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January 2003

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The American Diplomacy Essay Contest

Second place in the 2002 essay contest was won by Nicholas Kenney with the following submission. The judges believe that Kenney did an excellent job of contrasting the war on terrorism with the Cold War to make the point that U.S. foreign policy in the mid- to long-term cannot focus on terrorism alone. Kenney suggests that the administration’s policy to date, in its characterization of terrorism as an overarching enemy, runs the risk of applying a Cold War paradigm to a much different situation. His thoughts provide an excellent basis for further explorations of this theme. We would welcome such explorations for publication in future issues of American Diplomacy.

—Ambassador Michael W. Cotter
Associate Publisher

Terrorism: How it is Unlike the Cold War

Since September 11th the war on terrorism has focused on crisis management. Our government had to determine how the attack happened, and then had to choose, plan and execute a swift and lethal military response against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. This so-called "Phase I" of the new war on terrorism has concluded for the most part. Looking past Phase I to the mid-(months to years) to long-term (years to decades), American foreign policy will shift from crisis management and military response to the detection and prevention of terrorism.

In accomplishing these goals, the war on terrorism should be a consideration in formulating American foreign policy, but not the dominant consideration. The war on terrorism should not define American foreign policy as anti-communism defined American foreign policy during the Cold War. Contrary to the Bush Doctrine, the war on terrorism will not create a clear bipolar structure such as existed during the Cold War. Rather, a uni-polar world with America as hegemon will continue, and American foreign policy should conduct the war on terrorism in a way that capitalizes on this reality rather than resists it. The war on terrorism is not the Cold War Part II; it is a new and different conflict, requiring a new and different place in American foreign policy. This essay will contrast the Cold War and the war on terrorism and outline the foreign policy formulation consequences that flow from each point of contrast.

The Bush Doctrine simply stated is this:"Either you [other countries and sub-nationals] are with us [America] or you are with the terrorists." The Bush Doctrine will not survive into the mid- to long-term development of the war on terrorism because it imposes a black and white, good and evil dichotomy on complex situations. During the Cold War a dichotomy functioned well in the formulation of foreign policy because: 1) world power was divided in a bipolar structure; 2) there were two dominant ideologies, which were apparent; 3) there were few problems of defining the enemy; and 4) the conflict was largely conducted by state actors, either the principals or their proxies. In sum, in the Cold War the lines between good and evil, democratic and communist, the West and the rest were clear.

First, during the Cold War world power was divided into a bipolar structure. The Cold War was truly a world war because it influenced all countries. The NATO and Warsaw Pact alliances divided Europe. Developing nations in the Middle East and Africa were client states of either the United States or the Soviet Union. Armed conflicts in Korea, Viet Nam, and Afghanistan were between sides that aligned themselves with either America or the Soviet Union.

In contrast, the war on terrorism is not a truly global war. Some countries are unaffected and uninvolved in any terrorism. The war on terrorism is primarily regional, rooted in the Middle East. The Bush Administration has limited the war on terrorism to "terrorists with global reach," but this qualification essentially means terrorists of the Middle East. The Middle East has the most well developed and sophisticated terror networks. Indeed, President Bush has attempted to widen the war on terrorism to include non-Arab countries. He included North Korea as a member of the "axis of evil" along with Iraq and Iran. His efforts to broaden the war do not obscure the fact that it is primarily Islamic terrorists who pose a threat to American interests. There is no evidence that North Korea has or will sponsor terrorist operations against the United States. North Korea poses a threat more as a nuclear power than as a sponsor of terrorism. Consequently, in formulating American foreign policy in the Middle East the war on terrorism occupies a higher priority in than it would in the formulation of American policy for Asia, for example.

Unlike the Cold War American foreign policy of anti-communism, the war on terrorism will have different degrees of influence on formulating American foreign policy depending on the region in question. In the Middle East, the war on terrorism will play a prominent role because that region has the deepest modern tradition of settling political conflict through sub-national violence. From the Assassins of the 14th century crusades to the suicide bombers of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, terrorism has been deeply ingrained in the regional culture.

Furthermore, in the mid- to long-term the war on terrorism’s place in American foreign policy will primarily be centered on relationships with Middle Eastern states. These countries hold the largest potential terrorist threat to the United States domestically and internationally. These countries hold the potential to be part of the solution as well. Yet, even in the Middle East the Bush Doctrine will not suffice as evidenced by the tumultuous tolerate-hate relationship between Yasser Arafat and the United States. Most all agree that Arafat has sponsored terrorism in the past. Many think that evidence shows he has sponsored terrorist operations in this recent intifadah. And some worry he will continue to allow the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to function as bases of operation for anti-Israeli terrorists. Nonetheless, the United States has supported Arafat’s call for a Palestinian state and has urged restraint on the part of the Israeli Government. It is in America’s interest to do so, though contrary to the Bush Doctrine, because by supporting Arafat America strengthens the chances of building an Arab coalition against Iraq.

Second, the Cold War was dominated by two apparent ideologies. Soviet communism was a system of government based on the thinking of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, whose ideology drove the process of formulating Soviet foreign policy. The most basic example is the structure of the Soviet economy. Marx and Lenin’s theories of political economy were explicitly expressed in the centralized command-and-control system for market regulation. On the other side, the free market of the West was an expression of the individual freedom underlying the liberal philosophy of Western civilization. These expressions were apparent and easily identifiable. If a country adopted a command-and-control economy, as Cuba did in 1959, it was immediately apparent to the international community.

In contrast, terrorism is not an ideology but a political method. In fact, several different ideologies, ranging from secular nationalism (Fatah and Al-Aqsa Brigades) to Islamic fundamentalism (Hezbollah), may employ terrorism to attain political goals. Unlike the communists who wore their ideology on their policy sleeves, terrorists are defined by the means they employ, by their methods of engaging in political conflict. Thus, American foreign policy in the mid- to long-term could be confronted with a war on terrorism that encompasses a wide-range of enemies with different ideologies, some of which may be useful for furthering America's diplomatic goals and interests. For example Saddam Hussein sponsors and has perpetrated terrorism. But his Baath Party is a party of secular nationalism, which was aligned with American interests in the early 1980’s during Iraq’s war against Iran. The distinction between a terrorist’s cause and his means must be drawn more decisively in the mid- to long-term. American foreign policy must not be blinded to ideological distinctions because it is conducting a war on the political methods of terrorism.

A third point is that the Cold War did not involve problems of defining the enemy. The Cold War’s bipolarity was stable and self-sustaining because there was a congruence of perception. For the most part, both sides and the world agreed on which countries were communist and which were democracies. That is, communists saw themselves as communists and pro-democracy individuals saw themselves as pro-democratic. The division was reflected in political institutions such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact. NATO countries were democracies. Warsaw Pact countries were communist. In contrast, a terrorist does not call himself a terrorist. When Hezbollah kidnapped and held Terry Anderson captive, he had a telling conversation with his jailer. His jailer told Anderson that Hezbollah was not a terrorist organization but an organization for the glory of Allah. What you are doing is what terrorists do, Anderson responded. The conversation is telling because it shows how terrorists do not view themselves as terrorists and consider the word as merely an empty label that the West uses for anyone it wants to label as an enemy. Anderson's response also highlights how terrorists are defined by their political methods, not by their beliefs.

The consequence of this problem of definition is that American foreign policy will not benefit from the mutual reinforcement of perception that existed in the Cold War. It also follows that alliances and coalitions against terrorism will be constantly shifting and changing because the members will hold different views as to what groups are terrorist organizations, and if they agree on which groups are terrorist organizations they will disagree as to which ones warrant the most attention and opprobrium. This unstable alliance structure requires not a rigid bipolar doctrine, but a flexible approach in American foreign policy that is able to adapt and shift with the circumstances.

Fourth, the Cold War was a conflict waged primarily by state actors. The principals were the United States and the USSR. The proxies were West and East Germany, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Turkey, etc. A conflict driven by state actors can more easily take on a bipolar structure. In contrast, the war on terrorism is necessarily sub-national in character because terrorists are by most definitions not state actors. They may be "sponsored" by governments, but they are not government agents. The essential sub-national nature of the conflict requires a more flexible approach in our foreign policy than the bipolar structure of the Bush Doctrine would allow. Sub-national targets require regional alliances. The Afghanistan operation is useful example. American foreign policy had to shift to align with Pakistan, though Pakistan’s passive stance on terrorism, especially terrorism operations in India-administered Kashmir, is highly questionable in light of the Bush Doctrine. In fact, where would Pakistan fall in the Bush Doctrine’s dichotomy? Pakistan is with us in terms of our operations in Afghanistan, but is against us in that it is a dictatorship in conflict with the largest democracy in the world, India. Pakistan does not fall neatly into either category. Pakistan is an example of how the Bush Doctrine will not survive as an organizing principle for American foreign policy in the mid- to long-term. Rather, American foreign policy should be flexible in order to accommodate states that, while tainted by their connection to terrorism, are still useful to America in protecting its vital and peripheral interests.

In conclusion, the Bush Doctrine does not offer a viable means of formulating American foreign policy in the mid- to long-term. It suffers from the same flaws George Kennan found in the Truman Doctrine. President Harry S Truman, at the beginning of the Cold War, justified American aid to Greece and Turkey against Greek communists on the grounds that America had a duty to protect free people everywhere. Kennan criticized the Truman Doctrine as too open-ended. Similarly, the Bush Doctrine is open-ended and not viable unless it is further defined and articulated to form a foreign policy that allows us to combat terrorism without compromising other vital American interests. Perhaps, in the end, the Truman and Bush Doctrines were not "doctrines" at all, but only political rhetoric useful for bolstering domestic support for a president’s foreign policy choices. But whether it is empty rhetoric or open-ended doctrine, the war on terrorism should not be the litmus test for formulating American foreign policy; rather it should be one consideration in an array of factors that are important in protecting America’s interests as the only superpower of the 21st century.


Nicholas Allen Kenney is an attorney in Boston, Massachusetts, and a long-time student of international relations and conflict resolution. He is a graduate of Boston College Law School and the College of the Holy Cross, and has studied international law at King’s College and the London School of Economics.

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