Progressive realism in foreign policy

Updated: Aug 31 2006, 05:30am hrs
Polls in the US show low public approval for President Bushs handling of foreign policy, but little agreement on what should replace it. The unbridled ambitions of the neo-conservatives and assertive nationalists in his first administration produced a policy that was like a car with an accelerator, but no brakes. It was bound to go off the road.

But how should America use its unprecedented power, and what role should values play Realists warn against letting values determine policy, but democracy and human rights have been part of US foreign policy for two centuries. The Democratic Party could adopt the suggestion of Robert Wright and others that it pursue progressive realism.

What would go into a progressive realist foreign policy It would start with an understanding of the strength and limits of American power. The US is the only superpower, but preponderance is not empire or hegemony. It can influence but not control other parts of the world.

Power depends upon context, and the context of world politics today is like a three-dimensional chess game. The top board of military power is unipolar; but on the middle board of economic relations, the world is multipolar, and on the bottom board of transnational relations, comprising issues (such as climate change, illegal drugs, Avian flu, and terrorism), power is chaotically distributed.

Military power is a small response to the new threats on the board of international relations. They need cooperation among governments and global institutions. Even on the top board (where America represents nearly half of world defence spending), the military is supreme in the global commons of air, sea, and space, but more limited in its ability to control nationalistic populations in occupied areas.

The policy would also stress the importance of developing an integrated grand strategy that combines hard military power with soft attractive power into smart power of the sort that won the Cold War. The US needs hard power against terrorists, but cant hope to win the struggle against terrorism unless it gains the hearts and minds of moderates. Mis-use of hard power (Abu Ghraib, Haditha) produ-ces new terrorist recruits.

The US should encourage the gradual evolution of democracy, but in a manner that accepts the reality of cultural diversity
However, tools of soft powerpublic diplomacy, broadcasting, ex-change program-mes, develop- ment assistance, disaster relief, military to military contactsare all scattered. There is no overarching strategy, much less a common budget, to integrate them with hard power into a coherent security strategy.

Is it right for the US to spend 500 times more on military than on broadcasting and exchanges And how should it relate to non-official generators of soft power, from Hollywood to Harvard to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, emanating from civil society

A progressive realist policy must advance the promise of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in the American tradition. Such a grand strategy would have four key pillars: security for the US and its allies; a strong domestic and global economy; avoiding environmental disasters; and, liberal democracy and human rights at home, and where feasible, abroad.

This does not mean imposing US values by force. De-mocracy is better promoted by attraction, which takes time and patience. The US should en-courage the gradual evolution of democracy, but in a manner that ac-cepts the reality of cultural diversity.

Such a strategy would focus on four major threats. Pr-obably, the greatest is the intersection of terrorism with nuclear materials. Preventing this requires policies to fight terrorism and promote non-proliferation, protection of nuclear materials, stability in the Middle East, and more attention to failed states.

The second key challenge is rising hostile hegemony, as Asia gradually regains three-fifths share of the world economy corresponding to its three-fifths share of global population. This calls for a policy integrating China as a responsible stakeholder, but hedges against possible hostility through close relations with Japan, India, and other countries in the region.

The third big threat would be economic depression possibly triggered by financial mismanagement, or by a crisis disrupting access to oil from the Persian Gulf. This calls for gradual reduction in dependence on oil, and recognition that it wont be possible to isolate the US from global energy markets. The fourth threat is ecological breakdown, such as pandemics and negative climate change. This needs prudent energy policies and greater cooperation through institutions such as the World Health Organisation.

A progressive realist policy should look to the long-term evolution of world order and realise the responsibility of the most powerful country to produce global public or common goods. In the 19th century, Britain defined its broad national interest to include freedom of the seas, an open global economy, and a stable European balance of power. Such common goods helped Britain and other countries. They also contributed to Britains legitimacy and soft power. With the US now in Britains place, it should promote an open global economy and commons (seas, space, internet), mediate disputes before they escalate, and develop international rules and institutions. As globalisation spreads technical capabilities, and IT broadens participation in communications, American preponderance will become less dominant later this century. Progressive realism requires it to prepare by defining its national interest in a way that benefits all.

Joseph S Nye, Jr, a former US assistant secretary of defence, is a professor at Harvard University and author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.
Copyright: Project Syndicate 2006