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New Grand Strategy Uses Lofty and Material Desires

July 12, 1998|G. John Ikenberry | G. John Ikenberry is professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

WASHINGTON — The real news coming out of President Bill Clinton's trip to China has been lost in the media spectacle of the White House's traveling road show. It is good news: This administration has slowly but surely developed a post-Cold War foreign policy for the United States. The strategy is to engage actively dynamic and potentially unfriendly and unstable countries by integrating them into the U.S.-centered system of open markets, rule of law, accountable government and multilateral institutions. This approach to taming and transforming the world's trouble spots may or may not work--it invites a serious debate--but it is a grand strategy.

Critics have been complaining for years that U.S. foreign policy is adrift in the post-Cold War world, devoid of strategy or intellectual compass. Containment, America's grand strategy for 40 years, ended with the Cold War, leaving the United States bereft of a coherent vision. But in a year of almost constant foreign travel, the Clinton team has erected a big billboard and spelled out their vision in bold letters. The United States will work with the "forces of history" to gradually bring potentially troublesome and unstable countries, such as China, Russia, North Korea and even Cuba, into the economic and institutional structures of the great democratic-capitalist order.

The strategy is sometimes called "constructive engagement," but it might better be labeled America's "liberal grand strategy." It has always been a part of the U.S. foreign-policy tradition, at least since President Woodrow Wilson, and it is grounded in a sophisticated reading of history, economics and politics. It is a strategy built around three elements of engagement: "opening up," "tying down" and "binding together."

"Opening up" means channeling the great forces of trade and investment, cultural exchange and transnational society into the closed hierarchy of statist polities. "These linkages bring with them powerful forces for change," Clinton explained last October. "Computers and the Internet, fax machines and photocopiers, modems and satellites all increase the exposure to people, ideas and the world beyond China's border."

Call this "strategic interdependence." The idea is to create realms of wealth and autonomy within the economy and society that encourage political pluralism and erode the iron-fisted control of the monopolistic ruling party. Expanding trade and investment also creates new and more vocal "vested interests" in closed societies that want to maintain continuous and stable relations with the outside world.

"Tying down" means encouraging involvement in international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Here the idea is to subject state elites to the expectations and obligations that flow from membership in regional and global institutions. Political conditionality for gaining membership in these organizations can itself create leverage, but the expectation is also that, once inside the institution, government officials will slowly be socialized into embracing its principles and norms. Standards of behavior are established.

Even if a government only cynically endorses the principles, such as when Leonid I. Brezhnev signed the 1975 Helsinki Act, they can nonetheless be a powerful tool for governments and private activists. The Soviet leader had no intention of abiding by the human-rights declaration, but his signature on the parchment became a rallying focus of the world's human-rights movement. Later, many of the advisors around Mikhail S. Gorbachev were also influenced by the "new thinking" coming out of international organizations and progressive transnational movements. It is precisely because Soviet elites were not "contained" that new principles and ideologies of foreign policy could be implanted in Soviet officialdom.

"Binding together" means establishing formal institutional links among countries that are potential adversaries, thereby reducing the incentives for each state to compete against the other. This is the security component of a liberal grand strategy, and it has its origins at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and its fullest expression in the postwar Franco-German relationship.

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