Another Perspective

Wanted: A Democratic Foreign Policy

Does the minority party have a serious vision for a dangerous world? Harry and Nancy sure think so.

By 8.26.05

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Conventional wisdom has it that today's Democratic Party lacks a serious foreign policy platform. For reasons not difficult to discern, Democrats have dismissed the charge as the caricature of mean-spirited Republicans and their media surrogates. But the evidence suggests that it has resonance within the party.

As the Boston Globe reported in early August, Democratic leaders have recently convened a series of closed-door discussions aimed at devising a "more aggressive foreign policy that focuses heavily on threats they say are being neglected by the Bush administration." In particular, they hope to offer a strategy for curbing nuclear proliferation and dealing with those perennial diplomatic flashpoints, Iran and North Korea.

Their progress is not reassuring. Consider the foreign policy vision sketched by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, respectively the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, in a USA Today op-ed this week. In it, the authors show, as the headline writer perhaps too sympathetically puts it, how to "effectively confront nuclear threat from terrorists."

So what do the Democratic leaders propose? Most important, they note, is to "track down and secure loose nuclear weapons and material," especially in Russia, where there is "enough usable material for 80,000 nuclear weapons, and less than half of its nuclear weapons and materials have been protected from theft." Hence the authors conclude that "[w]e need to move from a policy of assistance to a partnership so that Americans and Russians work together on a plan against this common threat."

They are surely on to something here. Or at least they would be, if the president hadn't put this very policy into action some time ago. In fact, back in February, President Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin worked out a pact to speed up security upgrades at Russia's nuclear facilities, crack down on the production of weaponized uranium worldwide, and develop a joint response against the common threat of nuclear or radiological terrorist attack. It is apparently news to Pelosi and Reid that their new plan has been official U.S. policy for months.

After Russia's nuclear arsenal, the Democrats see Iran and North Korea as the top threats. Again, they're on the mark. No fair-minded observer would deny that U.S. policy toward both countries has come a cropper. Iran, by all accounts, intends to forge ahead with its nuclear program, while North Korea seems no more open to reducing its nuclear capabilities than it was when the so-called six-party talks commenced in 2003. Seemingly recognizing this reality, Pelosi and Reid write that "We can no longer outsource national security to the European Union or nations such as China."

Lest one assume that the Democratic leadership has awakened to the need for strong-arm measures when dealing with rogue states, however, Pelosi and Reid are quick to point out that what they really want is a replay of the frustrated diplomacy they supposedly condemn. They call for more "carrots" and counsel "pursuing diplomacy and trying to convince these nations to act in their own best interests." Presumably because both Iran and North Korea have decided that nuclear weapons are in their best interest, Pelosi and Reid also insist on "backing that up with a real commitment to use whatever form of pressure is most likely to produce results."

What to make of this strategy? At best, it makes the Democratic Party's position on Iran and North Korea identical to that of the Bush administration. At worst, it envisions a new round of the diplomacy whose fecklessness is now acknowledged in even the famously indulgent capitals of Europe. It doesn't help matters that the only concrete policy proposal advanced by Pelosi and Reid -- "the need to revitalize the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty" -- is no solution at all, as they unwittingly concede in citing North Korea's abrogation of the treaty and its subsequent expulsion of international inspectors. And this, remember, is the product of weeks of Democratic brainstorming about foreign policy.

Still, there is some good news. Four years after 9-11, it seems finally to have dawned on the Democrats that their electoral success will be predicated on their ability to offer a credible blueprint for dealing with a dangerous world. In a happy freshet of Bushism, Pelosi and Reid even speak of the "evil ideology of al-Qaeda." We're all Manicheans now, it seems. The bad news is that, beyond a few tired pleas for recycling diplomacy, Democrats have come up with nothing that can be confused with a serious foreign policy. Back to the drawing board.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.