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How can the world's response to US foreign policy be a misunderstanding?

By Ron Huisken - posted Friday, 30 January 2004

In an article in the January/February 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs, US Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to address something that troubled and puzzled him: US foreign policy was being stubbornly misunderstood by both domestic and foreign observers.

The most popular criticism, according to Powell, was that the Bush administration lacked a vision for the world and a strategy to work toward it. Powell’s riposte is President Bush’s National Security Strategy, a 40-page document released in September 2002. He goes on to argue that this core document makes a nonsense of the principal criticisms of US foreign policy strategy. To quote him:

US strategy is widely accused of being unilateral by design. It isn’t. It is often accused of being imbalanced in favour of military methods. It isn’t. It is frequently described as being obsessed with terrorism and hence biased toward pre-emptive war on a global scale. It most certainly is not.


Powell contends that the National Security Strategy makes clear that the watchwords of US strategy are partnership (with entities like NATO and the UN) and developing cooperative relations among the world's major powers. He also dwells on perhaps the most consequential element of America’s prevailing vision. This is the contention that the unipolar state of the world that emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not just good for the US but perhaps the best thing that has happened to the world in several hundred years.

According to the National Security Strategy, America’s dominance gives the “international community the best chance since the rise of the nation-state in the 17th century to build a world where great powers compete in peace instead of continually prepare for war.” The logic here is that the No.1 slot is so far out of reach that others should move beyond competing for it.

What is going on here? Have so many of us missed the true thrust of US policy? Or could it be that Washington has not been following its own script as closely or as skilfully as it might have? I’m rather inclined to the latter possibility. A big clue comes from the National Security Strategy itself, but it is a point that the President has also stressed in speeches. The quote above about our ‘best chance’ is incomplete. It is backed up by the blunt assertion that the US intends to maintain military superiority so overwhelming as to render pointless challenges from any quarter. Henry Kissinger made the commonsense observation in 2001: “An explicit insistence on predominance would gradually unite the world against the United States.”

The wider contentions about being misunderstood must also cope with the views of Tony Blair, the administration’s closest confidante. In a speech to the US Congress in July 2003, Blair suggested with elegant British understatement that there was room for improvement on most aspects of US policy that Powell highlights as ‘misunderstandings’:

  • Don’t give up on Europe. Work with it;
  • What America must do is show that this is a partnership built on persuasion, not command;
  • Let us start preferring a coalition and acting alone if we have to, not the other way around; and
  • America must listen as well as lead.

Does one infer that Powell simply assumes that what the administration has actually done reflects accurately what it has said on paper about the ends and means of its foreign policy? Hardly. It is more likely that the more important target audiences for his article reside in Washington. The National Security Strategy is, for the most part, an elegant and uplifting document. Close allies and good friends of the United States should follow Tony Blair’s example and help the administration do even better in putting it into effect.


The US is No.1. Its foreign policy matters much more than anybody else’s. That’s the dilemma. Washington has a singular capacity to go it alone while the rest of us have a singular interest in having some say in where we are going and how we are going to get there. As many have observed, the secret to America’s enduring power and influence has been an instinct to pay a lot of attention to the latter, to assert its leadership in ways conducive to other countries seeing their interests and their honour as compatible with cooperation with the United States. That instinct seems to have been somewhat dulled of late. Fortunately, there are pressures inside the US to see it re-sharpened, pressures that we and others can try to reinforce.

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This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review on 21 January 2004.

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About the Author

Dr Ron Huisken is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

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