Time to reshape U.S. foreign policy

March 04, 2001|By R. David Harden

DHAKA, Bangladesh - Globalists warn President Bush that he's not dealing with his father's foreign policy.

Their warning is a response to the perception that the Bush foreign policy team - the realists - will narrow the role of U.S. engagement to direct threats to our national security. But these opposing camps miss the mark in charting a course for America's global role.

The realists are wrong because the public demands that America respond to global problems, including systemic human rights abuses, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and environmental degradation.

Analytical error, however, does not rest with the realists alone. The globalists overestimate our resources and influence. As National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice noted, "We cannot be the world's 9-1-1." To do so means inserting American sons and daughters into dangerous situations without clear missions. The use of broad military force is wonderful - until the coffins are off-loaded onto the tarmac at Dover, Del.

The South Asian country of Bangladesh provides a good example of this tension between realists and globalists.

This democratic Islamic nation of 130 million people is terribly poor, crowded and overshadowed by India, Pakistan and Afghanistan in arguably the most dangerous neighborhood on the planet. Under old-realist thinking, there would be little American interest in Bangladesh because of its relative geopolitical unimportance.

Yet U.S. interests in Bangladesh are absolutely significant. For instance, American and other Western international gas companies - including Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer, drilling giant Halliburton - have invested about $500 million here.

Additionally, the garment and textile trade between the United States and Bangladesh means nearly another $2 billion annually. Prime Minister Sheik Hasina, a rare female leader in the Islamic world, cooperates with our government on issues ranging from terrorism and drug trafficking to proliferation of nuclear weapons.

These types of interests demand that the United States engage even in countries like Bangladesh. But America does not have the resources, influence, desire or right to fix all of the wrongs in any country. Our limited engagement will never be the sole answer to another nation's problems.

What to do?

The unending debate about what's best for our national interests must be redefined. The breadth of those interests may be less important than the appropriate response to emerging challenges. Based on my experiences working in Africa and Asia, I offer three suggestions to better manage our foreign policy.

First, the Bush team should expand the role of our intelligence agencies to analyze evolving non-military threats to U.S. interests.

To some extent, these agencies already are moving in the right direction. Recently, the National Intelligence Estimate noted that infectious diseases represent an emerging threat, given that the death rate from those diseases has doubled in America since 1980. Also, the National Security Council identified the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a national security threat with the potential to undermine stable governments in southern Africa. Last year, the CIA documented the tragic smuggling of women and children into the United States to serve as forced laborers or unwitting prostitutes. Better intelligence will justify the necessary resources to meet these emerging threats.

Second, the Bush administration should adopt something akin to the Colin Powell military doctrine in the diplomatic context. That doctrine requires that our armed forces have a clear purpose, employ overwhelming power, exit the battlefield and claim victory.

In non-military circumstances, a Powell diplomatic doctrine would require the United States to forge a clear purpose prior to action, commit sufficient resources, execute completely and claim victory. A focused diplomatic doctrine is America's first line of defense.

Third, the Bush administration should actively shape the foreign policy message. Few people at home or abroad know the real work of our government - the peace brokered, refugees saved, poor fed, children immunized, trade fostered, democracy promoted and American interests advanced. If we do not control our foreign policy message, others will. The world and the heartland should know the benefits of an engaged America.

Now is the time to rethink the foreign policy craft. Greater intelligence, clear strategies and effective communication are essential in advancing our national interests.

R. David Harden is a Foreign Service Officer working at the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh with the United States Agency for International Development as the legal adviser for Bangladesh, India and Nepal. This article represents his opinion only.

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