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The most vexing term in the foreign-policy lexicon is “national interests.” It is used promiscuously by just about everyone in any debate, as if its meaning were clear. Certain attributes are intuitively grasped: our “national interests” trump all other priorities, of course, and political leaders must assert and protect them first and foremost. But nearly everyone skims over what they actually mean by “national interests,” inserting, at best, a modifier like “security” or “economic,” the two leading sorts of “interests.” While Walt’s essay is particularly fine in its surgical slicing of the Bush administration’s misguided emphasis on preventive war and its catastrophic policies in the Middle East, we don’t see much of what he understands to be the whole metabolism of America’s security or economic interests, apart from the tasks of maintaining primacy and preventing a nuclear attack by the likes of al Qaeda.
However welcome his ideas are in contrast to those of current American decision-makers, this approach is rather limited. For the last 20 years or so, questions of economic interests and national security have gradually moved beyond the longstanding categories of interstate competition and cooperation and military might. The 9/11 attacks moved a new understanding of security threats to center stage, but they pointed to only one of many new threats from which military power alone cannot protect us. The steady degradation of the natural environment, the onslaught of HIV/AIDS, and the growing impoverishment in much of the world are, in the long run, more catastrophic than almost any conceivable act of terrorism or interstate war. America’s primacy in each—either as contributor to the problem or as problem-solver—is indisputable.
These issues, among others, speak not only to American security interests but also to America’s moral interests. The United States, for all its power and wealth, and despite its own laudatory democratic traditions, has not implemented a set of global policies that convey a consistent moral purpose. Standing for freedom or against tyranny is not enough, not least because American presidents have been highly selective in their appeal to those ideals. Can we support a human-rights agenda that is more encompassing than the right to elections, free speech, and making money? Can we demonstrate a seriousness about sustaining the environment, alleviating poverty, or eradicating disease? Are moral interests national interests?
The Pew Global Attitudes Survey that Walt cites reveals that poverty, global stewardship, AIDS, and kindred issues matter a great deal to people around the world. “Not having enough money for essentials is a common experience for many people outside of the advanced economies,” the 2002 report states. “Overwhelming majorities” of Africans, Russians, Ukrainians, and Latin Americans said they often didn’t have enough food. Africans rate AIDS as “the greatest danger facing the world,” and Latin Americans similarly see health issues and the rich–poor gap as most troubling. In Asia, “worry about the global ecosystem is the dominant global concern.” Viewing a simple survey result like this, and thinking about the issues typically raised by political representatives in the global south, we see a very different picture from what America’s solipsistic lens refracts. Do we really need to explain our values better to the rest of the world? In fact, the world sees a lot of what America is about, in television and fashion and music and Game Boys. The gap in “public diplomacy” goes the other way: we listen to nothing and want to tell them everything.
Consider global economic policy. Through World Bank lending policies, the United States has set stringent loan conditions for developing countries. The size of state bureaucracies had to shrink (including, in many places, agencies for security, education, and health), national assets such as railroads and natural resources had to be made available to foreign ownership, capital could be moved in a click of a computer mouse, and so on—in short, involuntary globalization. The jury is still out on the costs and benefits of these marketization policies, but many high-level commentators, including the former World Bank vice president Joseph Stiglitz, contend that they have done little to alleviate poverty (and have often made things worse) while they favor American transnational corporations above all. Yet Washington persists. Along the way, the wonders of the free market are touted ceaselessly.
A strong case can be made that more equitable economic policies globally would enhance national interests by reducing instabilities and resentments, and expanding the “clientele” for American goods, services, and ideas. For different reasons, the same can be said of more humane and judicious policies on the environment, human rights, health crises, and other matters that do not directly involve military power. The absence of these normative goals in Walt’s essay reflects an old argument among international-relations theorists about the proper limits of security. But after four years of an administration that poses as the avatar of American security interests and primacy, any alternative, more “mature” foreign policy that is not clear about its substantive goals risks its own moral legitimacy and political saliency.
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