The Magazine

What Next?

The foreign policy agenda beyond Iraq.

May 5, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 33 • By MAX BOOT
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A GROUP OF foreign policy thinkers led by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge spent much of the 1890s arguing that America needed to build up its navy and take a leading role on the world stage. The most influential expression of their views was Alfred Thayer Mahan's book "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History." Teddy Roosevelt and his friends were winning the intellectual argument, but they did not really win the policy argument until the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor in 1898. It was the Spanish-American War that heralded America's arrival as a Great Power.

Another group of foreign policy seers, led by Winston Churchill and George Kennan, spent much of the late 1940s arguing that America had to take a leading role in combating the spread of communism. Their arguments won a respectful hearing as evidence of Communist expansionism piled up in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. But a hard-line version of "containment" became formal U.S. government policy only with Harry Truman's approval of the Cold War strategy document known as NSC 68 in April 1950. A military buildup did not start until after the commencement of the Korean War two months later.

It is too early to gain much historical perspective on the Second Gulf War, but its significance may well be similar to that of the Spanish-American War and the Korean War: conflicts that led the United States to expand its power and to "operationalize" what until then had been mere theories of foreign policy. It may be argued, with some justice, that it was really 9/11 that was the seminal event here, the moment that propelled America out of the "strategic pause" of the 1990s. But any U.S. government would have invaded Afghanistan following the heinous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is doubtful, by contrast, that a Gore administration would have followed up with the invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration launched this supremely successful war because it was following an ambitious foreign policy blueprint. Its version of "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History" and NSC 68 is known as the National Security Strategy of the United States. This document, which was released on September 17, 2002, builds on more than a decade of hard work by many thinkers associated with this administration (and this magazine). It has become known mainly for announcing a policy of "preemption," but this is only part of a much broader, neo-Wilsonian vision of foreign policy it capably lays out.

The broad goal of the strategy is to create "conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty." While this has long been standard rhetoric for any U.S. government, the National Security Strategy is particularly uncompromising on this point. Echoing one of President Bush's speeches, it says, "Freedom is the non-negotiable demand of human dignity; the birthright of every person--in every civilization." The strategy is so emphatic because the administration embraces the theory of a "democratic peace"--the notion that liberal democracies are unlikely to use weapons of mass destruction, sponsor terrorism, and undertake other activities that threaten their neighbors and the United States. Therefore, the United States has a vital stake in fostering the spread of representative government.

While this is a long-term objective, the National Security Strategy places emphasis in the short term on defending America from the danger that "lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology." Traditional theories of containment and deterrence are insufficient to deal with the shadowy foes we now confront. The United States is forced to act, and sometimes to act preemptively, to deny terrorists "new home bases" and to deny our enemies weapons of mass destruction: "America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed." Like its predecessors, the Bush team pledges to "preserve the peace" by cooperating with other great powers such as China and Russia through "long-standing alliances" like NATO and the United Nations, as well as through "coalitions of the willing." But while allies are all well and good, the National Security Strategy leaves little doubt that, in the end, the United States must use its overwhelming power to keep the peace. The strategy includes this unapologetic declaration of American hegemony: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States."