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A Letter to America
By David Boren
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
The United States and the World
Let us return to the question of why approval of the United States in the rest of the world has dropped so dramatically and so quickly. We have spent very little time as a people in examining the reasons. Instead, most of us, including many of our leaders, have simply reacted with anger and hurt feelings. I often find myself doing so. How could they dislike us when we've done so much for them? How could they forget the sacrifices of Americans in such places as Iwo Jima? How could they forget the billions of dollars in food aid, thousands of Peace Corps volunteers, and countless educational opportunities? How could they forget we bore a disproportionate share of the cost to maintain the balance of power and provide security for the entire noncommunist world during the long years of the Cold War?
I believe perceptions of the United States have changed for the worse because we have not led wisely in recent years. We can restore respect for the United States by better understanding what role we should play in world affairs. What should we do to rebuild relationships with the rest of the world? Why must we rebuild those relationships? Because we cannot solve the major challenges confronting us all by ourselves. Health crises and epidemics, environmental problems, criminal activity, and terrorist actions all flow across national boundaries. They are, as former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan termed them, "problems without passports." We cannot escape them by walling out the rest of the world. Nor do any of these major threats lend themselves to purely military solutions. Even if they did, this country does not have the military strength to deal with them by ourselves. We must never fail to maintain sufficient military strength to protect our own vital national security interests all by ourselves if we are forced to do so. However, we should be wise enough to avoid ever having to go it alone. We should constantly build partnerships with others so that we will not have to overstretch our national resources or risk the lives only of young Americans.
It is, therefore, extremely important for us to understand why perceptions of the United States have changed. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, people living in Canada, Britain, Germany, and France have more confidence in the global leadership of President Vladimir Putin of Russia than they have in President George W. Bush. Part of the change in attitude toward the United States has been caused by the personal unpopularity of our current president and his policies.
The depth of the change, however, cannot be explained simply by the popularity or unpopularity of individual leaders. The Pew study found that especially among countries that have been our longtime allies, the slide in approval has other causes. More and more nations believe that the United States acts without taking into account their interests as well as our own. To put it bluntly, they feel we don't seek advice or take the needs of our friends into consideration. "Arrogant" is the word used in private to describe us. None of us wants to form a partnership with someone who thinks only of himself, talks but never listens, and respects no one else's suggestions. Recent polling data indicate that 89 percent of French, 83 percent of Canadians, and 74 percent of British believe that the United States does not take into account their interests and views in formulating our foreign policy.
The United States is perceived negatively around the world, in part because we ourselves have not figured out our appropriate role in the world since the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War we had a clear mission. We led the free world with a steady hand and a clear vision, protecting freedom and democracy from communist domination by the Soviet Union. We were prepared to make sacrifices to preserve our basic values and our national security while providing an umbrella of security for our allies. We developed military, political, and economic alliances to contain communism, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Europe and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).
In the brief period following the end of World War II, the United States and our allies together developed a clear blueprint that guided our major decisions. It was understood by leaders and citizens alike not only in the United States but in other nations as well.
That blueprint included the doctrines of deterrence and containment. It was understood that the United States would maintain a balance of power so that the Soviet Union would not be tempted to invade its neighbors or use nuclear weapons irresponsibly. Henry Kissinger called it the "delicate balance of terror." The blueprint also included the Marshall Plan, undertaken to help European nations recover so that they would not be susceptible to the political siren song of communism. In addition, under the Truman Doctrine, another part of this blueprint, the USSR was to be contained within its borders and not allowed to expand geographically. American military forces were strategically placed so as to act as a trip wire to discourage Soviet aggression. Near the end of the Cold War, the Reagan Doctrine enhanced the containment policy by providing that if the Soviets tried to move anywhere in the world, they would be forced to pay an unacceptably high price for their military initiatives. To exact that price from the Soviets in places like Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua, the United States used surrogates supported by American weapons and training. Some called the Afghan War "Russia's Vietnam."
A combination of these policies, all part of a single coherent blueprint, helped bankrupt the Soviet Union both financially and morally and hastened the end of the Cold War. This blueprint was so coherent and well understood that Dean Acheson, secretary of state in the Truman administration, titled his Pulitzer Prize–winning autobiography Present at the Creation. Readers instantly recognized the title as referring to the creation of our comprehensive Cold War strategy. While there werecertainly mistakes made during the long period of the Cold War, including our ill-conceived intervention in Vietnam and the shameful period in domestic politics known as McCarthyism, the overall consistency of our course of action was remarkable.
As the Cold War came to an end, then-president George H. W. Bush spoke hopefully of a "New World Order." Under this new order the leading nations of the world would cooperate to organize inspection teams to reduce the spread of weapons of mass destruction and build joint military forces to deal with regional military conflicts so that they would not expand. Additional partnerships for free trade and to improve the environment were also advocated. Tragically, no New World Order was created. Now, almost two decades after the end of the Cold War, the world is more dangerous than ever.
In previous foreign-policy debates, Americans divided themselves between "internationalists" who favored engagement with the rest of the world and "isolationists" who mainly believed that we could avoid the problems around us by simply ignoring them and not involving ourselves in their solution.
Today, the divisions appear more often between those who want us to act largely alone in the world—the unilateralists— and those who believe we should act in cooperation and partnership with others—the multilateralists. The results in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq have certainly not strengthened the case for acting largely alone.
Words Abraham Lincoln spoke in 1862 hauntingly remind us that "we cannot escape history." He warned that we will be judged by our action and by our inaction. None of us knows how long the opportunity will last in which to build new partnerships. How long will we have a world not divided between warring power blocs?
One thing is heartbreakingly clear: no leader today could write an autobiography titled Present at the Creation. American leaders have developed no new blueprint, no comprehensive architecture for dealing with the times in which we live. There is no plan that corresponds to the wise conceptual thinking that provided relative safe passage through a period of grave danger with threats of mass destruction.
Instead, our foreign policy has been marked by ad hoc interventions and relationships. During the Cold War, when we were the leader of the free world, our allies needed our protection and treated us with loyalty and respect. With the outside threat of the Soviet Union now gone, they no longer tend to accept our policies automatically. We are like parents shocked when their offspring reach a level of development sufficient to think for themselves. Ideally, a relationship built on parental authority later gives way to a friendship built on love and mutual respect. As a nation we must make adjustments to new situations.
Immediately after the end of the Cold War, it was widely believed that we were the world's only superpower and that what we could accomplish had virtually no limits. But who are we now? If we are no longer the undisputed leader of the free world, what is our role today? In a sense, we are experiencing a national identity crisis.
In some ways we still remain, at least in military terms, the world's largest superpower. However, we already have strong economic rivals, and in time they can become military rivals as well. Our unipolar world is rapidly become multipolar. Without our trading relationships with Mexico and Canada, it is likely that the European Union would have already surpassed us as the world's largest market. Nations tend to try to get along with those other nations that control the largest markets into which they hope to sell their goods and services.
While we beat our chests and proclaim ourselves the world's largest superpower, it is foolish to expect that we Americans, with only 6 percent of the world's population, can automatically impose our will on everyone else.
I vividly remember conversations I had with then president George H. W. Bush and his national security adviser, General Brent Scowcroft, near the end of the first Persian Gulf War. I was chair of the U.S. Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence. We had just swept the forces of Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Little stood between our forces and Baghdad. I urged them to finish the job by taking over Iraq and removing Saddam from power. The senior President Bush forcefully disagreed. He first asked me to describe my exit strategy. I admitted that I did not have a good one. He and General Scowcroft then educated me about the long-standing division between the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. They argued that Iraq would disintegrate into civil war, making it difficult for us to leave. Finally, they spoke of the balance of power in the Middle East and explained that the implosion of Iraq would tend only to strengthen the power of Iran in the region and place in greater jeopardy both Israel and moderate Arab states friendly to the United States.
Those conversations changed my mind about what we should do. Clearly this situation did not have an American solution. I came to realize that not every international situation has a purely American solution. Not every country has the preconditions necessary to make a political system just like ours work in its environment. High levels of education, a history of economic freedom, a certain level of wealth, and deep traditions of political and religious tolerance are needed.
John Stuart Mill, in his invaluable essay "On Liberty," emphasizes that liberty is central to the creative vitality of any society. Building upon Mill's thesis, Fareed Zakaria points out in his provocative book The Future of Freedom that democracy does not automatically lead to enhanced freedom. The Palestinian elections in 2006, for example, brought Hamas to power. Freedom for religious and political dissenters has hardly been enhanced. If freedom is to be expanded, democracy must be joined with many other elements, including an independent judiciary and specific rights for racial and religious minorities. It is wrong for us to think that the establishment of democracy by itself will lead to stable and free societies.
All good gardeners know that it takes the right temperature range, soil composition, amount of rainfall, and number of hours of sunshine for a particular plant to flourish. It would be foolish to plant a palm tree in the cold climate of Canada. Similarly, political institutions function differently in various cultural settings. Edmund Burke taught us well that political institutions grow and evolve over time. They are not instant creations.
The depth of understanding of the Middle East demonstrated by the first President Bush and his team, including General Scowcroft, Secretary of State James Baker, and General Colin Powell, is clearly demonstrated by the contrasting outcomes of the two wars involving Iraq. During the first gulf war our leaders worked hard to avoid upsetting the balance of power in the Middle East. They followed policies not likely to inflame historic divisions between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. They created no power vacuum inside Iraq. Instead, they built a broad coalition and acted to reaffirm the rule of law and international cooperation. They assiduously avoided turning the conflict into one between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. Care was taken to ensure that the coalition troops that first saw military action in the first gulf war were from Muslim nations. Those countries such as Japan that did not send troops made compensating financial contributions.
By the mid-1990s, U.S. taxpayers ended up being completely reimbursed for the cost of the first gulf war. U.S. and civilian causalities were held to a minimum. The world approved of U.S. leadership, and the coalition of forces was real and broad, not cosmetic. The civilized world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, came together to drive Saddam out of Kuwait and to establish the precedent that under international law, unprovoked attacks on his neighboring nations would be punished.
In contrast, the more recent war in Iraq has led to a devastating drop in world approval of the United States and sharp divisions between the Muslim and non- Muslim communities. It has provided more recruits for anti-American terrorist organizations, cost American taxpayers billions of dollars, and above all, caused loss of human life on a tragically large scale. A failure to understand the culture and history of other parts of the world has exacted a great price. Winston Churchill, writing to then–British prime minister David Lloyd George in 1922, prophetically described Britain's attempt to occupy Iraq as "living on a ... volcano" without any beneficial results.
The Middle East is not the only area of strategic importance to the United States. As we live through the first decade of the twenty-first century, it is clear that Asia will have increased power and influence with each passing year. If we do not know and understand Chinese history, for example, we could make unintentional blunders that could threaten our security. Unless we know about the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s in China, we cannot understand why the massacre of the students in Tiananmen Square took place. During that earlier tumultuous period, roving and unpredictable gangs known as Red Guards terrorized the country, seizing power from party leaders, pushing them from their homes, closing universities, and destroying historical monuments. Family members of future Chinese leaders were injured or killed. Deng Xiaoping's own son, Deng Pufang, was forced out of a fourth-story window by RedGuards and left a paraplegic. Those who have suffered from disorder put a high priority on order that others might find hard to understand.
Unless we understand the history of colonial rule in China, which led to events like the Boxer Rebellion, we cannot understand the depth of Chinese nationalism. A nation whose people have been forced to live under the police forces of other countries and have had their guilt or innocence assessed by foreign courts under foreign law understandably had strong feelings about reclaiming Hong Kong from British colonial rule.
Events in China's colonial past explain the real danger that China may react with massive force if Taiwan tries to assert its separate legal independence, even though China has for several years tolerated Taiwan's de facto autonomy. Today's generation of American policy makers must be steeped in the history of critical areas of the world. Iraq is but one example of what can result from a lack of historical and cultural knowledge. We cannot afford the toll that multiple Iraq-like mistakes would take on America, especially as we deal with emerging nations whose power and influence will become great as time passes.
Excerpted from A Letter to America by David Boren. Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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