A World Upside Down

After the defeat of the British army at Yorktown, during the climatic battle of the American Revolution, the British army band was heard playing a song called, “the world has turned upside down” as the British soldiers laid down their muskets and surrendered their regimental banners before the victorious American army. In many ways, the events of September 11, 2001 turned the affairs of the world upside down and in a significant manner heralded the dawn of the twenty first century. Chronologically speaking, the arrival of the new millennium was celebrated almost one year and nine months and eleven days before the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Centers in New York, but in a psychological sense, the new millennium began with the events of that fateful morning in September. After the attacks in New York and Washington, the world changed, and was never to be the same again, and in doing so, changed the way in which people viewed themselves and the world they inhabited.

The September terrorist attacks rattled the confidence of the United States. The attacks also made it clear that the United States was liable for the actions of its foreign policy and could not operate unilaterally in a multi-polar international environment and escape the consequences of its deeds. The United States’ foreign policy, in the aftermath of the attacks, had to be re-formulated to deal with a crisis, which was unprecedented in its scope and audacity. The traditional precepts of international diplomacy defined by the bi-polar ideological struggle between the United States and the former Soviet Union and tinged with the re-emergence of the multi-polar world stood discredited. The cold war diplomacy, which was based on the respect of a status quo ante and division of the world into distinct spheres of influence ended with the Second Gulf War in 1991. After 1991, there emerged a collective consensus in international affairs, presided over by the United States, and it was hoped that the notions of collective security and respect for individual sovereignty would be paramount in international relations.

This dream of a global cooperation in international relations would not survive the demise of the Soviet Union in August 1991, because in the wake of dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States emerged as the world’s only super power capable of dominating the world in all aspects. The pre-dominance of the United States’ influence in the world created a sense of arrogance in the United States’ foreign policy and Washington increasingly adopted a unilateralist approach in the pursuit of its national security interests. Unfortunately, as the United States implemented its singular view in international relations, it seemed to discount Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of physics, because for every American action there was an equal and opposite reaction; a reaction often ignored by the United States or belittled as inconsequential.

In order to understand the reasons behind the failure of the United States’ foreign policy in fathoming the causes behind the resentment against its foreign policy objectives and the means employed to attain them, it should be pointed out that the United States’ foreign policy is not a monolithic entity. The creation of the United States’ foreign policy and the rationalization of its objectives is a highly fissured enterprise. The United States’ foreign policy or its national security interests, when articulated, is a series of compromises between the various groups/interests, which exist under the umbrella term of the United States’ foreign policy. There are six major interest groups, within the United States, which are responsible for the creation and the implementation of the United States’ international policies/objectives and are capable of influencing it. These interest groups are the White House, the State Department, Congress, Pentagon, Central Intelligence Agency and the media in the United States. All of these groups have distinct political intentions and it is not necessary that the intentions of all these interest groups should harmonize and in the past, the interests of these various groups have been known to be at cross-purposes with one other.

The State Department has been traditionally tasked with the execution of diplomacy and being a diplomatic facet of the American foreign policy, its institutional tendency is towards reconciliation and in the maintenance of stability in the regime of international relations by favoring the status quo and the policies of cooperation. The White House, due to its executive nature, operates more in the realm of creating policies and in defining the security interest of the United States, which it wants to achieve. Given the political personality of the White House, the White House is more attuned to the political nuances of the international relations and thus, tends to have a political, immediate, rather than a strategic focus in its policy deliberations. Therein lies the dichotomy between the situational analysis of the State Department and White House and which is why, each American administration has sought to have a secretary of state who shares the White House’s perspective and is willing to implement it over the objections of the career diplomats in the State Department.

Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), though they are critical in the carrying out of United States’ policy objectives in the world, operate under different assumptions. The CIA is responsible for collecting, collating and assessing information, which has a potential to affect the ability of the United States to effectively carry out its national security aims. Pentagon has always been considered the last option for the United States once all the other options have been exhausted. It was only during the period of the Clinton administration (1992-2000) that the Pentagon was used overwhelming as the preferred option in enforcing the United States’ writ in international affairs over diplomacy in situations from Somalia to Kosovo.

The other significant interest group, in this oligarchy of United States’ foreign policy establishment, is the Congress. The role of Congress, in the debate on the United States’ foreign policy, is an extra-constitutional responsibility, which the Congress earmarked for itself through the last one hundred years. Constitutionally speaking, the role of Congress is merely restricted to ratifying international treaties signed by the president of the United States and under the constitution; the Congress was never empowered to make foreign policy. The influence of the Congress in the foreign policy discussions of the United States can be traced to the American economic interests in Latin America at the turn of the century and this role, would be formally legitimized by Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican senator, when he refused to allow the United States to join the League of Nations and in doing so, started a tradition for Congressional involvement in arena of foreign policy.

In order to understand the compulsions under which Congress makes its foreign policy choices, it is instructive to note that sole criteria for Congress, in deciding foreign policy issues, is geared towards the electoral constituency, which elects the members to the United States’ Senate and the House of Representatives. Unlike the White House, or even the State Department, Congress is wedded to the doctrine of Woodrow Wilson and his idea of a foreign policy based on the populist approach to international relations. There is a strong streak in the United States’ Congress to moralize international relations and see them through a Manichean prism: good versus evil and this can be seen in the preferred methodology of Congress, which is to legislate foreign policy. It is this Congressional policy of legislating international affairs, which is the primary cause of the myriad resentments, which the execution of the United States’ foreign policy causes in the countries targeted by the Congress through the regime of international sanctions – the favored Congressional response to make nations more malleable towards the United States’ interests.

The last of the interest groups is the American media. The importance of the United States’ media rests in its ability to influence the foreign policy debate and add to the plurality of the opinions, which does not necessarily implies a coherent foreign policy decision. The American media has drastically altered the rules of international diplomacy, because it has curtailed the time needed to arrive at a decision and has forced the policy makers to operate under the “CNN effect”; the requirement for an instant reaction, without fully comprehending the multi-faceted dimensions of a crisis. It is this duress, imposed by the media on the policy makers, which often causes the United State’s reaction to an international crisis to resemble a knee jerk response. The instantaneous nature of the media coverage of a crisis makes it impossible for the American decision makers deal with the crisis, because more often than not, the media’s speculation of the crisis forces the events to cascade outside the ability of decision makers.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States’ foreign policy has shown a coherence of purpose and seems to be changing from its post-cold war patterns, when all of the above mentioned interests groups used to view each other as adversaries, instead of partners, competing for a slice of the American budget in order to preserve their own bureaucratic prerogatives. The new contours of the American foreign policy seems be one, which is a blend of realism and an unilateralist commitment toward ending the scourge of international terrorism. The real intentions of the Bush administration are not known, because of its reluctance to discuss its options. In this sense, the American media’s reporting of the crisis, though factual to an extent, is more speculative than it is substantive and does not accurately represents the real policy choices being considered by the Bush administration in deciding the United States’ response to the terrorist attacks.

The critical question confronting the administration is not the timing or the scale of a military attack, but how to grapple with the political and economic shades of this crisis. The most crucial time period in this crisis was the initial forty-eight hours and once that period passed, it allowed the American decision makers to avoid responding to the crisis in a emotional state of mind, which had they done so would have been disastrous. The American response to this crisis will be more political and economic than it would be militarily, because the international coalition that the United States is creating will be based on a political consensus. It is, because of this continuing debate, on how to define the United States’ security priorities, that there has emerged a well defined asymmetrical convergence of views on how to create the primary architecture of an American response, which will help in the attainment of Washington’s intended goals in combating international terrorism.

The problem confronting the decision makers in Washington is that this crisis, unlike any other international crisis in the past, has no precedent by which to judge and articulate a response. In many ways, this crisis and the American response to it demands a fine synthesis of military, political and economic policies. The American response, which is slowly emerging, is more likely to be based on political realities and economic limitations and not so overtly on the military might available to the United States. The underlying political nuance to any American response would be balance the interests of its coalition partners with the intended aims of the United States’ policy interests and to operate within a consensual frame work. Furthermore, the early stages of this crisis have proven that the United States is willing to subordinate the principles of the Wilson doctrine in the pursuance of its national security interests.

Another facet of this crisis and the American response is that the United States’ strategy is to maintain the international coalition against terrorism and in order to achieve this intention, the United States has to give due consideration to the political constraints under, which some of its allies might be operating. The American response, as said earlier, in the long term will be a political one and though in the immediate sense, it might have opt for military strikes, the United States cannot solve the problem of international terrorism through military means. The solution to this problem has to be a politically oriented one, which is reinforced with an economic incentive. The United States has to undertake a strategic review of its past foreign policy decisions in order to understand the events of September 2001 in order to effectively address the problem and solve it.

Therein lies the challenge to the American foreign policy establishment and questions still remains: can the United States honestly determine the reasons behind the tragedies in Washington and New York by critically reviewing its past foreign policy decisions? Can the United States curb its sermonizing approach to international relations, but more importantly, does the United States have the ability to listen to what the world is saying and not ignore the voices on the periphery, which are asking to be heard?

If the United States adopts a pragmatic approach in responding to this crisis and accounts for its past misdeeds, it will emerge a more powerful, but a more importantly as a humane nation and if it does not, then the world will merely hear another rendition of an old British army song lamenting that the world has indeed turned upside down.