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Wednesday October 27, 2021

A bizarre foreign policy

September 18, 2021

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and senior visiting research fellow at the National University of Singapore.

In the recent spate of writings on the failure of America’s Afghanistan war the focus of analysis has largely been on US ‘imperialism’, the overweening ambitions of the military, the influential role of the military industrial complex and the s- called neocons in leading America to wars that were avoidable or unnecessary and unwinnable.

The reality is a little more complex. America indeed failed in Afghanistan, but the failure had multiple causes and contributors both in the US and within Afghanistan and the region. Whatever the case, at its heart the failure was not of the military alone, that was fighting a wrong war at a wrong place, but of the US foreign policy as part of the broader issues of politics and governance in America. These are systemic issues at the heart of which is the American brand of democracy that has lost its integrity and is changing the relationship between power, politics and policy to the detriment of public and national interest. Foreign policy has suffered as has the domestic policy.

In his highly acclaimed book, ‘Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts’, Harman Ullman delivers a damning indictment of America’s public policy process. Two remarkable books – ‘Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War’ by former US secretary of defense Robert Gates, and ‘The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat’ by Vali Nasr – identify some of the reasons for the problems with public policy. They both blame electoral politics by the Congress and the White House. The issue is democracy.

American foreign policy is moved by the same guiding principles of national interests as practised by other big powers. Yet it is so different in process, form and substance as well as in rhetoric. Its substance is cold-blooded power politics, but rhetoric is virtuous, responding to public opinion formed by this long-held historical myth that American foreign policy is all about values. To gain political support for its policies the leadership ends up taking actions that project its interventions abroad as value based – such as democracy promotion etc. This mixing up of political interests and strategic interests sets up a conflict between realpolitik and pretensions of a moralist foreign policy causing many failures of American foreign policy.

Politics has invariably obscured strategic issues which were often not all that strategic but largely reflected the interests of the elite specially in modern wars. The wars were incited by an overweening pride in the US in its military power and prompted by domestic political interest groups as explained in Jack Snyder’s excellent book, ‘Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition’. Because of this confusion of aims and objectives America never quite understood why it got into and out of wars. Obviously, then it kept repeating the mistakes

Then there were some other issues as well. To its credit, America with its overwhelming economic and military power had played an historical role in international affairs in the last century maintaining balance of power, international order and financial stability. But it failed to address issues that required an understanding of the history and internal dynamics of a society.

The feelings of superiority and a sacrosanct self-image of an indispensable and exceptional nation since the victory in the Second World War and subsequent rise as the greatest economic and military power, had led to two sets of beliefs in America. First, that it did not need to understand other cultures or societies. And second, that since America was doing so much public good, its interests, world view and strategies should be beyond challenge. As an exceptional nation, it demanded exceptional treatment. This was a prescription for recurring tensions with the world – and not just with adversaries but with friends as well.

The elite-led foreign policy establishment that involved the US in wars, especially after 9/11, has been failing. These endless wars caused resentment abroad and grievances at home. In the past, the average self-content American did not even know what was going on and, for better or worse, left foreign policy in the hands of the elite. But no more – foreign relations now are not foreign anymore. People’s lives are being affected by what other countries do more than ever before. Globalisation, the consequences of America’s wars, China’s phenomenal rise, terrorism, migrations, refugees, pandemics, climate change are creating crises or posing challenges that are being felt directly by people. And there is an information and technology revolution to bring this information to people in real time, affecting public opinion and in turn the politics and policy.

The elite-led system is under challenge – not only at home but abroad also. Washington has had a varying degree of trouble in countries led by authoritarian regimes that have needed Washington’s help in staying in power, or countries that needed economic and military assistance because of insecurity and poor governance. Both groups served America’s economic or strategic interests in turn.

But the trouble is that Washington related only with the elite in these countries and tried to buy friendship with money. It worked up to a point but populations whose political self-consciousness has risen because of the new global forces are discovering that the relationship with the US has been a bad bargain. And this challenge is coming from two opposing forces – democratisation and nationalism on the one hand, and religious extremism on the other. And oddly they often converge on one point: anti-Americanism.

At home, the elite-based system faces a different kind of challenge. It is being challenged by mass politics. This has led to diminished trust in the elite, and by extension in the government and experts. On the one hand, it has popularised conspiracy theories like QAnon. And on the other hand, it has enhanced the influence of the media on politics, giving a new opportunity and role to the 24/7 cable television now joined in by social media and the internet to influence people’s politics.

Sections of commercially motivated media have benefited from political partisanship and by inciting divisive issues through misinformation. Particular damage has been done by Fox News, the most watched network in the US. A misinformed public makes an ideal companion for partisan politics. With the rise of the media has risen the role of money and influence of special interests. So in the interest of power, politicians are pandering to the misinformed public and these special interests.

The print media is generally fine and outstanding articles are still being produced in some prestigious publications of integrity but overall the environment of understanding of national issues –especially foreign affairs – has deteriorated.

Not only the media but many other institutions too, like think tanks, have joined the battle for their own gain. Some of these think tanks are doing good honest research but many have ideological bias and partisan affiliations and are acting as adjuncts or sympathisers to special interests. Invariably they are all advocacy groups wanting to influence policy. And often this influence is not good, especially in defence-related issues where the ‘military industrial complex’ has interloped into research, hyping up such topics as America’s credibility, competition with China and great power rivalry – stuff that wars are made of.

The bottom line is that the relationship between the people and the leadership has been reversed. People are now leading the leadership rather than the other way around. And a divided people means a divided leadership. And then there is a contentious interagency public policy process riddled with turf wars, personal ambition and ideological wrangling. Policymaking thus suffers at the hands of not just politics but also careerism and ambition of officials, many of whom keep flitting back and forth between the public and private sectors which has a negative impact on the integrity and continuity of policies.

The US still commands an immense array of diplomatic military and economic assets. Its scientific and technological prowess and economic potential is still by far the best. But it is turning into an undisciplined nation, almost. It needs to set its house in order to stem its eroding influence and prestige in the world – for its own good and good of the world.