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

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Robert Wright Robert Wright

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

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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.