What comes after Iraq? If President George W. Bush’s current troop “surge fails to produce an outcome that can be called “victory, what lessons will the United States draw for its future foreign policy? Will it turn inward, as it did after its defeat in Vietnam three decades ago? Will it turn from promoting democracy to a narrow realist view of its interests? Even while discussion in Washington is fixated on Iraq, a number of thoughtful foreign observers are asking these longer-term questions. Analysts and pundits have often been mistaken about America’s position in the world. For example, two decades ago the conventional wisdom was that the US was in decline. A decade later, with the Cold War’s end, the new conventional wisdom was that the world was a unipolar American hegemony. Some neoconservative pundits drew the conclusion that the US was so powerful that it could decide what it thought was right, and others would have to follow. Charles Krauthammer celebrated this view as “the new unilateralism, and it heavily influenced the Bush administration even before the attacks on September 11, 2001. But the new unilateralism was based on a profound misunderstanding of the nature of power in world politics. Power is the ability to get the outcomes one wants. Whether the possession of resources will produce such outcomes depends upon the context. For example, a large, modern tank army is a powerful resource if a war is fought in a desert, but not if it is fought in a swamp-as America discovered in Vietnam. In the past, it was assumed that military power dominated most issues, but in today’s world, the contexts of power differ greatly. I have likened the distribution of power in politics today as analogous to a three-dimensional chess game. On the top board-military relations among states-the world is, indeed, unipolar, and likely to remain that way for decades. But on the middle board of economic relations, the world is already multi-polar, and the US cannot obtain the outcomes it wants without the cooperation of Europe, Japan, China, and others. And, on the bottom board of transnational issues outside the control of governments-including everything from climate change to pandemics to transnational terrorism-power is chaotically distributed, and it makes no sense at all to claim American hegemony. Yet it is on this bottom board that we find most of the greatest challenges we face today. The only way to grapple with these problems is through cooperation with others, and that requires the “soft power of attraction as well as the hard power of coercion. There is no simple military solution that will produce the outcomes we want. The new unilateralists who dominated Bush’s first administration made the mistake of thinking that the unipolar distribution of power in the military context was sufficient to guide foreign policy. They were like a young boy with a hammer who thinks that every problem resembles a nail. The danger of their approach is now obvious. Whoever plays a three-dimensional game by focusing on only one board is bound to lose in the long run. Fortunately, the pendulum has begun to swing back toward cooperation. In Bush’s second term, some of the most extreme unilateralists have departed from the government, and the president has approached difficult problems like North Korea or Iran with a more multilateral approach than during his first term. Likewise, for all the complaints about the United Nations, the US and others turned to UN peacekeepers to sort out the mess after the Lebanon war last summer. The Iraq war, in particular, increased public awareness of the mistakes in Bush’s first term, but other issues are changing as well. Americans now view cooperative action on global climate change more favorably. Similarly, the threat of pandemics means that Americans may come to recognize the importance of a stronger World Health Organization, just as the problem of nuclear proliferation is increasing awareness of the importance of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The nature of these problems means that the US does not have the luxury of turning inward no matter what the outcome in Iraq. These are not problems you can leave overseas. They follow you home. It also is unlikely that American foreign policy will return to a narrow realism and drop all emphasis on democracy and human rights. While the Iraq war discredited the idea of coercive democratization, both Republicans and Democrats have a strong strand of idealism in their foreign policy orientations. The problem for whoever is elected president in 2008 will be to find appropriate realistic means to advance democratic values and adjust official rhetoric accordingly. When rhetoric greatly outstrips reality, others view it as hypocrisy. Americans will need to find ways to assert their narrative of democracy, freedom, and rights in a manner that respects diversity and the views of others. What Iraq has taught is the importance of developing civil society and the rule of law before trying to hold broad-based elections. Democracy is more than voting, for it requires large investments in education, institutions, and promotion of non-governmental organizations. It must be rooted in the indigenous society and bear its characteristics, not be imposed from abroad. It is highly unlikely that the US will react after Iraq as it did after Vietnam. The paradox of American power is that the world’s only military superpower cannot protect its citizens by acting alone.
Joseph S. Nyeis a professor at Harvard University and author of “The Paradox of American Power. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).