This article was originally published in the Spring 1998 issue of the Harvard International Review.
The road to wisdom is not traveled by conveniently finding the right answers along the way, but by realizing what the right questions are. Rather than develop arbitrary rules on when and where the United States should intervene in various international events, US leaders must paint a detailed picture of how to conduct foreign policy as we enter the 21st century. The United States is at the beginning of what will be, at the very least, two generations of global intervention. This demands a sweeping and fundamental rethink of how the United States engages in international relations.
We are at the end of the commercial-industrial era of diplomacy, a pattern of diplomatic activity which emerged in the 16th century. Until recently, global communication was extremely limited. Consequently, diplomacy was long characterized by the dispatch of ambassadors and envoys to foreign nations where they operated with great latitude because their superiors would be unable to reach them for months at a time. It was a world in which international relations were removed from the purview and concern of the citizenry, most of whom lived their entire lives focused on their own domestic affairs.
Today, the diplomatic stage is dramatically different. We are witness to the emergence of an information age, and diplomacy will undoubtedly adjust to reflect that new reality. Our world is now lived in “real time”: today, television grants the individual instant access to events around the globe. Soon, television and the Internet will allow anyone anywhere to view news broadcasts from any nation. This level of information proliferation is unlike anything the human race has ever known. In that context, to suggest that we’re going to have traditional ambassadors in traditional embassies reporting through a bureaucracy to the secretary of state should strike one as unimaginable. In many aspects of the real world, things no longer work that way.
Now, if the secretary of state gets up in the morning, turns on CNN, and notices that something strange has happened, she calls the State Department, the National Security Council, or the White House—the relevant ambassador may get a call, but he is not a vital link in the chain. Foreign ambassadors have become less vital as well because the secretary of state often contacts foreign heads of state or foreign ministers directly. The modern world, therefore, is an arena in which information is available to nearly all members of society simultaneously.
The US House of Representatives has confronted this new reality by adopting a four-step model of leadership: listen, learn, help, and lead. We must develop a similar model for US international leadership. First, the United States must listen to the nations of the world and learn from them. Then, it must take steps to help nations and peoples in need. Only then should the United States lead. This is the essential challenge. Unless the United States changes its leadership style, it will create enormous resentment around the globe.
The United States’ dominant style of international leadership came out of World War II and was appropriate for meeting the Soviet threat. The nation had to bind together an anti-Soviet coalition. During the Cold War, aggressive US leadership was tolerable because the alternative was totally unacceptable. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, there is no natural enemy against which to organize international affairs. One of the great challenges today is to recognize that, despite the enormous economic and military power of the United States, unless it adopts a more careful and more learning- and listening-oriented style, it will alienate many of its allies.
If the United States does not modify its ability to unify its allies and listen to them, it may face a large anti-American coalition of nations unified in their opposition to US hegemony. That would be dangerous not only for the United States, but for the cause of freedom. Freedom is at the heart of the US model, and the nation remains the most powerful positive force or freedom in the world. If the United States loses its credibility and influence, the cause of freedom will suffer.
The modern world is characterized by increasing freedoms, global information systems, a unifying world economy, and a range of global threats from drug trafficking and terrorism to traditional military threats. The United States must confront these new realities by profoundly rethinking the foundations of its foreign policy and its diplomatic strategy.