American Foreign Policy:

Some observations on current issues.

By Ron Speirs
Speech in Vermont, September 2002

    That was a nice introduction but it doesn¹t tell you I am essentially just a "has been". I no longer have inside information or access to important decision-makers. Reporters and columnists no longer press for my views. I am a State Department Consultant nobody consults any more. I am not sure why I was asked to speak today and had a hard time deciding how not to leave you feeling short-changed. I am a daily reader of the New York Times and the Washington Post, a devourer of The Economist, a faithful watcher of the Lehrer News Hour, as well as a frequent Internet reader of major foreign newspapers. Many here are probably the same. I have firm opinions on the present conduct and course of many of our Country¹s foreign policies. Even when I am wrong, I am usually not in doubt. I expect many - perhaps even most of you - will not share my views. How¹s that for speaker qualifications! Perhaps it is time to speak sharply to your program chairman.

    I should clarify my own predispositions at the outset. I think of myself as conservative in fiscal policy, liberal in social policy and an unsentimental internationalist in foreign policy. You can evaluate my remarks accordingly. I think the current Administration is off-track in a number of important areas: the ones I particularly want to talk about are the ones foremost in the daily news. Since I much prefer discussion to making speeches and so will only touch quickly and lightly on these topics, I hope my remarks lead to controversy and a lively exchange.

The US Position In The World

    When I first joined the Foreign Service in the early 50¹s, the United States was much admired and respected. We had won golden opinion in most of the world and were looked on as altruistic, honourable, responsible, reliable, and generous: it was a glorious and prideful time to represent the United States. Dean Acheson said we were a country with a sense of public responsibility; we transcended the limits of our own narrow national interest. We did not need to keep proclaiming our own "exceptionalism" or to keep telling ourselves "we¹re the greatest!" (As many of us do, without any of the self-mocking good humour with which Mohammed Ali delivered his proclamations) or -" after all we¹re America" - as if we had to keep persuading ourselves of something we secretly doubted. Don¹t mistake my point: I don¹t believe foreign policy should be run as a popularity contest. But part of what Harvard¹s Joseph Nye calls our ³soft power² is how others view us. I think all Americans should be concerned about how this aspect of our power has deteriorated.

    We are a nation blessed by geography, resources, a diverse and vigorous population, an open political and economic culture that maximizes productivity and human freedom. I fear we have, however, frittered away many of the advantages that these strengths should bring. We would be better off if we laud our own virtues less and concentrate on ensuring that our actions will speak well for us, as they did in the era of the Marshall Plan, the formation of NATO and the UN, and the sacrifices our citizens made to help others - the great creative acts of the early post World War II period. We have ceased to be the most consistent and most principled global citizens we can be. A unilateralist mind-set is taking hold of much of our leadership and citizenry.


    I¹d like to start with a few comments on topic number one: terrorism.  Terrorism is not a new phenomenon: we see it throughout history. In the Foreign Service we have experienced it repeatedly in recent decades. I personally was twice a target of terrorism, happily thwarted by good intelligence in one instance and effective security in the other. Fellow ambassadors in Cyprus, Sudan, Lebanon and Afghanistan were not so lucky and a number of other friends and colleagues have been killed or maimed in mob or bombing attacks on six of our embassies. These events, far away and touching few lives here remained on the periphery of our national vision. What focused our fellow citizens at home was the scale of 9/11 and the fact it hit us in our heartland and at potent national symbols. The shelter of distance was traumatically obliterated. Its roots seemed invisible and its rationale puzzling. The first question most Americans asked was an innocent, "Why do they hate us?" There was no readily apparent answer and this compounded our anxiety. There was no national authority we could identify and hold responsible. There is just a collection of individuals, in this case Muslim Arab youths, and we are not sure where others are or how to find them.

President Bush, I thought, started off sure-footedly. He identified the forces behind 9/11 as an evil that had to be fought patiently through close international collaboration on many fronts. We could not just strike out with blind military force. He swiftly made the needed distinction between Islam and the terrorists to steer domestic sentiment away from seeing it as a cultural or religious conflict. He distinguished between terrorism "with a global reach" and local movements fighting in pursuit of geographically restricted objectives. He called it a "war" and began to build a multilateral coalition to mount it with a range of financial, intelligence, military and police capabilities.

 However, the "war" metaphor soon ran away with him. The distinction between 9/11 and local conflicts, like those in Northern Ireland, Indonesia, Kashmir, Sri Lanka or Palestine, amenable to negotiation and political solution, quickly began to blur. This adversary is fluid, borderless, clandestine, un-deterrable and without conventional forces or headquarters; its aims are difficult to be precise about. It has to be countered primarily with patience, persistence, and craft. Military force is only an auxiliary and a blunt one at that. However, Bush began to consider the "war" not just as a metaphor and to mistake it for the real thing (and those of us who have lived through a war know the difference). He and others began to mine it for its political utility. Whatever the Administration wanted to accomplish politically it would seek justification for in the "fact" that we were at "war". I, at least, began to revisit images from the film of Orwell¹s "1984": an unseen war against an amorphous enemy, with continual TV images of columns of men marching toward unclear objectives while Big Brother endlessly pressed the need for discipline, conformity and obedience. Bush did nothing to mobilize public opinion to accept sacrifice, the first thing a leader in a war would do. Tax cuts would go ahead as planned, energy saving was dismissed out of hand, our addiction to gas guzzlers could go forward unimpeded. "Go shopping!" the Administration urged. It gave "war" a hollow ring. The fight should have been declared against Al Qaeda. Defining it as a broad war on "terror" led to a loss of focus. The perpetrators of 9/11 were criminals, plain and simple. They cannot be seen as "freedom fighters"; they are not struggling against injustice, occupation or oppression or for autonomy or self-determination. They can only be ferreted out and disrupted by careful and probably prolonged intelligence and police operations, the same way criminal investigators go after an organized crime syndicate. They are evil in the way the Crusades, the Inquisition, the KKK-inspired lynch mobs, the Hutu-Tutsi bloodbath, and the Holocaust were evil: they deny a common humanity. Most of these have had their roots in some form of religious or racial dogmatism. Copycats all over the world have seen and seized on the political utility of the war metaphor, rapidly adapting it to their own purposes: the Indians in Kashmir, the Israelis in Palestine, the Russians in Chechnya, the Chinese in respect of the Uighurs. Opponents are all branded "errorists" regardless of particular circumstances and pretty much anything is OK in defeating them. At home, the Attorney General finds the war metaphor useful when he turns to constitutionally questionable methods to preserve a notional security. An American judge has contributed to future books of quotations when in considering extra-judicial detentions, he wrote that, "Democracies die behind closed doors". There remains much confusion about the motives behind the wide support for this kind of global terrorism: there are too many simple-minded clichés from our leaders - the often offered "Because they hate freedom" does not do as an explanation! We are targets of terrorism for a variety of reasons, most of them political and/or economic, and we need to understand what drives its supporters if we are to deal with it. The US, as the superpower symbol of the West, inherits the mantle of all the accumulated resentments against a history of prejudice, broken promises and colonialist exploitation going back to the Crusades. Add a concoction of envy and anger and frustration at more modern grievances, such as poverty, fear of being overwhelmed by an alien Western culture and specific political miseries, particularly our uneven handed support of Israel in its treatment of Palestinian underdogs. Some, though not all of these hard to pin down grievances are beyond our ability to negotiate over or mitigate. Bernard Lewis has written that, "For many centuries Islam was the greatest civilisation on Earth - the richest, the most powerful, most creative in every significant field of human endeavour. Its armies, its teachers, and its traders were advancing on every front in Asia, in Africa, in Europe. Then everything changed, and Muslims, instead of invading and dominating Christendom, were invaded and dominated by Christian powers. The resulting frustration and anger at what seemed to them a reversal of both natural and divine law have been growing for centuries and have reached a climax in our own time". This has been intensified by the conduct of some of their rulers whom we call friends and allies and whom their people resent as American puppets. The Shah of Iran was a case in point. Many deny or downplay the importance of the Palestine conflict as a significant factor in the support of global terrorism. I disagree. Years of living in foreign milieus and contact with foreign leaders convinces me that a lot of the anger we encounter around the world - and not just the Muslim world - is exacerbated by this nasty problem and our perceived role in it. These are people who cheer on Usama bin Laden and his cohorts. George Bush¹s washing of the hands some months ago was greeted with shock around the world and seen as giving the Sharon Government a pass on its brutal policies toward this miserable and abandoned people. There seems to be no early rectification of this disastrous misreading of the situation in sight. Everyone with experience and good will knows what the final solution has to be and the US should be pushing the parties toward it by resorting to every pressure point we can. I believe the President and some of his advisers don¹t have much of a clue about how to handle this matter. If it were resolved much of the terrorists¹ support would melt away.

Iraq, Overload and the UN

    Iraq is a tough issue. I stipulate that Saddam is a brutal clan leader, that he ignored repeated decisions of the Security Council, that he may be pursuing an active weapons programs in violation of his agreements and that almost all Iraqis would applaud his departure. However, I continue to be bothered by several factors in our policy. First is the Amen Corner pushing the President into unilateral action. I have worked with some of the "tough guys" , recycled Cold Warriors, now advising the Administration. They fancy themselves as "realists" and they are not. I do not trust their judgement and consider them as suffering from a bad case of enemy deprivation. They consider those who disagree testosterone-challenged wimps. I believe that if they could have made a case that self-defense unambiguously requires quick pre-emptive action they would have done so. My observation is that enthusiasm for military action is often in inverse proportion to personal experience of combat. I loved the reported suggestion by a US Senator that perhaps Richard Perle should be parachuted into Baghdad first. On the other hand, Scott Ritter, that non-wimpy, hard-line, lantern-jawed former Marine UN inspection team leader scoffs at the contention that Saddam has weapons that are a threat to us. He also reminded us UNSCOM had been used clandestinely for purposes having nothing to do with its job, and that this soured the Iraqi view of UNSCOM as well as embarrassed the UN when it was discovered. He disputed the canard, still repeated by Administration Leaders, that Iraq "ejected the inspectors", who were in fact withdrawn at UN initiative for their own safety when US-UK bombing was resumed. Former UNSCOM chief Rolf Ekeus, in a Washington Post article September 15, pointed out delicately that "the President does not appear to have been well briefed" on a number of the facts about UN inspections successes in Iraq. If we proceed, let us do so on the basis of facts, not myths. In what seemed a victory for the Secretary of State and a defeat for Unilateralism, the President¹s September 12 speech to the UN was an important course correction. He returned to the UN and challenged the Security Council to react to Saddam¹s non-compliance with a lengthy succession of its Resolutions. UN Credibility is important to those like myself who do not want it to suffer the fate of the League of Nations. The Iraqis, on September 16 said they were ready to receive inspectors without preconditions. Iraq had clearly been subjected to great international pressure in the prior few days, and this act, I suggest, knifed the idea of "regime change" which increasingly seemed to take a front seat to "disarmament" and return of inspectors as the Administration¹s primary aim. The Council was unlikely to support such an objective in any case. I can think of many equally valid candidates for regime change, and so can Council members. There will now be an argument over whether and what kind of further Council action will be required. Saddam has a slippery record and the Security Council and UNMOVIC (UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission) should, and I trust will, test his bona fides with due scepticism. Ekeus recommends a system of "coercive or armed inspectors" and proposes that military back-up forces be stationed in neighbouring countries. The head of UNMOVIC would be given "exclusive authorisation" to call upon them for support if inspectors are blocked, without awaiting Security Council approval. This later suggestion is unlikely to fly in the Council. With respect to the continuing issue of "regime change", I share the view that the US does not have a distinguished modern record of long-term perseverance. Retired JCS Chairman Henry Shelton was recently quoted as saying he wasn¹t worried about US capabilities, but was about its attention span. This seems a pretty common concern among senior military officers. Furthermore, Bush¹s disdain for "nation-building" may not have dissipated, however much it has been soft-pedalled. We beat it out of Afghanistan and abandoned Pakistan after the Soviets withdrew despite our promises to the contrary and look at the mess that ensued. Ditto in Somalia when the Black Hawk incident resulted in 18 casualties. We still have much to do in Bosnia and Kosovo. We are not doing so well today as we reluctantly invest in peacekeeping forces outside the confines of Kabul. We seem to have a hard time finishing one job at a time. Reconstructing Afghanistan will be a huge and time-consuming task, and failure could put us back to square one. Reconstructing and occupying Iraq could cost similar billions better spend on higher national priorities. And there would be no guarantee of success, given Iraq¹s internal ethnic and religious conflicts and lack of democratic tradition. I have limited confidence in our ability to run countries we don¹t understand. Modern Iraqi history is one long succession of coups and assassinations. vercoming this history could be the work of many years - as Afghanistan as well may turn out to be, if we keep at it, as we should. The UN, at least for the time being, has been put to good use. I hope the issue of forceful action to ensure regime change has been overtaken, although I am sure there will be those who will try to resurrect it. They have been hedging their bets for some time by denigrating the idea that inspections can be effective in any circumstances. Basically, I feel that if we were able to keep war at bay for over forty years in the face of a really significant nuclear power, we could certainly cope with a more puny threat without precipitating a conflict costly in treasure, lives and political support. There was and is a case for leaving Saddam right where he is, keeping him bottled up and waiting for him to die.

Missile Defence

    Many of the same people that push regime change also advocate missile defence, which I do not believe deserves a place in our priorities. For years I participated in negotiations on a succession of arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. I am proud to have had a part in a great feat: bringing the Soviet Union in from the cold while avoiding nuclear conflict - through decades of careful diplomacy. Our objective was always to strengthen stability in a dangerously unstable arms environment - without undermining deterrence. We were, I believe, generally successful despite strong opposition from the very same Cold Warriors who now pursue the cause of missile defence and who generally averred that such arms control simply encroached on our sovereignty and our freedom of action. Today, my scepticism is not based on a contention that missile defence would be destabilising - the Russians have given up their opposition, or at least suppressed it in the interests of other objectives in our relationship, although I believe at a price - but because I don¹t believe the threat justifies the cost. have already thrown over $80b at this problem and I am constantly mindful of the great domestic and international needs that remain unfunded. Even if it were proven technically feasible, I see it as basically unnecessary under currently foreseeable circumstances. There are many less costly, lower tech and less self-revealing ways to deliver weapons of mass destruction. Try shipping containers. Much cheaper and less detectable, given that we have a 4% inspection rate of the containers entering our ports.


    I believe the President is correct in his pursuit of expanded free trade. I do not buy the dire predictions of what this will visit on us in terms of environmental damage and human desolation. My view is that globalisation is inexorable, and we need to focus on stronger safety nets for the losers rather than walling others off from its benefits. I agree that the President has sent mixed messages on trade: I cringed at his actions on steel tariffs and farm subsidies, and at our protectionism on citrus fruits, sugar, softwoods and the like. I hope these moves were motivated by tactical, if transient, political advantage, were intended as bargaining cards and will be obliterated during the course of Fast Track negotiations. Our problem is that those who lose from free trade know precisely who they are and can rally opposition, but that the much larger number who are advantaged by it are oblivious and remain quiet. We have had little leadership in pointing this out. Much of the opposition is simply protectionism dressed up in the language of political correctness. Bush has done a little to improve our abysmal record on foreign aid, but not enough to get us out of the abysmal category. Foreign aid is no panacea, but we are the last among the industrialised nations in the proportion of our GDP we devote to helping others - about one tenth of one per cent, in fact. Some years ago there was a poll in the US on this subject. Here¹s an irony: the majority said we spend much too much on foreign aid. When asked about what level would be appropriate, the most frequent response was it should be no more than 15%. Our position is at best unseemly in a world in which the rich-poor gap widens apace. I suspect future global stability will depend on success in narrowing it.


    I want to say a few words about Unilateralism. Unilateralism is not Isolationism; it is worse. It stems, I believe, from a pallid view of the world and a belief in the fantasy of self-sufficiency: that we, who are superior in power, wisdom and morality, should not be tied down by the Lilliputians in the rest of the world. Paranoia has a prominent history in American politics. Richard Hofstadter wrote a very fine book - "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" - that explored this phenomenon and its history some decades ago. It bears rereading. Not long ago a prominent member of the House boasted he did not hold a passport and didn¹t feel any need for foreign travel. He was widely lauded for this know-nothing attitude. One Senator expressed high outrage that the UN had the effrontery to include places in the US in its list of World Heritage Sites that ought to be cherished and protected, if necessary by contributions from the international community. There are still fantasies about "black helicopters". We have had a powerful surge of Unilateralism in recent years. There is a long list of multilaterally negotiated agreement we have rejected- the comprehensive test ban, the Kyoto treaty, the Law of the Sea Treaty, the Biological Warfare Convention, the International Criminal Court, the Landmine convention: the list goes on and on. It has taken years of effort to try to overcome our aversion to remitting the UN dues we still owe and have a solemn treaty obligation to pay. It was a substantial effort to get the President to agree that his recent nuclear agreement with Putin could be cast in treaty form. Many of the spurned agreements have flaws, but that it not the point. Flaws can be corrected by further political effort. The sin, apparently, is they are multilateral. I admit to being puzzled by all this. We are increasingly part of an international community, and technology and its newest by-product, globalisation, are knitting the world closer and closer together. We led in the establishment of most of the international institutions that respond to the needs of a shrinking globe: from the UN to the Bretton Woods institutions. Globalisation is going to require more effective instruments of global governance rather than fewer. A lot of the increasing breach between us and other nations, including our traditional allies, is attributable to this go-it-alone, we-know-best attitude. I suspect the unilateralists revel in this criticism. It proves foreigners - other, perhaps, than the British - are just not reliable! The President¹s infelicitous reference to an "Axis of Evil" is somehow symptomatic of the "attitude" problem. The three countries included are neither an "axis" nor "evil". This kind of photo-op talk carries its own dangers: it oversimplifies complex issues and becomes a substitute for careful analysis and policy-making. Our President seems averse to nuance: he was quoted as complaining he was "being nuanced to death" on Middle East policy before essentially throwing up his hands over the problem. The fact is Iran has a population that is showing increasing restiveness against the power of an entrenched "Council of Guardians" composed of the most narrow-minded of religious dogmatists. It is in political flux and casting a country or a population per se as evil advances nothing. North Korea is governed by a nutty leadership that can probably better be moved toward modernity by careful diplomacy, as advocated by Japan and South Korea, than by blanket rejection. Clearly Saddam is a real problem, but we frequently seem to forget it is he, not the country, that is the enemy.


    The last matter I want to comment on is democracy. There seems to be a tendency in our make-up to regard ourselves, and the way we do things, as the exemplar of all that is correct. There was a French philosopher-priest who observed that a modicum of well-being is indispensable for virtue. We ourselves began as a timocracy, where political power was a function of property, the governing class limited to propertied white males - and prosperity for many rested on the backs of slaves. It took us 86 years to free the slaves, 144 to let women vote and 189 to open real political participation to black Americans. And we had the advantage of starting out as the inheritors of a long British history of step-by-step movement toward expanded freedom: we incorporated this history into our politics without having to repeat it. Generally the world is not doing too badly: Freedom House reports that this year the number of freely elected governments has continued to climb, reaching 121 of the world¹s 192 independent countries. I realised more vividly when I lived in Pakistan that democracy requires certain precursors in terms of levels of literacy, education, and well being, a shared sense of commonwealth, experience in self- government, and needs a firm political centre of gravity in a middle class. We still seem to demand of others democratic government even where these preconditions do not exist. Every time Pakistan has had a "free" election a corrupt semi-feudal aristocracy achieved power and began plundering their fellow- citizens, and the army - one of the few coherent national institutions - felt impelled to step in. They were not paragons but tended to run a less corrupt system. This was also the case in Turkey, where democratic institutions were more advanced but still faltered periodically. There may also be different forms deserving respect: Muslims argue that the Islamic Shura (people¹s councils) in one of its various incarnations meets democratic standards in requiring a just leader to consult his people. Elections as we know them may not be the only road to virtue. Democracies develop gradually and organically. We can help others achieve the precursors, but there is no magic wand - or single "right" solution. Not all countries can count on the benefit of the leadership that the authentic "Greats" of modern history have from time to time provided. Mandelas and Gandhis come along infrequently. We have to realise the Mugabes and Milosevics may be nearer the norm. My plea is for modesty, care and understanding in our judgements lest they be taken as just one more facet of the "arrogance of power" with which we are often charged. Better we follow George Washington advice and "Raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair".

Thank you.