America’s Assignment: What will we face in the next four years?


As these lines are being written, the election process is still in full swing. But this week, barring another deadlocked outcome, the campaign that has mesmerized America will be over. What will remain are the challenges that gave rise to this occasionally frenzied battle and the responsibility of dealing with them. No president has faced an agenda of comparable scope. This is not hyperbole; it is the hand history has dealt this generation. Never before has it been necessary to conduct a war with neither front lines nor geographic definition and, at the same time, to rebuild fundamental principles of world order to replace the traditional ones which went up in the smoke of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The newly elected president's task is perhaps most analogous to that inherited by President Truman at the end of the Second World War. In 1945, the Soviet Union was emerging as a threat to the global equilibrium, while the war had left a vacuum in Central Europe. But the Soviet challenge was concrete and geographically definable. Today's principal threats are abstract and mobile. Terror has no fixed address; it has attacked from Bali to Singapore, Riyadh, Istanbul, Moscow, Madrid, Tunis, New York and Washington. In the 1940s, the solution to the crisis was straightforward, albeit difficult: to construct a defensive line in the center of Europe and an economic program to close the gap between public expectation and the reality of shortages that threatened domestic stability.

The contemporary security challenge arises from two unprecedented sources: terror caused by acts until recently considered a matter for internal police forces rather than international policy, and scientific advances and proliferation that allow the survival of countries to be threatened by developments entirely within another state's territory. Truman could take the legitimacy of the international system for granted; the Atlantic alliance rallied America's West European allies from the Second World War. The newly elected president will have to lead an effort to define and then maintain an international system that reflects the new, revolutionary circumstances.

I supported President Bush during the campaign and hope for his success. But whatever the outcome, the United States cannot tackle this agenda except in the context of a commitment by all sides to healing. All concerned with the future of the country must find ways to cooperate so that the world will again see Americans working toward a common destiny both at home and in the community of nations. It is to such an effort that this article seeks to make a contribution.

Next Steps in Iraq

No issue requires bipartisanship more urgently than the next phase of Iraq policy. If President Bush prevails, it is important that America's adversaries not confuse the passion of an election period with lack of unity regarding ultimate goals. If Senator Kerry wins, there is an overwhelming need for immediate cooperation between the incoming and the outgoing administration, lest the rhetoric describing the war as unnecessary at the wrong place, coupled with the hiatus imposed by the months of transition, undermine the confidence of the Iraqi authorities and cause a collapse before the new team can even begin to chart a course.

The seeming agreement on at least immediate objectives between the candidates was reflected in their endorsement of the 9/11 Commission Report, which pointed out that terrorism is a method, not a policy. The basic adversary is the radical, fundamentalist militant fringe of Islam, which aims to overthrow both moderate Islamic societies and all others it perceives as standing in the way of restoring an Islamic caliphate. For that reason, many societies that questioned America's intervention nevertheless have a stake in a successful outcome. If a radical government emerges in Baghdad–because the United States is defeated or tires of solitary exertions, even more if Iraq falls into terrorist chaos–the entire Islamic world will find itself in turmoil. Moderate governments will topple or struggle for their existence; countries with substantial Islamic minorities, such as India, Russia and the Philippines, will witness a mounting challenge. Terrorism will spread across Europe. The challenges to America will multiply.

Today the U.S. acts as the trustee of global stability, while domestic obstacles prevent the admission–and perhaps even the recognition–of these realities in many countries. But such a one-sided arrangement cannot continue much longer. Other nations should find it in their interest to participate at least in the tasks of political and economic reconstruction. There is no shortcut around the next steps: the restoration of security in Iraq, especially in areas that have become terrorist sanctuaries, is imperative. No guerrilla war can be won if sanctuaries for insurgents are tolerated.

Having witnessed the challenges of creating local security forces in Indochina, I would warn against approaching the security effort –in too mechanical a manner. In Vietnam, it took far longer to make units ready for combat than simply fulfilling the requirements of a training manual. The effectiveness of Iraqi forces will depend not only on their military training but on the degree to which the emerging Iraqi institutions gain domestic legitimacy. Units without political allegiance are generally least reliable when most needed.

The first national elections scheduled for the end of January are the next step. They should be viewed not as a culmination but as the first and perhaps least complicated achievement in the quest for Iraqi self-government. Democracy in the West evolved over centuries. It required first a church independent of the state; then the Reformation, which imposed pluralism of religion; the Enlightenment, which asserted the autonomy of reason from both church and state; the Age of Discovery, which broadened horizons; and finally capitalism, with its emphasis on competition and the market. None of these conditions exists in the Islamic world. Instead there is a merging of religion and politics inimical to pluralism. A genuine democratic government has come about only in Turkey, paradoxically through the imposition of democratic forms by an autocratic leader. The emergence of democratic institutions and of the arrangements which hold them together cannot be engineered as an act of will; it requires patience and modesty.

It is particularly important to understand the obstacles to democracy in a multiethnic and multireligion society such as Iraq's. In the West, democracy evolved in homogeneous societies. There was no institutional impediment to the minority's becoming a majority. Electoral defeat was considered a temporary setback that could be reversed. But in societies with distinct ethnic or political divisions, minority status often means permanent discrimination and the constant risk of political extinction.

This is a particularly acute issue in Iraq. The country is composed of three major groups: Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis, with the Shiites representing about 60 percent of the population and the other two groups about 20 percent each. For 500 years, the Sunnis have dominated by military force and, during Saddam's rule, with extraordinary brutality. Thus national elections, based on majority rule, imply a radical upheaval in the relative power and status of the three communities. The insurgency in the Sunni region is not only a national struggle against America; it is a means to restore political dominance. By the same token, the political process means little for the Kurds if it does not ensure a large measure of autonomy. The Shiites tolerate the U.S. presence–sometimes ambivalently–to achieve the goal of reversing the historic pattern of Sunni rule and as a first step to Shiite dominance. To what extent they will continue to support our role as the transfer of power progresses remains to be seen.

The January elections in Iraq, therefore, must be regarded as the beginning of an extended contest among the various groups, involving the constant risk of civil war, or of a national struggle against the U.S., or both. All factions maintain militias for precisely such eventualities. It will be necessary to augment the national electoral process with a significant element of federalism and to establish clear-cut constitutional protections for those who might find themselves in the permanent minority. Democracy must not be seen as a suicide pact by the Sunnis and the Kurds. Federalist structures and the assurance that free speech, freedom of conscience, and due process of law are constitutionally beyond the reach of any majority might provide some guarantee for the concerns of the various groups and a safety net if national reconciliation proves impossible.

In the potential cauldron after the January elections, some degree of internationalization is the only realistic path toward stability inside Iraq and sustained domestic support in America. The survival of the political process depends in the first instance on security–for which the United States retains the major responsibility–but ultimately on international acceptance to enable the Iraqi government to be perceived as representing indigenous aspirations.

During the political campaign there has been much talk of beginning this process with an effort to induce our European allies to increase their military participation and to lure recalcitrant allies into joining the security effort. Such a course cannot succeed in a time frame relevant to the immediate necessities. Germany and France–the two most difficult allies on Iraq–will not reverse their stand in sending troops to Iraq at the beginning of a process of reconciliation. (The German Foreign Minister has said so explicitly.) And countries that have sent troops have enough domestic difficulties maintaining their participation and little, if any, scope for increasing it.

Meaningful internationalization requires a focus other than security and the participation of countries other than–or in addition to–NATO. After the January elections, an international contact group, under U.N. auspices, to advise on Iraq's political evolution is therefore desirable. Logical members would be countries that have experience with militant Islam and much to lose by the radicalization of Iraq–countries such as India, Turkey, Russia, Algeria, in addition to the United States and Britain. This is not an abdication to consensus. The United States, by virtue of its military presence and financial role, would retain the leading position. The issue of military contribution by other nations, including NATO, can be raised again at a later stage in a more favorable political environment as a means to protect the governmental process.


In its first months in office, the Bush administration challenged conventional wisdom when it proclaimed the concept of pre-emption as if it were an American invention. In fact, pre-emption is inherent in the structure of the new international order, regardless of who serves in the White House. The international system of the 20th century was established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Seeking to avoid a repetition of the Thirty Years' War, during which nearly 30 percent of the population of Central Europe was killed in a conflict nominally over religious belief, the rulers based the new system on the principle of sovereignty within state borders and noninterference across them. Threats to international order were defined as movements of military units across established frontiers. Because weapons were relatively small and technology moved slowly, national security could generally be protected by awaiting the actual aggression.

September 11 marked the end of that option. Threats, it taught, were no longer identical with state action; they could be organized by private groups operating from the territory of sovereign states for goals transcending the purposes of the host countries. Cold War strategies ceased to apply, since deterrence cannot work against an adversary with no territory to defend; and diplomacy does not work when the adversary rejects any limitation of objective and seeks the overthrow of societies. In the Westphalian system, the balance of power could generally be upset only by conquest. In the world of privatized terror and proliferating weapons of mass destruction, the balance can be upset and survival threatened by developments entirely within the borders of a sovereign state.

Inevitably the concept of pre-emption leads to a clash between new realities and traditional notions of order. Countries used to established patterns find it difficult to accept the new necessities, and all nations will seek some rules of conduct that do not leave decisions on pre-emption to the unilateral, unconstrained determination of a single state. When implemented by a power with the overwhelming military preponderance of the United States, the doctrine prompts claims of hegemony by some on the American side and increasing resistance by others, particularly members of traditional alliances.

The new president will want to make a distinction between power and the claims made on its behalf. No nation, no matter how powerful, can organize the international system by itself; over an historical period it is beyond the psychological and political capacity of even the most dominant state. The goal of U.S. foreign policy must be to turn dominant power into shared responsibility–to conduct policy, as the Australian scholar Coral Bell has written, as if the international order were composed of many centers of power, even while we are aware of our strategic pre-eminence. It implies the need for a style of consultation less focused on imposing immediate policy prescriptions than achieving a common definition of long-range purposes.

It is not in America's interest to encourage every state to define pre-emption in purely national terms. The response to 9/11 was imposed by requirements of an emergency. The newly elected president could contribute greatly to a new global order by indicating a willingness to discuss international principles of pre-emption–even while reserving the right to defend national security alone as a last resort.

Nuclear Proliferation

While militant Islam is the most immediate and obvious challenge to international order, nuclear proliferation is the most long-range and insidious threat to global survival. Heretofore nuclear weapons have spread relatively slowly and remained in the possession of countries with everything to lose and nothing to gain from assaulting the international order. But the international system is now confronted by the imminent spread of nuclear weapons into the hands of two countries with a worrisome agenda: the odd, isolated regime in North Korea, which is responsible for multiple assassinations and kidnappings and meets every definition of a rogue regime; and Iran, whose current regime started by holding American diplomats as hostages and has since supported a variety of terrorist groups in the Middle East and continues to declare America its principal enemy.

The possession of nuclear weapons by these countries would constitute a momentous step towards stripping the international order of the remaining restraints of the Westphalian system. Deterrence will lose its traditional meaning even with respect to state-to-state relations. With such a variety of nuclear powers, it will no longer be clear who is responsible for deterring whom and by what means. Second-order issues can escalate into nuclear conflict. The possibilities of miscalculation grow. Even if the new nuclear countries do not use their weapons, they can become a shield behind which to step up terrorist challenges. Finally, the experience with the so-called "private" distribution of Pakistan's nuclear technology to other countries shows that this may be the last moment to keep proliferation from spinning out of control. North Korea is so short of foreign exchange that its diplomats often revert to counterfeit currency; it might find the temptation to trade nuclear material for foreign exchange irresistible. In Iran, extremist elements have frequently demonstrated their ability to find specious Islamic justification for unconscionable acts in support of terrorism.

The international community has been torn between premonition of nuclear catastrophe and the escapism of treating warnings about proliferation as an example of American bellicosity. In some quarters on both sides of the Atlantic, the issue is presented as a case for testing whether pressure or diplomacy should serve as a principal tool. There is a debate as well about appropriate mechanisms for diplomacy. With respect to the North Korean nuclear program, the issue is whether negotiations should be conducted bilaterally between the United States and North Korea or in the existing six-party forum in Beijing, comprised of North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

If progress is to be made, the newly elected president will have to cut through these disputes to impose a unified policy. In practice, the distinction between diplomacy and pressure is academic since diplomacy is never abstract; it inevitably involves an amalgam of both. The challenge is to determine the proper mix.

Invariably, proliferating countries claim that they are seeking merely to participate in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy or to enhance electricity production or both. Countries determined to prevent proliferation are therefore tempted to provide incentives in the form of guaranteed alternative sources of energy or of nuclear fuel for power plants. Yet this approach generally fails, because the ultimate objectives of the proliferating country are political and strategic, not economic. Iran, an oil-producing country, has no economic need for nuclear power plants. What it seeks, as does North Korea, is a shield behind which it can conduct the revolutionary aspects of its foreign policy while reducing the risk of intervention by great powers.

A policy of offering material incentives in return for denuclearization is likely to fail, however appealing it may be in the abstract. For the incentives in one way or another increase the dependence of the proliferating country on the states against which the proliferation is really directed. Progress is unlikely unless it involves, at the least, the implication of pressure and a goal that addresses the security concerns of all interested parties. Multilateral talks, including the proliferating country, are essential.

With respect to North Korea, each of the parties in the six-party talks has special political and strategic objectives in the back of its mind: China, concern about nuclear weapons in all of Korea and the deployment of forces in North Korea in case of unification; Japan, its position as a non-nuclear country in an increasingly nuclear environment; South Korea, its aspirations to unification and the balance it seeks between China and the United States. Thus the technicalities of nonproliferation pale compared with the objective of elaborating a security system for Northeast Asia. A similar analysis could be made in the case of Iran, for which a forum does not yet exist.

Care must also be taken lest the fact of dialogue becomes its only substance, enhancing the prestige of the proliferating country without ensuring its cooperation. In any event, the solution cannot be left to bilateral U.S. talks with the proliferators. The insistence on U.S.-North Korea bilateralism would leave America as the sole enforcer of any agreement at the borders of China. And it would invite Pyongyang to use the new agreement for future blackmail–the pattern it followed after the bilateral agreement of 1994. The same applies in a different context to relations with Iran.

All of this is an academic exercise, meanwhile, if the concerned nations do not recognize that time is short, that the stately process of arms control negotiations is on the verge of being overwhelmed by events. To impart a sense of urgency, an answer must be found to these four questions: How much time do we actually have before the process of proliferation in North Korea and Iran has become irreversible? What incentives and assurances are we prepared to offer? What pressures are we prepared to undertake if incentives do not work? And how do we prevent negotiation and implementation from becoming a means to legitimize proliferation rather than avert it?

Reality therefore imposes a time limit on these negotiations–or else the newly elected president is likely to leave a fearsome legacy by the end of his term. The all-consuming queries then will be: How does a society react to a nuclear explosion of undetermined origin? How should the world react to a nuclear war between emerging nuclear countries or the use of nuclear weapons by emerging nuclear countries against non-nuclear adversaries? At what point do the existing nuclear powers decide that a world of unrestrained nuclear proliferation is too dangerous and that they must impose nonproliferation for the survival of humanity?

The Long Challenge

For all their importance, the regional crises–Iraq, North Korea–are dwarfed by the fundamental transfer of power within the international system. Historians agree that the emergence of a unified Germany over a century ago unbalanced the European system by introducing a state stronger than each of its neighbors. Disraeli called the event of greater significance than the French Revolution, because he sensed that the emerging structure would either imply German hegemony or that equilibrium could be restored only by an increasingly rigid alliance system depriving diplomacy of maneuvering room.

In our age, the rise of China as a potential superpower is of even greater historical significance, marking as it does a shift in the center of gravity of world affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific. To be sure, China is unlikely to rely on military power as its principal instrument to achieve international status. For one thing, China's leaders are (or at least have been) more careful, more deliberate, more prone to accumulate advantages by nuance than the impetuous German leaders after Bismarck's retirement. More importantly, with modern technology war between major powers is an absolutely last resort, not a political option. America should maintain its traditional opposition to hegemonial aspirations over Asia. But the long-term relationship with China should not be driven by expectations of a strategic showdown. China will not conduct as imprudent a policy as the Soviet Union, which threatened all its neighbors simultaneously and challenged the United States to a contest of survival. The special case of Taiwan aside, it will seek influence commensurate with its growth by diplomatic and political means.

An interesting recent article compared the difference in the diplomatic style of China and the United States to their intellectual games–the West's chess and Chinese neiji, better known by the Japanese name of go. Chess has only two outcomes: draw and checkmate. The objective of the game is absolute advantage–that is to say, its outcome is total victory or defeat–and the battle is conducted head-on, in the center of the board. The aim of go is relative advantage; the game is played all over the board, and the objective is to increase one's options and reduce those of the adversary. The goal is less victory than persistent strategic progress.

No one can predict what judgment leaders will make decades from now. But leaders in both Beijing and Washington have a responsibility to help shape the judgments of emerging generations. With respect to China, the priority should be to keep the nationalism that is replacing Communism from taking a confrontational turn. In America, it is to transcend the temptation to view history through the prism of the most recent experience rather than of the long-range view.

China and the United States require a permanent strategic dialogue at a high level seeking a common definition of long-range purposes–to make them compatible where possible, and to reduce the dangers of confrontation when that effort fails. They need to keep the Taiwan issue from undermining the relationship while remembering the importance of solving it by peaceful means. In Sino-American relations, the future of Korea will play an increasingly prominent role. It is not simply a nonproliferation issue but a challenge for a security system for all of Northeast Asia.

China's renaissance, the rapid growth in India and the globalization in every corner of the world, beneficent as these conditions are for individuals, at the same time bring about massive issues of policy that can be postponed only at peril to the world economy. The equable management of access to energy and raw materials is beyond the capacity of the international system as presently constituted. If nothing is done, there is the real risk of a return to the rivalries of the colonial era–the contest over the direction of pipelines replacing the contest over territory–and a commodity pricing crisis that could drive the world into general recession. These issues must be addressed with great urgency by the newly elected president–in concert with directly affected trading and financial partners.

All this will bring us back to Atlantic relations. The political campaign has cast Atlantic disagreements in terms of American short-term tactical errors. This is a misreading of reality. Tact has not always distinguished every U.S. pronouncement. But the problem goes deeper than personalities. The impasse is partly due to the fact that the generation that formed the Atlantic relationship has passed from the scene. In the United States, the new leadership group is preoccupied with the challenge of radical Islam; our European allies either do not share America's assessment of that threat or, to the extent that they do, believe themselves capable of dealing with it outside the Atlantic framework. In the United States, the political center of gravity has shifted to parts of the country whose representatives have fewer personal connections with Europe and less experience with its internal challenges than their predecessors who created the postwar structure.

Across the Atlantic, leaders have been concentrating on transferring national sovereignty to new European institutions. This involves a host of technicalities and legal issues which are both arcane and elusive for most Americans. More fundamentally, the United States conducts its policies as the sovereign states of Europe did in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The European nations having invented the concept of the nation-state are now in the process of seeking to abandon their sovereignty to a European Union not yet possessing the traditional attributes of the state. They find themselves in a halfway house between their history and a future still in the process of evolving.

All this has generated a witches' brew of mutual misunderstandings. In America, critics describe European attitudes as fainthearted, querulous and, on occasion, duplicitous. In Europe the media (and too many political figures) revel in descriptions of America's racial tension, the death penalty, differences over the environment and mistreatment of prisoners as if aberrations reflected the ultimate meaning of the United States. Shifting their priority from the Atlantic alliance to the U.N. Security Council, Europeans feel no special obligation to support U.S. policy, on occasion actively opposing it.

These conditions cannot be removed by consultation on any one individual issue, and require a fundamental change of attitude on both sides of the Atlantic. The nations bordering the North Atlantic need to ask themselves the fundamental question that has always underpinned the alliance–that is, what will the allies do for the relationship beyond the international consensus reflected at the United Nations? Much of European debate today implies that the answer is "very little." To subject common military action to prior approval of the Security Council is incompatible with the very concept of alliance, which implies a special set of obligations. It spells the ultimate disintegration of a world order with the Atlantic partnership as its centerpiece. The Atlantic relationship, to be meaningful, needs to have a special character. The United States and Europe should be prepared to do things for each other in the sphere beyond the immediate dictates of national interest and without insisting on universal consensus.

A deepening of the dialogue between the two sides of the Atlantic is imperative. In a world of jihad, transformation of the balance of power, demographic change, mass migration and economic globalization, the ultimate challenge to the alliance will be the quest for some common purpose. The dialogue over Iraq and Iran described earlier should be supplemented by a new approach to the Palestine-Israeli problem. For decades the diplomatic stale-mate has been deepened because Europe was perceived to champion the Palestinian claims and America the goals of Israel. But new circumstances permit envisaging how the two positions can be brought closer. Israel has implied that settlements beyond its new security fence are negotiable; the fence is already being brought into a relationship to the 1967 frontiers and some compensatory territory from present-day Israel has been discussed in Camp David and Tabba. At the same time, a few moderate Arab leaders have called for new initiatives. An effort to develop a European-U.S. position as part of a reinvigorated peace process might encourage reluctant parties to break the deadlock. In this process, the Atlantic alliance could rediscover its common purpose.

The debate between unilateralism and multilateralism must be transcended with this perspective in mind. Unilateralism for its own sake is self-defeating. But so is abstract multilateralism. The former absorbs purpose into a sense of special national mission; the latter waters down purpose in a quest for a formal consensus. The challenge for America is to reconcile consultation with vast power. The question for Europe is whether it views Atlantic relations as a partnership or as part of an international system of multipolarity very similar to pre-World War I Europe, in which major power centers engaged in shifting coalitions to maximize their advantage from case to case. That system broke down in the early 20th century; its 21st-century version is likely to be even less successful.

Opportunity for world order presents itself to each generation disguised as a set of problems. The dilemma of our age was perhaps best summed up by the philosopher Immanuel Kant over two hundred years ago. In his essay "Perpetual Peace," he wrote that the world was destined for perpetual peace. It would come about either by human foresight or by a series of catastrophes that leave no other choice. Which it will be is the ultimate question the newly elected president will have to face.