The Idea That Is America
Basic Books, $25.95, 250 pp.
Yale University Press, $27, 336 pp.
I attended a concert about ten years ago at the Moscow Conservatory with a Russian friend. The orchestra played a mix of Russian and American classics. Halfway through Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring, my friend turned to me and whispered, “It’s so optimistic.”
I had to agree, particularly when what had preceded the Copeland was a discordant, politically ambiguous symphonic work by Dmitri Shostakovich, whose lifetime coincided almost exactly with Copeland’s.
I was reminded, vividly, of this incident on reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s latest book, The Idea That Is America. Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, has written a highly readable, optimistic manifesto that makes the case for putting America’s values at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. Thoroughly discouraged by what she sees as the Bush administration’s bungling of our relations with the rest of the world, Slaughter identifies seven principles that, in her view, are central to understanding what America stands for, and argues that only by embracing these principles as both ends and means in foreign policy can we reestablish trusting relations with other countries.
Part civics primer, part call to action, The Idea That Is America will resonate deeply with readers who consider themselves liberals and idealists and with those who are as dismayed by the current administration’s approach to foreign policy as Slaughter is. Her language brims with idealism, hope, and personal discovery (“I want to be able to hold my head high again, not from pride in American exceptionalism, but from common moral and political purpose with the vast majority of humankind.... I want my children to grow up happy to be Americans”).
Critics will note that although Slaughter devotes an entire chapter to each of seven values-liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith-she merely skims through U.S. history in her search for evidence of their centrality to U.S. political and social culture. But Slaughter’s aim is less scholarly than political. It is perhaps with an eye toward the next presidential election that she asserts her bona fides on foreign-policy matters.
Whatever her ultimate goal, Slaughter is at her most persuasive when she acknowledges, repeatedly, our failure to live up to the ideals represented by each of those seven values. Our ability as Americans to disagree passionately about our values and our never-ending efforts to live up to our values are, according to Slaughter, what have made America a beacon to people from all over the world.
The problem, she contends, is that we are no longer the beacon we once were because our foreign policy is no longer guided by, or reflective of, our values. She points to the Bush administration’s policies on torture and habeas corpus for terrorism suspects and its unilateralist tendencies as evidence of our having betrayed our core values. The question of whether U.S. foreign policy was ever truly guided by the seven central values discussed in this book is profoundly debatable. But anyone who thinks our current foreign-policy direction is misguided is likely to agree that acting in accordance with those values would probably be a good thing.
The crux of Slaughter’s argument is this: U.S. foreign policy should be designed to reflect and promote our values, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is “the smart thing to do-serving both our ideals and our interests.” That’s how she answers the inevitable criticism that will come from the realist or neoconservative camps. By drawing a direct, mutually supportive link between our ideals and our national interest, she counters the classic power-based paradigm for international politics that tends to see a disconnect between ideals and interests.
Amitai Etzioni’s new book, Security First, starts with a premise similar to Slaughter’s: U.S. foreign policy is in disarray, we’ve lost respect around the world, we don’t seem to be guided by any moral vision. He and Slaughter agree that “what we ought to do and what it is in our interests to do, tend to converge.” But he disagrees with Slaughter about causality. If, in Slaughter’s view, the path to national security and international good will depends on embracing and acting on our values, Etzioni’s prescription is the reverse: first pursue basic security for all, then focus on our principles. Just as Slaughter linked ideals and interests, Etzioni calls his approach “principled realism” or “pragmatic idealism.”
An intellectual leader of the communitarian movement, Etzioni offers a foreign-policy directive based on the primacy of life. Without basic security, he justifiably claims, no one person or nation has the luxury of considering higher-order values such as democracy or liberty. It is hard to argue against this. If you are dead or threatened with annihilation, democracy is a moot point.
From there, he argues for five steps: Set realistic foreign-policy goals based not on idealistic notions but on what can actually be achieved. Find common ground with nonviolent moderates around the world, even if they are illiberal or religious. With the cooperation of these moderates, pursue basic security for all, even if it means intervening in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. Adopt a triage strategy for dealing with threats against the United States, starting with what is, in his view, the most serious threat: nuclear attack. Do this by turning a coalition like that behind the Proliferation Security Initiative into a true international authority that can enhance security and look after “human need” around the world.
This summary does not do justice to Etzioni’s nuanced, multilayered reasoning, but it does get at the book’s ultimate lack of cogency. Etzioni begins with a clear and forceful idea about basic security as the necessary foundation of U.S. foreign policy, but he ends with a weak, unsatisfying suggestion for its implementation. An uncomfortable blend of foreign-policy advice and academic exercise-complete with case studies and reviews of theoretical literature-Security First reads like a laundry list of ideas that don’t completely hold together. This may be partly because many sections of the book are adaptations of Etzioni’s previous publications.
Not surprisingly, given the pragmatic bent of this book, Etzioni derides “can-do, positive-thinking, optimistic Americans” for their naiveté. What for Slaugh¬¬ter is one of America’s strong points is for Etzioni an unfortunate shortcoming.