US Foreign Policy: No Easy Answers
Deficits and a hesitant public weaken US abroad, says National Security Adviser Lake
IN his desk at the State Department, where he presided during the early years of the cold war, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had three boxes, according to one biographer. One was marked ``IN.'' One was marked ``OUT.'' The third was marked ``TOO HARD.''Skip to next paragraph
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Nearly half a century later, as the United States plots its course in the post-cold-war era, the ``TOO HARD'' box seems to be fuller than ever.
Critics of the Clinton administration say the proliferation of unresolved foreign problems now facing the US, from North Korea to Haiti, has a simple explanation: mismanagement, a lack of vision, and the inattention of an inexperienced president who is more interested in domestic matters than events abroad.
But one of the chief architects of President Clinton's foreign policy disagrees. In a Monitor interview, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake insists that it's simply harder to make foreign policy today than it has ever been before - harder for reasons that also bedeviled the Bush administration as it tried to frame coherent responses to crises in places like Bosnia and Ethiopia.
``In many respects we face the same challenge that we did in the 1940s - building new policies in a new world - but the domestic politics of it is more like the 1920s,'' Mr. Lake says of the awkward circumstances that now confront US policymakers.
Following World War I, isolationism at home prevented the US from playing an active role abroad. Following the cold war, the public mood now is not isolationist but is more hesitant about engagement abroad. With no clear threat like the Soviet Union, with no counterpart to the broad strategy of containing Soviet expansion, and with no single theme to describe a foreign policy that has necessarily become more ad hoc - all advantages enjoyed during the cold war era - it has become far harder to define US policy, to explain it to the public, and to galvanize support for it at home, Lake says.
``We've come through 50 years of what was unusual in American history, and that was a clear consensus behind policies of engagement in the world,'' says the soft-spoken former professor. ``More traditionally, throughout our history there has been a basic argument about how deeply America should be engaged, and I think we're getting back into that now.''
Lake says policymakers are now forced to operate in the absence of public agreement that any challenge from abroad is worth American casualties or the investment of resources to pay for foreign aid or peacekeeping ventures. Even if there were such a consensus, domestic budget deficits, which have weakened the US's relative economic position, have reduced the ability of the US to act as a great power on the world stage.
``Today's dangers are diffuse and they come in many different sizes and shapes, and there's no single one whose solution is the silver bullet that would help solve all the others,'' Lake says. ``And that's much more complicated.''
Beyond the restrictive domestic environment is the utter complexity of the events abroad, where even good news can complicate the job of Western policymakers. The good news is that democracy is spreading. But even as governments have become more responsive, their authority has been weakened by the globalization of the world economy. The unintended result: the weakening of regimes and rise of protectionism, trends that militate against global order and are largely beyond the ability of the Western powers to shape.
Order is also jeopardized by old security threats that now stand out in sharper relief in the more fragmented post-cold-war international environment, Lake says. These include longstanding regional tensions, like those on the Korean peninsula, and the twin threats of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.