Saturday, April 28, 2007

Foreign Policy Principles and National Purpose

Interlocking Challenges. The 21st century is presenting the world with a surprisingly dangerous and complex set of interlocking challenges:

  • global warming
  • environmental degradation
  • declining energy resources declining in relation to demand
  • the rising insistence of the world’s disadvantaged for respect and a realignment of the distribution of both political power and economic resources.

Any one of these changes would threaten our world order; together they pose a challenge of unprecedented danger because they simultaneously attack our climate, the cleanliness of the very air we breathe, our economy, and the international political system that we use to manage our lives on our shrinking planet. How can we find the resources to solve all these problems at once? How can we focus our attention in so many directions at once?

Moreover, their interlocked nature presents a challenge of awesome complexity. Competition for energy resources clashes with demands of poor peoples for a restructuring of the global political system. Finding economic resources to tackle global poverty, create a non-carbon-based energy infrastructure, and clean up pollution simultaneously seems impossible but failure to address any one threatens to exacerbate the political divide between haves and have-nots.

The interlocking nature of these challenges is dangerous not only because "you can’t solve just one problem" but because it raises significantly the likelihood of new, unanticipated phenomena emerging rapidly and taking us by surprise. The explosion of a global jihad and its current metamorphosis into endless self-initiated, uncoordinated , copy-cat acts of anti-establishment violence sees to be one example. The sudden loss of will by a tired Soviet leadership of a visibly failing and--by its people--increasingly rejected system of government is another. More such surprises can be expected.

Foreign Policy Principles. To cope with this multifaceted challenge will require a far more thoughtful public debate than has yet occurred. Two centuries ago, as the colonies revolted against Great Britain, such a fundamental and thoughtful debate occurred over the question of how best to design a new form of national government. We are still trying to figure out the details, of course, but the US grew successfully on the basis of a few revolutionary principles of national governance that were defined and agreed upon at that time: power to the people unless expressly reserved for the government, states would have certain rights the central government could not take away, the central government would have three branches to balance each other and prevent the reemergence of dictatorship.

The challenge of the 21st century may require the enunciation of a similar set of principles to govern how we execute foreign policy. A few suggestions follow:

Principle #1. Violence is a poor strategy for solving complex problems.
Principle #2. It’s not "truth" but perceptions that matter.
Principle #3. Nothing is ever black and white.
Principle #4. Taboos exist to protect the guilty.

Agreement on a set of principles to underlie our foreign policy would help us think about the consequences of proposed courses of action. We may for short-term gain choose to violate Principle #1 and use violence to alleviate some adverse condition of a complex problem we face, but recognizing the principle we are violating will at least help us to go in with our eyes open, realizing full well that the long-term consequences will inevitably be a mess that we will have to clean up rather than deluding ourselves into thinking that the violence we perpetrate will solve the problem. "Solving" the bad sound of an untuned violin with a hammer leaves you with a smashed violin.

We may choose endlessly to debate the "truth" of an issue, and, indeed, so we should, because such debate is the foundational requirement for acquiring knowledge and understanding, but Principle #2 will remind us that far more important if you want to reach agreement is simply thinking about why the other guy sees the world differently.

Whenever you hear the claim that X is good and Y is evil, Principle #3 should be a red flag: those who depict the world in black and white are either colorblind or trying to put one over on you. "Evil" is an appellation not designed to inform but to prevent discussion. Closely allied to this practice is that of making some subject taboo.

Taboo subjects are precisely the things you should discuss. Taboos are covers to protect the guilty from scrutiny. When society accepts a subject as "taboo," as something one simply does not discuss, society is accepting a loss of freedom. If you live in a democracy and there is a significant issue of policy that cannot be discussed, be suspicious: the elite is trying to prevent you from seeing the truth. A population that becomes skilled at avoiding issues is a population preparing itself for dictatorship.

Wanted: Public Debate. Truth in advertising: these or any principles will not solve our problems. That is not the role of principles. Rather, principles provide guidelines and targets. Politicians have struggled every day of the last two centuries over exactly how to implement the principle of separation of powers, but national acceptance of that principle as the target has, so far, done much to keep us free of dictatorship. A debate over principles will raise critical issues that we can no longer afford to sweep under the rug in our increasingly interconnected world, of which the basic one may be: Should our national purpose be to protect our political elites, our country, our Western culture, or all humanity? In fact, given the pace of global integration, do we even have a choice?

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