The most likely scenario in foreign affairs for this year is a lot
more of the same — desultory confrontations over dubious crises that
occupy a good deal of time, attention and taxpayers’ money (and put
American military personnel at risk) but don’t really go anywhere.
That’s because we really haven’t decided what the proper role of the
United States in a post-cold war world should be, so our leaders lurch
from one problem to the next, improvising rather than being guided by
principles or a strategic vision.

When the Soviet Union collapsed — and with it the threat, for now,
of a coordinated communist effort to dominate world affairs — much was
made of the fact that the United States was the world’s sole superpower.
But what did that mean in terms of policy?

Did it mean we should plan and coordinate activities to increase
liberty and democracy? That we should plan foreign policy around the
economic interests of U.S. companies or the health of the U.S. economy?
That we should declare ourselves the defender of human rights and
liberties throughout the world? That we should intervene proactively
whenever we saw an opportunity to enhance the geopolitical security or
economic interests of the United States? That we should hold our forces
in reserve, intervening only when clear-cut aggression occurred? That we
should build up the economies of other countries to buy their
cooperation in our larger plans? That we should be able to fight two
wars simultaneously? That we should help allies militarily? That we
should be simply one vote in the United Nations, to whom we would turn
over responsibility for handling brushfires? That we should let the
world go its merry way without trying to guide or influence it?

We never really decided, so U.S foreign policy has been a
hodge-podge. But commitments made without the guidance of a strategic
vision have a way of creating complications, of being more extensive and
unpredictable than planned. U.S foreign policy makers could face some of
the consequences this year.

Start with Saddam Hussein. In geostrategic terms, Saddam is a minor
nuisance, a brutal dictator with wider ambitions and the capacity to
create nasty regional problems. His neighbors have the resources to keep
him in check. Whether they have the will and vision to do so may never
be known as long as Uncle Sam, for a variety of reasons, keeps
volunteering to do the job.

Despite rhetoric equating Saddam with Hitler and Iraq with the
world’s most dangerous threat, U.S. policymakers have seldom paid
sustained attention to the country. So we keep responding to crises,
lobbing a few missiles but not making a serious effort to remove Saddam
from power.

Unless we decide either to take him out or to rethink our policy and
leave him to his neighbors, current policy will tie up and wear down
U.S. military capability, undermine U.S. capacity to build coalitions
around other issues, poison the U.S. relationship with Russia and make
Saddam look good to the people he rules. It could even provoke terrorist
attacks on U.S. military personnel or on uninvolved civilians abroad or
at home.

Russia is more important than Iraq, but our Iraqi policy — combined
with failed efforts to bolster the Russian economy through aid, IMF
loans and gifts and hypocritical lectures — has if anything resurrected
the threat of a Greater Russia with imperial ambitions. The United
States might not be able to prevent the election of a fascist or
neo-communist in 2000 or whenever Boris Yeltsin steps down. But it can
avoid provoking dangerous ambitions for the sake of flawed policies
built around containing Iraq or expanding NATO for no particular good

China, after a fairly long period in which geopolitical ambitions
were deferred to the goal of a growing economy, appears to be moving
toward domestic repression. There’s also strong evidence that it has
sought (and probably obtained) U.S. technology through
less-than-legitimate channels to beef up its military capabilities. That
doesn’t mean the U.S. should impose trade sanctions or declare
hostilities. But vapid praise and sucking up – see Clinton’s trip last
summer — don’t seem to have made the regime a reliable friend.

U.S. troops are still bogged down in Bosnia, with no end in sight,
and troubles in the Kosovo region of Yugoslavia threaten to draw U.S.
forces in further. Besides launching a single currency, European
countries in late 1998 concluded several cross-border defense agreements
that increase the ability of European NATO forces to act independently
of the U.S. The time could be right to hand the former-Yugoslavia mess
off to Europe. If that isn’t done, U.S. forces will continue to be
hostage to whatever ambitions and outrages local leaders in a
notoriously unstable part of the world can foment.

Meantime, North Korea threatens to acquire nuclear weapons and might
use them, while India and Pakistan (traditionally a U.S. client but an
increasingly unstable and unreliable one) already have them.

The best thing the United States could do in the coming year would be
to decide and announce that it no longer sees itself as the world’s
policeman or sheriff — that it seeks open trade relationships with
people in every country of the world but desires no political influence
or dominance over any of them. That announcement could be coupled with a
pullback of American troops around the world, a de-emphasis on alliance
structures that involve political or military commitments — and just to
cover our bets (not to mention defending U.S. citizens, supposedly
government’s main job), the building of a missile defense system to
protect this country from nuclear threats.

It would take several years (perhaps even decades) to convince people
in other parts of the world that we were serious in this course — that
we had no desire and little willingness to be drawn into local
conflicts, that it would no longer be any fun to tweak Uncle Sam’s nose,
that the best bet would be to free up their economies so they could
compete with what would soon be even more of an economic powerhouse than
the United States is already. But that’s the direction in which we
should move.

Such a grand strategic turnabout is unlikely this year or anytime
soon, however. So we will find our military forces increasingly
over-committed, our leaders reacting to crises large and small, our
treasure frittered away. If we are lucky we won’t face a major conflict
or widespread terrorist activities. But it will depend more on luck than
on management. How long can our luck hold?

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