The National Interest - Lonely at the top

The neoconservatives helped Ronald Reagan win the White House in 1980, and they strove, shortly thereafter, to forge a new consensus around the old verities of the Cold War. Their man mouthed the right words, calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and summoning America to "stand tall" again. He dispatched troops to Grenada to loosen what he called "the tightening grip of the totalitarian left" there, and he added the Reagan Doctrine to the list that had started with Monroe, continued through Truman, and made lesser stops at Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter. In its own way, the Reagan Doctrine was more ambitious than its predecessors, which were essentially negative in concept and formulation (that is, aimed to prevent—respectively—European expansion in the Americas, communist subversion, destabilization of the Middle East, another Cuba, another Vietnam, and a Soviet takeover of the Persian Gulf). The Reagan Doctrine advocated something positive: the replacement by rightists of leftist Third World regimes, notably in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola, and Cambodia. Above and beyond all this, the Reagan administration embarked on a big defense buildup, including the first steps toward what Reagan's partisans respectfully called the Strategic Defense Initiative and others derisively, or merely conveniently, called "Star Wars."

Although the American people cheered Reagan's speeches (which made all but hardened skeptics feel warm and fuzzy), supported his defense buildup (which provided welcome jobs during a nasty first-term recession), and reelected him by a large margin (over a candidate, Walter Mondale, who imprudently promised to raise taxes), they never cottoned to the neoconservative definition of the national interest. In the case of Nicaragua, the Congress explicitly cut off funding for Reagan's covert war against the Sandinista government. (Administration operatives would not take no for an answer and circumvented the congressional ban by the methods that produced the Iran-Contra scandal.)

Americans were much happier at a turn of events that started in Moscow in 1985 and gradually, then rapidly, redefined the politics of Europe. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev's plan to revitalize Soviet socialism required a respite with the West and led to the first important arms reduction agreements since the start of the Cold War. More important, Gorbachev's reforms required the Soviet client states of Eastern Europe to initiate reforms of their own, which led, in rapid-fire succession during the second half of 1989, to the dismantling of East European communism. By then, the anticommunist momentum was overwhelming, and before dissipating at the end of 1991 it swept aside Gorbachev and the Soviet Union itself.

The end of the Cold War was dazzling—and disorienting. Although the definition of the American national interest had shifted during the four decades since the start of the Cold War, with a particular break at Vietnam, it had always included the Soviet Union as a fundamental reference point. Now that reference point was gone, and Americans struggled to find a new one. Defense of the American homeland remained the sine qua non of the national interest, but nothing and no one offered a credible, or even conceivable, challenge on that count. (Terrorists, the new staple of Tom Clancy and other writers of thrillers, might blow up a building here or there, but such activity fell into the category of crime rather than war.) Defense of the U.S. economy could still arouse the American people: when Saddam Hussein seized the oil of Kuwait and threatened the wells of Saudi Arabia, President George H. W. Bush was able to marshal support behind an effort to protect what his secretary of state, James Baker, summarized in a word: "jobs." But military force was a blunt instrument for economic diplomacy; more appropriate were the North American Free Trade Agreement and the accords that moved China toward membership in the World Trade Organization. Even these noncoercive measures, however, enlisted far from unanimous support. Despite the unprecedented prosperity of the decade after the Cold War, many Americans registered real skepticism of the general phenomenon of globalization.

The hardest question for Americans during the 1990s was whether the American national interest included the defense of human rights overseas. Did the national interest require, or even suggest, dispatching troops to Bosnia to stop the "ethnic cleansing" there? To Somalia to deliver food to starving children and restore order where government had vanished? To Haiti to reinstall a president democratically elected but driven from office? To Rwanda to prevent the massacre of a half million men, women, and children on the wrong side of a murderous tribal conflict? To Serbia to secure self-determination for the Kosovo Albanians?

Beyond the basics of human rights, what about the promotion of democracy? Since the French Revolution, Americans had applauded the installation of governments responsible to the governed; but was this something worth making a fuss, or a fight, over? Should economic aid to the former Soviet republics be conditioned on elections and the rule of law? Should China be pressured to allow dissent and competitive politics?

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Americans had reached no consensus on these issues. No single definition of the national interest commanded the support of any substantial majority. The concept was still invoked: the administration of George W. Bush entered office in 2001 promising a foreign policy based on the "national interest" (rather, the new Bush men and women implied, than on the squishier standards of the outgoing Clinton administration). But they offered few specifics as to what their definition of the national interest entailed. Perhaps when they did, it would rally their compatriots behind a single, stirring vision. More likely, given the experience of two centuries of American history, it would simply spark more debate.

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