The Limits of Pragmatism in American Foreign Policy: Unsolicited Advice to the Bush Administration on Relations with International Nongovernmental Organizations

Article excerpt


The attitude of the Bush administration with respect to the vast array of international nongovernmental organizations ("NGOs") that now populate the international scene is, of course, in a process of development. Yet while the Bush administration has identified international issues that raise serious questions of American sovereignty, it does not appear to have understood the importance of international NGOs as international actors carrying forward these issues with one political agenda or another-not merely as followers or supporters, but as the driving force with respect to many important questions. The overtly realist orientation of the Bush foreign policy team (at least as it exists at this point, being under considerable pressure to moderate itself) may unfortunately be fundamentally, indeed dangerously, ill-suited to understand that in today's world, in matters from human rights to the environment to population policy to adventures in humanitarian intervention, the leadership and driving force behind policy often comes from international NGOs.

This is true notwithstanding that international NGOs do not apparently have the traditional realist indicia of political power. Realism has a tendency to ignore actors whose influence derives from their single-minded attention to ideology rather than from more obvious material factors, preferring to ask, in the classic exchange, "How many legions has the Pope" even when it is evident that in the democratic world, image and ideas and political fashion matter a great deal in establishing policy. In that arena, international NGOs do not need legions of their own, if by effective lobbying and the deployment of CNN, they can have NATO's.

To be sure, there are important appointees in the Bush administration that do understand the importance of international NGOs in setting the agendas of international affairs-John Bolton is chief among them. Still, the Bush administration does not appear fundamentally to understand that a long-term, indispensable, though easily ignored, goal of Bush foreign policy ought to be to strengthen the sovereignty of democratic states, including American democratic sovereignty. That unapologetically ideological goal can be accomplished only by redefining the relationship between democratic sovereign states and the combination of international NGOs and international organizations. The Bush administration ought to see redefining those relationships-and the articulation of an ideal and ideology of international affairs as the realm of democratic sovereigns, rather than the realm of nascent international organizations benevolently guided by international NGOs-as a major contribution to the strength of democracy in the world today. Yet it must also understand that to do so flies in the face of all that is considered fashionable, hip, progressive, and ordained by history among the international elites. These elites, in thrall to the idea of globalization, form the cohort not merely of international NGOs and international organizations, but also of much of the US foreign policy establishment and, likewise, multinational business. Lack of hipness is today the price of fidelity to American democratic institutions.

Several different tendencies of thought about international NGOs can be discerned among American conservatives, some of which are consistent with each other and others of which are not. There are, to start with, strong conservatives, often religiously affiliated, bearing long hostility toward the sizable mass of international NGOs associated with "liberal" or "progressive" causes. These conservatives often define their attitudes around such "values" issues as population planning and abortion, and the kinds of cultural issues attached to such treaties as the Convention on the Rights of the Child' and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women ("CEDAW) which, largely due to pressure from these conservative constituencies, have never been accepted by the United States. …


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