect the costs and benefits of so doing rather than anything arbitrary.

To keep U.S. costs down, Washington should train and equip others to carry out humanitarian operations. One priority should be developing a regional force for Africa (along the lines of the Africa Crisis Response Initiative). Allies in Europe and Asia should also be encouraged to train forces for intervention. But the United States should not try to create a “UN army.” Not only would it be expensive, but, given the bias against humanitarian intervention on the part of Russia, China, India, and others, the UN cannot be counted on to carry out missions more demanding than consensual peacekeeping.

World Trade

World trade has been and remains an engine of economic growth that often keeps down inflation, creates jobs, increases choice, and spurs innovation. It can also discourage conflict—why risk a war that in turn would risk profitable arrangements? Still, promoting trade is never easy. Advocates must always struggle against those who would restrict access to their markets using both tariff and nontariff barriers to protect domestic producers and workers against foreign competition.

A new administration could boost political support for open trade in the United States by doing more to soften the inevitable stresses on workers from both trade and technological change. Providing tax breaks and soft loans for lifelong education and training would help, as would ensuring that safety nets providing insurance for health care, disability, and other needs were fully portable so that workers would not undergo additional hardship if particular jobs were lost. But there must be limits to using trade arrangements to set uniform standards for labor and the environment. Negotiating and building support for trade accords is already difficult enough. Labor and environmental standards should be handled separately, through a reinvigorated International Labor Organization or specific environmental accords.

The creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995 was a major milestone in the quest to open trade, establishing both rules to govern trade and a mechanism to resolve disputes. The next steps should be to expand the WTO to cover a wider range of goods, services, and countries and to open its decisionmaking process to more actors, including nongovernmental organizations. The best way to accomplish those goals would be through a new global trade round. But if that proves politically infeasible, open trade should be promoted through a mix of bilateral and regional agreements. Such limited approaches lack the impact of a global system and run some risk of establishing zones that discriminate against nonmembers, but they can be a boon to trade (as proven by both the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement), can become something of a laboratory for new ideas (as shown by Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation), and are certainly preferable to doing nothing—and thus setting the stage for renewed protectionism.

Regionalism

The difficulty of reaching consensus among the global powers on missile defense, humanitarian intervention, and trade suggests a fourth theme—promoting regional arrangements. Regionalism is not a rejection of globalism, but rather a practical acknowledgement that, much more than nations worldwide, states of the same region share a similar perspective and an incentive to act on problems before they are directly affected.

Regionalism appears especially relevant for Africa and Latin America. Africa is ravaged by humanitarian crises, some man-made, some natural. The international community, while willing to help in some ways (providing military assistance and training, offering cheaper drugs to combat AIDS, forgiving debt), is not prepared to intervene militarily or send resources on the required scale. This points to the need to strengthen African capabilities and mechanisms, especially in the realm of peacekeeping and its more demanding offshoots.

Latin America (like the Asia-Pacific) is also relatively weak in regional institutions other than in the economic area, where both NAFTA and Mercosur provide important frameworks for trade. The prevalence of democratic, market-oriented societies in the region makes this weakness less obvious than it is in Africa. But the impressive advance of democracy in Mexico notwithstanding, there are disquieting trends toward populism in both Peru and Venezuela and even more troubling evidence that the government of Colombia is losing ground in its struggle with left-wing guerrillas, drug traffickers, and paramilitaries. Because a failed Colombia would have serious regional consequences, states in the region, including the United States, must provide military and police training and equipment, economic assistance, and diplomatic support to help Colombia reach a political settlement—and begin to consider what to do if Colombia nevertheless continues to fail.

The Middle East

Regionalism takes quite a different form in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. The unfinished business of promoting peace between Israel and Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians will surely occupy the next U.S. administration. Peace talks between Israel and either Syria or Lebanon are likely to be on hold for some time, until Syria’s new president, Bashar Assad, consolidates his position. But the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon creates a new dynamic. The goal should be to build diplomatic pressure on Hizbollah to lay down its arms and become a political actor within Lebanon. Simultaneously, the United States should put diplomatic pressure on Syria to withdraw militarily from Lebanon. The Israeli-Palestinian track presents a very different challenge in the aftermath of the Camp David summit. The United States should promote a partial agreement if a comprehensive one remains elusive, simultaneously emphasizing the need for the parties involved to avoid unilateral acts and for those not directly involved (such as the Arab states) to avoid anything that would further restrict Palestinian willingness to make compromises for peace.

Two other sets of challenges in the greater Middle East illustrate broader issues facing American foreign policy. The first involves Iraq and Iran, two states until recently known as “rogues,” a label also at times applied to North Korea, Cuba, Libya, and others. What defined a rogue was never clear, although it reflected such behaviors as large-scale violations of human rights, support for terrorism, and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. The term deserved jettisoning, for it also tended to lump problems of different magnitudes—Cuba and Iraq hardly pose similar threats to U.S. interests—and limit the tools available to the United States to alter undesirable behavior.

The strong U.S. bias to date has been toward punitive economic sanctions, despite evidence that sanctions imposed by the United States alone are of limited use at best and that even sanctions backed widely by other countries cannot achieve ambitious goals such as regime change. Adding positive incentives (including reducing sanctions) to the policy mix could help induce behavioral improvements, much as has happened in an apparently successful U.S. effort to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

The other issue observable in the greater Middle East, but in no way exclusive to it, is how much weight American foreign policy should place on promoting democracy and how to go about it. Promoting democracy should be a consideration, but hardly the only one, given that other vital interests often must take precedence. Also, promoting democracy can be a difficult business; in most instances, it will behoove the United States to proceed cautiously, helping to build and extend civil societies and markets, both desirable in their own right and as possible way stations for societies on the path to greater openness.

Foreign Policy Resources

To manage foreign policy successfully, the next president and those around him will require ample resources. Some of those resources are financial, such as more money for military, intelligence, diplomacy, and assistance programs. Here the good news is that the United States can afford to do all that it should in the world without endangering its economic situation at home. But money will be made available by Congress—and its use supported—only if the next administration makes foreign policy a priority. To be sure, there is always the risk that a great power will exhaust itself by doing too much. But the greater risk today is that the United States will squander an opportunity to build a world supportive of its core interests by doing too little.

As this last point suggests, another resource necessary for successful foreign policy is time and effort. The new administration must consult regularly with other major powers. If negotiations were the centerpiece of Cold War diplomacy, consultations will characterize this age of global relationships that defy definition and vary by situation. Simultaneously, the new president must take the case for a new nuclear balance, for humanitarian intervention, and for open trade to Congress and the American people. He will have to do so in the absence of public pressure or even interest. Indeed, indifference, not isolationism, is the present reality. But presidents enjoy considerable discretion in what they choose to emphasize, and there is opportunity for the leader who chooses to focus on national security—and risk for the country if he does not.

Get daily updates from Brookings