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Where Is U.S. Foreign Policy Headed?—A Commentary by Amy Chua

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on October 25, 2009.

Where Is U.S. Foreign Policy Headed?
By Amy Chua

Neoliberalism, which dominated the decade before 9/11, had an exuberantly simple vision. Communism and authoritarianism had failed; therefore markets and free elections were the answer. Free-market democracy, conveniently spread by globalization, would transform the world into a community of productive, peace-loving nations. Instead, the ensuing years saw repeated economic crises outside the West, genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, intensifying fundamentalism, virulent anti-Americanism and finally the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Enter neoconservatism. At its core, the neoconservative program was premised on the aggressive, interventionist use of American military force, with or without international approval, to effect regime change and nation building. If 9/11 sent neoliberalism into a tailspin, the Iraq quagmire did the same for neoconservatism.

Then came the financial meltdown of 2008, which dealt the deathblow to both. Neoconservative power depended on immense disposable wealth to finance American military might abroad. Neoliberal economics assumed that American capitalism would produce that wealth. Today the dreams of both lie shattered, and policy makers are at sea.

A recent outpouring of foreign policy books and essays attempts to forecast and shape the next big movement. Among these, a handful remain bravely optimistic about America’s continuing global dominance. For example, the influential historian Niall Ferguson, the author of “The Ascent of Money,” argues convincingly that it is far too early to write off the United States. As he observed earlier this year in an essay for The American Interest, American business has repeatedly rebounded from disastrous financial crises through technological innovation — RCA, DuPont and I.B.M. after the Great Depression; Microsoft and Apple in the 1970s. Ferguson further notes that the American credit crunch, as bad as it seems at home, is “having much worse economic effects abroad.”

Even more bullish about America is George Friedman, the founder of the private intelligence agency Stratfor and the author of “The Next 100 Years.” Remarkably, Friedman asserts that “the United States — far from being on the verge of decline — has actually just begun its ascent.” Perhaps anachronistically, Friedman argues that naval power remains pivotal, even in the 21st century. Because America controls both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it “is virtually assured of being the dominant global power.”

Far more observers of American foreign policy are pessimistic about Ameri­ca’s trajectory. Perhaps the most persuasive work in this vein is Andrew Bacevich’s searing manifesto, “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.” Excoriating American profligacy and delusions of military invincibility, Bacevich calls for a foreign policy rooted in humility and realism. One of Bacevich’s most interesting arguments is that the astronomical costs of the Iraq war — not just unregulated hedge funds and subprime mortgages — contributed directly to the 2008 financial collapse. By 2007, he writes, “the U.S. command in Baghdad was burning through $3 billion per week. That same year, the overall costs of the Iraq war topped the $500 billion mark.” Nor does Bacevich go easy on the Obama administration. He describes Barack Obama’s national security team as “establishment figures, utterly conventional in their outlook.” He sees Obama’s stimulus package and commitment of more troops to Afghanistan as ominous signs of continuing “self-destructive behavior.”

Despite such conflicting perspectives, however, it’s a sign of the times that the major thinkers are virtually all proposing a return to something old. Critics of the Bush-Cheney era depict those eight years as disastrous departures from traditional American principles. Supporters of the Bush administration present their new prescriptions as consistent with earlier eras of successful American foreign policy.

A striking example among the Bush supporters is the neoconservative Robert Kagan, who is now reaching back to the ideas of the cold war. In “The Return of History and the End of Dreams,” he writes that “international competition among great powers has returned.” As in the cold war, the chief adversaries of the free world remain Russia and China, and nations “are increasingly choosing up sides and identifying themselves with one camp or the other.” Kagan is openly nostalgic for the Reagan years.

Bacevich, a harsh critic of neoconservatives like Kagan, also favors a return to cold war policies, but in his case to a strategy of “containment.” Bacevich urges the United States to “let Islam be Islam. In the end, Muslims will have to discover for themselves the shortcomings of political Islam, much as Russians discovered the defects of Marxist-Leninism.” Similarly, there are hints of neo-cold-warriorism in Leslie H. Gelb’s “Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy.” Gelb, who was head of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that deterrence is much underappreciated as a policy weapon, though it was critical to America’s victory in the cold war. He asserts that “deterrence has worked on almost all occasions when presidents positioned it clearly and firmly.”

While Bacevich and Gelb emphasize American restraint, others look backward to a kind of neo-Wilsonianism: a return to multilateralism, global cooperation and soft power. This is the theme uniting Fareed Zakaria’s “Post-American World,” Strobe Talbott’s “Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation” and Parag Khanna’s “Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-First Century.”

And what of the Obama administration? Richard Posner, most recently the author of “A Failure of Capitalism,” sees in current policy a case of “Roosevelt envy.” There may be some truth to this. Like the Roosevelt White House, the Obama administration seems committed simultaneously to renewing internationalism, overhauling regulation and spending its way out of economic crisis.

Nonetheless, if any foreign policy camp best captures mainstream American opinion in 2009, it is probably neo-isolationism: a return to the inwardness of the post-World War I years, when the country refused to join the League of Nations. Even as intellectuals call for cosmopolitanism, more and more Americans are declaring themselves anti-outsourcing, anti-foreign-products, anti-immigration, anti-international-law — and pro-protectionism. According to a February 2009 Gallup poll, nearly half of Americans view foreign trade as a “threat to the economy,” and 65 percent believe the government is spending “too much” on foreign aid.

It may not be a bad thing that almost no one in foreign policy circles is proposing anything new. Foreign policy is not modern dance; tried and true may be better than avant-garde and visionary. Still, in today’s world, marked by unparalleled threats and characterized by a striking division between elite ideas and broad public opinion, it’s hard to believe that America’s way forward is a return to the past.

Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, is the author of “World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability” and “Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — and Why They Fall.”