Monday, December 17, 2007

Bill Richardson

In the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Bill Richardson presents an essay about what he would do as president, with respect to foreign affairs (Richardson, B. (2008). A New Realism: A Realistic and Principled Foreign Policy. Foreign Affairs, 87 (1), Jan/Feb. The essay is one of a series by 2008 presidential hopefuls. I have previously reviewed essays by Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, John Edwards, Rudolph Guliani, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain.

Richardson’s essay is an eye-opener. I knew the man had an impressive resume. Besides being Governor of New Mexico, he has also been a US representative, Ambassador to the UN, US Secretary of Energy, and has been nominated five times for the Nobel peace prize for negotiating release of political prisoners and hostages around the world. Even so, I was unaware of his ability to articulate such a clear, rational, and appealing vision of a national future. His essay is remarkable for its directness and lack of political posturing, waffling and pandering. He does not come across on the televised debates as a deep thinker, and since he is not one of the top tier candidates right now, he is easy to overlook. This essay might give him a breath of fresh air.

His primary message is that “ The United States needs once again to construct a foreign policy that is based on reality and loyal to American values.” Unlike most other candidates, he does not claim American moral superiority nor a God-given or historically destined mission to recreate the world in our own image. Instead, he suggests simply that we have the courage to live up to our own stated values. To do that we need to be willing “to seek and find common ground, to blend our interests with the interests of others… [and] rebuild our overextended military, revive our alliances, and restore our reputation as a nation that respects international law, human rights, and civil liberties.”

Richardson defines his foreign policy strategy as “a New Realism -- one driven by an understanding that to defend our national interests, ... we must, more than ever, find common ground with others, so that we can lead them toward our common purposes.”

He is scathing in his criticism of the Bush administration’s hypocrisy and incompetence in foreign affairs. He would send a clear signal to the world that “America has turned the corner,” by withdrawing all troops from Iraq (he doesn’t suggest a timetable) and re-engaging all nations in the region. There is no mention of how he would address the inevitable regional turmoil that would result. He treats withdrawal from Iraq as a foregone conclusion, something we simply must do before we can face the real threats to our well-being. (He mentions not a word about the Afghanistan war).

Six Threats to Our Well-Being
Richardson sees six global trends that are transforming the world, which will become severe threats to us if we do not address them head on. They are
1. Fanatical jihadism
2. Trafficking in WMD (especially nuclear proliferation)
3. Rise of Asian economic and military power
4. Reemergence of Russia as a nuclear player with large energy resources
5. Economic globalization
6. Global environment and health problems

These trends will present problems to us, Richardson says, and will require international and societal solutions, with the US, as the sole superpower, forced to provide leadership.

What would Richardson do about these problematic threats? Unlike other candidates, he does not attempt to provide micro-solutions by quoting dollar amounts, percentages of GDP, or numbers of soldiers. He is a big picture man, as the captain of a great ship should be.

Richardson’s big picture solutions include rebuilding alliances and commitment to international law and multilateral cooperation, which would involve joining and enthusiastically supporting the International Criminal Court. That would not only make the US accountable to others in the world, he says, but also would change the equation for perpetrators of crimes against humanity who now have nothing to fear. I am in need of a lot more persuading on this point. It is a noble sounding idea, but it is likely that within six months of joining, most US top officials would be in that court defending themselves against a worldwide chorus of allegations of international criminality. International law is a lot more fluid and open to widely variant interpretation than national law. Accountability is good, but this approach doesn’t sound practical.

With similar noble but impractical motivation, Richardson would expand the UN Security council’s permanent membership to include Germany, India, Japan, a Latin American country, and an African country. How he would do that, given the present security council’s absolute control of its own membership, is unstated. Nevertheless, I am pleased with his attention to reforming the UN rather than trying to sidestep it entirely to avoid accountability, as McCain, Romney, and Guilani suggested.

The US should always take the lead in ending genocide, Richardson says, because history shows that if we don’t, nobody will. Once again, his recommendation lacks specifics. He says only that the US should “do something” in Darfur.

The US should embrace the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, he says, but again, I would need more convincing. While it was scandalous for the US to reject it, in retrospect, it does not look like its goals and methods would have been practical after all. Still, there is probably some action the US could have taken, and still could take, other than just turning its back. A good faith effort would go a long way in the international arena.

“The United States needs to stop considering diplomatic engagement with others to be a reward for good behavior,” Richardson says, and start talking to people, echoing Obama’s diplomatic strategy.

Richardson strongly emphasizes the threat of nuclear terrorism, and I think he is right to be proactive about that. It is “the most serious security threat we face,” he says. He proposes that we build international cooperation to secure nuclear material worldwide, an idea also offered by Clinton. Richardson offers several other specific proposals for dealing with the threat of nuclear terrorism, including reducing our own nuclear arsenal. He has clearly given this topic a great deal of thought. He writes, “We are spending more than $2 billion per week on Iraq, but we are not doing nearly enough to protect our cities, nuclear power plants, shipping lanes, and ports from a terrorist attack.” Hear-hear!

“The top priority of the U.S. president must be preventing a nuclear 9/11,” he says. That is an unambiguous statement of priorities, and interesting in the way it goes beyond the fear of terrorism for its own sake, to the root of why we fear terrorism: it will only get more intense. There will not be another airliner flying into a tall building. Next time it will be nukes, Richardson is sure, and I suspect he is right. Put yourself into the mind of the enemy and that is the logical next step, either nukes or a biological weapon. Richardson demonstrates clear foresight in this analysis. I like the way he thinks here. Unlike Huckabee and most other candidates, Richardson’s goal is not simply to kill as many terrorists as possible, which is a knee-jerk reaction. Richardson thinks like a chess player, a move deeper than the obvious.

He would work with “difficult” nations like North Korea and Iran to deter nuclear ambition with alternative incentives. He cites the Libyan case as an example of how that can work. That effort would be combined with an ideological offensive against jihadism, not to promote the culture of Mickey Mouse and Starbucks, which is not appreciated everywhere in the world, but to communicate that ours is a struggle of civilization against barbarity, not a clash of civilizations. As McCain and Guiliani also emphasized, we need to present a vision of peace, respect, and prosperity as a viable alternative to terrorism. Among these, I would say respect is by far the most important. It is most lacking and most intensely desired by North Korea, Iran, Russia, and many other cultures. Compared to the cost of fighting wars, a little genuine respect is an inexpensive commodity for us to distribute.

In the Middle East, Richardson would work toward a two-state solution and ask Bill Clinton to serve as a full-time broker there.

Unlike any other candidate so far, Richardson sees US immigration reform as a vital foreign affairs policy, which it is by definition. Without touching on any of the hot button details, he says only that we need better border security and to work with reform-minded governments to alleviate the poverty that drives illegal immigration into the US. It is a grand vision, perhaps not practical, but again, at least he is facing reality. He does state that he would end the Cuban embargo.

Finally, like Clinton, Edwards, McCain, and many others, Richardson sees the necessity to fight against poverty worldwide as a matter of US national security. He would double our foreign aid, expand the use of generic drugs, and work to align the World Bank and IMF. “For a small fraction of the cost of the Iraq war, which has made us so many enemies, we could make many friends,” he says.

I thought this was a terrific essay, even if a bit lacking in details, because that is appropriate for delivering a big picture vision of the future and the intentionality behind it. Richardson doesn’t have the magical rhetorical skill of Obama, but he knows exactly what he stands for and what he wants to do, and he is capable of conveying that vision to an audience. It’s impressive. He is a long shot for the presidential nomination only because he doesn’t get the media coverage and he is not as photogenic as some other candidates, but on foreign affairs, he is electable.

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