The immediate response of President Bush and his administration to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States was superb, both purposeful and principled — a military, political, and diplomatic success. But what comes next? In his State of the Union address, Bush suggested specific targets of future phases of the war — the “axis of evil” of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. But what has been missing in the discussion of the second stage (and perhaps the third, fourth, and fifth stages) of the war on terrorism is an articulation of the general principles that will guide policy in difficult times ahead. The new threat to American national security and the American way of life is no less threatening than such earlier challenges as the defeat of fascism in Europe and imperialism in Japan during World War II, or the containment and ultimate destruction of world communism during the Cold War. A grand vision of the purposes of American power is needed not only to shape strategy, but also to sustain support from the American people and America’s allies.
During the twentieth century, the central purpose of American power was to defend against and when possible to destroy tyranny. American presidents have been at their best when they have embraced the mission of defending liberty at home and spreading liberty abroad. This was the task during World War II, and it was again our objective (or should have been the mission) during the Cold War. It must be our mission again. In fact, the war on terrorism is a new variation of the old war against the anti-democratic “isms” of the previous century.
Adherence to a liberty doctrine as a guide to American foreign policy means pushing to the top of the agenda the promotion of individual freedoms abroad. The expansion of individual liberty in economic and political affairs in turn stimulates the development and consolidation of democratic regimes. To promote liberty requires first the containment and then the elimination of those forces opposed to liberty, be they individuals, movements, or regimes. Next comes the construction of pro-liberty forces, be they democrats, democratic movements, or democratic institutions. Finally comes the establishment of governments that value and protect the liberty of their own people as the United States does. Obviously, the United States does not have the means to deliver liberty to all subjugated people around the world at the same time. And the spread of liberty and democracy will not always be simultaneous. In some places, the promotion of the individual freedoms must come first, democratization second. Nonetheless, the spread of liberty should be the lofty and broad goal that organizes American foreign policy for the coming decades.
By defining the purposes of American power in these terms, American foreign policymakers achieve several objectives not attainable by narrower or less normative doctrines. First, the liberty doctrine, like containment during the Cold War, is useful in clarifying the relationship between often very different policies. Toppling Saddam Hussein does in fact have something in common with providing education to Afghan women, and a liberty doctrine allows us to see it clearly. Second, the liberty doctrine properly defines our new struggle in terms of ideas, individuals, and regimes — not in terms of states. Allies of liberty exist everywhere, most certainly in Iran and even in Iraq. Likewise, not all the enemies of liberty are states; they also include non-governmental organizations like al Qaeda. Third, the liberty doctrine provides a cause that others — allies of the United States as well as states, movements, and individuals not necessarily supportive of all U.S. strategic interests — can support. For example, the Iraqi regime constitutes an immediate threat to American national security but does not pose the same threat to France or Russia. A campaign against Iraq defined in terms of “national interests” means that we will go it alone. A credible campaign for liberty in Iraq, however, may attract a wider coalition. Fourth, the liberty doctrine underscores two phases of engagement with enemy regimes — the destructive phase and the constructive phase. To demonstrate real commitment to this mission of promoting liberty abroad, the United States must also devote substantial rhetorical attention and concrete resources to the constructive phase of the promotion of liberty. If not, we will be waging military campaigns against new tyrannical regimes over and over again.
Moments for redefining America’s place in the world are rare. Pearl Harbor was one. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 was another, as the Western response helped to crystallize the need for a vigorous containment strategy in Europe, including the creation of nato the following year. The invasion of South Korea in 1950 was a critically important moment, prompting the quick adoption of nsc-68 as the strategic blueprint for containing communist aggression worldwide. The September attacks against innocent Americans on U.S. soil can be another seminal event in refocusing the American mission. The task, however, requires conceptual framing, choices, and articulation. It will not happen naturally and organically as the result of events. The end of the Gulf War and the end of the Cold War could have been pivotal moments in the redefinition of American foreign policy and the international system, but they were not.1 Bush has stated correctly that “we’re in a fight for civilization itself.” But to undertake such a colossal task, we must clearly define the enemies of civilization and freedom, map a strategy for defeating those enemies, and then commit to a plan that expands civilization and freedom.
Knowing the enemy
Since September 11, many policymakers and commentators have noted the uniqueness and newness of our current era. They are wrong. The intellectual challenge of defining the enemy may not be as difficult as it first looks. During World War II and again during the Cold War, the enemy was clearly those fascist, imperialist, and communist forces that abhorred liberty and aimed to destroy democracy. America’s new enemy is cut from the same anti-Western, anti-democratic, anti-liberal cloth.
The decade after the Cold War, like the shorter interregnum between World War II and the Cold War, created at times the illusion of “mission accomplished.” For some, the end of communism was the end of history. For others, the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the extinction of the only major threat to American security. Obviously, the euphoria and complacency of the 1990s were misplaced. The absence of communism did not translate automatically and smoothly into the presence of democracy. On the contrary, a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, democratic regimes are still a minority in the post-communist world. Although democratic victories in the former communist world did reverberate well beyond Europe, the so-called third wave of democracy failed to splash in whole regions, including the Middle East and many other parts of the Muslim world. Nor did the weakening of the Soviet Union and then of Russia enhance U.S. security (American territory was never attacked during the Cold War). The hegemony of balance-of-power theories among American strategic thinkers fueled a false sense of security once the United States became the world’s sole superpower.
Using labels such as “enlargement” and “neo-Reaganism,” some statesmen and intellectuals tried in the 1990s to continue or reestablish the normative agenda of spreading liberty as the primary focus of American foreign policy.2 In part and at times, they succeeded. nato expansion and the successful military campaign against Serbia are achievements of the 1990s that both Ronald Reagan and Woodrow Wilson would celebrate. Most of the time in the past decade, however, these promoters of a muscular policy of spreading liberty were derided as either quixotic imperialists or international social workers because most Americans, including many American leaders, believed that real threats to American security had vanished. Medicaid reform and liaisons with interns were the burning issues of that time.
In the long run, the 1990s should look like the interregnum, while history after September 11 should mark the return of a United States engaged in the world with both a moral and self-interested purpose — the purpose of defending and spreading liberty. Defining our international mission in these terms is the best way to frame, sustain support for, and ultimately win the war on terrorism.
As in previous struggles, the essence of the enemy is ideological. Osama bin Laden and his followers do not want territory or treasure. They seek the destruction of liberal democracies and the way of life that these regimes provide. Like communism, extreme versions of Islamic fundamentalism offer followers a comprehensive set of beliefs that explain everything in the world. Communism framed world politics as a Manichean struggle between the forces of good and evil. So too do bin Laden and his ilk, though for them the enemy is modernity in all its variations. Radical communists did not seek a resolution of grievances with the West, a negotiated settlement including such things as Angolan independence and higher wages for West European workers. Rather, the mission was the total destruction of the United States, its allies, and its way of life. Colonialism and “worker exploitation” were good for the communist cause. Likewise, those embracing the Islamic totalitarianism propagated by bin Laden have not limited their aims to the creation of a Palestinian state, the removal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia, or even the obliteration of Israel. On the contrary, these issues help fuel anti-American mobilization and therefore serve bin Laden’s purposes. Their mission is much grander — the destruction of the West. Like some of the early Bolsheviks, bin Laden wants to join a world war between us and them as soon as possible. Bin Laden and his followers hoped that September 11 would spark a global war between Islam and the West.
Not all American enemies embrace all tenets of this anti-Western and anti-modern ideology. Saddam Hussein, for example, is a regional imperialist first and foremost. Yet he has allied with the more ideological and radical anti-Western zealots because of their mutual enemy — the United States. In the long run, such tactical alliances may prove dangerous to the Iraqi regime. Germany, after all, eventually paid a terrible price for aiding Lenin’s return to Russia. In the short run, however, the combination of ideological purpose and the state resources of regimes like Iraq presents a powerful and serious threat to the United States and the Western world. If a few key regimes in the region fall, then this threat has the potential to acquire serious military and economic capacities quickly and unexpectedly.3
In meeting the challenge of the new enemy (or more accurately, the newly discovered enemy, since bin Laden and his supporters threatened and attacked the United States for years before September 11), we must define our mission as broadly as our enemies do — though of course not in the same terms. Most important, U.S. officials must combat bin Laden’s false dichotomy of Islam versus the West. During the Cold War, the United States and its allies successfully refuted the false dichotomy of capitalists versus the workers (and later, the peasants) offered up by communists. The same must be done now. Our alternative framework must define the barricades between those for liberty and those against. Cast in these terms, Muslims and Christians, Americans and Iranians, Arabs and Italians can all be on the same side. Framed in these terms, the enemy is also much larger than Islamic totalitarians and includes all those who oppose liberty, be they dictators in North Korea or sheiks in Saudi Arabia. Of course, the immediate focus of the war must remain those tyrannical forces most threatening to American security interests, a list that includes bin Laden and Iraq but not Saudi Arabia or Egypt.
When the enemy is defined in these normative or ideological terms, the United States is no longer fighting a “war on terrorism.” Terrorism is a means, a tool, a tactic that motivated foes deploy to achieve political and ideological ends. By framing our new battle as “a war on terrorism,” we set out to do battle with a “means” and not the people, ideologies, and causes that deploy this weapon. We cannot fight a winning war against this means. In order to defeat the enemy, we must understand the objectives and motivations of the enemy. A “war on terrorism” is like a “war on violence” and can never be won. A war against Islamic totalitarianism and also for democracy, however, can be won, even if pockets of terrorists will continue to exist.
Knowing the prescription
There will always be fringe figures and cultist kooks who embrace fanatical ideas. They exist today even in the United States, and on occasion, as we learned tragically when Timothy McVeigh carried out his dastardly attack in Oklahoma City, they even strike out against the state within established democracies. But such people prosper and become powerful enough to threaten the United States only when they reside in states that protect and assist them. And these states are always authoritarian. The purpose of American power, therefore, must be to enlarge the community of democratic states and democratic citizens around the world.
Democracies do not attack each other. This hope from centuries ago about the relationship between domestic regime type and international behavior received empirical validation in the twentieth century. No country’s national security has benefited more from the spread of democracy than the United States’s. Today, every democracy in the world has cordial relations with the United States. No democracies are enemies of the United States. Not all dictatorships in the world are foes of the United States, but every foe of the United States — Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Cuba, and (possibly in the future) China — is a dictatorship. With few exceptions, the countries that provide safe haven to non-state enemies of the United States are autocratic regimes. With rare exceptions, the median voter in consolidated democracies pushes extreme elements to the sidelines of the political arena. Democracies also are more transparent, which makes them more predictable and less able to hide hostile activities, such as the production of weapons of mass destruction for non-state actors. Logically, then, the expansion of liberty and democracy around the world is a U.S. national security interest.
The deductive logic of the liberty doctrine is complemented by empirical evidence from the twentieth century. In the first half of the last century, imperial Japan and fascist Germany constituted the greatest threats to U.S. national security. The destruction of these tyrannical regimes followed by the imposition of democratic regimes in Germany and Japan helped make these two countries American allies.
In the second half of the past century, Soviet communism and its supporters represented the greatest threat to American national security. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union has greatly enhanced American national security. The emergence of democracies in eastern Central Europe a decade ago and the fall of dictators in southeastern Europe more recently have radically improved the European security climate, and therefore U.S. national security interests. Without question, however, liberty’s expansion produced the greatest payoff for American national security when democratic ideas and practices began to take hold within the Soviet Union and then Russia. So long as unreconstructed communists ruled there, the ussr represented a unique threat to American security. When the communist regime disintegrated and a new democratically oriented regime began to take hold in Russia, this threat to the United States diminished almost overnight.4
In spearheading the successful struggle against communism, the United States made mistakes that must be avoided in the new campaign. Oftentimes we confused means and ends, so that all users of violence against non-communist states and actors were considered part of the world communist movement. Not long ago, Nelson Mandela was labeled a “communist terrorist.” So too were many anti-colonial movements whose real aim was sovereignty, not world revolution. Distinguishing between those focused on territorial or ethnic disputes and those dedicated to a global messianic mission is critical in the new war. During the battle against communism, we initially treated the entire communist world as monolithic, a mistake we cannot repeat with the Islamic world. The new struggle requires that we embrace and support moderate, pro-democratic Muslim forces. Our overzealous search for enemies from within in the 1950s and its tragic consequences must be remembered and not repeated. One of our great resources in fighting the new war is the testimony of the several million Muslims living in the United States who successfully practice their faith but also live (and thrive) in a secular, democratic state.
The Cold War also diverted the United States into courting almost all anti-communist regimes around the world, be they dictatorships or democracies. Over the years, though, the democracies on this list proved to be the more effective and reliable allies. Not infrequently, ostensible gains from partnerships with autocratic governments and movements — such as the shah in Iran, the Suharto regime in Indonesia, the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, and the apartheid system in South Africa — were more than offset by setbacks to American security and embarrassments to American ideals.
The United States, especially under Ronald Reagan, also supported anti-communist movements and groups that sought to overthrow Soviet puppet regimes. The objective was noble, but the strategy sometimes suffered from two flaws. First, American foreign policymakers devoted real attention and resources to the destruction of communist regimes but failed to follow through with the same level of effort to construct new democratic regimes in the same places. Afghanistan is a perfect example of this failure to follow through. The goal of expanding liberty should have continued in the wake of communism’s collapse. Instead, U.S. policymakers were content to try to preserve the new order and abandon those regions and allies important to the struggle against communism but considered marginal to the post-Cold War order.5 Second, many of these anti-communist allies had dubious democratic credentials. Many failed states dominated by non-democratic forces (who were once American allies) are Cold War legacies that have combined to create a threat to the United States.
After the Cold War, American policymakers (especially during the first Bush administration) also defined a conservative role for the United States in the world. If Reagan purposively sought to revise the world order in place when he became president, Bush and to a lesser extent Clinton sought to preserve the “new world order.” This status quo impulse produced successful policies, such as the preservation of Kuwaiti sovereignty. Yet American uneasiness with revolutionary change — even when it was democratic change — also allowed some opportunities to be lost. In the Middle East, preserving the status quo meant preserving existing borders (thus the war against Iraq) but also maintaining the balance of power (thus the refusal to dismantle Iraq). On the frontlines of the anti-communist revision, in places like Angola, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the post-Cold War era brought with it a policy of neglect. In all of these neglected pockets, the result was autocracy at best, failed states in the extreme, but no advancement of liberty.
The next phase of the war on terrorism, therefore, must be the expansion of liberty to these areas. The United States cannot be content with preserving the current order in the international system. Rather, the United States must become once again a revisionist power — a country that seeks to change the international system as a means of enhancing its own national security. Moreover, this mission must be offensive in nature. The United States cannot afford to wait and react to the next attack. Rather, we must seek to isolate and destroy our enemies by eliminating their regimes and safe havens. The ultimate purpose of American power is the creation of an international community of democratic states that encompasses every region of the planet.
It must be remembered that the battle against communism was a worldwide, multifaceted campaign that included military action and deterrence against communist states and non-state actors, economic support for countries threatened by communist takeover, and an ideological counteroffensive. The century-long campaign ended only when the war of ideas, not a battle of tanks, was won. We now face a similar long-term, multifaceted struggle.
Avoiding faulty frameworks
To many, the goal of promoting liberty worldwide will seem fanciful, naïve, imperialist, and dangerous. Compared to what? Is the promotion of democracy in Iraq, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia a larger task than defeating fascism in mighty Germany or communism in the superpower once known as the ussr? And do the alternatives offer a better strategy for enhancing American national security? Upon closer review, other foreign policy objectives and strategies are either harder to achieve or present an inaccurate picture of the nature of the international system and America’s role in it — or both.
Isolationism is the most dangerous alternative approach but, after September 11, also the most discredited. We cannot build an American fortress. Even the most robust missile defense system or homeland security policy will leave the United States exposed.
The leftist version of isolationism — “live and let live” or respect for state sovereignty over all other concerns — also is neither progressive nor smart. A half-century ago, norms of decolonization became closely associated with norms of respecting state sovereignty. They must be divorced now. The American violation of Afghan sovereignty was progressive in promoting the individual human rights of the Afghan people — especially women. In contrast, those that recognized the sovereignty of the Taliban regime (or many other tyrannical regimes around the world) did little to advance the liberties of individuals. The leftist version of isolationism and inaction has become just as dangerous and bankrupt as the right-wing variant.
Realism, the most revered approach to international relations in elite and academic circles, also has offered false promises for defending the United States. Realists have appropriated an excellent label (who wants to be “unrealistic”?) to disguise muddled thinking and bad policy.
Realists rightly understand the importance of power in international politics. They focus first and foremost on the distribution of power in the international system as the primary driver of events, including the two big classes of events: war and the absence of war. The prescription for enhancing state security that follows from realist analysis is to balance the power capabilities of other states.
Understanding the importance of power and the dynamics of balance of power policies are critical components for formulating an effective U.S. foreign policy, but an exclusive focus on these factors is insufficient for defending American national interests. Realists make three egregious errors of omission. First, because they never look inside states, realists ignore the distinct policy preferences of regimes and individuals. Of course, power was a component of the German threat under Hitler and the Soviet threat under Stalin — but only one component. These leaders and the regimes they constructed threatened American national security because of the ideological missions they defined for themselves. The same is true for bin Laden and his followers.
Second, Mohammed Atta and his evil act on September 11 refuted one of the central tenets of realist strategy — deterrence. Those animated by ideological world missions cannot be deterred by traditional means of power balancing. In today’s world, there is no doubt that the United States is the world’s hegemon and is likely to remain the world’s lone superpower or hyperpower for decades to come. The United States will soon spend as much on defense as the next 15 “powers” in the world combined, and many on this list of top powers are American allies. Both friends and foes of the United States share this assessment of the balance of power in the international system. This preponderance of power may deter other relatively powerful states, such as Russia, China, or all of Europe, from seeking to balance against the United States. This is a positive outcome for American national interests. But this same pile of power that compels Russia to bandwagon with the United States has done little to alter the behavior of bin Laden and his followers.
A third flaw of realism is the erroneous assumption that preserving the balance of power and therefore (in realists’ view) stability, be it in the international system as a whole or in a specific region, is easier than promoting democracy within regimes. Preserving order or stability is considered always desirable and always more achievable than regime change, which is cast as an impossible task, especially in places like Afghanistan with a long history of bad government.6 Advocates of balance of power politics can point to some noteworthy successes to bolster their claims. The Concert of Europe in the nineteenth century, for instance, preserved the peace for the core countries of that system for nearly a century. Yet the examples of success are eclipsed by the numerous failures of balance of power tinkering in the twentieth century. World War I, of course, punctuated a tragic end to the previous century’s “success.” Attempts at power balancing also failed to prevent World War II. Power balancing did keep the Soviet-American rivalry from becoming a third world war, yet it was regime change inside the Soviet Union, not balance of power politics, that ended the Cold War.
Great powers attempting to engineer stable balances in other regions have enjoyed only limited success. In the twentieth century, the scars of failure are most evident in the Middle East and South Asia. The U.S. strategy of trying to engineer the “proper” balance of power between Iraq and Iran produced no stability, new enemies, and a greater threat to the United States today from this region than two decades ago. It was also realist ideology — that is, the emphasis on the supposed dangers of Iraqi dissolution and the power vacuum that would have ensued — that prevented the United States from removing Saddam Hussein from power in 1991. The record in South Asia is no better. Attempts at balancing power between India and Pakistan have not produced stability. Instead, decades of power balancing plus inattention to the issues dividing these two states have increased the deadly possible consequences of war in the region without diminishing the probability of war.
Above all else, realist ideology when applied to the making of American foreign policy today calls for the preservation of the status quo and the avoidance of active engagement in the domestic affairs of other states. This set of policy prescriptions is exactly what the United States cannot afford to embrace now. Rather than seeking to maintain the current world order, American foreign policymakers must seek to revise the current international system and the states that constitute it. The current order is not safe for America, and “pragmatic inaction” will allow the current order to become even more threatening to the United States and its allies.
Multilateralists, like realists, have contributions to make to the articulation of a new liberty doctrine, but only after several false assumptions are removed from their paradigm. Multilateralists rightly assert that gains accrue to the United States through cooperating with other states. The United States is indeed better off achieving international objectives when possible through cooperative means. Situations that offer win-win payoffs should always be pursued. And the codification of cooperative practices in international treaties and institutions oftentimes can lock into place mutually beneficial arrangements. In addition, American national security is best served when U.S. leaders are active in shaping the agenda of multilateral institutions. American foreign policymakers already have learned how to leverage a “minority share” in institutions like nato and the imf. Especially after September 11, when U.S. resources will be spread thinner to meet new security threats, American leaders must heed the warning of multilateralists and not disengage from the very multilateral institutions that the U.S. helped to construct. Finally, the multilateralist perspective helps analysts and policymakers understand some (though not all) state-to-state interactions. For instance, realist axioms of balance of power politics offer little explanatory power when analyzing or seeking to influence state relations among the core countries of liberal democracy.
This said, parts of the multilateralist doctrine need revision. First, multilateralists devote too little attention to power. They often forget that the most effective multilateral institutions were built by a strong — one might even say hegemonic — United States. American power as well as American participation are necessary conditions of