Elementary

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Dec. 19 2000 11:30 PM

Elementary

"Bush has said that he likes Rice because she explains issues in a way he can understand."—Associated Press dispatch

95000_95487_001219_condi_rice
Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

Advertisement

I recently obtained a copy of Condoleezza Rice's job application for national security adviser. You can obtain one, too—it's an article she published in Foreign Affairs shortly before the presidential primaries. After reviewing it, I can see why she got the job. She makes foreign policy seem simple—like something that a guy with no prior knowledge of it could master in a weekend at a ranch.

Consider a key paragraph, early in Rice's essay, that has been quoted in newspapers as typifying her worldview. In it she chastises namby-pamby Americans who are "uncomfortable with the notions of power politics, great powers, and power balances." Such discomfort, she warns, can produce "a reflexive appeal instead to notions of international law and norms, and the belief that the support of many states—or even better, of institutions like the United Nations—is essential to the legitimate exercise of power. The 'national interest' is replaced with 'humanitarian interests' or the interests of 'the international community.' " This sort of thinking, she says, is naively Wilsonian, and "there are strong echoes of it in the Clinton administration."

That's an easy-to-remember story line: The struggle for the soul of American foreign policy is between austere realists, who keep their steely gaze on the national interest, and weak-kneed, mush-minded liberals, who get lost in humanitarian concerns and an obsession with multilateral cooperation.

But in drawing this one-dimensional spectrum—national interest at one end and humanitarianism/multilateralism at the other—Rice is conflating two separate questions: 1) When should you act for humanitarian reasons as opposed to reasons of national self-interest? 2) When should you act multilaterally as opposed to unilaterally? There is no necessary connection between the two, a fact illustrated by Rice's former boss, the first President Bush. He justified the Persian Gulf War in terms of strict national interest—oil, jobs—but he fought it under U.N. auspices and with the help of troops from other nations.

Is Rice really blind to the distinction between the questions of why you should intervene and how you should intervene? No, and her article later makes that clear. But it would complicate her story line if, rather than cast Clintonites as sissy liberals who see multilateral agreements as "ends in themselves," she acknowledged and engaged their actual argument: that in the modern world, multilateral support is often a prerequisite for successfully pursuing the national interest.

For example: We need the cooperation of other nations on more and more issues—fighting terrorism, solving environmental problems, fighting drug running and other transnational crimes, isolating Saddam Hussein and other creeps—so doing things that alienate "the international community" carries an increasingly high cost. (Here I will heroically resist the temptation to discuss Bush's globally loathed plan for a missile-defense system, except to say that, aside from annoying just about everyone, it would probably increase the number of nuclear warheads aimed at America.)

In addition to conflating two separate questions, Rice warps one of them. In deciding when to intervene, she says, Clintonites "replace" the "national interest" with "humanitarian interests" as their lodestar. But some people—me, for example—believe that, more and more, it is in America's national interest to address certain humanitarian issues abroad. For example: If we help resolve some obscure overseas political grievance before it has time to fester into terrorism (terrorism featuring, say, biological weapons) isn't that in America's interests?

The Clinton administration endured some right-wing ridicule earlier this year when it said Africa's AIDS epidemic was a threat to our national security (not so much by infecting Americans as by destabilizing the region). Personally, I think this argument has merit. (In fact, come to think of it, I have argued at book length that this type of rising interdependence is just one example of a broader growth in "non-zero-sumness" that has characterized human history ever since the stone age.) But whether you agree with Clinton's argument or not, it is an argument and deserves to be seriously engaged, not ignored or actively obscured.

The post-Cold-War world is very complicated. George W. Bush's worldview isn't. It is Condoleezza Rice's job to reconcile these two facts. Speaking as someone who lives on this planet, I am not being sarcastic when I say: Good luck. And, though she hasn't asked for my advice, I would add that complicating Bush's worldview, however challenging, will be easier than simplifying the world.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.