Stephen Walt’s essay has the great merit of broadening the debate on foreign policy at a time when institutional pressure has been narrowing it. With great moral and intellectual courage, Walt distinguishes between the state interests of America and Israel, thereby opening up new vistas in imagining relations between the two.
Walt counsels that it is the responsibility of a greatpower to recognize historically shaped realities and translate thisacknowledgment into a form of self-restraint in global affairs:“One of the central lessons of the 20th century” was that“nationalism is the most powerful political ideology in the worldand trying to run large alien populations by force is a losinggame.” Without an accommodation with nationalism, American power“will not be seen as legitimate.” To make American power legitimate, Walt suggests a three-pronged shift in foreign policy:first, the use of American power to secure an end to the post-1967Israeli occupation; second, a scaling back of America’s nuclearambitions in return for a global regime of nonproliferation; andfinally, a balance-of-power policy that recognizes self-restraint asvital “to persuade the rest of the world that American primacy ispreferable to likely alternatives.” Without these initiatives, Walt warns, American hegemony will be short-lived.
Walt is right aboutthe need for change, but any effort to reorganize America’s globalpower will have to reflect critically on its recent past. I will thuselaborate on two crucial factors substantially absent from Walt’sproposal: historical and domestic contexts. Considering these will strengthen the proposal by grounding it in the dynamic of an ongoing reality; failure to do so will confine its discussion to the narrowscope of the academy.
A few questions expose the weak historicalbase of the proposal, especially Walt’s failure to explore the legacy of the Cold War. What was the background to the terrorunleashed on 9/11? What was the relationship between network terror (al Qaeda) and state terror in the course of the Cold War? But forthe Afghan jihad, would jihadi political Islam, of which al Qaeda is a key proponent, been any more than a fringe ideological tendency in the contemporary world?
After all, both al Qaeda and the neocons inthe Bush administration came out of the winning side of the Cold War.They share the conviction that the world can be remade throughpolitical violence, and both are determined to do so. When Donald Rumsfeld promised “shock and awe” on the eve of the war on Iraq,was he not promising a replay of 9/11, except on a grander scale andin a different location? Is it just accidental that the “war onterror” has tended to mimic terror?
In answering these questions,an understanding of the legacy of the Cold War is crucial. It was both ideological and institutional. Ideologically, its legacy was forged in the Reagan administration’s call to end the era of“peaceful coexistence” and to take the battle to the “evilempire”; the challenge was to “roll back” evil.
One needs tobeware of the incorporation of the notion of evil in the language ofpolitics. To describe one’s adversary as a “rogue” first, andthen “evil,” is to rule out any possibility of peaceful coexistence. Besides a refusal to countenance a plural world,discussing political options in a righteous religious language hasmultiple uses: it both legitimizes a highly amoral foreign policy(for example, the Reagan administration’s “constructiveengagement” with apartheid South Africa) in a highly moral language, and it refuses to be accountable to any worldly constituency. Is it accidental that the “war on terror” hasborrowed so much of its language from the war on the “evilempire”?
The institutional legacy of the Cold War has gone hand-in-hand with its ideological legacy. It is a legacy of an imperial presidency, one in which foreign policy is made more by theDepartment of Defense than the Department of State, where theexecutive is only nominally answerable to the legislature in theconduct of foreign policy. This same executive has learnt to beat thedrum on both sides: justifying the violation of sovereignty overseasin the name of protecting human rights, and the violation of humanrights at home in the name of safeguarding sovereignty (national security). It is, in short, a legacy of the use of power with impunity.
In a democracy, the resources to counter thistendency have to emerge from within. This is why it is important totake note of the institutional erosion of democracy in the UnitedStates since the end of the Vietnam War. The two institutions thatwere central to the development of a strong antiwar movement withinthe U.S. were the media and the universities. Since Vietnam, therehas been a dramatic change in the character of the media, both in itsownership and in its willingness to take the administration’sversion of “their atrocities.” The most visible proof of this seachange was the appearance of “embedded reporters” in the Iraqwar.
It is not accidental that the threat to academicfreedom in universities has increased since the Bushadministration’s victory in the recent national elections. The post-9/11 assault on academic freedom demands that recipients of federal monies (such as the regional institutes that receive Title VI funding) open themselves to external oversight to continue to receivethese funds.
If it is true that the reorientation of foreign policyin a democracy needs to draw its resources from domesticconstituencies, then it is not enough to simply draw up a charter foran alternate foreign policy. It will also be necessary to identifythe domestic constituencies that will be capable of driving itforward in the face of stiff resistance.
If history is any guide, the containment of American imperial power will require a coalition of anti-imperialist forces, both at home and abroad.