Robert Wright in Slate -- US multilateralism in the next century

I have been reading the Robert Wright series of columns in Slate this week. I think these 9 columns (8 are written at the time of OP) serve as a nice starting point for a debate on US foreign policy.

I think the series is pretty good – it is quite comprehensive, it is quite forward-thinking, it is simply written, readable, and attempts to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together to form a cohesive world view. It then draws policy recommendations from this. It may be reductionist, but hey, anything of this broad of a scope must be reductionist in 9 columns of Slate.

So far, he attempts to address root causes and past US action to explain terrorism. He also addresses future sources and methods of terrorism. His policy recommendations can basically be boiled down to “compassionate globalization,” multilateralism, and heavy-duty foreign policy reform. Basically, the US has to become more humble (one of Bush’s campaign promises), because now, as he states, foreign opinion of America is a critical national security indicator.

Bush has some of the pieces right – Iraq is a rogue state, we need to fight a war on terrorism, we need to use military action as a stick in a carrot and stick approach. IMHO, there are other pieces which have been criminally overlooked. He is dead set against international treaties, except when they serve the US directly. His administration (except Powell) avoids multilateralism. Root causes are for liberal wussies.

A number of points to debate:

  1. Do you agree with Robert Wright (or the points that I have summarized)? I think that he is attempting and mostly succeeding to chart a course for a visionary redefinition of US foreign (and domestic) policy.

I think that for the past year, we have been conducting old-guard responses to very new issues. The Marshall and mini-Marshall plans redefined US foreign policy after World War II, and built us as the strongest and most compassionate nation in the world. We have squandered that in the comfortable years since then. It is time to shake off the status quo of convenient foreign aid and pseudo-isolationism and get our hands dirty in working to help the developing world to develop. Not even so much the countries develop, but help out the people. Governments become more irrelevant as technology allows the individual to cause a greater loss of life (echoing Robert Wright). Basically, now is the time for a visionary change in foreign policy.

  1. Which leads to the next point. Does anyone wholeheartedly back Bush and believe that what he is doing will seriously make us safer in the long term? Are we safer now than a year ago? On this course, will we be safer for the next twenty years? If we stay the course, perhaps take out Saddam (by ourselves if need be), will we really end up any better off? Obviously by my tone, I firmly believe that we won’t. I think that dropping bombs on Iraq or Afghanistan will not do anything to stymie current terroristss or discourage future terrorists.

  2. And if terrorism is truly a threat to all modern civilization, why is the rest of the bandwagon of modern civilization so reluctant to join us in the fight? I truly believe that it is a symptom of American arrogance – we have squandered most of whatever political, moral, and emotional capitol we had after last September in a series of poor policy decisions and actions.

As Wright says, as long as we are the rich kid on the block, we have to work hard to make sure that we are the generous rich kid that everybody likes and not the rich bully that everyone resents.

edwino, thank you for starting this thread. I think you probably understand what may happen during the course of discussion, and I salute your courage. (I suggest you use links to the several Pit threads extant as lightening rods where necessary.)

  1. I do agree with the gist of Mr. Wright’s outline. It’s not [just] philanthropy which should spur us to help developing countries build infrastructures, it’s not [just] idealism which should guide us in promoting democratic reform in the world, and it’s certainly not fear or contrition which should cause us to be more humble, and to seek “compassionate globalization”. It’s pragmatic recognition of those technological advances which allow small players to have big impact, and which prevent large players from going it alone.

  2. I’m on record as having a few problems with Mr. Bush’s unilateralist approach to the “war on terr”.

  3. I don’t think it’s purely “American arrogance” which makes much of the world reluctant to fully reject terrorist tactics. I think most under-empowered groups still see it as an effective strategy for achieving some of their goals; particularly those groups with little political power or influence. Until we can either minimize that effectiveness (very difficult), or maximize the effectiveness of nonviolent tactics (also very difficult), we won’t see much movement away from terrorism. I believe we can and should take both approaches.


I have yet to see any examples of individuals being able to cause as great a loss as most governments.


Any single action isn’t going far towards keeping us safe. This is something that’s going to take a number of years. If we stick with it I think we’ll still be fighting terrorism by the time Bush finishes his second term. (Assuming he has a second term.)


And if we kill everyone we can find that directly or indirectly supports terrorism? We won’t get them all and we won’t put it to an absolute stop but I can’t help but think we’d slow them down.


Because all the talk that “civilization” was attacked was just talk. The truth of the matter is that the United States was the target of the attack. Just like our embassies have been bombed, as was the USS Cole, and even the WTC in 1993. I can’t help but think that if 2,800 Frenchmen had died that day they’d be chomping at the bit to go kill someone.

Good series.
Finally someone who dares to analyse WHY were we attacked?
And doesn’t come up with ‘Because THEY are EVIL.’

I agree with Wright that perhaps the best thing is * take the bitter medicine* as early as possible. Give them the freedom to form their own governments, let them make a shambles of it, then (hopefully) something stable will devellop.

Let me chime in to say that I find the series excellent and it ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the big picture as far as US foreign policy is concerned.

Right now I won’t post any organized thoughts to offer on the many isses that Wright raises but let me offer a couple of asides:
1)Wright is one of the best “big-think” pundits in the US today. If you like this series a couple of books of his are highly recommended: The Moral Animal about evolutionary pshychology and Non-Zero which is a big-think analysis of human history which nicely complements and enlarges the points that he makes in the series. Wright is a non-specialist and probably gets some of the details wrong but he is always stimulating.

  1. I have been impressed by Bill Clinton as one of the few politiicans who “gets” globalization and the issues that Wright talks about. In fact he has read Non-Zero and keeps praisng it. There were many problems with the Clinton administration and foreign policy but if he were in office today I think the chances of a creative,multi-dimensional response to terrorism along the lines of Wright talks about would be higher.