A New Realism: Crafting a US Foreign Policy for a New Century

By Richardson, Bill | Harvard International Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

A New Realism: Crafting a US Foreign Policy for a New Century


Richardson, Bill, Harvard International Review


US foreign policymakers face novel challenges in the 21st century. Jihadists and environmental crises have replaced armies and missiles as the greatest threats, and globalization has eroded the significance of national borders. Many problems that were once national are now global, and dangers that once came only from states now come also from societies--not from hostile governments, but from hostile individuals or from impersonal social trends, such as the consumption of fossil fuels.

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Despite this sea change of new challenges, there have been only ripples of new thinking about how to address them. While the problems have become largely global and societal, the solutions have not changed accordingly. The United States must craft a new foreign policy adapted to a world of complex global challenges which require thoughtful and global solutions.

An Unchanging Approach to a Changing Paradigm

The failure to modernize US strategic thinking has had serious consequences. Almost six years after 9/11, the international community has achieved only modest improvement in international intelligence coordination and law enforcement to combat Jihadist and criminal networks, and the world has done almost nothing to address the underlying causes of Jihadism. Incredibly, even though Al Qaeda has tried to acquire nuclear weapons, the US government has underfunded efforts to secure loose nukes and fissile materials. US ports, cities, power plants, and transportation networks remain highly vulnerable, and almost nothing has been done to improve the ability to recover from a nuclear or biological terror attack.

Rather than meeting radically new security challenges with radically new approaches, the US government has fought the "war on terror" the old-fashioned way, that is to say, with military force. Literally and figuratively unable to grasp the real stateless enemy, President Bush waged war instead against a state, Iraq, even though its dictator had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. Not surprisingly, waging a 20th century war in the 21st century has not produced the desired results.

Policymakers also have not yet adopted a new paradigm for coping with economic globalization. Despite the profound transformation and rapid growth of the global economy in recent years, they have not gotten beyond tired old debates about "free trade versus protectionism," and they have done little to modernize the international organizations tasked with managing the global economy. The breakdown of the Doha round suggests that the World Trade Organization may no longer be able to politically finesse the social consequences of free trade agreements in the Internet age.

The world community has likewise done far too little to stop global warming or the depletion of natural resources such as fish, farmland, and clean water. Indeed, the United States has failed to even follow, much less to lead, the modest international efforts that have been made on climate change.

The neoconservative experiment for radical transformation through unilateralism has ended in failure, having proved itself poorly adapted to the realities of the 21st century. The war in Iraq has demonstrated that raw US power cannot transform the Middle East--instead, it has shown that the unrestrained and careless use of that power can damage credibility and weaken alliances. Some foreign policy analysts from both political parties now argue that the United States should now return to 20th century realism, in other words, to a policy focused not upon changing other societies, but rather upon maintaining stability and maximizing national power. They correctly point out that neoconservative efforts to transform other societies through force were naive and ill-conceived.

Despite this advice to turn to a traditional realist paradigm, US leaders must do better than just return to the balance-of-power politics of the last century, as the most urgent problems today--from Jihadism to global warming--do not respect national borders, and many of these problems are not state-sponsored. …

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