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Has US Foreign Policy Failed?


Progressives face an important choice when framing their arguments about what is wrong with U.S. foreign policy–a decision about which of two perspectives they will adopt. A first perspective is based on what can be called a “good faith” view of U.S. actions abroad. With this view, you accept the stated goals of U.S. policy, taking at face value the idea that the U.S. government is aiming to promote democracy in the world and that institutions like the World Bank are trying to reduce global poverty. Your criticism charges that such actors have “failed” to achieve these goals–and have even produced the opposite outcomes.

While even moderates will make such good faith criticisms of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, a second, “bad faith” view tends to produce a more radical critique. With this perspective, you argue that U.S. political and economic actors have not failed. Rather, they have been very successful in promoting an entirely different set of objectives. Most fundamentally, they have succeeded in solidifying an international order based on profit rather than human need, and have redistributed wealth upward toward the most prosperous segments of global society. The global elite’s talk about democracy, human rights, or poverty reduction is merely window dressing for this less attractive set of goals.

Your take on this issue will fundamentally shape your view of what motivates White House functionaries, mainstream development economists, and corporate executives. Simply put, the question raised by these two perspectives of U.S. policy is: Are they naves or are they fools? Are they evil or are they just stupid?

I am going to speak about this dilemma in general terms, although you can use numerous historical examples to pursue a more in-depth discussion of these questions.

There are important reasons why the bad faith view often produces better analysis of the U.S. in the world. Mainstream discussion of politics tends to fixate on individual personalities and psychological profiles. It is hesitant to ascribe bad-faith motives to specific policymakers. This is understandable, since a given individual may not be bad person; State Department staffers probably love their children and pet their dogs. However, with its individual focus, this analysis misses the larger fact that institutional and class interests shape behavior in meaningful ways. An individual CEO maybe kindhearted and generous, but unless he can create value for his shareholders as efficiently as his competitors, he will be removed from his post.

In moments when they are not being rhetorically cautious, individuals in the foreign policy establishment can be quite explicit about their goals. They claim to act in the “national interest,” and they define this as acting in the benefit of U.S. businesses and creating a system in which our people will prosper. Since the rivalry of Cold War has become obsolete, direct economic interest has increasingly moved to the fore of this definition. The experience of U.S. foreign policy suggests that when democracy and economic benefit collide, Washington has consistently favored economic gain. At best, in these cases democracy and human rights are presumed to be the indirect benefits of a free market system. For this reason, it makes sense to approach lofty rhetoric with skepticism and to make use of a bad faith perspective.

At the same time, the good faith perspective has a number of advantages that make it significant in dialogue about foreign policy. First, it has pragmatic uses. Most Americans do believe that the country aims to promote democracy and human rights; these ideas are bred in our schools and uncritically spread through our mass media. In this context, starting with a “good faith” perspective is a way of engaging the debate in a way that speaks to people. Taking a White House claim about promoting democracy and then showing how badly the U.S. has done in achieving this goal can make for a powerful argument, while a bad faith stance that the U.S. is not at all interested in democracy comes off as merely cynical.


Secondly, good faith and bad faith arguments should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Once you clearly show that U.S. policy has consistent failed to produce its stated objectives you can raise questions about what the goals of policymakers truly are. In this way, a strong good faith argument can be a radicalizing force.

Third, just as mainstream analysis focuses on the good intentions of individuals and misses institutional forces, the bad faith perspective can fall into the corresponding bad habit of ascribing evil motives to individual actors. Because of this, it can fail to spot internal conflicts and fissures within hegemonic institutions. It can also be slow in identifying “defectors” from within the economic and foreign policy mainstream–insiders who become critics of their bosses. In the globalization debate, the defection of prominent economists Jeffery Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz, former Chief Economist at the World Bank, added tremendous credibility to the arguments of the global justice movement. In recent months, the harsh public criticisms of the Bush administration by Richard Clark, David Kay, and a litany of other officials have done serious damage to the White House war effort. From a progressive perspective, none of these figures offer an ideal or thorough-going analysis of foreign policy. But awareness of their shortcomings should not miss the importance they have in affecting a predominately good-faith public debate.

Finally, beyond pragmatic considerations, there is an important weakness of the bad faith view that must be tempered. The bad faith perspective can spawn a monolithic and ahistorical view of the government and of international financial institutions. It lends itself to a cynicism that disregards how these bodies change over time, how they have been affected by social movements, and how they present opportunities for action. Not every Administration is as aggressive and exploitative as the next; not all development policy is as market-driven as neoliberalism; and progressives do at times win positions of power within these institutions that can help produce real victories. Even small differences can have great impacts on the lives of people at home and abroad. Unless you have an all-or-nothing revolutionary theory, activism will revolve around making incremental changes within a system that is not ideal.

The fact that the foreign policy apparatus clothes its actions in the rhetoric of human rights and democracy cedes to us a moral high ground. We should capitalize on this. Supporting real movements for democracy and human rights is a cornerstone of progressive internationalism. Actions of the U.S. government and financial bodies can help these movements or, as is commonly the case, can hurt them. We don’t have to have any illusions about the foreign policy establishment to push for policies that do the former. And we do not have to be naive to assert that the true “national interest” of U.S. citizens is to promote these ideals.

In this respect, a bad faith view–which strips away pleasant-sounding rationalizations for foreign policy–may be vital in understanding our government’s past track record. But a good faith view–which demands a different national identity–will be necessary in re-imagining its future.




– Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached via the web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com. Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe.

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