Democratic Party foreign policy circles are buzzing with ideas and initiatives aimed at undoing the damage of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. Broadly speaking, these designs are based on a vision of an activist foreign policy that is unafraid to use military power, confront enemies, and root out threats, but is at the same time far more mindful than the Bush administration of the need for allies, resources, and a realistic long-term perspective on the potential and limitations of American power. They pledge to succeed where Bush has failed-in restoring alliances and building new ones, cracking down on terror networks, containing nuclear proliferation, realigning relationships in the Middle East, and bringing to bear American political and moral influence in support of these and other goals. They are confident that once in power they will perform these tasks far better than their predecessors. Better planning, improved supervision, more adequate resources, and wiser divisions of labor will enable them to accomplish an ambitious set of goals.
All this is good thinking. Democrats are not shrinking from the challenges posed by Iraq, global terrorism, or nuclear proliferation. Theirs is a muscular, engaged vision that builds on bold liberal internationalist traditions of using American power to advance freedom, democracy, and global security through alliances and international institutions.
But if John Kerry is elected president in November, Democrats will not be working with a blank slate. Rather, they will inherit an America that is less popular and less legitimate in the eyes of the world than at any point in its history as a superpower. The policy consequences of having squandered the regard of the world are now painfully apparent: a failed Iraqi occupation, aborted attempts at peacemaking in the Middle East, stalemate over North Korea combined with the eclipse of American power in Asia, impasses with once-close allies in Europe and Latin America, the ouster or ostracization of the few world leaders who have stood by the United States, a global public that took the horror of Abu Ghraib as confirmation of what they have come to expect of the United States of late.
Democrats can take some consolation from international polls that show that anger at the United States is focused on the Bush administration. If the U.S. electorate turns the president out, the world seems inclined to give the country a chance to recover lost goodwill. Most American allies recognize that an isolated, unilateralist superpower makes for a dysfunctional international system.
EVEN IF KERRY wins, international attitudes toward the United States won’t change automatically or overnight. For one thing, although many foreign governments and peoples lament U.S. isolation, plenty of others have a vested interest in seeing it continue or worsen. This group includes not just sworn U.S. enemies in the Islamic world and elsewhere, but ...
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