A complicated approach

November 10, 2011


AMERICAN foreign policy is not easy to understand. While in many ways it is no different from that of other big powers, moved by the same guiding principles of national interests and cold-blooded power politics, it is also markedly different.

It is conducted under the media glare in a highly open society in a complex democracy and comes under the constant stress of domestic politics. It is thus different in form and process.

It is also claimed to be morally superior and guided by a higher purpose. So it is supposed to be different in substance as well. But is it really?

Essentially what you have is a foreign policy that is realpolitik in substance but idealistic in form; self-centred in reality but altruistic in rhetoric; pragmatic at the core but ideological on the periphery.

The United States has tried to create the impression that its foreign policy's symbolism is in fact its substance, and that its rhetoric is the reality. Sometimes it is, but most often it is not, certainly not on major issues where rhetoric is either secondary to realpolitik or is a rationale not the reason for policy. And that is where the problems arise. How does one obscure the reality and make appearances look real? The fact is, this can't be done.

You cannot change the internal balance of power, fight wars, replace a hostile regime with a friendly or pliant one and have an undefined military presence in a country all as part of your national security objectives, and at the same time, promote democracy there. Especially in a country that is broken or in the throes of a conflict, that is lacking credible state structures and governing institutions — like Afghanistan. In essence, imperialist urge and democratic impulse are in conflict and one ends up achieving neither the strategic objective nor democracy.

That is not the only challenge. There are systemic issues as well. The administration has to satisfy, especially on issues of critical national importance, different centres of power and bureaucratic institutions, like the Congress, Pentagon and CIA, and various lobbies.

The president has to navigate between varying shades of foreign policy in the country ranging from isolationism, conservatism and neoconservatism to liberalism and ultra liberalism. And resolve the constant tussle between the electoral calendar on the one hand and strategic imperatives on the other, between America's own interests that are global and those of its allies that are local and regional.

There are thus several concentric circles of interests and priorities in US foreign policy that also conflict and compete — in addition to further complications in the making of foreign policy in this ideologically diverse country with its unique nation-building and historical experience.

The first of these complications can be seen in its impatience and quickness to resort to arms, as well as its tradition of isolationism dating back to pre 20th-century America. Secondly, since the First World War, there has been a belief in its military superiority and a sacrosanct self-image as a saviour nation.

Finally, its victory in the Second World War and America's subsequent rise as the greatest economic and military power resulted in hubris after the end of the Cold War — there has been a feeling in some policymaking circles that America is doing so much public good that its interests, worldview and strategies should be beyond challenge. It wants to lead but by domination, and as an exceptional nation demanding exceptional treatment.

On the other hand, the US does command an immense array of diplomatic, economic and political assets and military power, and to its credit has played a decisive role in international affairs in the 20th century maintaining some semblance of balance of power and international order and stability.

There has also been at times a great humanitarian complement to the pursuit of its geopolitical interests. So there have been great success stories in US foreign policy. And the success continues in varying degrees, especially in relations with countries that have mature policies.

Look at India, Turkey, Brazil, China, Europe and Japan. They have the internal strength to counter the US power, withstand its pressure, and thus maintain mutually beneficial relations with Washington.

Problems exist mainly in America's policies towards its allies from the Cold War days in what was known as the Third World. Many countries in this bracket have now moved on and are finding new terms of engagement with Washington. But serious issues still linger in relations with Muslim countries, especially where regimes, either unrepresentative or elected but unpopular, have been dependent on Washington.

The US treats them as subordinates in a deal, whose friendship and cooperation can be bought to America's advantage. But the increasingly politically conscious populations have come to reject this bad bargain. Particularly countries like Pakistan that are caught up in America's post 9/11 wars.

Pakistan is a perfect example where the government has come under conflicting pressures, by America to do more and by its own population to do less. It has ended up by pleasing neither. As the issues involved are serious they stir the media and the Congress in the US, and the public at large in Pakistan, promoting negative images of each other and exacerbating tensions.

Washington realises this policy is not working but lacks the political will and capacity to change it. Besides, its policy options are severely limited by the Afghanistan war.

It takes two to tango and Pakistan is not ready. These are the central dilemmas complicating the relations.

The writer, a former ambassador, teaches at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University.