Responses to Suzanne Nossel

Responses to Suzanne Nossel

Mitchell Cohen

Suzanne Nossel argues well for a “muscular” and restrained foreign policy. I take her point to be that balance, now sorely lacking, is needed badly. I like many of her proposals, especially that for internationalizing the Iraqi situation.

When historians evaluate these last years, I think they will find that George W. Bush was not the fool of left-wing caricatures, but a parochial figure whose isolationist instincts blurred easily into unilateralism under the pressure of events. Isolationism and unilateralism feed each other with unproductive disregard for the rest of the world. Disregard, though, can sometimes have sensible sources. Americans were often contemptuous of European “power politics” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because it resulted in wars. And a government might have cause for unilateral international moves in the twenty-first century given a vital rationale combined with blockage of multilateral options. It all depends on a balanced approach, and imbalance has been the Bush administration’s hallmark in everything from taxes to security.

Regardless of how one views Iraq, this seems clear: judicious multilateralism is essential to America’s long-term needs and security (think of nuclear terrorism). To imagine, as Bush’s team does, that the stronger a country is, the more unilateralist it should be, is strategically perverse. It is when a country is powerful that it is situated to shape multilateral international politics according to its own best values, its better interests, and-this is essential-with due respect to those of its friends. I like Nossel’s proposal for a “listening tour” for its symbolism and because Americans really need to hear, although not always heed, the rest of the world. There are such things as legitimate American interests (part of the left, alas, still doesn’t understand this), but to perceive and to pursue them intelligently requires the displacement of parochial sensibilities by a larger sense of our world. Listening tours should become ongoing conversations.

Nossel defines liberal aims as freedom, democracy, and global security. I find myself saying, “Yes, but . . .” The “but” is social democratic. The United States is not only the world’s foremost military and technological power, but its leading economic one. Why not surprise everyone when refurbishing America’s place in the world by placing socioeconomic suffering-poverty, disease, and illiteracy in what used to be called the “third world”-high on the agenda? Why not a muscular economic dimension in foreign policy on behalf of the have-nots, to dislodge the fashionable neoliberalism of recent years and to advance instead social fairness and economic rights (in addition to, not instead of, supporting political democracy)?