The Magazine

A Compassionate Foreign Policy?

Bush's principle works surprisingly well abroad

Sep 25, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 02 • By EDMUND MALESKY and PETER D. FEAVER
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THE BUSH TEAM is advancing two distinctive visions for how to govern: compassionate conservatism at home and realpolitik abroad. Some critics see an inconsistency here -- but whatever inconsistency there is could be easily removed by adding a compassionate conservative plank to the foreign policy part of his platform. This would make strategic sense and might be a political asset.

A compassionate conservative foreign policy would be realpolitik plus: power politics on the major issues, plus a sensible, measured commitment to the rest of the business of foreign policy. It would be judiciously realistic about the principal foreign challenges facing the United States, but it would also acknowledge that a superpower is necessarily involved (although not always militarily) in issues that are less vital to the national interest.

Bush's vision of a "distinctly American internationalism" is a reasonable framework for making sense of the most important foreign policy issues: relations among the great powers, the balance between our foreign security commitments and our military posture, the threat from weapons of mass destruction, and the like. But in such areas as foreign aid, human rights, and economic development, compassionate conservatism provides an even better framework. While these issues are rightly considered secondary, they are important and worth addressing well -- certainly better than they have been addressed in recent years.

What would a compassionate conservative foreign policy look like? It would begin with the best of the realpolitik approach. It would not apologize for grounding U.S. foreign policy in our national interest. It would not embrace every notion, every institution, or every treaty that appeals to the first five international lawyers in a reporter's Rolodex; it would first see whether any given proposal made sense for the United States. It would get relations right with the great powers -- friends, partners, competitors, and foes -- but would do so through responsible pursuit of American interests, not through blanket appeasement or whimsical bluffing.

To this familiar stance, a compassionate conservative foreign policy would add three key principles: commitment, capacity building, and collaboration.

First, a nation as wealthy as ours should make a commitment to address a number of problems that do not directly threaten our life and liberty. A failure to do so at home builds walls that diminish us. A failure to do so abroad builds walls, too, and strengthens the growing forces of neo-isolationism. Compassionate conservatism recognizes that social Darwinism and the soft bigotry of low expectations are wrong, whether in Harlem or in Harare.

A compassionate conservative foreign policy would not be mere altruism, however. Helping the global poor helps America materially as well as spiritually. People stuck in poverty do not buy as many American goods as do those climbing out of poverty, and those on the road to full development are the best customers of all. There is a payoff on the military side, as well. Prudent investments in countries now can reduce the demand for troop deployments in the future. Finally, there is a payoff in terms of public relations. While our self-perception is that of a generous nation, the United States is gaining a reputation around the world for welshing on its international commitments.

We do not have an obligation to solve every problem, nor is every tragedy a national security crisis. A compassionate conservative foreign policy is the antithesis of both the global entitlement approach and the "everything is national security" approach advocated by the hard left. In the most important area, that of military intervention, it recognizes the limitations of military force in situations where the state has effectively ceased to exist. It also recognizes the need to temper humanitarian urges with unromantic calculations of national interest -- hence, the need for clear criteria for those circumstances when humanitarian intervention should be contemplated.

A nation as blessed as ours can afford to give foreign aid, and a nation as skilled as ours can do so more effectively than it has in the past. Which leads to the second principle of compassionate conservatism, capacity building. Don't dole out fish, teach fishing -- it is cheaper in the short run and more effective in the long run.

The first step in capacity building is to better integrate developing countries into the global market. Reduction and elimination of trade restrictions around the world is an easy Republican issue, and it should be a mantra of the Bush campaign. There is something inherently Republican about the slogan "Trade is aid."