Near the beginning of her big foreign-policy speech at the Council of Foreign Relations, Hillary Clinton took a shot at the “balance of power.” It may have been a good concept in the 20th century, she explained, when we faced the Soviet Union, but it’s outmoded today.
That spoke volumes. George W. Bush’s foreign policy was all about the balance of power. As he saw it, there were bad guys (terrorists and their state sponsors) and good guys (us and our allies). The goal was to isolate, if not eliminate, the former and strengthen the latter. He wasn’t seeking a balance of power in the sense of equal power between America and its enemies. But no country ever does. He was seeking the kind of “balance” you want in your bank account, a positive one. As Condoleezza Rice liked to say, “A balance of power that favors freedom.”
While there may be some value in publicly trashing the balance of power, let’s hope Hillary Clinton doesn’t really believe her own words.
Commentators often called Bush a Wilsonian because he talked about promoting democracy. But that was mostly nonsense, because the beating heart of Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy was his desire to abolish the balance of power, to replace a world divided between hostile alliances with a world united against common threats. To replace “us vs. them” with “we’re all in it together.”
Hillary Clinton, in other words, is the real Wilsonian. And her speech was a textbook example of the strengths and weaknesses of the Wilsonian tradition. What’s great about Wilsonianism is that it provides an intellectual framework for tackling non-military issues. The balance of power tradition—with its emphasis on us vs. them—stands totally mute before threats like global warming or the global economic crisis, which threaten all nations far more than they benefit any. That’s why Bush and most other conservatives so often ignore the economic and environmental aspects of foreign policy, because you can’t address them without seeing all nations as essentially on the same side.
Wilsonianism also implies moral reciprocity. By seeing America as part of a global community, it suggests that the rules of good international behavior apply to us as well. Clinton—like Obama—clearly acknowledges that when it comes to the environment, human rights, nuclear proliferation, and fighting poverty, we can’t lay down rules for other nations unless we’re willing to abide by them ourselves. In that sense, Clinton is the true moral universalist: the person who believes there are ethical standards that exist above and beyond all nations, including our own. Bush was a nationalist pretending to be a moralist: a man who believed that evil was something our enemies did, and that America—because we were so transcendentally moral—should not be judged by standards that non-Americans help define.
That’s the good news. The problem with Wilsonians is that in their efforts to, as Clinton put it, “forge” a “global consensus,” they sometimes exaggerate the degree of global consensus that really exists. There really is a global consensus that global warming and financial meltdown threaten all nations. (Even if not everyone wants to do much about it.) But there’s no global consensus on human rights or nuclear proliferation. China and Russia believe sovereignty is more important than individual liberty; Wilsonians don’t. And that means you can either forge truly global institutions—which include Moscow and Beijing—or you can forge institutions whose members genuinely respect freedom. You can’t do both. Similarly, it would be nice if there were a global consensus that nuclear proliferation was bad, but there’s not. Countries with nukes mostly think that no one else should enter the club. Lots of countries without nukes want in.
It’s all well and good to say that we can have different kinds of international institutions for different issues: global ones where there really is a moral consensus; limited ones where there is not. But in the real world, you can’t keep things so separate. The more you alienate non-democracies by creating powerful new institutions on human rights, the harder it is to get their cooperation on issues of common concern. That’s what Jimmy Carter learned when he tried to forge agreements with the USSR on nuclear arms while bashing them on human rights at the same time. A foreign policy that doesn’t involve painful choices between competing priorities is a foreign policy headed for trouble, and Clinton’s speech offered no hint about painful choices whatsoever.
It also focused little attention on China, which was strange. America’s ability to imagine that we live in a Wilsonian world where the balance of power no longer applies depends in large measure on our ability to get along with Beijing. If China decided to attack Taiwan, we’d learn the relevance of the balance of power—us vs. them—pretty darn fast. Clinton said she was going to focus on “the urgent, the important, and the long-term all at once,” but by focusing so little attention on Beijing, she implicitly prioritized No. 1 (i.e. the Middle East and South Asia) over Nos. 2 and 3. The truth is that our ability to manage the Asian balance of power—to accommodate China’s growing muscle and nationalist fervor without sacrificing our commitments to longtime allies like Japan—is crucial to the success of whatever global consensus on issues like climate change and financial regulation Clinton and Obama hope to forge. So while there may be some value in publicly trashing the balance of power, let’s hope Clinton doesn’t really believe her own words. A stable balance of power is like oxygen; we only notice it when it’s not there.
Peter Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.