Diplomacy is the best policy

Updated: 2013-07-10 08:10

By J.M. Norton (China Daily)

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In his "Farewell Address" (1796), first US president George Washington advised future American leaders on how to manage foreign affairs. He advocated the development of commercial relations with foreign countries and the curtailment of political bonds. He observed that the US' "detached and distant situation" enables Americans to pursue a different course. He also advocated against "standing on foreign ground" and against "engaging in permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world".

Furthermore, he said, interactions "are recommended through policy, humanity and interest", and future leaders should approach them with all nations within the framework of "harmony, open-minded intercourse".

Generally speaking, American leaders have failed to heed Washington's counsel. Since the end of World War II, they have intensified political bonds with foreign countries, stood on foreign ground, and engaged in permanent bilateral and multilateral alliances. Also, they have conducted the majority of their interactions with foreign countries not within the framework of humanity and interest. Instead, their main instrument and organizing principle of US foreign policy have been military. Often this approach has been combined with a nation-building policy through economic means, which harms the political cultures and social fabrics of countries situated far from America's shores.

Significant changes in the US foreign policy could be traced back to the end of World War II. Although the US emerged from the war as the preponderant power, its leaders reached no such conclusion. Perceiving that the rise of the Soviet Union created a precarious balance of power in the international system, the US leaders believed the threat resulting from this unstable balance significantly endangered US national security.

So the leaders restructured the American domestic intelligence and military systems, and adopted new foreign policy approaches underpinned by the threat of force. The National Security Act of 1947 reordered the intelligence community and military, but most importantly, it created a permanent, professional military and placed foreign policy powers within the executive branch.

The Truman Doctrine of 1947 - among other things - formalized the containment strategy that called for new plans for military services, enlisting foreign countries into bilateral and multilateral alliances, and eventually drawing lines of containment around the world, without distinguishing between vital and peripheral areas.

US leaders, because of the expanding nuclear threat, also adopted the deterrence doctrine. This doctrine advanced the notion that Soviet aggression and the prospect of war with the Soviet Union in every corner of the world could be deterred only through the threat of reprisal. This doctrine abandoned the principle of avoiding war through diplomacy. Though some of America's foreign policy could be justifiable, the policies' consequences elevated military solutions and subordinated diplomatic ones. Effectively, America's foreign and defense policies became virtually indistinguishable.

After the end of the Cold War, American leaders were presented with a valuable opportunity as the US emerged as the indisputable predominant power in the world for the second time in less than five decades.

Renowned political scientist Joseph Nye says that no country can sway the global balance of power or challenge America's position in the system. So the US leaders could have led the world into a new era of cooperation relying less on the threat or use of force and more on conflict resolution principles, international institutions and international law. However, they were uncertain how to apply the power, reveled in America's invincibility and squandered the unique prospect of leading the world into a new era.

The emergence of geopolitical threats from nuclear proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, rising powers and terrorism did pose new challenges to America's national security. And American leaders did respond to them by crafting foreign policies aimed at securing the US. But again these policies were based primarily on principles of force and for the most part neglected the responsibility of diplomacy.

Today, the future of American foreign policy looks almost entirely military in nature. The "pivot to Asia" policy signifies the leaders' intention of reducing the focus on the Middle East and turning it on Asia. Although the US' efforts to "rebalance" to Asia consist of diplomatic and economic dimensions, its most well defined feature is the military component. American policymakers are deploying a substantial portion of the US' naval and air assets as well as additional military equipment to the region. They also are strengthening, renewing and establishing alliances and security ties.

The strategy's puzzling aspect is that the US mainly used military power to exercise influence in the Middle East and it already exercises influence in Asia for the most part through military means. So what is the precise strategic intention of the "pivot"?

If its aim is to create a source of stability in the region, it may actually have the opposite effect and result in a source of provocation. The region already is crowded. And in areas like the South China Sea, it is getting more crowded. The region also contains flashpoints in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, involving China and, indirectly, the US. Plus China's leaders are uncertain about America's intention. So the occurrence of accidental conflict resulting from misperception and miscalculation cannot be ruled out.

All is not lost, though. American leaders have an opportunity to create conditions for greater cooperation and to place China-US relations squarely on a conciliatory footing. The US' withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, the easing of complex terrorist threats and the recent constructive turn in China-US relations establish the basis for America's leaders to break with old patterns.

In fact, they could transform US foreign policy from one in which the main instrument and organizing principle are military to one that is conform to the values recommended by George Washington in his "Farewell Address". And in these times the prime instrument and organizing standard could be diplomacy with a focus on conflict resolution mechanisms that promote regional and international dialogues in military, territorial and resource affairs along with the secondary principle of promoting better and more stable trade and investment ties.

The author teaches American foreign policy at China Foreign Affairs University, and served as Rotary World Peace Fellow (2004-2005).

(China Daily 07/10/2013 page9)