Tuesday, December 13

Get out of our way

"Hi, Pundita,
Sorry to learn you're leaving the bloggysphere. Best of luck to you in future. Before you go I'm hoping you can answer my question. If you had the power to change one thing about US foreign policy, what would it be?
Tom in Sioux City"

Dear Tom:
If I had a magic wand I would de-Europeanize the thinking at the US Department of State and replace it with American-style thinking.

The United States of America is founded on a concept of universal values. Whether or not one agrees with the stated values, the American outlook transcends the rivalries and struggles for power that mark tribalized, clannish aggregates of people.

Europe is not founded; it is many clannish peoples having to live close together on one more-or-less contiguous body of land. The outlook that arose from that experience is grounded in the struggle to maintain equilibrium. The outlook, when applied to gaining trade and diplomatic advantages, resulted in the famous "divide and rule" thinking and tactics of the European trading powers.

The leaders of modern Europe know all that; the founding of the European Union was an attempt to unite Europe around basic principles that all Europeans could agree upon. The leaders envisioned a United States of Europe -- a true European nation.

Whether or not such nation will come about someday, old ways of thinking die hard. When people are under pressure, they fall back on the fighting style they know best. In this case, it is to bring out as many differences as possible in order to gain advantage, and by such means control a situation. That style of fighting is second nature to the European leaders, their foreign offices and intelligence agencies.

Yet one look at the situations in Africa and the Middle East shows that this is the very worst time in history to be focusing on differences that sharply divide people. So while the kindest thing you could say about America's grasp of the situations in those two regions is that we're on a steep learning curve, our instincts are right.

Between them, the British and French foreign ministries know everything there is to know about the tribes of Africa and the Middle East; they can recite chapter and verse the history of every Islamic sect and every blood feud that has arisen in the Middle East and Africa going back to the Old Testament. But what use is it to have a scorecard, if you're standing out in the parking lot during the ball game?

America has, due to sheer ignorance, stumbled into one cultural land mine after another since throwing our weight around in Iraq. Yet when history is at your back and your instincts are right, that means you're in ballpark.

Here is the ballpark: once technology collapses the world into a very small place, innumerable differences must take second place to universal values when it comes to the foundations of government.

That kind of thinking comes naturally to Americans and with it should come an approach to foreign relations that emphasizes universal values. The European Union leaders are now busy trying to co-opt this approach but they are doing it as a means to brake what they see as growing American hegemony in the Middle East.

In other words, no matter how hard Europe's leaders try to think universally during their waking hours, they mumble "triangulation" if shaken awake in the middle of the night. Triangulation, detente -- whatever it takes to keep the other fellow off balance.

Yet like a fool, State's most powerful offices still think it's possible to bring about peace and non-despotic governments in the Middle East, if they only follow more closely the collective advice of Europe's leaders!

Earth calling the US Department of State: those leaders are not advising in order to bring about peace and democracy; they're trying to maintain influence in the Middle East. The same situation holds true for the African nations.

Europe's leaders have a right to try to maintain their influence and between them, they have some good advice for America. Yet State needs to place the advice in the context of the American outlook.

State also needs to follow on with the tradition that Secretary Condoleezza Rice is eking out. As you know I have been sharply critical of Rice and remain so; she has followed State's dogmatic views on Russia, Latin American countries, and China and with predictable bad results. However, if you study Rice's constant travels you'll see that she is pioneering an approach whereby the President's chief foreign relations advisor gives great weight to the advice of the government in question.

This is a revolutionary approach for American's foreign office, which has traditionally given the greatest weight to the advice of close allies. So it is an empirical approach rather than a dogmatic one and thus, perfectly suited to the present era.

The catch is that the empirical approach has already raised a red flag among the NATO allies. Yet President Bush is determined to hold the NATO alliance together, as he is determined to refurbish all the American led post-World War Two international/ regional organizations.

I understand the principles guiding the President's decision and being human I also want to have my cake and eat it too. But once you start down the road (for example)of listening first to what the Egyptians advise about Egypt rather than what the Saudis or NATO heads or the IMF advise -- I perceive a crossroads down the line.

Which road we take will depend greatly on whether the US Department of State is dominated by the American or European outlook.

6:30 PM Update
I just received a letter from a reader who thought he could catch Pundita napping. The writer asked what kind of universal values American foreign policy should promote, given that I'd admitted that not everyone would agree with the values at the top of America's list.

My answer is that government is under discussion, not a philosopher's concept of a perfect society or a theologian's metaphysics. Peoples living under a freely elected government have no serious dispute with this statement of universal values as applied to government:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

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