PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL JOHN KERRY SEEMS IN MANY WAYS the perfect foreign-policy foil to President George W. Bush. Educated partly in Switzerland and fluent in French, Kerry is the son of a diplomat who worked intensively with U.S. allies during the early Cold War. And so Kerry inherited the vision of a world rife with complexity and susceptible to reason--one where the power of diplomacy was an article of faith, even while military solutions couldn't be discounted. Kerry touts a "bold, progressive internationalism" in his foreign-policy speeches, and in his statements on Iraq, he has all but promised a return to the multilateralist, institution-based foreign policy so many Democratic strategists deem vital to U.S. security.
That diplomacy and alliances are essential tools in the pursuit of the national interest, and that military muscle is to be avoided except in the case of last resort, were once simple truisms of the bipartisan, realist foreign-policy establishment. Today, however, a significant challenge to that worldview has risen from the right. In the face of a vast and nebulous terrorist threat, and in the absence of any countervailing superpower, the Bush administration has advocated a martial unilateralism. Under Bush, the White House has shunned not only many traditional U.S. allies but even, at times, its own State Department. Implacable enemies, it has decided, are better persuaded by force than by diplomatic overtures or economic blandishments. After all, Bush's proponents point out, it was fear, not love for the United States, that drove Libya to abandon its nuclear weapons program in the wake of the Iraq War.
With American prestige at an all-time low around the world, Bush's tough talk has alienated not just America's allies but also many of its voters. Kerry's emphasis on multilateralism and diplomacy appeals strongly to a Democratic base that's turned off by the Bush administration's go-it-alone, dead-or-alive, bring-it-on swagger. It should also draw swing voters unhappy with American conduct in Iraq.
If elected, however, a Kerry administration would have to offer more than soothing words and repaired alliances. Beyond the war in Iraq, the great challenge to U.S. security is terrorism. And terrorism on today's scale is a qualitatively different problem than those that faced Cold War diplomats of Kerry's father's time. It offers no negotiating partners, and its roots are intertwined with economic, geopolitical, and cultural issues on a grand scale. A change of administration would help restore some global goodwill toward the United States, and that alone would be a boon to American security. But much more would depend on that administration's creativity and savvy. Kerry's gamble--and ours--would be that policies based on diplomacy can deflate the terrorist threat. But that's far from a sure bet.
IN DECLARING WAR ON TERRORISM, THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION proceeded from a faulty assumption: that terrorism was a state-based problem. If only that were so. Then the threat of U.S. force would be sufficient to discipline those states that harbor or support terrorists, and that would solve, or at least substantially address, the problem. But terrorism is a multiheaded monster that crosses borders, melts into populations without the knowledge or consent of governments, and requires relatively little by way of infrastructure.
What it does require, however, is a base of antipathy toward the United States and sympathy for terrorist causes and tactics. The latest Pew Research Center poll of global attitudes finds pervasive support in Muslim countries for suicide bombings in both Israel and Iraq. The poll also found that Osama bin Laden is viewed favorably by 65 percent of Pakistanis, 55 percent of Jordanians, and 45 percent of Moroccans. Some of these respondents are potential terrorist recruits; more of them simply comprise the social milieu within which violent groups can operate with tacit sympathy, sometimes with material support, and without exposure. …