I do not recall a period in modern history when United States foreign policy has been under such relentless attack both from abroad and at home as in the administration of George W. Bush. In the case of foreign opinion, the primary motive seems to be envy of U.S. power and America’s ability to act unilaterally on a global scale. At home, the criticism is mainly inspired by Democratic frustration over Republican electoral triumphs and the feeling that the Republicans’ aggressive foreign policy is what makes them vulnerable. But it encompasses much of the intellectual community, regardless of party affiliation.

To cite but one example: the September-October 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs has four essays on this subject, all written by American academics, each critical of U.S. foreign policy. One blames the Bush administration for its misplaced faith in democracy as a means of stopping terrorism. A second wants Washington to realize that economic liberalization does not necessarily undermine repressive regimes. A third accuses the U.S. of lacking a coherent strategy in Iraq. And the fourth charges Bush with using power in an “arrogant” fashion. One can only wonder: can we do nothing right?

The “Bush Doctrine” that provokes so much dissent is, to say the least, revolutionary, because it shifts the thrust of U.S. foreign policy from its original isolationism and subsequent defensive interventionism to a pugnacious strategy of prevention. It calls for aggressive actions intended to deter rather than punish assaults on U.S. lives and interests. As such, it provokes uneasiness among large numbers of Americans who find it difficult to perceive threats unless they are as direct as Pearl Harbor or 9/11, and who have little patience for protracted military operations on foreign soil.

Yet, in my judgment, this policy, prudently implemented, makes a great deal of sense.

A century ago, world order was maintained by a half-dozen great powers. To be sure, their domination was undemocratic, but, while it lasted, it did ensure a considerable degree of peace and legality. This order broke down as a consequence of two world wars and the emergence in Russia of a regime committed to overthrowing the global status quo.

Today, the collapse of empires and decolonization have produced scores of new countries that, for all their appearance of traditional statehood, are in many cases unable effectively to govern their territories. Vast regions of nominally sovereign regimes are today controlled by armed dissidents with their own agendas. Furthermore, we have rogue states, like Iran, North Korea, or Venezuela, that have international ambitions vastly exceeding their capabilities and are able to gain credibility only by virtue of nuclear blackmail or the threat of revolution. All of which makes for great instability.

The United States is the only country in the world capable of confronting these unprecedented problems. And not only because it has the military power to do so. It alone has a global perspective developed during the years of the cold war when Western Europe, Japan, and the rest of the non-Communist world lived under its protection. The U.S. thinks globally and perceives threats far from its shores—which is not the case with its allies, who tend to reason regionally. Whether the U.S. wishes it or not, circumstances have made it into the world’s gendarme.

I have no problem with America’s assuming the right to decide when and where it faces danger, and acting to avert it. A country’s security is not the subject of discussion by others. The United Nations has no inherent right to decide whether the U.S. is threatened and how it is to react to the threat. Sovereignty implies both the right and the duty to protect one’s citizens.

As for President Bush’s notion that the country’s security is best protected by the spread of democracy, that strikes me as both right and wrong. It is right in the sense that it encourages the inhabitants of despotic regimes to take the law into their own hands. We have seen the positive results of this idea in Georgia and Ukraine, where illegitimate rulers have been peacefully removed. In Central Asia, inhabitants have for the first time challenged their post-Soviet dictators. In Lebanon, the Syrians have been compelled by popular outrage to end their occupation. President Mubarak of Egypt has had to hold elections. These and similar events—most notably, of course, the unprecedented elections in Afghanistan and Iraq—have occurred under the direct pressure of the ideological influence of the United States. They surely are a force for the good.

At the same time, I doubt whether it is realistic to expect third-world countries to produce genuine democracies. Democracy is an individualistic doctrine, which assumes that the citizen stands in direct and immediate relationship to his government. But many if not most third-world countries are organized along tribal lines, under which the tribe and its leaders protect the members. In such societies, the individual is part of a group that exercises effective political authority over him.

It is difficult to see how democracy can triumph where there exist such intermediate political bodies. The best, therefore, that one can expect from a policy promoting democracy is the removal of dictators and some sort of compromise under which tribal chieftains reach a modus vivendi ensuring a modicum of order and self-government.

As these remarks convey, by and large I am satisfied with President Bush’s conduct of foreign policy. I approve of its principles, and I admire his determination in pursuing it in the face of unprecedented criticism: this is what true leadership is all about.

 

RICHARD PIPES is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics, to be published in January by Yale University Press.

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