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Is "Progressive Realism" America's Next Foreign Policy?

Joseph S NyeJoseph S Nye is Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author, most recently, of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. His previous post on Webdiary was Taming North Korea.

by Joseph S Nye

Polls in the United States show low public approval for President George W. Bush’s handling of foreign policy, but little agreement on what should take its place. The unbridled ambitions of the neo-conservatives and assertive nationalists in his first administration produced a foreign policy that was like a car with an accelerator, but no brakes. It was bound to go off the road.

But how should America use its unprecedented power, and what role should values play? Realists warn against letting values determine policy, but democracy and human rights have been an inherent part of American foreign policy for two centuries. The Democratic Party could solve this problem by adopting the suggestion of Robert Wright and others that it pursue "progressive realism."

A progressive realist foreign policy would start with an understanding of the strength and limits of American power. The US is the only superpower, but preponderance is not empire or hegemony. America can influence but not control other parts of the world.

Power always depends upon context, and the context of world politics today is like a three-dimensional chess game. The top board of military power is unipolar; but on the middle board of economic relations, the world is multipolar, and on the bottom board – comprising issues like climate change, illegal drugs, Avian flu, and terrorism – power is chaotically distributed.

Military power is a small part of the solution in responding to threats on the bottom board of international relations. They require cooperation among governments and international institutions. Even on the top board (where America represents nearly half of world defense expenditures), the military is supreme in the global commons of air, sea, and space, but more limited in its ability to control nationalistic populations in occupied areas.

A progressive realist policy would also stress the importance of developing an integrated grand strategy that combines "hard" military power with "soft" attractive power into "smart" power of the sort that won the Cold War. America needs to use hard power against terrorists, but it cannot hope to win the struggle against terrorism unless it gains the hearts and minds of moderates. The misuse of hard power (as at Abu Ghraib or Haditha) produces new terrorist recruits.

Today, the US has no such integrated strategy. Many official instruments of soft power – public diplomacy, broadcasting, exchange programs, development assistance, disaster relief, military to military contacts – are scattered around the government, and there is no overarching policy, much less a common budget, to combine them with hard power into a coherent security strategy. The US spends roughly 500 times more on its military than it does on broadcasting and exchanges. Is this the right proportion? And how should the government relate to non-official generators of soft power – everything from Hollywood to Harvard to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – that emanates from civil society?

A progressive realist policy must advance the promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" enshrined in American tradition. Such a grand strategy would have four key pillars: (1) providing security for the US and its allies; (2) maintaining a strong domestic and international economy; (3) avoiding environmental disasters (such as pandemics and global flooding); and (4) encouraging liberal democracy and human rights at home and, where feasible, abroad.

This does not mean imposing American values by force. Democracy promotion is better accomplished by attraction than coercion, and it takes time and patience. The US would be wise to encourage the gradual evolution of democracy, but in a manner that accepts the reality of cultural diversity.

Such a grand strategy would focus on four major threats. Probably the greatest danger is the intersection of terrorism with nuclear materials. Preventing this requires to fight terrorism and promote non-proliferation, better protection of nuclear materials, stability in the Middle East, as well as greater attention to failed states.

The second major challenge is the rise of a hostile hegemon as Asia’s share of the world economy gradually comes to match its three-fifths share of the world’s population. This requires a policy that integrates China as a responsible global stakeholder, but hedges its bets by maintaining close relations with Japan, India, and other countries in the region.

The third major threat is an economic depression, possibly triggered by financial mismanagement, or by a crisis that disrupts oil flows from the Persian Gulf – home to two-thirds of global reserves. This will require policies that gradually reduce dependence on oil, while recognizing that the American economy cannot be isolated from global energy markets.

The fourth major threat is ecological breakdowns, such as pandemics and climate change. This will require prudent energy policies and greater cooperation through international institutions such as the World Health Organization.

A progressive realist policy should look to the long-term evolution of world order and realize the responsibility of the international system’s most powerful country to produce global public or common goods. In the nineteenth century, Britain defined its national interest broadly to include promoting freedom of the seas, an open international economy, and a stable European balance of power. Such common goods benefited both Britain and other countries. They also contributed to Britain’s legitimacy and soft power.

With the US now in Britain’s place, it should play a similar role by promoting an open international economy and commons (seas, space, Internet), mediating international disputes before they escalate, and developing international rules and institutions. Because globalization will spread technical capabilities, and information technology will allow broader participation in global communications, American preponderance will become less dominant later this century. Progressive realism requires America to prepare for that future by defining its national interest in a way that benefits all.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.

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True peace will come through universal justice

The Right has spurned talk of human rights and democracy as utopian, the dreams of romantic left-wing idealists who preferred to see the world as they wished it to be. They have said “a nation’s foreign policy will always favour the interests of its citizens and so fall short of moral perfection.”

We can be thankful that history, by intertwining the fates of peoples, is bringing national interest closer to moral ideals. Harnessing this dynamic is a feature of progressive realism. A sound political strategy requires a respectful understanding of all players in the game. The good politician must put himself into the other man’s shoes, look at the world and judge it as the other man might.

This immersion in the perspective of the other is hard. Understanding why terrorists kill is challenging. Yet it is crucial and has been lacking in our current political leadership. Bush, by ascribing behaviour that threatens America to the hatred of freedom or to evil, ignores the root causes of terrorism. A perception of injustice, which is often at the heart of the problem. The fight for international justice is the only way to bring true peace.

Respect for realism, time to make progress

The call for "Progressive Realism" in US foreign policy has made some ground recently.  Robert Wright wrote about it in the New York Times a little over a month ago.

For those not familiar with his past work, Wright was right about the Iraq War. He saw what would really happen. Check out his letter in Slate back in late 2002.

In the New York Times piece Wright writes:

"Yet the president, in his aversion to multilateralism, flunks Realism 101."

And he's right about that. 

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