Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Does the Clinton Administration have a foreign policy worthy of the name? A recent blitz of so-called Major Foreign Policy Statements by senior Administration officials—culminating in an address to the UN General Assembly by the President himself—would have us believe so. Of the several speeches, Mr. Clinton’s, predictably, attracted the most attention. Yet it is an address by National Security Adviser Anthony Lake that merits particular scrutiny. For of all these speeches it was Lake’s that described in greatest detail the premises currently determining America’s relations with the rest of the world. Answering charges that the Administration’s irresolute handling of Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, et al. reflected the lack of an overall strategy, Lake insisted that the responses to these crises have in fact been part of a coherent policy for dealing with the challenges of the post-Cold War era. In its first few months in office, Lake said, the Clinton team had devised a comprehensive new framework for American diplomacy. This new framework, now being unveiled for the first time, supersedes the strategy of containment rendered obsolete by the demise of the Soviet Union. According to Lake, the Administration has christened this new framework its “strategy of enlargement.”

What is the substance of this new strategy? If the title of the new strategy seems infelicitous—more suggestive of edema than of creative statesmanship—it possesses the compensating virtue of being apt, frankly identifying expansion as the central dynamic of American foreign policy. And whether apt or not, the policy it names is one that might give thoughtful citizens pause.

To be sure, the enlargement that Lake has in mind is far removed from the crude imperialism of yesteryear. His proposal has nothing to do with territory acquired through purchase or conquest, with colonies or protectorates, or with enclaves and special concessions—the various mechanisms employed in earlier times to enlarge American influence in quarters as nearby as Cuba and as far afield as China. The enlargement that Lake has in mind does not rely on coercion. The lebensraum he seeks is strictly ideological: he wants the world to adopt America’s “core values.”

Given the prevailing intellectual climate, most Americans would approach with trepidation the challenge of specifying which values define the nation. To undertake such a task is to venture into a minefield of sensitivities related to politics, culture, tradition, “lifestyle,” and religious belief, as well as history, real or mythic. By stripping “values” to its bare essentials, Lake seems to believe he can sidestep that minefield. In his view, when all is said and done, the essence of the American experiment is to be found in just two dimensions: a political order based on democratic principles and an economic system conducted in accordance with the dictates of free enterprise. For him, that is us.

Indeed, that is us and everyone else. For as Lake sees it, democracy and a market economy are “values that are both American and universal.” When others adopt these values, it’s not only good for them but also good for the United States.

More than good: essential. Lake observes that there is “no credible near-term threat to America’s existence” anywhere in sight, using the word “threat” in a military sense. Yet that does not mean that Americans should rest easy. Security, it now appears, does not obtain merely from the fact that the United States has emerged from a series of twentieth-century cataclysms as the world’s sole remaining superpower. To define security as invulnerability from attack is to define the term too narrowly. The collapse of the Soviet Union notwithstanding, “serious threats remain,” foremost among them “sluggish economic growth”; and chief among the prerequisites for reigniting economic expansion is a world system that conducts its affairs in accordance with American political and economic norms. In other words, he concludes, “to the extent [that] democracy and market economics hold sway in other nations, our own nation will be more secure, prosperous, and influential . . . .” The unstated corollary to this axiom is that where these values do not prevail, American security is endangered.

Recognition of this correlation between America’s own well-being and the progressive spread of American values, argues Lake, leads logically to a redefinition of the nation’s “security mission.” Rather than “trying to contain the spread of that big, red blob” of Soviet Communism, the United States must henceforth turn to “promoting the enlargement of the ‘blue areas’ of the market democracies.” In short, the United States must go over to the ideological offensive.

Fortunately, he goes on, the prospects for such an offensive are most favorable: the United States now finds itself in “a moment of immense democratic and entrepreneurial opportunity.” According to Lake, the peoples of the earth are wildly supportive of American political and economic principles, “billions [sic] of people on every continent” having concluded “that democracy and markets are the most productive and liberating ways to organize their lives.”

Yet despite such an encouraging prospect, Lake worries that Americans may fail to seize the opportunity. Should the United States fail to act with dispatch, “we can let that moment slip away”—with throngs of democratic-minded free marketeers abandoning values fervently embraced in favor of unspecified but presumably misguided alternatives. Preventing such an outcome, therefore, requires that we “mobilize our nation in order to enlarge democracy, enlarge markets, and enlarge our future.”

How does this call to national mobilization translate into concrete policies? To those wary of over-stretch, Lake offers assurances that the new strategy does not require that the United States be everywhere engaged. Rather, he would have Americans concentrate “where we can make the greatest difference.” Yet once he starts tallying up targets requiring priority attention, Lake is hard to stop. The targets include the republics of the former Soviet Union, “the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe,” “the Asian Pacific,” the Western Hemisphere, and large chunks of sub-Saharan Africa. (Among regions not firmly in the democratic camp, only the Persian Gulf goes unmentioned, thereby exempting oil-rich sheiks and princes who may be less than eager to move their fiefdoms into the “blue areas.”) Complementing this campaign to spread the gospel of democratic capitalism, Lake would also deal sternly with “backlash states”—Iran and Iraq are singled out by name—where obstreperous strongmen suppress popular demands for freedom. American policy should aim to isolate such regimes “diplomatically, militarily, economically, and technologically.” Admittedly, the United States may not be able to impose democracy on such nations, but Lake is confident that it can “steer some of them down that path.”

In other words, his appetite for enlargement is a robust one indeed. In one sense, this very expansiveness suggests that his prescription for American diplomacy isn’t new after all. Indeed, if we take the strategy of enlargement literally, the United States has been down this road before. Lake’s rhetoric recalls the classic bromides and conceits of that strand of American foreign policy commonly associated with Woodrow Wilson. To be sure, the belief that America should exemplify certain values traces back to the earliest days of the Republic, but Wilson contributed the notion that the United States had a responsibility to export those values. With the United States today unencumbered by concern about the possibility of major war for the first time in half a century, Lake’s speech sounds like a summons to neo-Wilsonian progressives to revive their self-ordained mission of orchestrating the world’s triumphal procession toward a political and economic order based on American values.

Rhetoric aside, however, there is little evidence to support the view that the strategy of enlargement is Wilson’s missionary idealism redux. Although the current White House team may include a contingent of dewy-eyed idealists, they are surely a minority. More to the point, nothing in the Administration’s behavior thus far would suggest courage of convictions on a Wilsonian scale. Wilson’s declaration in 1913 that he would “teach the South American republics to elect good men” may stand as an example of monumental hubris, but he meant what he said, as Mexico and several Caribbean republics could subsequently attest. When Wilson felt moved to “make the world safe for democracy,” he spared nothing—certainly not himself or his political reputation—in his effort to make good on that stupendous claim. The record of the Clinton Administration shows no comparable degree of determination—to put it mildly. That a relative handful of casualties in Somalia should send the Administration scampering toward the nearest exit is only the most recent example.

Yet if Lake’s speech is genuinely indicative of thinking in the upper precincts of the Administration, what is one to make of this strategy of enlargement? How is one to understand a vision so clearly at odds with the reality of an increasingly chaotic world and with the unmistakable reluctance of the American people to underwrite new efforts to cure that world’s ills? Is the talked-about “strategy” nothing more than an exercise in expediency, stitching together scraps of policy either inherited or accumulated in office and declaring the result to be a seamless garment? Should Americans, that is, ignore Lake’s grand pronouncements as they are accustomed to ignoring most grand pronouncements issuing from Washington?

To do so in this case would be a mistake. Even though the strategy of enlargement is likely to have few immediate consequences, it hints at the real predicament confronting the American polity. Furthermore, it testifies yet again to the lengths that the political class will go to avoid coming to grips with that predicament.

American history is replete with instances in which the United States has turned outward in search of solutions for problems originating within itself—the wars with Mexico and Spain providing two examples. The strategy of enlargement is yet another example of that phenomenon.

Neither a belief that the world is malleable nor expectations of the coming triumph of American values inspires the Clinton Administration to float this new model for American diplomacy. The strategy of enlargement springs from a sense of crisis—although not the crisis in Bosnia or Somalia or any of the other trouble spots in the news of late. Rather, the crisis to which the strategy of enlargement responds—and which the political elite seeks desperately to defer—is the deepening crisis within the United States itself.

Among the perverse benefits of the Cold War was its contribution to holding the lid on the discontents that seem an inevitable by-product of modern democratic capitalism. With the Cold War over, it becomes increasingly apparent that that lid has blown off. Evidence accumulates daily that the United States is teetering on the brink of a profound internal crisis, one that is moral and cultural as much as political and economic. Just to tick off the manifestations of this crisis is to court despondency: the presence of a large, permanent, and increasingly restive underclass in our cities; the proliferation of mindless violence; the debasing of educational standards; the destabilization of the basic family unit; the celebration of “diversity” as a guise under which to abandon the ideal of equality; the decline of common civility; the alienation of those dispirited by the shabbiness of pop culture, the emptiness of consumerism; and the cynicism and casual dishonesty of electoral politics. Occasional voices still assert that predictions of an impending day of reckoning are overwrought—but such voices are becoming increasingly rare.

The entrenched political professionals who presume to guide the nation sense that things are amiss. Yet when it comes to devising a remedy, they are at a loss—the first lady’s absurd effort to tout a new “politics of meaning” being an illustration of this. Lacking the capacity to get to the heart of the problem, the politicians settle for buying time. In tried and true fashion, they promote economic growth—the prospect of a bigger pie in which all will share—as the last best hope for retarding further erosion of the social compact. Lacking the wit or the resolve to address the deeper issues, pols on both the right and left count on economic enlargement to serve as a safety valve, and they dream of a world that will forever accommodate that enlargement. Thus it is that such leading figures of the American foreign policy establishment as Anthony Lake can assert the benefit to all of a global order fashioned in the image of the United States. Thus do they cling to the pretense that American political and economic practices encompass the aspirations of this and every other people—even as the fires of ethnic and religious conflict raging around the world and the controversies roiling our own society refute that notion.

At least this much can be said: those who have complained about the importance of devising a new touchstone for American diplomacy can rest easy. Lake’s declaration of a strategy of enlargement fills that bill. Alas, it would be more accurate to characterize it as a strategy of avoidance, a formula guaranteed to accomplish little except to delay briefly the bill collector’s arrival at our door. When the bills finally fall due, we may well recall the strategy of enlargement—if we recall it at all—only as one more unheeded warning of the impoverished state of American politics.

A. J. Bacevich is the executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute, The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C.