Democrats offer alternative to GOP isolationism

April 13, 2006|By EDWARD GOLDBERG

American culture is a marketplace, and there is no better political definition of that marketplace than the foreign policy of the out-of-power party. The products sold there are the various ideas of America's role in the world and how America should relate to it.

The customers are the potential primary election voters, the media and various decision-makers within that party. In the political marketplace of the party that's out of power, the system discourages any single leader from making definitive policy for the party. Instead, there is a variety of leaders each contending in the battle for leadership.

But just because ideas are in contention does not mean that there is no historic tradition that ties together different ideas on foreign policy.

And in the Democratic Party, that tradition is multilateralism - the concept that America is part of the world, not separate from it.

Multilateralism is as core to the Democratic Party's concept of foreign policy as isolationism is to the Republican Party's. Of course, in the nature of politics, words often lose or change their meaning, but concepts are more or less consistent.

So although President Bush argued in response to the uproar over the Dubai port debacle that he feared America becoming isolationist, the foreign policy tenets of his administration are rooted in good old-fashioned Republican isolationism.

Whether it is the concept of pre-emption and going it alone or the "star wars" missile defense program that Mr. Bush still heavily funds, his basic view is that America is separate, can act separately and needs to be protected from the world. Mr. Bush believes the United States does not need to seek legitimacy from the approval of other nations. His administration believes that international institutions and international law are nothing more than a trap set by weaker nations to constrain America.

Mr. Bush's foreign policy philosophy echoes and mimics the Republican isolationist policies of the early 1950s. At that time, a hard-line faction of congressional Republicans led by Senate Majority Leader Robert Taft fought virtually every measure to build the postwar international order.

They opposed NATO and the permanent deployment of U.S. troops in Europe. They believed instead that we should rely on the unilateral exercise of military power to defeat Soviet aggression. They fought the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and turned against the United Nations.

A foreign policy based on the principles of multilateralism views the world not from the myth system of a roaming cowboy-vigilante, but from the perspective of a settled Western town that needs law to grow and needs orderly relations with its neighbors in order to prosper.

Multilateralism became the foreign policy philosophy of the Democratic Party as America was emerging as a world power. Deriving in part from the immigrant base of the party during the early 20th century, it urged America to be part of the world. It was a philosophy in some ways almost directly opposite to Theodore Roosevelt's Republican mantra that America was a new and growing power but separate and special.

Multilateralism has been a core foreign policy principle of the Democratic Party beginning with President Woodrow Wilson's belief in the League of Nations. It went from there to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's ideas for the United Nations, to President Harry S. Truman, the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO, and, most recently, to President Bill Clinton's leadership of NATO against the former Yugoslavia.

It is a philosophy that views a strong America confident enough in its values to work in concert with like-minded countries.

No one can argue that the primary objective of U.S. foreign policy must be to make the United States secure in the world, whether that means applying our power to fight terrorism and the spread of deadly weapons or to preserve open markets for our industries.

But if there is one lesson America has learned in the last three years, it is that our power and influence will be resented and often resisted by the rest of the world if they are applied to support our myths of how the world should be and not for purposes that are more broadly shared.

So the next time you read or hear a pundit simplistically bemoaning that the Democrats have no foreign policy, your answer should be, of course not, that's not how our system works. But they do have a specific tradition and philosophy. And that philosophy rightfully decries the bankruptcy of Mr. Bush's foreign policy and the harm it has done to America.

Edward Goldberg, president of a New York-based consulting firm, advised Sen. John Kerry on Russia and the Confederation of Independent States for the 2004 election. His e-mail is

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