The big foreign-policy speech that Al Gore delivered in Boston on Sunday had two principal purposes. The first was to attempt to articulate a coherent intellectual framework for America’s post-Cold War policy. The second was to draw significant contrasts with his rival for the presidency, George W. Bush. By my measure, he flopped on both counts.
Gore’s dubs his concept for a post-Cold War foreign policy “forward engagement”–an uncatchy catchphrase destined to take its place along such forgettable Clinton coinages as “democratic enlargement” and “assertive multilateralism.” The idea of forward engagement is pretty much what it sounds like: an admonition to address security problems before they become bigger problems. Applying this guideline to the real world, the vice president said that he wants the United States to continue to play peacemaker in Ireland and the Middle East, to work against nuclear proliferation, and to strengthen relationships with our NATO allies and Japan. Beyond these uncontroversial aims, Gore advocated a situational standard for military intervention. “We should engage regional conflicts selectively, using force if necessary,” he said in his speech. In other words, Gore’s approach to foreign policy is pretty much the same as Clinton’s.
The somewhat more novel and controversial part of Gore’s foreign-policy vision thing is what he calls his “new security agenda.” The idea, first trotted out in a speech to the U.N. Security Council in January, is that we should treat such problems as AIDS in Africa, global warming, human-rights abuses, and drug trafficking as strategic threats. Gore’s knowledge about and involvement in some of these issues is clearly an asset he would bring to the White House. The question he has yet to answer is what we gain by describing such problems in terms traditionally reserved for risks to national security. Where Gore’s “forward engagement” is a fancy name for case-by-case decision-making, his “new security agenda” is a statement of concern that falls far short of a precept for foreign-policy decision-making in the post-Cold War world.
The sharper part of Gore’s speech was his attack on George W. Bush, whom Gore described as “fixated” and “stuck in a Cold War mindset.” The support for this assertion is that Bush regards Russia and China as future enemies, whereas Gore himself regards them partially as “competitors” but mainly as “vital partners in our efforts to tackle problems menacing to us all.” A bit later in the speech, Gore accused Bush of supporting the congressional wing of his party’s turn toward isolationism. There’s a clear contradiction in this attack. It is true that after the end of the Cold War, some on the right revived the isolationism that characterized the GOP before World War II. But it’s hard to see how Bush can be guilty of both faults at once, since Cold Warriors are by definition interventionists. The less sound-bite friendly reality is that Bush inclines toward a brand of foreign-policy realism that finds it hard to justify foreign military intervention when it is not dictated by national self-interest. You can criticize this view for not drawing a firm enough line against genocide. But Bush’s views–which include support for expanding free trade, strengthening American’s security alliances, and launching military intervention in a variety of circumstances–can’t usefully be described as isolationist.
Gore’s attack on Bush is equally faulty when he leaves the realm of generalities. The vice president makes a big deal out of the assertion that Bush wants to skip a generation of weapons, arguing that this would irresponsibly “leave our armed forces ill-equipped for the battlefields of the next two to three decades.” Politically, this is a handy rejoinder to the familiar conservative charge that the Clinton administration has damaged military “readiness”–but it’s no fairer for the symmetry. Bush is being unusually candid and realistic in accepting the trade-off between procuring additional quantities of current-generation weapons systems and retooling with new military hardware. Without a massive defense build-up, which neither candidate advocates, you can’t spend lavishly on both present-generation weapons and the new systems that will replace them. As Gideon Rose, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes, if Gore thinks we face no major military threat in the world, that makes the present an ideal time to sacrifice a degree of readiness in exchange for long-term strategic advantage, just as Bush proposes. Most of Gore’s other criticisms of Bush are equally ill judged. Accusations of opposing trade liberalization and under-funding the State Department may be legitimate criticisms to make against many Republicans in Congress. But it’s no fairer for Gore to tag Bush with the positions of Jesse Helms than it would be for Bush to blame Gore for the protectionist, force-averse views of Richard Gephardt.
In fact, there’s little reason to think that the foreign policies of the two men would differ in substantial ways. When you discount the effort on both sides to gin up conflict, the significant foreign-policy disagreements between Bush and Gore boils down to two issues. The first is humanitarian intervention. Gore emphasizes his willingness to do it: “America cannot be the world’s policeman. But we must reject the new isolationism that says: Don’t help anywhere, because we cannot help everywhere,” he said in Boston. Bush stresses his disinclination to intervene without a strategic justification. But in practical terms, would the two make different decisions? The Clinton administration belatedly intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo and Bush belatedly supported both deployments. Clinton didn’t intervene in Rwanda, but says he wishes he had. Bush has indicated he would not have intervened there. On the other hand, it was Bush’s father–advised by many of the same people who advise the son–who sent the Marines to Somalia.
The other issue on which the candidates assert a strong difference is missile defense. Here again, Gore accuses Bush of taking an extreme position–supporting deployment of a costly Star Wars system and abrogating the ABM treaty with Russia. With semi-conscious self-parody, Gore calls Bush’s support for Star Wars a “risky foreign-policy scheme.” But here again, Gore’s own views are not quite diametrically opposed. In line with Clinton administration policy, Gore supports continued development of a system to defend against missiles from the likes of Iran and North Korea. And while he doesn’t think the United States should unilaterally bust out of the ABM treaty, Gore wants to “modify” it to allow for missile defense against rogue states. There’s a conflict here, but it’s not between what Gore describes as his own support for “responsible and practical defense” and the “dangerously destabilizing consequences” of Bush’s views. It’s the difference between missile defense on the front burner and missile defense on the back burner.
In fact, the really important distinction between the candidates on foreign affairs has little to do with policy. It’s that Gore has paid close attention to key international-relations issues for decades, has extensive experience dealing with them, and generally knows what the hell he’s talking about. Bush, by contrast, has an impressive team of foreign-policy advisers, no foreign-policy experience, and little hope of finding various minor nations on a map. It’s a situation that calls for cheap shots, but one in which Gore, for some reason, prefers to take the high road.