PARIS -- THE DEBATE over U.S. foreign policy divides Washington in a new way. There are both neo-conservatives and liberals who defend the policy of using American power to promote democracy worldwide. The "benevolent hegemony" camp allies itself with the Wilsonian idealists, the latter an unmistakable influence on Clinton administration policy.
Against them stand the so-called neo-isolationists, usually thought leftists, often accused of disenchantment with America, but also the "realists," who take a traditionally conservative and usually pessimistic view of history and of the constraints on national policy.
The promoters of democracy make two arguments. They say that international stability today depends on U.S. leadership worldwide. They also argue that foreign policy must be a crusade to spread American ideas and values in order for it to be true to the nation's values and win the support of the American public.
There is something in these arguments, but less than one might think. American policy today, framed as promoting democracy and U.S. principles, and thereby stabilizing the international system, is often in practice a destabilizing factor in world affairs.
That was just demonstrated in the Far East. President Clinton knocked the foundations from under a Japanese-American security alliance which for nearly a half-century, since the Korean War, had been the most important element in East Asia's political stability.
America's relationships with Japan and Taiwan, Washington's two closest Far Eastern allies for nearly a half-century, now have been subordinated to a new relationship with China, enemy of Taiwan's independence and for more than a century modern Japan's rival for Asian predominance. This effective reversal of alliances was rationalized by Mr. Clinton as a way to promote eventual Chinese democracy.
That might be excused as an idiosyncratic decision by this administration. It occurred, however, in the context of Asia's economic crisis, steadily deepening during the past year, whose origins lie in the American-sponsored globalization of the major Asian economies.
That bound them to an international financial system of investment and speculation which no one controls, and put them at the mercy of globalized market forces much more powerful than any government. The result has been a sweeping destruction of Asian economic structures and enterprises, bringing social upheaval with it, and in some places political crisis.
The internationalization and deregulation of Asian markets was promoted by the United States because the prevailing neo-liberal economic ideology insisted that this was the way toward universal prosperity, while Washington had convinced itself that it was the way to universal democracy as well.
Yet it was evident from the start that globalization is automatically destabilizing. It progresses by destroying what exists. This is rationalized as "creative destruction," a formula which concedes the destruction but postulates an eventual positive outcome. Possibly there will be such an outcome, but that is a matter of faith. The balance of the account so far is negative.
It is not a pejorative point but a statement of fact that current U.S. economic and foreign policy has been, and in crucial respects continues to be, a destabilizing force in international relations. Yet those who support this policy claim that it is a program to establish international stability and order -- and American values.
The United States is a radical and disruptive force to the extent that it uses its power to impose deregulated markets, destroying existing economic institutions and markets in foreign countries, and strives to promote democratic forms of government to replace the political systems those countries now possess. One would think this obvious.
The backers of activist policy in Washington agree that America is a revolutionary power, but they say it is a benevolent and liberating one, achieving the nation's -- and indeed the world's -- manifest destiny. They say that in any case it is imperative that the United States use its power to establish an international system which conforms to its interests and principles.
The critics, this writer obviously among them, would suggest that they vastly underestimate the complexity of international society, the relevance of the American model to the rest of the globe, and the actual power the United States possesses to install its model of society elsewhere.
This brings us to the condescending argument that if the American people are not enlisted in a crusade abroad they will become isolationists. Isolationism simply is not a feasible policy for any nation today, thanks to international economic integration and rivalry, as well as to the political inheritance of the past six decades.
The U.S. public has always liked to see its wars as crusades, but so does nearly everyone else. Its reluctance to see U.S. troops at risk suggests that its appetite for crusades is currently low. In peacetime, Americans have proven perfectly capable of distinguishing between crusades and interests.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 7/13/98