Back to the Future: US Foreign Policy and 9/11 in Hindsight

The Economist, March 9, 2002. Photograph: AP

The Economist, March 9, 2002. Photograph: AP

One of my first professional writing assignments was as a rapporteur for a three-day conference in France hosted by Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Nine months after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, this gathering of political scientists, economists, and diplomats convened in June 2002 to discuss how US foreign policy priorities had shifted.

So what was going on in June 2002?

President George W. Bush had just made a speech at West Point indicating deterrence was insufficient in combating the war against terrorism, thereby opening the door to preemptive military action:

“Deterrence, the promise of massive retaliation against nations, means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell was also about to make the case to the U.N. Security Council that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In hindsight, 2002 was a pivotal year in US foreign policy, and this conference was a moment for both the American and European participants to reflect on the past—but also to take the temperature of their current relationship and to consider its future.

Colin Powell, United States Secretary of State, briefing the Security Council on February 5, 2003.

Colin Powell, United States Secretary of State, briefing the Security Council on February 5, 2003.

“Bound to Lead” or Homeward Bound? Differing Views on US Grand Strategy

Panelists in the first session debated if and how US foreign policy should change in the next decade.

William Kristol argued that Bush’s West Point speech (mentioned above) would reshape the US foreign policy agenda. The policies of containment and deterrence had long been at the heart of Western foreign policy. Kristol reiterated the significance of this shift, and he predicted that regime change would not be limited to Afghanistan, but that the Bush administration would seek to remove Saddam Hussein as well.

John J. Mearsheimer described what he considered to be the template that had historically underpinned US foreign policy. Since 1776, the United States had sought to establish regional hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. The founding fathers, and their successors, pursued two policies—at first, Manifest Destiny, in which the United States expanded territorially, and then in 1823 the Monroe Doctrine, “which in the name of national security put the European powers on notice that they were not welcome in the Western Hemisphere.”

Panelists from "Session 1: Bound to Lead or Homeward Bound?" represented opposing views on U.S. foreign policy post-9/11.

Panelists from “Session 1: Bound to Lead or Homeward Bound?” represented opposing views on US foreign policy post-9/11.

• Mearsheimer didn’t believe the United States would find it in its national interest to build an empire in the Islamic world. Mearsheimer acknowledged that Bush “talks Hawkish,” but he does not think Bush would go so far as to invade Iraq. Instead of a military proposal, Mearsheimer strongly advised that the United States focus on “winning the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people.

The “War” on Terrorism and US Foreign Policy

François Heisbourg observed how the events of September 11 had changed the United States—Americans now view the world through the prism of these attacks. Heisbourg commented how one of America’s founding myths is that it is a place apart, “protected by oceans of great distances.” This makes Americans profoundly different from Europeans who, for the most part, live with a recent past of invading armies in their homeland.

• Heisbourg concluded that the war against terrorism would become too unpredictable and too widespread for the United States to effectively safeguard its interests without help from the outside. He predicted that the United States would soon discover that fighting against non-state terrorists requires assistance, especially in the realm of intelligence.

Cindy Williams commented that as a military analyst, she preferred a tight military budget because it forces decisions to be made, clarified, and justified. In an ideal world, Williams would like US taxpayers to pay for the wars as they are fought, because this would help Americans understand the cost of the policies.

US military dominance affords America a terrific amount of leverage, offered Barry Posen. However, the weaknesses in the current US military, or “zones of contestation” is where the “Clausewitzian fog of war persists.” The United States has attempted to bring technology to bear in these gray areas, but many of these problems are resistant to technological advances.

• One of Posen’s concerns was the emergence of adversaries who are technically competent, highly motivated, modestly prosperous, and willing to die for their cause. The task for American military strategists in the future will be to successfully leverage the strengths of the US military and work with allies to shore-up its weaknesses.

Jeffrey Frankel did not think that poverty alone leads directly to terrorism, or to Russian loose nukes, contagious diseases, or global environmental problems. The United States needs to remain engaged in global politics because regional problems that at first glance appear to have no direct effect on the United States can become larger problems if allowed to fester.

Laurens Jan Brinkhorst discussed the differing concepts of sovereignty in Europe and in the United States. Over the last fifty years Europe has been engaged in a process that is in reaction to the unlimited exercise of sovereignty, which led to two world wars. The development of the EU is, for Brinkhorst, a world model that should inspire other parts of the world. It is born out of experience and an unfortunate nationalistic history. Europe needs to exercise more global leadership, “especially in those areas where the America vision of the world order is misguided or too narrow,” such as the environment and poverty.

Preventive Vs. Preemptive War

Following Posen’s response, a lively debate transpired about the distinction between preventive and preemptive war.

• Mearsheimer noted a preemptive strike assumed the adversary has both the capability and the intention to attack, whereas a preventive war assumes capability alone. He compared and contrasted several examples in military history, including the 1981 Israeli attack on the nuclear site in Iraq, the 1967 war, and the 1956 war in the Suez. Preemptive war is a situation in which an attack is imminent, and thus a preemptive attack is justified. For example, political analysts such as Michael Walzer defend just war theory, even though he is almost universally against war. Mearsheimer proposed that the Bush administration was really presenting ideas about preventive war, in which intelligence dictates that a state will likely become a problem in the future.

• Jessica Stern added that there is a clear distinction between preventive and preemptive action, but it is an operative distinction only when reliable military intelligence exists to inform the decision-makers. The real problem is that it is unlikely there will be any warning with regard to terrorist attacks. Stern suggested the more critical issue was how the rules for just and unjust wars apply to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency.

I wasn’t alive in the 1960s, but my father remembers exactly where he was when John F. Kennedy (1963), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), and Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy (1968) were each assassinated. Likewise, people from my generation know where they were on the morning of September 11, 2001. Given this context, Stephen M. Walt and Jorge I. Domínguez had their hands full when they convened this annual conference. Three months after Talloires, several of its presenters signed a New York Times paid advertisement, “War with Iraq Is Not in America’s National Interest.” And Kristol predicted that Congress would grant Bush an authorization to use force against Iraq. He was right.


Read the entire report here: Rapporteur’s Report: The Future of US Foreign Policy

About Amanda Pearson

Editing & writing @HarvardWCFIA on global politics, people, history, and health. Alumna @GWpublichealth @LSEGovernment
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