Monday, July 21, 2008

Re-thinking the U.S foreign policy

The post Second World War epoch was marked by increased global hegemony by the United States due to its military might and growing economy. The United States took the lead in the reconstruction of Europe immediately after the Second World War and in developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia in the late 70s. Maintaining its military bicep but slowly losing its grip on world economic leadership to new players such as China and other countries in south east Asia, the United States has retained its position in the 21st Century as the world’s watchdog. Although the United States has exercised its moral obligation to police the world to maintain international order, some efforts have been regarded as purely selfish and some actions so unilateral that some members of the international community have distanced themselves from them casting a long shadow on the US world leadership.

This discourse looks at examples of some actions that have been seen to aggravate rather than reduce global tension. Here we should also look at whether this aggravation of tension has contributed to the creation of the so-called failed states and whether these failed states have had anything at all to do with international terrorism. Recommendations in various areas of American foreign policy have also been made.

Actions by the United States

A good example of actions regarded as selfish and unilateral by the United States include the recent invasion of Iraq in the name of ‘war against terror’. The act by the United States and its 'coalition of the willing' has been regarded as aggressive and has been looked at with skepticism because it followed the 9/11 attacks in the United States although Iraq was not connected in any way to the perpetrators. Another reason for the United States’ toppling of Saddam Hussein was the allegation that he was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction which up to now have not been shown to the world to justify the invasion. Critics have, therefore, regarded the Iraq invasion as a calculated move by the oil starved western economy to ensure a grip on supply of the much needed fossil and to prepare the country as a spring-board for United States activities in the Middle East. Suffice it to say that there is growing evidence that more damage than healing has been inflicted in the country through the use of force. Iraq is slowly slipping into a collapsed status as the central government cannot contain the insurgents that are fighting it. No wonder the urgent calls for a time table for the pull out of foreign troops in the Arab country.

Some commentators have even gone further to accuse the western nation of imposing its Jeffersonian way of governance on other countries as a way of creating a world community that thinks and behaves like the United States as a solution to a new world order. Today, the entrenchment of liberal democracy is being used as an antidote and indeed immunization against possibilities of the creation of breeding grounds for terrorist activities. The move, however, has been received with opposition and insurgency in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. As much as liberal democracy may be one of the solutions to a stable and prosperous nation, the question has always been whether the approach and motives employed by the United States are right in the first place. Bush’s post-9/11 policy has been geared at regime change with emphasis on military intervention as seen recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Collapsed states and international terrorism

The unrivaled global hegemony and military dominance of the US after 1945 has been characterized by an increased number of collapsed states. This was mainly the result of the Cold War and a fight for allies and fighting launch pads especially in places such as Africa. The World Bank identifies more than 30 low income countries as being under stress or with dysfunctional governments including; Afghanistan, Cambodia, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Burma, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Tajikstan, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe. Other 50 nations have been described as fragile.[1] Many of these troubled states embarked on their downward slide during the Cold War when the United States and the then Soviet Union chose to support some sections or leaders against others in the countries in an effort to amass world allies. Two questions arise from this state of affairs: Is the US continuing to contribute to the number of collapsed states through its use of military force when dealing with regimes that appear to be threatening international order and US national security even in modern times? The second question is whether the United States and other developed countries can now enjoy peace and security when pockets of unstable areas still exist in other parts of the world.

Another question, albeit secondary to the two posed above, worth examining here is whether there is a direct correlation between the increasing number of dysfunctional states and international terrorism. Simons and Tucker[2]contend that contrary to a commonly held view, most of the recent international terrorists do not come from failed states nor do failed states house many organizations that support terrorism. Simons and Tucker give two principal reasons as to why failed states do not generate many international terrorists; (i) Although those who fight in failed states develop skills and tactics valuable to international terrorists, those skills are in demand locally; (ii) Lack of proper internationally acceptable credentials limits their global movements. While the position by Simons and Tucker may be true, it does not explain local terrorism that targets western or their own government interests as the case is in Sri Lanka and Spain.
What Simons and Tucker have overlooked in their argument is the fact that where there is lack of official centralized control of trade, borders and airspace, states are prone to activities such as narcotics trafficking, weapon proliferation and terrorism activities whether locally or at international level.[3] Experience has shown that states are at their most vulnerable when they are undergoing a conflict whether intra or inter state. This is what the United States has been accused of, contributing to instability through military involvement. It happened in Somalia in the 90s and it is happening now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although it can safely be argued that poverty is not the biggest causative factor of terrorism, considering that the plotters of the 9/11 attacks came from better off countries, it would not be an exaggeration to say that spots which lack systematic central administration can act as safe havens for terrorist recruitment and training. The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is quoted as saying that weak and failing states serve as global pathways that facilitate the movement of criminals and terrorists.[4] It is imperative, therefore, that for the war on terror to bear fruits, the United States government must rethink its foreign policy. Examples such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia have shown that military intervention has not been an effective method of changing regimes. Military intervention has been seen to aggravate rather than alleviate political tensions in countries.
Areas in need of policy rethinking by the United States
The United States needs to, therefore, consider genuine nation building as opposed to regime change as a way of dealing with threats of terrorism. Some critics have argued that nation building efforts by western countries have over the years created a ‘culture of dependence’. The truth of the matter is that it all depends on how this nation-building assistance is channeled and what conditions are attached to it. The kind of nation-building aid that African countries received to deal with their foreign debt in the 70s did create dependence because of the conditions that were attached to the loans such as downsizing of the civil service and privatization of state companies. This resulted in high unemployment figures and crime in the assisted countries. African countries ended up looking back to the US and the international bodies it controls for further assistance. Genuine nation-building efforts, therefore, need to be devised so that developing countries can be self sufficient and capable to manage their affairs.
Francis Fukuyama[5] gives a general definition of state-building as being the creation of new governmental institutions and the strengthening of existing ones. Fukuyama’s call is a transfer of strong institutions from developed to developing countries. To put more words in his mouth, a functional government must be one that is able to meet the demands of its citizenry in areas such as health delivery, food security, property security, education, investment and economic growth. Only such a government will be prepared to deal with non-state actors who might want to engage in acts of terrorism whether locally or at international level using the countries as bases. The United States should refrain from lip service and embark on serious efforts to empower fragile states to be able to enact statutes so as to frame and execute policies; to control corruption and most importantly be able to enforce law and order.
Unfortunately, because of the initial motives and methods employed by the United States in the countries that it is involved in such as Iraq and Afghanistan, state capacity building is taking long requiring prolonged US military and other allies’ presence in the countries. As the world’s hegemon, the United States has a moral responsibility to ensure that there is peace and security globally but this must be done within acceptable parameters.
On a number of occasions, the United States has acted unilaterally in issues that threatened its national security. It can be argued that the war on terror has been approached in this fashion creating the impression that it is ‘the terrorists versus the United States of America and Britain’ when the truth of the matter is that non-American innocent lives are lost when terrorists act. When terrorists target American interests in places like Kenya and elsewhere, local residents are also affected. The war on terror, therefore, calls for concerted efforts rather than a unilateral approach as adopted by the United States.Unilateral actions such as the United States has undertaken have contributed to undermining the authority of world bodies like the United Nations. Continued unilateral action may as well end up removing the confidence that the international community has in the United Nations. This is another factor concerning the United States’ foreign policy that it has to reconsider: how it deals with international bodies mandated to maintain peace and order.
One other element that is vital in the fight against terrorism is the lack of definite working definition of terrorism and acts of terrorism. It is obvious that definitions by the United States have created more problems than solutions in that there is a lack of consensus by the international community as to what constitutes terrorism. Literature is full of examples where groups and organizations which are fighting for self-determination have been shut out from discussions violating the people’s right to seek self-determination. In its position as the only super power, the United States needs to redefine terrorism if the rest of the internal community can join to effectively fight it. Relations between the United States and Arab countries are another policy issue that the western country has to rethink. Over the years, the United States has conveniently selected countries that it would work with sidelining others based purely on its national interests rather than an effort to seek world peace and security. The current situation in Iraq calls for genuine talks with Arab countries like Syria and Iran but simply because the United States has its own issues with Iran, feet have been dragged in engaging Iran to resolve the Iraq conflict, so too the Palestinian issue when it comes to discussions with Hamas.
The biggest challenge that the United States faces in the 21st Century, therefore, is cleaning its reputation and integrity after being thrown into the Iraqi mud. As the world leader it needs to regain the international community’s confidence through genuine efforts to build the capacity of the countries it is involved in rather than pursuing national interests like oil or just getting rid of a regime it does not like. Increased involvement of world bodies like the United Nations will also go a long way in bringing back the confidence and trust the international community lost in the United States.


[1] The World Bank, 2005

[2] The Misleading Problem of Failed States: a ‘socio-geography’ of terrorism in the post-9/11 era, Third World Quarterly Vol 28, No. 2, Simons & Tucker, 2007.

[3] The Danger of Failed States, Foreign Affairs, Krasner and Pascual, 2005

[4] Condoleezza Rice, ‘The Promises of democratic peace: why promoting freedom is the only realistic path to security,’ Washington Post, 11 December 2005.

[5] The Imperative of State-Building, Journal of Democracy Vol. 15, Number 2, Fukuyama, 2004

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Well written article.

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