Changing Global Priorities

Our new foreign policy must prize cooperation over competition.

Barack Obama took office fifty-one days ago, assuming the presidency during a crucial time for American foreign policy. Instability in key areas is on the rise, and the economic contractions around the world are likely to bring unrest, violence, and change to a degree previously thought impossible.

The United States may be tempted to face the nations of the world with the same preferences and policies as before. A different party is in power now, but aside from his position on the war in Iraq, President Obama has not yet voiced foreign-policy positions that differ substantially from those of the preceding administration.

He should.

George W. Bush singled out North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as evildoers early in his presidency. He approached each nation differently, taking regime change to Iraq, sanctions to Iran, and bilateral negotiations to North Korea. Each of these nations had taken positions troubling to American interests. The Bush administration’s actions, most dramatically in Iraq, can be debated and the results evaluated for their long-term effectiveness. But in recent years, the geopolitical landscape in which those three nations stood out as dangers is all but gone.

Today Pakistan looks more precarious than Iran, Iraq, or North Korea ever could have. As Pakistan transitioned toward more democracy in October 2008, it also became less stable. It has always tolerated militants operating within its borders. Recently, a large area in the country’s northern region, known as the Swat Valley, has become a haven for Taliban, giving them opportunities to fundraise, organize, and plan operations in Afghanistan and beyond. The Pakistani government has agreed to bring the entire region under Sharia, the Islamic system of religious law, in a concession to local leaders, and officials have claimed to be negotiating with moderate elements of the populace in order to undermine radical groups.

For now, the United States must decide how to handle events in Pakistan as they affect our goals in Afghanistan. But in the long run, the United States will have to face the fact that Pakistan itself could descend into civil war, state-sanctioned radicalism, or general and indefinite instability. Pakistan is a substantial nuclear power; fringe elements of its population have already, on numerous occasions, exported terrible violence to neighboring India and Afghanistan. The danger of militant possession of nuclear weapons must be mitigated and planned for.

The U.S. has also regarded China and Russia with too much distrust. The corruption and authoritarianism of these nations runs against the fundamental principles of open, democratic society; individual liberties are compromised in both countries, and there is nothing that we would recognize as a free press. Like the United States, these nations have issues of security, but theirs are more dire and occur closer to home — China has North Korea on its border; Russia faces insurgent activity in Chechnya and Dagestan.

Now is the time for mutual cooperation and assistance. The recent skirmish between Chinese and American vessels would not have happened between friendly nations. More can be done diplomatically to find points of agreement, so that these three great powers can be allowed to focus their collective resources on international problem-solving, not rivalry.

Both China and Russia have loosely followed our free-market model, although their economies are informed by far too much authoritarian power from the state. Neither country is a threat to our national security or that of our allies, in the long run. Indeed, it seems reasonable to expect that coöperation between China, Russia, and the West will continue to bring gradual reform to those nations, as it has in the past. China’s government is far more open and its leadership far more accountable today than it was twenty years ago. The forthcoming diplomatic era must be one of accord and common ground, not withdrawal and alienation.

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