Conceiving a Grand Strategy: Focusing US Foreign Policy for a Revolutionary Age

Harvard International Review, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Conceiving a Grand Strategy: Focusing US Foreign Policy for a Revolutionary Age


GARY HART was elected US Senator from Colorado in 1974. As Co-Chair of the US Commission on National Security/21st Century, he warned of deficits in US homeland security and of the dangers of a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction.

What do you think are the most important issues that will characterize international politics in the 21st century?

We're living in a revolutionary age. The first revolution in modern history is globalization: the internationalization of finance, commerce, and markets. Simultaneously, a second profound economic and social revolution--the information revolution--is occurring. Those two revolutions together are offering a great deal of opportunity and promise to nations that are both trading nations and have access to the information technologies, but are also widening the gap between those nations, the haves and the have-nots. The half, two-thirds, maybe even three-quarters of the world that have very little to trade in terms of raw materials, finished products, and goods and services are not benefiting from the information revolution.

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That, in turn, is causing the erosion of the sovereignty of states, particularly those that were formed in the colonial era: artificial states composed of tribes, clans, and often religious antagonists. This eroding state authority is leading to the third revolution, which is failed states. And that third revolution, in turn, is leading to the fourth: the transformation of war, which is what we saw in the 1990s and particularly, most vividly, on September 11. So those revolutions are the backdrop for trying to determine what the United States' role in the 21st century is, and how both the US government and the US private sector deal with this new world. The major thing is that the early 21st century is not simply a continuation of the 20th.

What constraints does US foreign policy face today?

We are, to begin with, the most powerful nation on earth. I think everyone acknowledges that fact, in terms of the traditional powers of the economy, politics, and the military. But we also operate under constraints, which are built into our system of principles, our constitutional structure. Our system requires transparency, so it's very difficult for either our political leaders or even our business leaders to operate in secret. Openness is more and more the watchword. We are constrained by our dependence on foreign creditors, to finance both the public and the private debt. And we're constrained very much by our dependence on foreign oil.

Have these constraints been imposed and exacerbated by the administration of US President George W. Bush, or do they have deeper roots?

I think the unilateralism that characterizes this administration's foreign policy is exacerbating tensions in the international system and eroding the traditional alliances that we have relied on for stability in the 20th century, particularly the second half since World War II. And they are also compounding the difficulties of the international trading system. The United States is learning that we cannot unilaterally opt in and opt out of the World Trade Organization and its rules. We are finding out that we cannot operate in secret; things that we thought in the past we might be able to hide--efforts to overthrow foreign governments or covert operations--are more and more coming out in the very near term: not over years, but in weeks and months and even days. So I think the ideas of unilateralism and pre-emption are ill-suited to this new revolutionary world.

How effectively did Bush's foreign policy respond to the aforementioned revolutions?

These revolutions were ongoing when the current administration came into office. It has neglected, even somewhat refused, to understand how these revolutions are requiring greater, not lesser, international cooperation. And in effect, it has introduced notions into US foreign policy that are directly contrary to the tides of these revolutions and are therefore bound to be defeated by them. …

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Conceiving a Grand Strategy: Focusing US Foreign Policy for a Revolutionary Age
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