America lacks foreign-policy savvy
By Richard Halloran
A columnist for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, posed an intriguing question last Sunday: "Why are we (Americans) so awful at foreign policy?"
Kristof pointed not only to Iraq but at foreign and security policy in general, contending the "shortsightedness is a bipartisan tradition in foreign policy. Historically, we are often our own worst enemy."
He gave two reasons: "Great powers always lumber about, stepping on toes, provoking resentments, and solving problems militarily simply because they have that capability." Secondly, he asserted: "We don't understand the world."
Kristof's gloomy condemnation may have been a tad too sweeping. In the six decades since the end of World War II, the U.S. was benevolent in the occupations of defeated Japan and Germany, and the Marshall Plan surely stimulated the recovery of Western Europe.
The U.S., led by Democratic President Harry S Truman at the beginning and Republican Ronald Reagan at the end, bested the Soviet Union in the Cold War. In the middle of that, President John F. Kennedy deftly prevented the Cuban missile crisis from triggering a nuclear war.
In Asia, America helped to end colonialism by granting the Philippines independence in 1946 and stopped the spread of communism in the Korean War of 1950-53. Republican President Richard Nixon began an opening to emerging China with his journey to Beijing in 1972. Democratic President Jimmy Carter completed that opening by establishing diplomatic relations with China in 1979.
In stark contrast, it has been in the administrations of Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican President George W. Bush that U.S. skills in foreign policy have withered. Clinton achieved little of note in that field during his eight years in office, and the legacy of Bush's two terms ending in January 2009 will most likely be branded by the blunder in Iraq.
In the last decade of the 20th century and the first of the 21st, the ineptitude of the United States in foreign affairs appears to have been caused by what might be called the "Five I's:"
Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state who has been controversial for some of his policies and for his oft-displayed self-confidence — some say arrogance — also has been a keen analyst of American foreign affairs, especially of the nation's swings between idealism and realism.
In his 1994 book, "Diplomacy," he said America's "two approaches, the isolationist and the missionary, so contradictory on the surface, reflected a common underlying faith: that the United States possessed the world's best system of government, and that the rest of mankind could attain peace and prosperity by abandoning traditional diplomacy and adopting America's reverence for international law and democracy."
He concluded, and the reader could almost hear a sigh escape from this passage: "America's journey through international politics has been a triumph of faith over experience." He added, with another apparent sigh: "What is new about the emerging world order is that for the first time, the United States can neither withdraw from the world nor dominate it."
Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia. His column appears weekly in Sunday's Focus section.