With the publication of its new National Security Strategy, the Bush Revolution is officially over. We’re seeing a return to a foreign policy that is much more akin to the foreign policies pursued by the administration’s predecessors than by this administration in its first term. The new strategy’s twin pillars—of promoting human rights, freedom and democracy and of working together with our friends and allies—have been central pillars of American foreign policy for decades. The reversal is clear in the way the strategy shifts the balance from emphasizing force to emphasizing diplomacy, from relying on America’s unilateral power to relying on multilateral alliances and institutions, from stressing the need to ensure America’s military preeminence to stressing the importance of enhancing our power by working with others.
In some notable ways, the new strategy document represents a return to the foreign policy of Bill Clinton. You can see it in the new emphasis on democratization (no different from Clinton’s enlargement strategy), the new recognition that globalization creates fundamentally different challenges and opportunities (which was central to Clinton’s foreign policy, but entirely missing from the 2002 Strategy document), and in the centrality of working with allies and friends and the decided preference for diplomacy over the use of military force (which was at the core of Clinton’s strategy). And while the new document reiterates that preemption remains a key part of the strategy, it does so in a way that is little different from how the Clinton administration addressed the issue in its discussions on the use of force.
The interesting question is why the Bush administration has decided to reverse course. Part of the answer, surely, lies in the fact that reality demonstrated the limits of its revolutionary foreign policy. One key reality is that most of the threats we face today cannot be effectively defeated by American (military) power alone; it requires a multifaceted use of power and the active cooperation of willing and able allies. Another is that America’s actions must enjoy international legitimacy if they are to be effective in solving global problems.
Yet, it is clear that the administration has accepted these new realities only reluctantly. It has been forced to change course by necessity rather than out of conviction. And it therefore remains to be seen whether its actual conduct of foreign affairs in the weeks and months ahead will be more in keeping with the words of this new Strategy than the sentiments of the old.