Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has an op-ed in the Financial Times today, where she argues that America must overcome its "reluctance to lead." Given her own track record between 2001 and 2008, when she played a key role in a series of foreign policy disasters and rang up precious few genuine achievements, one might wonder why anybody would place much stock in her counsel today. But her piece is in fact quite valuable for underscoring the dearth of genuine strategic thinking about U.S. foreign policy these days.
Strategy is about relating ends and means, setting priorities, and manipulating critical global forces to one's own advantage. Even for a global superpower like the United States, an effective strategy depends on separating the vital from the trivial, and the realistic from the fanciful. It requires deciding which goals are most important, and then using the resources at one's disposal to try to achieve them. And most importantly, it often consists of figuring out how to get other countries to help, and maybe even inducing them to do most of the work. Indeed, getting other states to shoulder costly or difficult burdens is the hallmark of a smart strategy, because it helps you husband your own resources, stay out of costly quagmires, and focus on missions that are more critical. American leaders used to understand this basic principle before we started telling ourselves we were the "indispensable" nation and starting seeing it as some sort of foreign policy achievement when we got stuck with some intractable foreign problem.
Rice will have none of this, however, so her piece mostly consists of the typical laundry list of regions and issues where she believes the United States must shoulder the main burden. In her view, it is mostly our job to build democratic institutions in the Middle East. She also thinks we need to "re-engage" with Iraq (whatever that means), and use our trade policy to "help democracies" in Latin America. She favors creating a Palestinian state but thinks it will only come about via negotiations with a secure Israel, never mind that she gave Israel unconditional support for eight years and got bupkis. She supports the recent "pivot" toward Asia but thinks we aren't doing enough to counter a Chinese economic offensive. She says we need to do more to build strategic partnerships with Turkey, India, and Brazil, without saying what we should do to bring about closer ties or explaining what these countries will then do for us. She invokes the perennial bogeyman of declining U.S. credibility and says America must do more to "reassure our friends across the globe."
To achieve these (and other) goals, she says, "the American people have to be inspired to lead again." What exactly does this phrase mean? What specific "leadership" tasks require a renewed commitment from our citizenry? Does she mean Americans have to be convinced to forgo investments here at home so we can continue to meddle (oops, I mean "lead") abroad? Does she believe (contrary to Mitt Romney) that Americans need to be "inspired" to sacrifice by paying more taxes so that we can maintain our present military and eventually balance the budget? Or does she mean the American people should be "inspired" to attack Iran, as she once helped persuade them to invade Iraq? Must we be "inspired" to devote new moneys to the mostly futile pursuit of drug lords all over the world? Or maybe we need to be "inspired" to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, even if that requires some inconvenient adjustments in the U.S. lifestyle.
In fact, Rice isn't really talking about convincing the American people to lead; she's really saying they need to be "inspired" to follow whatever missions foreign policy mandarins like Rice dream up. And the usual way the mandarins do this is by hyping threats, exaggerating their own omniscience, and insisting that other countries are incapable of taking effective action if Americans aren't there in the cockpit telling them what to do.
In fact, although the American people occasionally succumb to ill-conceived foreign policy adventures, they usually have pretty good instincts about our global role. No mainstream politician is calling for isolationism today, and the American people aren't demanding it either. Americans want to remain the world's most powerful country for as long as possible, and they recognize that some foreign commitments are prudent and beneficial. The blunders that occurred on Ms. Rice's watch have constrained U.S. power somewhat, but Americans still favor global engagement. What they don't like are misguided adventures that result in costly failures. Too bad the FT didn't ask her to write about how we can avoid those.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.