In the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, John Edwards presents an essay about what he would do as president, with respect to foreign affairs (Edwards, J. (2007). Reengaging with the world. Foreign Affairs, 86 (5), Sept/Oct. www.foreignaffairs.org). The essay is one of a series by 2008 presidential hopefuls. I have previously reviewed essays by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Edwards opens with a strong thesis, that the current administration has produced poor results in international affairs and that this is due in large part to failure to engage appropriately with other players. His key promise then, is to reengage. Other candidates, notably Obama, have said much the same thing.
However, almost immediately, Edwards introduces a disturbing note. He insists that “We must reengage with our tradition of moral leadership…” He offers no justification for this claim. It seems to me, if one thing has become clear in the years since the 9/11 attacks, it is, many players on the world stage do not care to be morally led by America. They have said so as plainly as words can speak and through their actions as well. Who then, is calling for America to reassert moral leadership? This is a dangerous, egocentric, arrogant mode of thinking, not significantly different from President Bush’s identification of good and evil forces in the world. But even worse than Bush’s Manichean self-blindness, Edwards would self-consciously have America embark on an overt crusade of moral imperialism. This is a very bright red danger flag.
Edwards lists countries with whom we must engage (or reengage): Iran, North Korea, Indonesia, Turkey, and so on, and lists the many issues in which we much engage discussion, including Iraq, nuclear proliferation, global health and education, etc. This is all political boilerplate.
Then again he raises the specter of an American jihad, claiming that America must “…restore our nation's reputation as a moral beacon to the world…” It is not at all clear that today’s world needs or wants a “moral beacon” and even if it did, if America would be the chosen one. There is, to my knowledge, no general outcry for America to become Moses descending the mountain. On the contrary, the most clear global message is for America to get out of people’s faces, and off their backs. Where is Edwards getting his justification for a self-proclamation of moral leadership?
Edwards says, “We must lead the world by demonstrating the power of our ideals, not by stoking fear about those who do not share them.” Well said. But instead of “demonstrating” our ideals, how about we simply live up to them to the best of our ability? Edwards apparently accepts without examination the notion of American exceptionalism, the idea that we are somehow the world’s “chosen people.”
In fact what we are is rich, filthy rich. That is our strength and the asset we need to exploit. Perhaps it is a common delusion among rich individuals that wealth automatically confers moral superiority. It is a very dangerous idea.
Edwards says that we need to “reclaim the trust and respect of those countries whose cooperation we need but whose will we cannot compel.” Wouldn’t that include every country on the earth?
Edwards cites data to prove that America’s reputation abroad is pretty much shot, especially since 9/11. After the lies at the U.N., the debacle of Iraq, the outrages of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, there is no doubt this is true. We must rebuild America’s reputation, Edwards insists in an all-caps header.
But I think this is exactly the wrong emphasis. We should accept our humiliation and start acting responsibly. If our international reputation improves subsequently that is a beneficial effect of our actions. But seeking to explicitly improve one’s reputation is a losing game, suggesting only posturing and superficial gesture. I worry if Edwards knows the difference or not.
“We need to reach out to ordinary men and women from Egypt to Indonesia and convince them, once again, that the United States is a force to be admired,” Edwards writes. But he doesn’t say why. It seems true that if they admire us they are less likely to try to kill us. But Edwards does not make that point. I get the feeling he wants to be admired for the sake of admiration. That is frightening.
Edwards reiterates and defends at length his earlier well known comment that the “War on Terror” is a propaganda slogan, a mere bumper sticker, not a policy. He further notes that by casting our “struggle” against jihadists as a war we frame the conflict badly for our own interests. These are good points, although simple ones that have been well-made before. Significantly, he offers no alternative bumper sticker, such as “Engagement With Those Who Do Not Share Our Ideals.” Too long, maybe. Seriously though, how does he characterize the conflict between Western post-Enlightenment civilization and the premodern thinking of jihadis? He gives no clue.
Edwards offers some familiar solutions to our international problems, but does offer a couple of unique ideas.
In the familiar category, he would pull nearly all troops out of Iraq right away, leaving behind sufficient forces to prevent genocide or regional war. This sounds like a plan, except for the awkward fact that the 160,000 troops there now have not been able to suppress the beginnings of a civil war and regional conflict. It is difficult to see how a fractionally sized “quick-reaction force” would do a better job of it. I believe his rhetorical non-solution is wishful thinking that would not “allow us to close this terrible chapter and move on…”
Meanwhile he thinks President Bush should urge NATO to invade Sudan/Darfur. There is considerable merit to the idea of projecting American military force through the UN and NATO instead of unilaterally. Whether NATO could be effective in Sudan or merely inflame passions is another matter.
On Iran, Edwards asserts that they “cannot be allowed” to possess nuclear weapons. What that threat means is unclear. “We need to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions through diplomatic measures…” As Dr. Phil says, “How’s that been working for you?” It’s another non-solution. To Edwards’ credit, he does say that he would diplomatically engage Iran directly on the nuclear issue. His policy with North Korea would be about the same.
Edwards correctly identifies the threat of nuclear proliferation and suggests creation of a new Global Nuclear Compact to inject some life into the near-moribund Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. That might help raise the visibility of the issue, although it is a vague suggestion. He says too, that “We must also halt the trade of the most dangerous technologies by the most dangerous states.” Should the reader assume he includes the U.S. in that pledge? The U.S. is the world’s second largest international arms dealer, after Russia (www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200606/s1661277.htm). Judging from recent history is there any question that America is one of the most dangerous states in the world?
Edwards’ one good and original idea is his emphasis on global disaster relief. We can and should expect huge disasters that require massive international relief, and not just blankets and powdered milk, but, as Edwards notes, “experts in water purification to medical technicians, judges to corrections officers, bankers to stock-market analysts.” He would better prepare the U.S. for those kinds of missions by establishing a Marshall Corps of 10 thousand civilian experts serving in analogy to the military reserves. It’s not a bad idea.
Edwards doesn’t have any ideas for dealing with China or Russia but would like to see India as permanent member of the UN security council. He breathes not a word about how that Catch-22 would be accomplished.
As do all candidates, Edwards avers that he will “rebalance” the military to meet the nation’s needs. He will also double the budget for recruitment (but not salaries) and veteran health care. He would reorganize the budgeting process of the Pentagon, DOE, Homeland Security, Intelligence and State, in unspecified ways that would “eliminate waste.” Eliminating waste is always a laudable goal, but his proposal is not clear.
Returning to his pulpit, Edwards again urges that “there is no task more critical than restoring our moral leadership.” I can personally think of a long list of tasks more critical than that. I don’t know where he is getting his moral imperative.
More pragmatically and creatively however, he notes that ” We can begin by leading the fight to eradicate global poverty and provide universal primary education. At first glance, these areas might not seem directly related to our self-interest. But they are in fact intimately tied to our present and future national security.” Edwards would increase funding for GLOBAL education sixfold.
This is an insight I wish every candidate understood. The pen is indeed, mightier than the sword, although it is much slower to act. Edwards would emphasize clean water, disease prevention, and economic opportunity on a global scale. I am skeptical that any president can implement these changes, but I agree with his call for their increased importance, for national security reasons, if not humanitarian ones. Edwards would create a cabinet level position to coordinate global development policy. Of course getting the funding to back up such a grand initiative is another matter.
Despite this momentary flash of creativity, Edwards ends his article with yet another scary call for America to resume its “historic role as a beacon for the world and become, once again, a shining example for other nations to follow.”
But I say again, “We don’t need no shining beacons!” It is very backwards-looking to assume that the U.S. should arrogate that role to itself.
Edwards is the only candidate so far to have expressed the intimate and crucial connection between global development and global peace (and U.S. security). If we poured the billions we have wasted in Iraq into global development over the last five years, I wonder what kind of a world it would be today. Perhaps much different.
Yet Edwards’ anachronistic view that America must again stand as a moral beacon to the world betrays a frightening lack of understanding of international relations in the new century. We will always be proud of our statue of liberty. But we do not need to plant a replica in every other country of the world whether they want it or not.