Making America safe for the world

Interesting and refreshing article from a Chinese writer urging US to make the world safer. I have to say I agree with points raised by the author, Yu Bin. These are the kind of articles and perspectives lacking in mainstream Wesetrn publications.

Notable quotes form the article:

"In retrospect, a combination of missionary zeal, intelligence manipulation and solipsism – the inability to even conceive of another way of looking at the world – produced the fateful combination of preemptive and missionary impulses that propelled the US into Iraq in 2003. "

"There is perhaps nothing wrong with democracy as a political system that evolved from Western history and culture. It deserves both respect and serious consideration by others. Indiscriminantly imposing democracy anywhere and anytime, however, amounts to a doctor prescribing Viagra to all patients, regardless of their age, gender and symptoms. Ultimately, it may blowback against one’s own interests. "
By Yu Bin

A specter is haunting the world, a specter of a dangerously growing gap between the United States presidential candidates’ promises to make America safer on one hand, and an increasingly poorer, more unstable and more dangerous world on the other.

Six years after the Bush Doctrine of pre-emption made its debut, America’s "war on terror" remains open-ended (now in three separate theaters of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan). As the financial tsunami – made in the US – is leaving no nation behind, both America and the world are far less secure than before.


Meanwhile, America is losing influence both among its friends and foes.

In a globalized world, it is almost impossible, certainly inconceivable, and perhaps even dangerous for the United States to achieve its own security while much of the rest of the world is in chaos. The next president of the United States, therefore, will have to narrow, if not close, this security-insecurity gap, not just for the sake of others, but for the US’s own interests.

9/11 and American protracted war
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, French president Jacques Chirac declared, "Today, we are all Americans." Russian president Vladimir Putin was the first to call President George W Bush to promise his support. This was followed by the call from Chinese president Jiang Zemin.

For a while, America had a great chance to turn the world’s sympathy and cooperation into real political and strategic assets. This, however, quickly evaporated in early 2003 when the Bush administration rushed to war with Iraq, even if Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. A few months after the Iraq invasion, even Bush reluctantly admitted that there was no evidence showing Saddam’s "connection" with al-Qaeda. In retrospect, a combination of missionary zeal, intelligence manipulation and solipsism – the inability to even conceive of another way of looking at the world – produced the fateful combination of preemptive and missionary impulses that propelled the US into Iraq in 2003.

While American politicians are competing to support troops, there has been a remarkable absence of any discussion of the Iraqi casualties. Outside the US, the Iraqi government counted 100,000-150,000 Iraqi deaths by November 2006. Their finding was supported by the New England Journal of Medicine in January 2008. A 2006 survey of Iraqi households in the British medical journal Lancet, however, suggested the war had led to 655,000 Iraqis deaths by July 2006. In September 2007, a survey published by United Kingdom-based polling agency Opinion Research Business suggested up to 1.2 million people might have died because of the conflict. [1] Iraq, as a result, has become the bloodiest democratizing enterprise ever in world history.

While Iraq is in ruins, Afghanistan is devastated beyond recognition. By the time the American military was shock-and-awing the Iraqis, Afghanistan had already suffered 1.8 million casualties, 2.6 million refugees, and 10 million unexploded land mines. [2] Seven years after the Taliban were removed from power, the nation produces only two products: heroin and terrorists. Now the Taliban are making a comeback and are able to stage complex and effective offensive operations, even near the capital city of Kabul. In August, 10 French paratroopers were killed by a 100-strong Taliban force near Kabul. Two months later, 300 French paratroopers hastily retreated from the same place where 10 of their comrades died for fear of being trapped by a much bigger Taliban force. In early October, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the senior British commander in Afghanistan, declared that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. Meanwhile, the British government is looking for a political settlement. [3]

Both Afghanistan and Iraq are now devastated by years of warfare. The mighty American military, too, is dangerously overstretched. Financially, the price tag for the Iraqi and Afghan wars is fast approaching US$1 trillion, while victory is still out of sight. Without a comprehensive approach, including political reconciliation, diplomatic compromise and economic reconstruction, military means alone are of limited utility. At a minimum, the continuous presence of foreign troops in those nations is likely to breed more grievances and anti-Western and anti-American sentiments, which are the best recruiting tools for terrorist groups.

A war still to be won …
This grim and deteriorating prospect of the Bush "war on terror", however, does not seem to factor into the current presidential race in America. While the Bush administration is bargaining hard with the Iraqi government to perpetuate the US military presence in Iraq, Republican Senator John McCain is still talking about an elusive and ill-defined "victory". Democratic Senator Obama, though showing sounder judgment and preferring a faster drawdown of American forces in Iraq, has yet to offer a blueprint for the Iraqis. His preoccupation is to divert American forces from Iraq to Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda are making a real surge.

Despite the obvious differences between McCain and Obama regarding the tactics for the "war on terror", both prefer to expand the war in the Afghanistan-Pakistani border area, a place even the British stayed away from during colonial times. The difference between them is whether to take unilateralist military actions into the tribal areas (Obama’s position) or to work with the Pakistani government for joint military action (McCain). For better or worse, the Bush administration is taking the Obama approach by dispatching special units and unmanned Predator drones to this area. The mounting civilian casualties are now dangerously destabilizing Pakistan.

On his campaign trail, Obama has repeatedly claimed credit for Bush’s new strategy in Pakistan. He insists that his strategy aims to kill Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in this mountainous area. In so doing, Obama is paradoxically getting very close to Bush’s "one-bullet" solution in the early days of the Afghan war, when Bush wanted to get the super terrorist, "live or dead".

There is no question that Bin Laden is both the symbol and mastermind of the anti-American terrorism. His capture remains a worthy goal for Washington. The sources of terrorism, however, are far more complicated and extensive than the one-bullet solution can cope with. Eliminating this super terrorist may even unleash those various and widely scattered terror "cells" that are still loosely and spiritually connected with him.

For both candidates, the "war on terror" will have to be won or significant gains must be achieved. Neither for the moment seems willing to accept that the US may have to live with a certain level of terrorism, as the rest of the world does. That option is tantamount to defeat, which is simply unacceptable.

Forty-four years ago, the same fateful "all-or-nothing" approach took America to Vietnam where 60,000 Americans and about 2 million Vietnamese perished. Obama’s unilateralist recipe for Pakistan, therefore, is naive, if not dangerous, for a volatile region of South and Central Asia where all of the world’s civilizations – Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Confucianism – converge and became nuclearized by the end of the past century. America’s "war on terror", with all of its good intentions, allows very little margin for error in the age of weapons of mass destruction.

‘Good old days’ ahead?
If the current race and voting run their own course, the Democrats will get the next four years. Their approaching victory will have at least been contributed to by the huge mistakes made by the Bush administration, whose approval rate is now down to the 20s. The rest of the world has already cast its vote to the more liberal, intellectual, multilateral and cosmopolitan Obama, according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in his October 23 piece.

Such an expectation may be premature.

A few years ago, a long-time realist in American policy and academia lamented that American foreign policy is always "in quest of the magic, all-purpose formula" at the expense of "ideological subtlety and long-range strategy … That drives American foreign policy toward unilateral and occasionally bullying conduct" with "a take-it-or-leave-it prescription, the operational equivalent of an ultimatum."

It would certainly not be surprising to hear such words about the Bush administration after 9/11 outside America, particularly from Europe. Even McCain is now desperately distancing himself from Bush. Yet, strange though it might seem to some, this assessment of American foreign policy is about president Bill Clinton’s time. The author is Henry Kissinger, whose book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? was published 95 days before 9/11. The book targets the liberal internationalist/interventionist policies of Clinton, many of whose foreign and defense team are now advising Obama.

Kissinger argues that both the left and right of the American foreign policy spectrum are heavily influenced by the Jacksonist black-white and "all-or-nothing" approach to foreign policy (pp 245-8). While the liberalist left treats foreign policy as a "social policy" with America as the ultimate arbitrator of domestic evolutions all over the world; the conservative right believes that the solution to the world’s ills is American hegemony. Result: both the attitude of missionary rectitude of the left and the overplay of power of the right lead to a strange outcome. That is, the world’s most powerful state does not have a working foreign policy (pp 19-20, 30).

Kissinger traced the sources of such a phenomenon to America’s prevailing moralistic worldview, ubiquitous American exceptionalism (p 27), an educational system that puts little emphasis on history (p 30), the almost religious belief of the "manifest destiny" (p 240), and average Americans’ indifference to foreign policy and international affairs (p 18). Kissinger is particularly critical about the poor quality of the American media, which are transforming foreign policy into a subdivision of public entertainment:

The intense competition for ratings produces an obsession with the crisis of the moment, generally presented as a morality play between good and evil having a specific outcome and rarely in terms of the long-range challenges of history. As soon as the flurry of excitement has subsided, the media move on to new sensations. (p 27)

Kissinger’s call for a genuine foreign policy was not out of nowhere. A 2002 study by the US Congressional Research Service shows that the average US overt use of military force under the Clinton administration increased more than five times to eight instances per year, as compared to 1.15 per year during the Cold War (1945-91), [4] or the "long peace" according to John Gaddis (1989). This longest stability of the century was not only relative to the first half of the 20th century, but also to the post-Cold War decades when US power is unchallenged, unbalanced and without self-restraint.

The disturbingly ignorant, arrogant and reckless foreign policy under Clinton was perhaps not the first instance in US history. In this regard, George Kennan, America’s prominent scholar-diplomat, had this to say in 1950 about America:

… I sometimes wonder whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath – in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat. You wonder whether it would not have been wiser for him to have taken a little more interest in what was going on at an earlier date and to have seen whether he could not have prevented some of these situations from arising instead of proceeding from an undiscriminating indifference to a holy wrath equally undiscriminating. [5]

Kennan’s pessimism about the possibility of America’s mismanaging world affairs came at a time when the US emerged from World War II as the world’s most powerful nation and when he was increasingly dismayed by the more ideologically driven policies of the United States.

Back to the "good old" Clinton times, "A nation reaps what it sows," stated Chalmers Johnson in his remarkable book, Blowback, published a year before 9/11. 2600 years ago, Confucius told his disciples not to do things to others if they did 

not want others to do the same thing to them. Indeed, "long before George W Bush became president … America has been turning in on itself to a point which is self-destructive," wrote British journalist Jonathan Power three days after 9/11. Clintonism of the yester-years, therefore, may not be as harmless as it appears.

From multilateralism, bilateralism to unilateralist and back to what?
When Americans cast their votes next week, the man to live in the White House for the next four years will find the world outside the United States may be less hospitable toward, less respecting for, and even less dependent on the world’s strongest power. For the new guard in the White House, such a prospect will be


discouraging, though not wholly unanticipated. It is a beginning, however, to search for a different path for the security of America and the world, away from not only the Bush administration, but also from the legacies of the past 100 years when the US first took the world stage.

In the past century, America has experimented with at least three different approaches for its own security: Wilsonian multilateralism, Cold War bilateralism and Bush’s unilateralism. Of the three, only Wilson’s collective security was designed to offer equal security to both America and other powers. Wilson’s idealism, however, was short-lived. On the eve of the US entrance into World War I, president Woodrow Wilson vowed to make the world safe for democracy. The "war to end all wars", ironically, was the beginning of a four-year carnage. Worse, it unleashed all the "evils" of the 20th century for Western liberalism: Russian Bolshevikism, German Nazism, Japanese militarism and Chinese communism. The rest was history.

Washington reluctantly accepted the Cold War bilateral security largely because Moscow reached military parity with the US. America’s own security, therefore, required the recognition of the security of its strategic and ideological opponent. The US, however, was never comfortable with the principle of balance of "terror", which was the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). As soon as the Cold War was over, Washington lost no time in expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and dismantling the foundations of arms control treaties with Russia.

Meanwhile, without the balance of Western communism, both liberalism and neo-conservatism in the US are working to project American power, value and influence around the world as if there is no tomorrow. The hallmark of the Clinton Doctrine was to democratize others according to the "Democracy-peace" theory perfected by American political science.

Those who see the full picture of the democracy-peace discourse understand the pitfalls of overplaying principles of self-determination. Scholars and historians have repeatedly shown that young democracies are perhaps the most aggressive political systems. This includes the Weimar Republic and the Japanese Taisho democracy before Nazism and militarism consumed them. One should add the newly democratized Georgia that initiated the recent conflict with Russia. Fareed Zakaria, former managing editor of Foreign Affairs, warned as early as 1997 that the challenge for the 21st century was "to make democracy safe for the world". [6] (Emphasis added.)

There is perhaps nothing wrong with democracy as a political system that evolved from Western history and culture. It deserves both respect and serious consideration by others. Indiscriminantly imposing democracy anywhere and anytime, however, amounts to a doctor prescribing Viagra to all patients, regardless of their age, gender and symptoms. Ultimately, it may blowback against one’s own interests.

Meanwhile, the search for security by the United States has largely become one-way traffic, in which the US frequently resorts to the unilateral use of force without adequate consideration of the other side.

Make America safe for the world
In retrospect, only the bilateral security of the Cold War seems to be the "lesser evil". Such a prospect, however, almost does not exist as neither Europe nor China is willing to balance the US. The task for the new US president for a sound and effective foreign policy lies squarely in the hands of the new White House resident, who must lead a power of global reach like the United States with global vision and responsibility, not just those of America.

When Kissinger deplored the lack of a foreign policy during the Clinton administration, he asked if the US was to lead the world instead of turning it into an empire. Kissinger asked a right question, but not enough. The real question is not whether the US should lead the world or not, but how the US will lead. Indeed, a fair, legitimate and effective leadership should emerge, or be earned. Alternatively, it may be imposed, self-claimed, but cannot be requested.

For a genuine world leader, the question is how to work with others, particularly those nations and peoples with different cultural, historical, political and economic backgrounds. Such a task may be particularly challenging for America whose foreign policy toolbox contains only two pieces: isolationism and interventionism. When America is weak, it reverts to its own world; when America is strong, it sets out to shape the world. There is simply no such a thing that the US would live and work with the existing world, which is full of gray areas. The next American president may have to step beyond this self-imposed, black-white and almost religiously rigid ideological confine.

In his speech to the US Democratic Party convention in late August, Clinton stated that the US should lead by "the power of example, not example of power". A sound foreign policy should start from the home front, which badly needs a "regime change" to reverse the current trends toward over-spending consumers, over-drugged population, over-armed society, over-crowded jails and over-lobbied politics. A society that consumes 25% of the world’s energy and has a quarter of the world’s prisoners with less than 5% of the world’s population, according to the New York Times on April 23, 2008, is not a model for others.

America will certainly be more attractive to the rest of the world if Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s millions of hockey and soccer moms are matched by millions of SAT/ACT moms. Paradoxically, Samuel Huntington of Harvard University, the most prominent American political scientist, condemned America’s intellectual elite, in his 2004 book Who Are We? as "dead souls" and being not patriotic (p 264). Such a permeating anti-intellectualism is perhaps the main reason for America’s deteriorating school system compared to many nations, rich or poor. Already, a much poorer China has had 30 million piano moms; teenagers do homework till midnight; its colleges turn out 10 times more engineers every year than their US counterparts; and 300 million Chinese are learning foreign languages.

For such a soft power as China, merely increasing US military spending is not only self-defeating, but also dangerous. America’s next president needs to understand that nobody can bring down the mighty powerful United States, except Americans themselves. The ongoing financial crisis is a case in point. Moreover, in a globalized world, it is in nobody’s interests to see the US declining rapidly. America’s new leaders, therefore, must come out of the besieged mentality to engage and embrace the world.

Diplomacy, however, is time-consuming, difficult and sometimes frustrating. In the age of globalization and weapons of mass destruction, diplomacy is perhaps the only way to handle some of the difficult bilateral, regional and global issues, particularly those with high stakes, such as the two six-party talks on Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and more recently, the conflict between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia.

Toward a world beyond extremes
Almost 20 years ago when Western communism started to crumble, Francis Fukuyama declared that history was over. [7] He later retracted that. [8] With the worldwide and still growing financial crisis, history is perhaps really ending. This time, it is the end, or bankruptcy, or demise, of the extreme types of Western ideologies: be it the centralized communism or its counterpart of Western market fundamentalism.

Despite their vastly different ideological underpinnings, each tries to change the rest of the world according to its own ideological pure type; neither wants to live with an imperfect world full of gray areas; both see the world in black-and-white terms; together, they drag the rest of the world into the last phase of the "Western Civil War", which is the Cold War.

Indeed, the 20th century, which is widely claimed to be the American century, turned out to be the bloodiest century in world history, during which all forms of Western ideologies – be they liberalism, nationalism, Nazism, militarism, communism, statism – pursued their pure types. It is fair to argue that there is no such a thing as clashes of civilizations, but the clashes of extremists, as their extreme agenda reinforce and justify each other’s existence.

In the midst of the current unprecedented crisis of Western market extremism, it is time for the world to pause, think and search for a different model of political economy. It should be beyond and away from excessive greed, excessive consumerism, excessive laissez-faire, to mention just a few. A major task of a world leader is to search for a proper balance between the market and the state, between individual need and societal interests, between equality and efficiency, between materialistic growth and cultural/spiritual harmony, and between nurturing the innovative business class and protecting other vulnerable social groups.

Such an approach is also common sense, as was the choice made by the little girl Goldilocks, who prefers things not too hot, not too cold, not too hard, not too soft, but just right. In this regard, Europe is taking the lead. Compared with Americans who have dismal government assistance and relatively little saving, average Europeans in the current economic crisis are far better protected by free health care and largely free education. China, too, is returning to its traditional Confucian "middle approach" (zhong yong) by pursuing a "kinder-and-gentler" public policy for a more "harmonious" society.

It is time for the new leaders in America to shift its focus away from Bush’s obsession with terrorism and to refocus on the broader well-being of the world and Americans. And the world is waiting and watching.

1. BBC, Iraq violence, In Figures August 6, 2008.
2. Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2004), p xiv.
3., October 11, 2008.
4. Steven Hook, US Foreign Policy: The Paradox of World Power (CQ Press, 2005), p 296.
5. George Kennan, American Diplomacy, expanded edition (The University of Chicago Press, 1951), p 66.
6. Fareed Zakaria, "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy," Foreign Affairs, 76 (6) (Nov./Dec. 1997), pp 22-43.
7. Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?" The National Interest, no 16 (Summer 1989).
8. Francis Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (Yale University Press, March 20, 2007).

Dr Yu Bin is Senior Fellow of the Shanghai Association of American Studies. He can be reached at


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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