How Ambitious Can We Be?

Ethical Realism by Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman (Pantheon, 224 pages, $22.00)

The American Way of Strategy by Michael Lind
(Oxford University Press, 304 pages, $24.00)

Anyone who doubts that the Bush Revolution in foreign policy has ended should check the shelves at a bookstore. Hagiographies about the man from Midland are out. Impassioned critiques offering plans for a new approach to foreign affairs are in.

Ethical Realism and The American Way of Strategy are the two newest entries in the contest to plot the counter-revolution. Both books catalogue the administration's many missteps, and both would have the next president pursue a far less ambitious foreign policy. It is not clear, however, that it would be a better one.

Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman make an odd writing pair, as they acknowledge in the introduction to Ethical Realism. Lieven, a former British journalist who did a stint at the dovish Carnegie Endowment for International Peace before becoming a fellow at the self-described “radical centrist” New America Foundation, staunchly opposed the Iraq War. Hulsman, a Republican who until recently was a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, supported the war until American casualties began to mount. They set aside their ideological differences to write together because of their “common exasperation with the pieties and orthodoxies of both U.S. party establishments.”

Lieven and Hulsman's argument, though at times contradictory, can be summarized briefly. Islamic terrorism must be taken “more seriously than any other security issue now facing the United States.” Washington should have responded to September 11 by forging a strategy that understood the nature of the adversary and balanced costs against benefits, as Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower wisely did a half century earlier. Instead, Bush and Democratic leaders overextended the United States and left it vulnerable.

The most grievous error was the unnecessary and disastrous invasion of Iraq. But the mistakes did not end there. Washington has threatened Iran rather than enticed it, denied Russia's legitimate national interests, put economic and strategic pressure on China, and embraced the “folly of Democratism” -- the belief that the United States can spread democracy around the world. This mix of “ignorant utopianism and megalomanical ambition” has left the United States facing defeat and humiliation.

Lieven and Hulsman's solution to this predicament is the philosophy of ethical realism. Drawing on the writings of Cold War intellectuals Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, and George Kennan, they want American foreign policy to be guided by “prudence; a concentration on possible results rather than good intentions; a close study of the nature, views, and interests of other states, and a willingness to accommodate them when possible; and a mixture of profound American patriotism with an equally profound awareness of the limits both on American power and on American goodness.”

These virtues should be used to fashion what Lieven and Hulsman call the Great Capitalist Peace -- essentially a concert of the great powers. Because every country that matters today has a capitalist economy of one form or another, Lieven and Hulsman argue, they all have a stake in sustaining the global market and the benefits it produces. To keep the small powers on board as the big powers keep the peace, Lieven and Hulsman call for “developmental realism,” essentially generous trade and aid policies that would spread the global wealth.

The American Way of Strategy stresses many of the themes found in Ethical Realism. That is perhaps unsurprising given that Michael Lind's career in many ways combines Lieven's and Hulsman's. Over the past two decades he has been an FDR Democrat, the founder of a conservative journal at Yale, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation, an official in Ronald Reagan's State Department, the author of a book on why the right is wrong for America, and an editor at Harper's and The New Republic. Now he is Lieven's colleague at the New America Foundation.

Despite the biographical similarities with Lieven and Hulsman, Lind's inspiration is different. Rather than looking to Cold War thinkers, he looks to America's founders. (Lind dismisses Lieven and Hulsman's hero Morgenthau for his “appalling ignorance of America's subtle and complex foreign policy tradition.”) Lind argues that the Founders thought the purpose of foreign policy was “to create conditions favorable to the individualistic American way of life.” In the compact (and at times tendentious) history of American foreign policy that forms the first half of the book, he contends that for two centuries their successors likewise pursued this American way of strategy, even as they adopted different strategies to meet changing threats.

Lind sees American foreign policy veering from its traditional path with the passing of the Cold War. In his view, an approach consistent with American tradition would have embraced a new, multipolar world and pushed our allies to provide for their own security. Instead, first under Bill Clinton and then under George W. Bush, Washington pursued a strategy of hegemony. In this “plan for U.S. world domination,” Washington is keeping its allies weak and holding China and Russia down. It has also discarded the traditional American reluctance to go beyond preserving its own liberty in favor of a naive effort to bring democracy to others.

Lind believes the hegemony strategy is doomed to failure because it demands too much money and manpower and will turn America into a garrison state that sacrifices liberty for security. Like Lieven and Hulsman, Lind's solution is to construct a great-power concert. The coalition would not seek “to produce liberty, democracy, and the rule of law in every country, but to provide every country with the shared good of peace and basic order, so that the need to prepare for war does not impair the ability of particular nations to establish liberty, democracy, and the rule of law by their own efforts inside their own borders.” Lind would complement his power concert with a trade concert in which the great powers would trade freely in civilian goods while protecting their militarily relevant industries, especially in manufacturing. This would, or so Lind thinks, enable the great powers to maintain the industrial base that makes them powerful.

The criticisms that both books level against Bush's foreign policy are powerful, no less so because many others have aired the same complaints. Both books are less persuasive, however, about their claims that Democrats are playing Tweedledee to the Republicans' Tweedledum on foreign policy. After all, most congressional Democrats voted against the Iraq War authorization. And Democrats have long urged the White House to restart the Middle East peace process, engage Iran and North Korea, and de-militarize the war on terrorism. Their failing is not that they echo Bush but that they lack the control of Congress needed to constrain him and the credibility to bring the public to their side.

Equally dubious is Lind's claim that Clinton's foreign policy was simply a variant of Bush's. Clinton exercised American power hesitantly and often only after the regional powers Lind hopes will lead failed to do so. Just think Bosnia. Moreover, Clinton's foreign policy -- which looks more liberal internationalist than hegemonic -- was reasonably (if by no means entirely) successful. North Korea built no nuclear weapons. Iraq (we now know) shelved its weapons of mass destruction program. Relations with allies and former rivals were cordial and productive.

These successes suggest that Lind's fear that Clinton-style internationalism will bleed the treasury dry and trample civil liberties is misplaced. (The threat posed to civil liberties by the need to stop terrorists is another matter, and not one that Lind explores.) During Bush senior's and Clinton's presidencies, U.S. troop strength fell by more than 25 percent, the defense budget as a share of GDP dropped from 4.4 percent to 3.0 percent, and the federal budget was balanced. Indeed, the remarkable thing about America's current moment at the top of the geopolitical heap is that it has placed rather light demands on our economy and society. Even Iraq, with its $400 billon price tag and its bloody human toll, has not derailed the American economy or required most Americans to make any sacrifice at all. The United States, unlike almost every other country, can indulge in discretionary wars. That is a dangerous luxury. But would we really prefer it otherwise?

Clinton's internationalism may have had its successes, but do Ethical Realism and The American Way of Strategy offer something better? The philosophy of ethical realism has undeniable appeal. And that is its weakness. Classical realists, liberal internationalists, isolationists, and even neoconservatives would say they too want a foreign policy that is prudent, weighs costs and benefits, embraces patriotism, and recognizes the limits on American power. To be more than a collection of pleasant bromides, a philosophy of ethical realism needs to answer the tough questions that lie at the heart of all foreign-policy debates. What separates prudence from timidity and folly? When should we accommodate the interests of others? What are the limits on American power? In their penultimate chapter, Lieven and Hulsman detail their specific ideas for dealing with China, Russia, and the Middle East. Some of these proposals are good, some not, but because the authors make only superficial references to ethical realism, the analysis here implicitly acknowledges how little the philosophy tells us.

What about the merits of a concert-of-powers strategy? This is a venerable approach to international affairs. It is also one that Washington has pursued to one degree or another ever since the Berlin Wall fell. The Clinton administration sought to enlist China and Russia as strategic partners. Bush derided those partnerships in the 2000 campaign. Nonetheless, since September 11 he has solicited -- even in the midst of the spitting match over Iraq -- an astonishing degree of great-power cooperation in the fight against al-Qaeda.

Can we replicate a similar level of cooperation on a wider array of issues, as Lieven, Hulsman, and Lind assume? Probably not anytime soon. Free riding bedevils great-power collaboration as it does any other cooperative venture. The often divergent, and occasionally antagonistic, interests of the great powers add another obstacle. Washington may think Beijing should use its economic clout to shut down Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and that Moscow should halt its nuclear deal with Tehran, but China and Russia see their interests differently. It would be nice if, as Lieven and Hulsman contend, common economic interests inevitably drove rivals to common ground. World War I suggests otherwise. And a great-power concert will be especially elusive if it is to be an American-dictated symphony. Lieven and Hulsman's contention that China, Russia, and India can best advance the fight against terrorism “by keeping out of the way” is unlikely to rally officials in Beijing, Moscow, and New Delhi.

Because Washington will often want very different outcomes than Beijing and Moscow, it will by necessity need to work most closely with those whose values are closest to our own. This includes not just our traditional European and Asian allies but rising democratic powers such as India, Brazil, and South Africa. A challenge to recruiting these partners to our side is that with Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and numerous other issues, Bush has destroyed the goodwill many around the world feel toward America. Restoring international trust in American leadership will not be easy. But doing so is essential. Countries will not follow those whom they distrust and resent, and if American does not lead, who will?

Convincing others to work with us rather than against us requires Washington to paint a vision of the world it wants help in creating. The “I've-got-mine” peace that Lind envisions, whose main attribute is the absence of cross-border conflict, would only confirm the prevailing view of a self-interested United States. Likewise, his vision of a trade concert will be seen abroad for what it is -- a dressed-up version of old-fashioned protectionism (and just as unlikely to work).

The generosity that animates Lieven and Hulsman's notion of developmental realism lies closer to the kind of vision that Washington needs to convey (though the authors' inability to decide whether aid is a blessing or a curse for poor countries robs their advice of much practical value). In addition to being seen as working to spread the wealth, Washington needs to stress building effective international institutions and spreading democracy. Competent institutions are critical because they are needed to handle the problems that a globalizing world creates and because we need not just to work with Beijing and Moscow, but to create a world order that pushes them closer to our interests and values. Democracy is critical because it has value for people in all countries and because a world of liberal, constitutional democracies is likely to be safer. For all their complaints about the folly of “Democratism,” Lieven and Hulsman accept this point and believe that democracy should be “part of the American legacy.” Bush's naive, inept, and cynical use of democracy as a rationale for the Iraq War is not a good reason to abandon democracy promotion as a goal -- or guide how it should be done.

Yet the very extent of Bush's foreign-policy malpractice has made it harder to convince Americans to rally behind the kind of international vision that will appeal abroad. As Ethical Realism and especially The American Way of Strategy attest, there is a hunger for a smaller foreign policy that would allow the United States to do less and make others do more. We may get more of a course correction than we need. And as history shows, falling short can be as dangerous as going too far.

James M. Lindsay is director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy.