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by Daniel W. Drezner

Only at TNR Online
Post date: 03.31.04

In foreign policy, the mainstreams of both political parties agree a lot more than they let on during an election year. Which is why, in terms of substance (though perhaps not rhetoric), there were more similarities than differences between the national security strategies of the Clinton and Bush administrations. (This has been further confirmed by the reveleations of Richard Clarke.) Had Al Gore been elected in 2000, he almost certainly would have invaded Afghanistan in 2001, jump-started the Doha round of trade talks, and sought to strengthen international cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation--all steps taken by his opponent, George W. Bush.

Of course, areas of disagreement do exist, even within the political mainstream. And it's in those areas of disagreement that the upcoming election--the first presidential contest since 1988 in which national security figures prominently--will be fought. The main similarity between Kerry and Bush post-9/11 is that both profess an idealistic faith in the value of democratic nation-building, and, more specifically in the importance of the U.S. winning the war of ideas by implanting democracy in the Middle East. The main difference between the two is that Bush believes we can achieve these idealistic goals through unilateral (and often military) action; Kerry prefers to proceed multilaterally (and, while not averse to using American power, is clearly more of a dove).

If you plot these strains of thinking (unilateralism versus multilateralism, and faith in democracy-building versus distrust of democracy-building) on an axis, you end up with four quadrants of foreign-policy thought. In one corner, you have the multilateralist democracy-builders--these are folks who might have supported the idealistic intent behind the Iraq invasion, but who would have, at minimum, wanted U.N. backing. Kerry falls into this category. While denouncing the Iraq invasion, he has also said, "Nothing else will matter unless we win the war of ideas. ... Democracy won't come overnight, but America should speed that day by sustaining the forces of democracy against repressive regimes and by rewarding governments which take genuine steps towards change." In another corrner, you have the unilateral democracy-builders--folks who believe that democracy must be brought to the Middle East by gunpoint. Bush falls into this quadrant; his actions and statements over the last three years in this regard speak for themselves.

But this scheme yields two other quadrants--quadrants that don't host either of this year's presidential candidates. One is the province of multilateralists who have little faith that democracy can be forced on the Middle East--call it the Jacques Chirac school of thought. The fourth quadrant belongs to those who are similarly skeptical about implanting democracy in the Middle East, but who nevertheless believe America should act unilaterally in defense of its interests. Donald Rumsfeld is the posterboy for this quadrant.

Because Kerry and Bush both favor democracy-building and remaking the Middle East, you won't hear a lot of debate during the upcoming campaign about the virutes of democracy-building. Most of the back-and-forth will focus on multilateralism versus unilateralism, which makes sense, since that is where the candidates diverge. But while opponents of democracy-building--be they multilateralists or unilateralists--find themselves outside the mainstream of partisan political debate at the moment, they do still exist. Many voters won't think about it this way, but in choosing between Kerry and Bush, they're not just picking which side of the multilateral-unilateral divide to be on; they're also picking which actors--the Chiracs or the Rumsfelds--will serve as hidden constraints on the next president's stated foreign-policy convictions. For that reason, it's worth extrapolating forward and imaginging just how much influence either set of hidden actors would bring to bear on the next administration.

In a second Bush term, there seems little doubt that conservative realists like Rumsfeld would have considerable influence. Realists believe that the world is unsafe, but are profoundly pessimistic about getting involved in the domestic politics of other countries. They share with Edmund Burke the conviction that Western ideas do not travel well beyond Western civilization. This is why Bush, with Condoleezza Rice whispering in his ear, disdained nation-building during the 2000 campaign. True, many realists in the administration, such as Rumsfeld, supported the Iraq invasion as a show of force--but they believe that only the Iraqis can remake their own society, and that only Arabs can spur democratic reforms in the region as a whole. Meanwhile, conservative realists outside the administration, such as Brent Scrowcroft and James Baker, expressed grave doubts about the war. Bush might be committed to remaking the Middle East, but realist opposition to nation-building could hamper the administration from following through on its stated ambitions.

In fact, there are good reasons to believe that realists would trump the neocons during a second term. None of the neocons hold Cabinet-level positions (the most prominent is Paul Wolfowitz) and the rumored shift at the State Department from Colin Powell to Condoleezza Rice will probably strengthen the hand of the realists. (Yes, Powell opposed the neocons, but he also proved rather inept at winning influence with the president; Rice, by contrast, is a realist who will have Bush's attention.) Indeed, neocons outside the administration, like Max Boot, are already frustrated with Bush's follow-through on Iraq; one suspects that Karl Rove is equally frustrated with the neocons for the failure of postwar Iraq to meet prewar expectations. Having staked his legacy on transforming the Middle East, Bush is unlikely to walk away from the project completely. But if he makes it safely to a second term, he is also unlikely to risk any new foreign-policy adventures.

In a Kerry administration, the influence of multilateralists who are cynical about the prospects for Middle Eastern reform would likely come from abroad--namely, from our European allies. In this regard, countries like France and Germany could pose problems for Kerry. These nations will be happy to cooperate in the immediate matters of blocking terrorist financing and curbing nuclear proliferation. On the question of remaking the Middle East, however, they are more pessimistic. It has taken Europe centuries of wars and decades of patient multilateralism to forge peace and prosperity on the continent. European elites are skeptical that even a concerted effort will lead to genuine transformation in the Middle East anytime soon.

It's hard to know what this would mean in practical terms, if only because we have no way of knowing how deferential Kerry would be to our European allies. But it seems likely that Kerry's multilaterist impulses will conflict with his desire to promote democracy. Europeans would no doubt pressure Kerry to impose a solution on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute--one that would almost certainly constrain Israel, the Middle East's most robust democracy, more than Kerry would prefer. If Kerry is willing to accept European terms, the result could be a "grand bargain," with simultaneous multilateral pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza and on Arab nations to democratize their societies. If Kerry is unwilling to accept that bargain, he won't get much help from Europeans in his bid to push reform in the Middle East, and he could well settle for a lowest-common-denominator effort at democracy-building in Iraq. Either option would require Kerry to make some compromises. It might be worth asking the senator during one of the debates which way he would roll the dice. That would help Americans decide not just which candidate they're voting for, but which hidden actors they're empowering as well.


Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Sanctions Paradox (Cambridge 1999). He writes regularly at


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