Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The new face of American foreign policy
Ushio - March 2005

One Thursday morning in early February I had a surprise. A phone call came to my office from the American embassy in London. "Would I be free to join a roundtable discussion with Condoleezza Rice?", the voice said. Of course, I replied: no one would say no to a chance to talk to America´s new Secretary of State. "But when is the discussion?", I asked, not quite sure of her movements on what was her first overseas trip in her new job. "Tomorrow morning," came the startling answer.

            Hastily, therefore, I, like another dozen or so "British opinion leaders" (the phrase used by embassies to mean editors and academics), rearranged my schedule in order to clear the two-hour slot the embassy had specified. In the end, more than an hour of that time was spent waiting around and talking, pleasurably enough, with each other rather than with Dr Rice. That is the way things work these days, given ultra-tight security at American embassies and the difficulties of organising schedules for someone as busy and important as Dr Rice.

            But still, we had a very interesting discussion with Dr Rice when she at last arrived, covering topics as wide-ranging as Iran, trans-Atlantic relations, China, Taiwan and the Middle East. The roundtable was "off the record", which means we are not allowed to report anything specific that was said. Even so, I can share some general impressions, which represent ways in which the discussion supplemented thoughts I already had about America´s foreign policy in the second term of George Bush.

            The first impression is a simple and superficial one, but nevertheless something we should all reflect upon. It is something we all know, but that still achieves its full force only when you see it directly. It is the fact that American diplomacy is now headed by not only a woman but a black one too. This could not happen in any other major country. It could not have happened even 30 years ago in America itself. It is, in a sense, a demonstration of the social and moral strength of the United States today: that even a conservative, right-wing administration displays the meritocracy and social fluidity of that country.

            Sitting across the table from Dr Rice I couldn´t help but wonder how a Muslim, Arab official or politician might be affected by negotiating opposite a young (50 years old) black woman wearing a smart but feminine suit and bright purple lipstick. Yet, whatever the cultural shock, no one will have any doubt that Dr Rice is a very direct representative of President Bush and the White House, something that was never clear with her predecessor, Colin Powell.

            The second impression is that the next phase of US foreign policy is going to be very much a phase of diplomacy and other forms of political persuasion. The time for military methods has now passed. There is no appetite in American public opinion for further military action, whether in Iran, North Korea, Syria or elsewhere. And the political situation, especially in the Middle East, is now moving in America´s favour after two very tough and unstable years. The successful Iraqi election on January 30th, the arrival of a new Palestinian president: these have created new opportunities for diplomacy as well as reviving America´s credibility.

            Publicly, Dr Rice and other senior administration officials have stressed that America has no military intentions in Iran, but that no option is ever closed off entirely by any president. Formally, that is true: the military threat remains useful as a background pressure while diplomatic methods are used to persuade Iran not to develop nuclear weapons, just as in the case of North Korea. Military action would also, however, be a bad move from America´s strategic point of view, for it could put at risk the political gains made in Iraq as well as the delicate prospects for new peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

            It makes much more sense for America to take a slower, diplomatic approach to Iran, in order to create the time and space for a democracy to become established properly next door in Iraq and for relations between Israel and Palestine to improve. If both of those can be achieved, then those very achievements will help to put fresh pressure on Iran to reform itself. They will also put pressure on other regimes in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt.

            The third impression arises directly from President Bush´s two major speeches this year, his inauguration speech on January 20th and his state-of-the-union address to Congress on February 2nd. In both speeches, he emphasised the idea that removing tyrannies and spreading freedom were now to be considered the primary long-term objectives of American policy.

            The Americans would like those objectives to become a sort of single, organising principle of international affairs, in the same way as the containment of the Soviet Union became the central organising principle in the late 1940s.

            It is a fine principle. The world would certainly be a safer, stabler and happier place if democracy could spread further and more tyrannies could be brought to an end. But while containment provided a fairly clear sort of guidance for how to act and how to react to events, the new principle provides no such guidance. It is impractical for America to invade every tyranny or to put severe diplomatic pressure on all tyrannies.

             Moreover America will always also have other goals that will compete with that principle, at least in the short term. If Iran, for example, or North Korea were now to renounce nuclear weapons in the same way as Libya has recently done, then America would wish to celebrate the fact and even reward the decision, even if both countries (like Libya) remained dictatorships. In the case of China, Chinese co-operation over North Korea and its continued open trading policies have brought benefit to America and warmer diplomatic relations despite the fact that China too remains a tyranny and shows no sign of becoming a democracy.

            The result is that although America´s foreign policy will now be much more diplomatic, and will be led by a striking, intelligent black woman able to represent the president´s views directly, that policy will still lack a clear definition. And the consequence of that will be that, despite the high idealism of President Bush and of his Secretary of State, there will remain plenty of room for dissension and criticism of American actions and motives.


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