Richard L. Armitage, former deputy secretary of state under President Bush, advocates sweeping changes to current U.S. foreign policy, arguing that the country needs to replace his former boss’s almost exclusive focus on fighting terrorism with a broader—and more hopeful—agenda.
“We’ve been exporting our fear and anger after 9/11, rather than the more traditional export of hope and optimism and opportunity,” he said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat.“The U.S. has to be involved across the full breadth of our foreign policy tool box and not so heavily weighed toward the military as we are now,” he said. “Since 9/11, we’ve been so focused on the prosecution of the war on terror we’ve forgotten we have so many more tools. Perhaps the most useful is the power of our ideas.”
Affable, engaging and blunt, Armitage has held senior positions in the Pentagon and State Department and is considered one of the country’s most experienced and savvy foreign policy practitioners.
A trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Armitage recently co-chaired a task force under the auspices of CSIS on U.S. foreign policy. Working with Harvard University political scientist Joseph Nye, their report, “Smart Power,” was released several months ago and has been praised on Capitol Hill and by international affairs experts. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said the report—which advocates a blending of “hard” and “soft” power to create “smart” power—offers an outline for how the United States can develop more effective international policies.
Armitage said he hopes the report can help the country move out of its hunkered-down, post-9/11 military mindset and regain confidence, idealism and strength.
“As I see it, the U.S. was twice victimized by 9/11—first by the attackers, but then we victimized ourselves by losing our national confidence and optimism and seeing the world only through the lens of terrorism. Fighting terrorism is an important challenge, but it should not be the only part of our foreign policy,” he argued.
Armitage and Nye have collaborated on other projects, including a study of U.S.-Japanese relations, and they welcomed the opportunity to organize a bipartisan group of experts to take a fresh look at U.S. foreign policy.
“Joe Nye is regarded as Mr. Soft Power and I spent eight years at the Pentagon so maybe I’m a little harder power,” Armitage said. “But we both felt the need for a smarter power—melding soft and hard power for a more effective instrument of foreign policy.”
The Smart Power project began in the fall of 2006 and the panel released its report in November of 2007, just as the 2008 presidential campaign was gearing up. The bipartisan commission included 20 national leaders from the government, military, private sector, nongovernmental organizations and academia. Among the panel members were Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
The Smart Power panel held three meetings, received detailed briefings from CSIS staff, and organized a listening tour around the United States to assess the mood of the American public regarding international affairs.
The listening tour in particular struck Armitage as informative and uplifting. “I have to confess that I was little surprised with what we heard,” he said. “I’ve always felt Americans were, at best, reluctant internationalists, but I think it’s a little better than that. People may have fears about globalization, but they realize we can’t divorce ourselves from the rest of the world. We are no longer hidden by our two great oceans. We found a lot greater understanding of American foreign policy than I expected. People may not be able to point to Darfur on a map, but they know something is going on there and it’s called genocide.”
The panel agreed that U.S. foreign policy should move away from the current preoccupation with Iraq and terrorism toward a more positive agenda that builds on U.S. strengths, opportunities and influence in the world. To that end, the panel challenged the Bush administration’s decision to organize U.S. foreign policy around counterterrorism.
“I’m not sure I can tell you what the central organizing premise of our foreign policy should be, but I think it’s possible to have the wrong organizing premise,” Armitage said. “If your foreign policy is just organized around the global war on terror, you’re missing the bet. I think a new paradigm will emerge. I don’t know what it will be, but in the interim we need to engage with friends and frankly engage with our enemies. Actually, it might be more important to engage with our enemies,” he added.
Above all, the panel advocated a skillful meshing of U.S. hard—i.e. military-focused—power with soft power, a concept developed by Nye that involves the ability of a country to attract peoples and nations to its side without coercion, instead using an attractive culture and admirable values that command respect across the world.
However, U.S. influence has clearly deteriorated around the world, Armitage said, citing the nation’s current reputation as an arrogant and rejectionist power and growing questions about America’s competence, as evidenced by the debacle after Hurricane Katrina and the poor planning for the war in Iraq. In addition, many around the world have blamed the United States for the job losses and dislocation brought on by globalization.
But Armitage believes it’s not too late to repair America’s tarnished image overseas. “The decline in American influence can be a temporary phenomenon. I believe most countries want us to be the indispensable nation, but they don’t want us to be rejectionist. For example, if we didn’t like the Kyoto Protocol—and I think there were good reasons for us not to like Kyoto—it was incumbent upon us to put a better idea forward. You can’t just say no.
“The great majority of nations want us to be the indispensable nation, but that is only the case when we are true to our national values,” Armitage continued. “When we engage in such things as torture, when we waterboard, when we deny habeas corpus, when our actions are not consistent with our words, we engender a huge amount of cynicism.”
As part of this broader, more hopeful foreign policy, Armitage outlined several key initiatives the next U.S. president should undertake. First, the new government should shore up U.S. alliances and work closely with multilateral institutions. There is a compelling need, Armitage said, to reverse the impression that for the United States, international law is suggestive rather than binding, that alliances are outdated and peripheral, and that international institutions are ineffectual or hostile.
Second, the United States should take a bolder and more creative approach to global development, crafting a coherent strategy on public health. For instance, Armitage pointed out that strong U.S. leadership to combat infectious diseases would save millions of lives and reflect the nation’s best traditions.
Third, the next administration should focus on global economic issues, working hard to ensure that the advantages of globalization are available— and evident—to all countries and peoples.
Fourth, the next president should employ U.S. technology and innovation to tackle climate change and energy insecurity. Policies that reduce demand through increased efficiency, diversify energy suppliers and fuel choices, and better manage the geopolitics of key regions are crucial. U.S. leadership is needed to shape a new energy framework, Armitage argued, noting that the United States and Japan should work closely with India and China on energy issues.
Finally, the next president should pay closer attention to public diplomacy, although Armitage cautioned that this does not entail a slick marketing campaign. “I don’t see public diplomacy as an exercise in the U.S. talking louder or talking more. Nobody out there doesn’t understand the U.S. The question they have is: Do we understand them? A large part of public diplomacy should be to hush up and listen. Everyone knows what we want and what we think. Let’s hear what they think and what they want. People would be so shocked it might have a salutary effect. Maybe there is some common ground,” Armitage explained.
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Armitage has wide experience in international affairs. A Vietnam War combat veteran, he moved to Washington after the fall of Saigon and worked as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense.
He also served as an adviser to Ronald Reagan when he ran for the presidency in 1980. In addition, Armitage has held several senior Pentagon posts, served as special envoy to the Philippines, U.S. mediator in the Middle East regarding water issues, special envoy to King Hussein of Jordan, and coordinator of U.S. aid to the former nations of the Soviet Union.
Armitage was an adviser to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000 and then served for four years as the deputy secretary of state, working closely with Secretary of State Colin Powell. Since leaving the State Department, Armitage has joined several corporate boards and set up an international consulting firm, Armitage International.
Although disappointed with many features of the Bush administration’s international policies, Armitage is hopeful that the next administration can promote U.S. interests and win back the world’s confidence and respect.
“There is no doubt the U.S. is always the big dog in the room, but we don’t need to say it. When we’re asked our opinion, we can give it. It carries enormous weight. But we have to carry ourselves in an appropriate way. The next president has to set a new tone, not of arrogance and swagger, but of humility and confidence in our pre-eminence as a force for good,” he said.
“Most Americans don’t want to see their country as an object of ridicule. They want the U.S. to be humble, but great, in the conduct of American foreign policy.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.