For the sake of argument, imagine, if you can, an American foreign policy based on interest alone. To begin with, to use the current Wall Street phrase, it would need to overweight Latin America and underweight the Middle East. For whether the Obama administration believes it or not (in fairness, they are no worse than their predecessors, though they are no better either), crises are brewing in Latin America that pose potentially greater threats to the United States than those posed by Al Qaeda. Mexico may not be in danger of becoming a narco-state, but individual Mexican states, including several along the U.S. border, are. Hugo Chavez is not living in a cave in Waziristan, or hiding out in the slums of Karachi. The imminent end of the Castro tyranny is likely to send a million Cubans north to Miami (the returnees in the exile, for all their braggadocio, will likely number in the thousands), an event that will pose problems on a smaller scale but of the same kind that the integration of East Germany posed for the Federal Republic. And relations with Brazil, no matter who succeeds President Lula, must become a first order concern for Washington—as they are not, at present, which is why the Turko-Brazilian initiative in Iran came as such a shock to the administration. Brazil not only desires to become a major world power now, as, historically, it always has, but it finally possesses the economic muscle to realize its ambitions.
At the same time, unless you believe, as some people on the Right do, that we are, clash-of-civilization-style, at war with the Islamic world—or at least a major portion of it—from a strictly interest-based point of view, it is anything but clear that the Middle East is nearly as important to American power or American prosperity, as virtually everyone in Washington assumes. There is probably enough oil in West Africa, and in the oil sands of Alberta to suffice during the (possibly decades-long) period during which our energy needs will be petroleum-based. And in any case, the Saudis, the Iraqis, and the Kuwaitis, not to mention the Iranians, have to sell their oil somewhere. Meanwhile, why is Egypt—again, from this hyper-realist point of view—an American rather than a European Union problem?
Should it really matter to us whether the Mubarak regime perpetuates itself or the Brotherhood comes to power? Ah, goes the set piece Washington answer, Egypt is central to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But this, too, makes little sense in realist terms. For although there may be other, non-realist reasons for the U.S. to support Israel, that nation now has become a burden strategically rather than the asset it once was.
If the U.S. elite does not have the political will (or if the technological capacity does not yet exist—I am not competent to judge which is the case, though my hunch is that it is both) to wean itself from oil, then from the realist perspective it makes much more sense to compete actively with the Chinese along Africa’s west coast than to get bogged down in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, generating profitless not to say perilous (see under: bin Laden) resentment as we do so. And, where China is concerned, we would put some of the energy the State Department now deploys, however intermittently, to support human rights, to further labor rights in China, since it is only with radically increased prosperity for the Chinese poor that the economic distortions of the Sino-American relationship can begin to be addressed. In terms of American interests, this is infinitely more momentous than Tibet.
These are only the most obvious elements of what a realist rethink of U.S. foreign policy would entail. Broadly speaking, it would be informed by Lord Palmerston’s dictum that nations have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests (in fact, this was something he wished was the case for Britain; remember Gladstone and the Eastern Question—the beginning of militant liberal interventionism). In our time, this would mean turning on its head the power relationship between geo-politics and geo-economics, so that American economic interests always had primacy of place. Inevitably, this would involve a radical reduction of the thousand or so military bases the U.S. maintains throughout the world.
At present, U.S. foreign policy is the worst of both worlds, with an inchoate realism married to an incoherent idealism. But the fact that a realist policy on the lines of what I have outlined here has no more chance of being realized than I do of teleporting myself to Mars should tell one all that it is necessary to know about the impossibility of realism becoming the dominant strain in U.S. foreign policy. The best realists, even late-comers to realism like myself (I turned away from liberal internationalism and interventionism in the aftermath of Kosovo) can hope for and hope to do is play Cassandra, and try to temper the idealism and ambition that, for the foreseeable future at least, will dominate U.S. foreign policy, until, that is, our insolvency, like that of Britain and Spain before us, puts an end to our global primacy.
Of course, all empires end, and that need not be such a terrible thing. For at their ending nations sometimes find new roles for themselves, as France did when General De Gaulle put an end to a 50-year-long debate and chose European integration over an African empire. Perhaps the U.S. will do the same in the Americas. Given the rapidly advancing cultural and ethnic fusion between the various parts of the hemisphere, this seems quite a likely outcome. But that is in the long run. For now, God help us, we will live under the flag of idealism, no matter how threadbare it has become. The best one can hope for, I think, is that we become more prudent in its exercise. But I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.
Yet, Cassandra surely has her role to play, even if we are, metaphorically, at the beginning of the Trojan War that will eventually bring the era of our hegemony to a close rather than at its ending. In this new column, I shall try to live up to it, if only as what I hope will at least be a useful counter-irritant to the consensus of the time. Caveat lector.
David Rieff is the author of eight books including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.