It has been a year of transition in the world, with the United States removing its front-line military presence from Afghanistan and rethinking its international role. Transnational issues, such as climate change and preservation of natural resources, have been pushed to the forefront by their potentially critical effects on the future of our world.
Unfortunately, but predictably, many of the thorny issues we discussed a year ago at the first St. Petersburg Conference on International Affairs are still with us. And many more have arisen. This year’s conference, to be held Thursday through Saturday at the University of South Florida, will focus on the continuing saga of nations dealing with nations.
Last year, a number of folks in our audience asked why the world never gets better. Good question.
The short answer is that nations are going to compete and disagree. That is a constant in international relations. Once an issue seems to be resolved, there will always be another one to deal with. As a Foreign Service officer, I learned early on that nations protect their own interests and no one else’s.
But the institutions we use to keep peace in the world – strong armies, our diplomatic apparatus, international organizations – are often insufficient to resolve competition among states.
The Chinese today, after decades of concentration on their economy, are flexing their muscle – buying influence abroad in the developing world, and nearer to home putting neighbors on notice they will expand their territorial waters in the South China Sea to claim areas potentially rich in minerals.
The Soviet Union disappeared in the early ’90s, providing us a brief respite from the conflict that divided us. Today, the inability of Russia to morph into something resembling a democratic state has meant renewed conflict in the now-independent republics – Georgia and Ukraine are examples – and between Moscow and the United States and its allies. Its hosting of the Winter Games in Sochi has highlighted a flagrant disregard for human rights, and for gay people in particular, who can be prosecuted if they have the temerity to raise the subject of homosexuality in public.
Russia supported Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi just as it backstops Bashar Assad in Syria. The Russians’ military relationship with the Syrians, and the need for their naval base in Tartus, Syria, make them virtually the only voice, other than Iran, that Assad takes seriously.
We don’t hear much about Europe anymore, aside from its financial problems. The Berlin Wall for generations was the fulcrum of the struggle between East and West. And America found it absolutely critical to have strong allies and a forward base for possible military operations.
Today, just as in the lead-up to both World Wars I and II, Europeans worry that they are living in an unstable neighborhood with little capability of dealing with the threats around them. They face uncontrolled immigration, terrorism and dependence on energy-rich Russia.
When I look back at my career in Europe, it is obvious that Washington and Europe today care less about each other than previously. As the United States turns its attention to the Middle East and to Asia, would Americans willingly, again, go “over there” to defend countries that live beyond their means and do little to provide for their own defense?
In our own country, the requirements of defending America increasingly raise new challenges. A few years ago, there would have been few who would have suggested that Edward Snowden or Pvt. Chelsea (Bradley) Manning were “heroes” for leaking reams of highly classified diplomatic and intelligence material. When I was in the diplomatic business, divulging even one highly classified document would have meant a healthy prison term. And no one would have come to my defense.
Today, the New York Times suggests that the U.S. courts should show clemency because Snowden has done a service to his country by divulging the practices of the National Security Agency. And Manning? I am aware from my own confidential discussions with foreign officials that the release of their comments to a U.S. diplomat can pose grave threats to their lives.
Are we getting tired of politicians and economists telling us that recovery is just around the corner? Our production levels are recovering, but unemployment remains stubbornly high. China’s growth is slowing, and economies of the other new economic powerhouses are beginning to stagnate.
Our exports rise only fitfully, and in the Rust Belt, manufacturing is but a memory. Europe has perhaps come out of crisis, but remaining holes in fiscal and banking policy put a damper on investor confidence. And if American corporations are doing well and the S&P 500 continues to rise, who is profiting?
From an international perspective, it is clear that America is an engine for the world economy, but not the only one. We are more interdependent than ever, even if those entangling relationships bother some here. It is more than obvious, and we should have seen it coming, that global warming and sustaining the Earth’s resources are not bilateral issues. These, plus cyber-terrorism, refugee flows and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, are going to require cooperation. Many among us might hate to share responsibility in places like the United Nations, but we, as the indispensable actor in today’s world, will be obliged to embrace multilateral institutions.
For years, the United States has struggled over the proper use of its military might. When NATO had fulfilled its role as protector against Soviet foul play, we reshaped it.
I remember sitting at the negotiating table in Brussels when we took in the first tranche of new members – Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. As we opened the doors to the East, so was NATO for the first time obliged to fire a shot in anger. That was in Bosnia in the 1990s.
But that was child’s play compared to what we undertook in Afghanistan and Iraq, countries with weak institutions and no experience of self-government. Just as after the war in Vietnam, we are now in a period when we will debate the proper use of our military.
Defending U.S. policy in the Middle East to doubting, even hostile European publics, I often had difficulty articulating why we had intervened and what outcomes we had contemplated. I remember my many colleagues, specialists in the Middle East, who kept their counsel when they knew that we would triumph militarily but lose the war for the hearts and minds of Afghans and Iraqis.
Personally, it seems somewhat ludicrous to expect to make ungovernable regions paragons of good governance overnight. I’ve seen too many times and in too many places how long the path to development and peace can be.
It is not unpatriotic to suggest that we cannot assign to our military or diplomats the extreme makeover of any country or society. The military calls it “mission creep.” Politicians call it spreading democracy to those less fortunate.
Most of us see our country as an “exceptional” one. This is a theme that runs through our history. We are exceptional because we are that “shining city on the hill,” benevolent but strong, and supportive of our nation and its ideals through thick and thin.
And so, what we believe is good for the United States must be appropriate for other nations and peoples as well. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill declared clearly the right to self-determination in the world, and decolonization came quickly thereafter. Since Jimmy Carter, the third president under whom I served, our foreign policy took account of how other governments treat their own people.
In Egypt in the 1980s, I remember clearly how President Hosni Mubarak would rail against our policy of supporting the rights of specific minorities (the Coptic Christians), arguing that it angered his major adversary, the Muslim Brotherhood.
More recently, America has exported concepts of women’s rights, the rights of children, etc. Today, with the extension of rights to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) people in the United States, the Obama administration has folded protection of this minority into its human rights policy as well.
Certain principles are eternal – and one is the absolute necessity for an educated citizenry. Although we might have to sift through the self-serving rhetoric emanating from Washington and the limited press coverage of very arcane international issues, we can do our part by keeping up to speed and expressing informed opinions.
After 34 years as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, Douglas McElhaney retired from the State Department in 2007, following three years as U.S. ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina.