08/30/2012 06:01 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2012

People-Centered Policy

The American appeal to the world has long been based on its core concept of the worth of the individual. America's rights and freedoms shone brightly and were reinforced at the entrance to New York Harbor by the iconic statue of Liberty Enlightening the World with its plaque: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

But U.S. foreign policy has been much more ambivalent. It promoted American ideals as universal but at the same time was prepared to support autocrats when convenient, even supporting Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran. More recently, on the eve of the Arab Spring, the administration waived Congressional conditions to give Hosni Mubarek a full helping of military aid, and then stood by him to the bitter end, defending him as a solid ally only days before his resignation. Such support to autocrats was justified during the Cold War as a realistic necessity to oppose a global challenge of an even more autocratic and repressive Communism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, support for autocrats eased. The National Security Strategy of President George W. Bush spoke eloquently of "a historic opportunity... to build a world where great powers compete in peace," where nations are

united by common values... find that social and political freedom is the only source of national greatness...America will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world... will stand beside any nation determined to build a better future by seeking the rewards of liberty for its people.

Many of these sentiments got swept aside by the sudden emergence of a global terrorist threat. This provided a new urgency to once again work closely with dictators and autocrats, and the impetus for controversial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which left the United States open to charges of fighting not terrorism, but Islam. And so when al-Qaeda claims that U.S. ideals are a sham, a cover for U.S. manipulation of other nations, the charge resonates strongly in the Muslim World.

Nevertheless, there is still wide belief in American ideals. The United States stood up for repressed Muslim populations in both Bosnia and Albania when the European Union proved incapable. Libyan rebels and now Syrian oppositionists seek, even demand, U.S. support. In spite of all the shortcomings, ambiguities, and inadequacies, the United States remains the ultimate global champion of human rights and individual freedoms. No other nation is in a position to provide global leadership in the 21st century.

And leadership is badly needed. Globalization has produced an unprecedented situation, an economic levelling that has downtrodden people everywhere demanding a more equitable distribution of resources. Because of its history, the United States had shown a unique ability to assimilate immigrants; West Europe and Japan, on the other hand, welcomed immigrants as cheap labor, but not as citizens, not as a real part of society. But with its current economic distress the United States is hard pressed to live up to this reputation, to the inscription at its Statue of Liberty. This economic distress is partly due to the U.S. loss of its former economic dominance; with 5 percent of the global population, the nation can no longer consume 25 percent of its resources. The core threat to the nation is different than ever before. It is no longer a threat of military domination or coercion, but rather of economic disintegration. With globalization, the nation cannot prosper in a world of turmoil, and such a world looms ahead. Promoting global good governance is the core strategic challenge of the 21st century.

Failed states flourish, driving their populations into poverty, destabilizing the parts of the world they belong to. A newly assertive Russia is increasingly repressive, and supportive of regional autocrats. More disturbingly, China speaks of a peaceful rise but is also increasingly assertive, aggressively pursuing extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Both Russia and China provide support to other autocratic regimes, steadfastedly opposing any international efforts against other repressive governments, concerned that any such actions will rebound against their own governments. And both of them have their government legitimacy based on economic performance while facing daunting demographic, environmental and internal political challenges. So there is a real possibility that as internal problems worsen, the simplest way to maintain legitimacy is to stoke patriotism by denouncing an external enemy. Both states could easily revert to stern autocracies, heavily militarized, challenging each other and the United States.

A contentious relationship with China or Russia would stifle cooperative global efforts, reinforcing autocratic trends, promoting confrontation, and undermining efforts to stabilize and rebuild failed states. So developing positive, cooperative relationships with both these nations is an essential element in addressing the global challenges of the 21st Century. The United States must convince the Chinese and Russian leaderships that they can reinforce their own positions better with cooperation and development than with confrontation and repression. Without concerted joint actions from these two critical nations, it will not be possible to adequately address what former Secretary of Defense Gates identified as "the most likely and lethal threats -- an American city poisoned or reduced to rubble -- will likely emanate from fractured or failing states." Addressing these failed states is essential to global harmony. Global prosperity is the major political challenge of the future; terrorism is a minor component which presently looms large in our short-term view, but would be just a small part of a future world in turmoil. The nation needs to shift from engaging hostile threats to promoting global development. For too long it was able to support both a strong military and still promote traditional values. But it has reached the point where military efforts are undermining the credibility of its values and its ability to provide global leadership.

There is no military solution. Paradoxically, a reliance on strength undermines the economic basis of that strength. The stronger the military, the weaker the economy it depends upon. That was less of a problem when there was lots of excess capacity in the system, but now it is increasingly constrained. And both Iraq and Afghanistan clearly showed the futility of trying to force failed states into the modern world. The Afghanistan effort also clearly shows how military efforts require seeking support from autocratic regimes -- in this case, mollifying the Pakistani army and Central Asian despots. By avoiding nation building and failing to make any real transformation in Afghanistan, the United States has vividly demonstrated how poorly prepared it is to address the basic challenges of the 21st century. Failed states are a symptom of the global inequality of wealth, largely a remnant of a colonial past when resources, agricultural products and brains were drained from the Third World. Those chickens have come home to roost, driving a strong undercurrent of global unrest. Although not a major colonial power, the United States as the largest economy in the world was the biggest beneficiary of that system. With its conspicuous wealth and support for many autocrats, it is easy to understand why any U.S. talk on values is met with much skepticism.

Obviously the nation cannot force Russia and China to be cooperative; confrontational tactics only breed confrontational responses. The model relationship should be France and Germany, traditional enemies who warred against one another for centuries. Now they are partners in a larger European Union. The only way for the United States to live up to American ideals in foreign policy is to focus the policy on people. The United States of course has to deal with existing governments, but the underlying relationship should be clear -- the United States supports the aspirations of people everywhere for individual freedom and good governance and deals with the governments as representatives of their people. Policies are openly assessed in terms of their impact on people. Such a focus is reflected in the relatively new concept of Responsibility to Protect -- the responsibility of the international community to focus on protecting minority groups that are being systematically repressed by autocratic regimes. This is a departure from traditional concepts of state sovereignty in which outside powers had no business looking at another country's internal activities. Such is the basic approach of both China and Russia, reluctant to acknowledge the legitimacy of any outside assessment of internal conditions in the fear that it would promote reaction against autocratic government.

American idealism for a foreign policy has to be a practical idealism, focused on bringing stability and prosperity to the world. This is necessarily a long-term project and needs to incorporate a broad spectrum of indicators of good governance. Now the U.S. Department of State issues an annual evaluation of human rights situation in other countries, but this is far too narrow. Any comprehensive appraisal of the governance in a country needs to look at dozens of variables, such as media freedom, internal freedom, medical support, education, wealth inequality, equal opportunity, political freedom, ethnic and gender discrimination, treatment of minorities, neonatal survival rates, and life expectancy. Using evaluations by outside, independent organizations, such a Freedom House and Transparency International, can give more weight to such indicators.

For different reasons than Russia and China, the United States has also been a proponent of strong sovereignty, being very reluctant to accept any outside evaluation of U.S. actions. Part of the reason has been a well founded concern on U.N. oversight of any kind, recognizing the strong influence that repressive and contrary regimes have in the organization. But this also represents a U.S. exceptionalism that strongly believes whatever the United States does is inherently right. Unfortunately, sober evaluation shows that the United States itself does poorly against many standards of good governance, including wealth inequality, child mortality, life expectancy, incarceration rates, and education levels. One reason for this is the allocation of scarce resources to military uses, so the military focus not only undermines U.S. international credibility, but domestic prosperity as well. If the United States is going to be a credible promoter of values, it needs to do a better job of living them. Without a shift from a military focus to a people focus, the nation will be unable to address the core challenge of the 21st century. The era of military ascendency is coming to a close. The United States has to choose between being a nation which reinforces confrontation or a nation which leads a global effort to build cooperation and prosperity.