Polls in the US show low public approval for President George W. Bush's handling of foreign policy, but little agreement on what should take its place. The unbridled ambitions of the neo-conservatives and assertive nationalists in his first administration produced a foreign policy that was like a car with an accelerator, but no brakes. It was bound to go off the road.
But how should the US use its unprecedented power, and what role should values play? Realists warn against letting values determine policy, but democracy and human rights have been an inherent part of US foreign policy for two centuries. The Democratic Party could solve this problem by adopting the suggestion of Robert Wright and others that it pursue "progressive realism." What would go into a progressive realist foreign policy?
A progressive realist foreign policy would start with an understanding of the strength and limits of US power. The US is the only superpower, but preponderance is not empire or hegemony. The US can influence but not control other parts of the world.
Power always depends upon context, and the context of world politics today is like a three-dimensional chess game. The top board of military power is unipolar; but on the middle board of economic relations, the world is multipolar.
On the bottom board of transnational relations -- comprising issues such as like climate change, illegal drugs, avian flu and terrorism -- power is chaotically distributed.
Military power is a small part of the solution in responding to these new threats on the bottom board of international relations. They require cooperation among governments and international institutions.
Even on the top board -- where the US represents nearly half of world defense expenditures -- the military is supreme in the global commons of air, sea and space, but more limited in its ability to control nationalistic populations in occupied areas.
A progressive realist policy would also stress the importance of developing an integrated grand strategy that combines "hard" military power with "soft" attractive power into "smart" power of the sort that won the Cold War.
The US needs to use hard power against terrorists, but it cannot hope to win the struggle against terrorism unless it gains the hearts and minds of moderates. The misuse of hard power -- as at Abu Ghraib or Haditha -- produces new terrorist recruits.
Today, the US has no such integrated strategy for combining hard and soft power. Many official instruments of soft power -- public diplomacy, broadcasting, exchange programs, development assistance, disaster relief, military to military contacts -- are scattered around the government, and there is no overarching policy, much less a common budget, that even tries to combine them with hard power into a coherent national security strategy.
The US spends roughly 500 times more on its military than it does on broadcasting and exchanges. Is this the right proportion? And how should the government relate to the non-official generators of soft power -- everything from Hollywood to Harvard to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- that emanate from civil society?
A progressive realist policy must advance the promise of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" enshrined in US tradition. Such a grand strategy would have four key pillars: providing security for the US and its allies; maintaining a strong domestic and international economy; avoiding environmental disasters, such as pandemics and global flooding; and encouraging liberal democracy and human rights at home and, where feasible, abroad.