USA: Nuance and style
William Fisher «View Bio

Political pundits have been making a big deal of what they perceive as similarities between foreign policy positions taken by US President George W. Bush and presidential candidate Senator John Kerry. In contrast, some observers have been calling Kerry’s running mate, Senator John Edwards – in the words of The Washington Post – a “politician willing to push beyond conventional foreign policy ideas and introduce imaginative proposals.”

The reality is that neither contention is true. The differences between Kerry and Bush are nuanced, and many of Edwards’ ‘imaginative’ foreign policy ideas have been around for years.

The major differences between the two sets of candidates are vast. But they are less about substance than about nuance and style. This is not unimportant: in foreign policy nuance and style are critical to consensus-building and, therefore, to success.

Senator Edwards’ recent proposals on US policy toward the Middle East provide an informative glimpse into his ideas.

In what he calls his “Strategy for Freedom,” Edwards said he would create an “organization for security and cooperation” in the region.

Its mission would be to bring reform-leaning Arab and Western governments together to promote and finance transparent political and economic reforms.

The Bush administration later promoted a similar idea, the Greater Middle East Initiative, to be undertaken cooperatively by G-8 and Arab nations. Shortly afterward, Republican Senator Richard Lugar outlined a plan, the Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust, which would partner G-8 countries with wealthy Arab states to “pool resources to deliver grants.”

Also in the Middle East, Edwards proposes to reorient US assistance toward nongovernmental bodies and away from governments led by dictators who show no real interest in developing democracy.

Edwards would also encourage democratic reforms by rewarding good performers – those who demonstrate respect for democratic practices and a willingness to implement political reform – with increased aid, incentives for investment, and debt relief.

In 2002 Bush unveiled the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), designed to increase core US development assistance by more than 50 percent over three years by making grants to poor countries to spur economic growth and attract investment. The MCA is limited to “countries that govern justly, invest in their people, and open their economies to enterprise and entrepreneurship.”

Edwards also proposes linking US aid to progress on human rights and democracy.

The US has, from time to time, attempted to create this kind of linkage. A couple of years ago the US State Department used quiet diplomacy to tell Egypt – one of the largest recipients of American assistance – to clean up its democracy act.

Indeed, a large minority of US aid beneficiaries – including important strategic allies, like Pakistan – could possibly be placed on a ‘democracy blacklist.’

Another Edwards idea is a ‘freedom list’ to expose governments that jail dissidents for political or religious expression, and to persuade them to free such prisoners.

For a decade, the US State Department has widely publicized its annual “Human Rights Report” that does precisely that. Similar initiatives are undertaken by the UN Human Rights Commission and by many nongovernmental human rights groups around the world.

Edwards also proposes a “Democracy Caucus” at the UN to punish members who fail to embrace democratic reforms by excluding them from key positions. This group would bring together states committed to democracy and human rights to push for these principles at every level of the UN. He believes this “will help prevent states like Libya from heading the UN human rights committee, which only undermines the UN’s credibility.”

No one can disagree with the UN’s increasing lack of credibility and motivation in democracy building. After all, a very high proportion of the UN’s member countries are led by people who are either unelected or elected in highly suspect circumstances.

Edwards also proposes to substantially increase support for international democracy programs, starting by doubling the funding of the National Endowment for Democracy – which supports grass roots civil society programs worldwide – to over $80 million. He would focus specifically on programs in the Middle East and Africa and call on US allies in Europe and elsewhere to match these funds by establishing similar institutions.

In summary, the Edwards proposals do not sound like those of a politician willing to push beyond conventional foreign policy ideas and introduce imaginative proposals. Moreover, whether similar ideas come from Kerry or Bush – or even Cheney – they are far from new, much less imaginative. Nonetheless, while some appear to be pragmatically undoable, they all deserve consideration. 

But the issue is who is likely to be more capable of persuading authoritarian leaders that their interests lie in embracing democratic reform, while keeping their cooperation and goodwill to fight terrorists?

This is a process that requires a full diplomatic deck: No swaggering, no ‘bring it on’ bravado, and no ‘go it alone’ preemption. Instead, commitment from the top down, patience, the ability – and willingness – to listen, sensitivity to the realpolitik of a partner’s domestic constituencies, knowledge of a partner’s culture, knowledge of the world and how it works, ‘getting to yes’ negotiating skills, and toughness that works. In other words, nuance and style.

Fed by TV sound bites posing as ‘news,’ many American voters may find it difficult to understand that the world is rarely black and white. It is zillions of shades of gray. It is, in a phrase, a world of ‘style and nuance.’

William Fisher is a regular contributor to The Middle East Times