Replacing the Left-Right Axis in Foreign Policy

Andrew Sullivan makes a good point in responding to Ross Douthat’s assertion that Barack Obama’s foreign policy will be “to the right of Bill Clinton’s”:

Ross is not wrong, but the “left-right” rubric is dated, it seems tome, especially in foreign policy, where any return to realism afterBush means, on the old compass, a hefty shift to the right.

The “left-right” rubric in foreign policy is a vestige of the Cold War, when in fact there was a confrontation between two semi-coherent ideologies that aligned along that axis. If there is one region where it still has some semblance of relevance, it’s in Latin America. But the argument could be made that neo-Bolivarianism is really just good old-fashioned populism with a neo-leftist veneer. In any case, one need look no further than the partnership “contre nature” between Venezuela and Iran for proof that there is nothing monolithic about its leftist pretentions.

Sullivan refers instead to the hard power/soft power mix, which is certainly one of the axes that has replaced the lateral left-right continuum. But there are at least four others that will increasingly define the foreign policy debate, and their faultlines will tend to confound the outlines of domestic political identity:

– Forward-backward axis, both in spatial and temporal terms. Will we intervene to stabilize distant conflict zones or secure the homeland? And if both, in what order of priority? And will we anticipate threats well in advance of any their having materialized, or react to them once they have taken shape?

– Vertical axis. Will we formulate foreign policy and national security policy to engage with national governments, local authorities or non-state actors? When will exceptions be made and how will they be decided? This relates to everything from humanitarian and development aid to counterinsurgency tactics such as tribal awakenings.

– Orbital “axis” (i.e., network management). Not really an axis, but at some point we’re going to have confront the fact that attempts to isolate — and to a lesser extent, contain — states are more difficult to both organize and enforce in the globalized and increasingly multipolar geopolitical landscape.

– Financial axis. For perhaps the first time since it has been the world’s dominant power (with the possible exception of the 1970s), the U.S. must keep an eye on the cost of our foreign policy choices. Forward-based, anticipatory stabilization operations are theoretically pleasing. But beyond the fact that there is no empirical proof that they work, they’re also the most expensive option, with no shortage to choose from. And it’s not just the U.S. checkbook at play. Efforts to discourage our friends from engaging in bilateral trade with our adversaries that have been hard to enforce for the past eight years aren’t going to get any easier in the context of a global economic downturn.

What’s obvious from the above list is how it defies the categories of domestic politics. Domestic conservatives have of late tended to advocate for the most costly options. Domestic progressives and chastened liberal hawks might become reenamored of hard power, now that it’s been softened by COIN doctrine. Meanwhile, the questions of where along the vertical axis to engage and how to manage emerging networks of power and influence have very little bearing on right-left dynamics.

It’s a much more complex calculus than the days when it sufficed to position ourselves in opposition to the Soviets in all but the most exceptional circumstances. So it’s reassuring to see Obama surrounding himself with such a multiplicity of foreign policy perspectives, both during the campaign and in assembling his administration. While it might risk becoming difficult to manage, it will at least reflect the complexity of the challenges the U.S. faces.