When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, I think we missed our chance. Up til that point, nearly all of our foreign policy objectives had been subsumed by the main objective: containing the Soviets. Fostering democracy and human rights took a back seat. In numerous countries especially in the middle east (“especially” only because I happen to be studying the middle east right now), we supported vicious tyrannical regimes against revolutionary forces simply because they had potential to go communist (though of course, sometimes there were already communist). We kept military bases around the world. We supported bad guys because we needed air bases. We supported bad guys because we needed oil. We embraced the status quo because we were trying to stop change for the worse. We made selfish trade decisions, because we needed to keep ourselves strong to deter the Soviet threat to the whole world.
Regardless of what one might think of the Soviet Union, and whether or not it was worth deterring (I think it was), when we look at our foreign policy history, containing that threat was our main reason for pretty much everything we did, good or bad. You would think that the Soviet collapse should have changed more than it did.
Our policies should have changed internally as well. Reagan’s enormous defense spending spree was based on the Soviet threat. In 1991, we should have gotten our house in order, and Clinton did balance the budget in fact, and we should not have allowed something as relatively insignificant as Islamic fundamentalism (compared to the Cold War and WWII) to balloon the debt and the culture of fear.
Instead, I wish Clinton, not because he was a democrat, but just because he was President at that time, would have made a speech in which he would have apologized to the world, even to specific countries, for how we had meddled in their affairs and how we had not stood for democracy, human rights, and economic fairness. He should have promised to revisit our approach to every single country and region based on human rights, economic equity, and democratic ideals. And he should have asked forgiveness by explaining how what we did we did out of a fear of the Soviet Union.
His speech could have ended,
“As the world’s only remaining superpower, we will not make it our goal to remain on top. All great powers eventually fall and we will too. When our time is up, when we slide below others in measurements of literacy, GDP, life expectancy, population, land controlled, and military capabilities, we want to have done so without making enemies and without creating more war-inspiring hatred and prejudice. In other words, our greatness will not be determined by how strong we were for how long, but how much better the world became while we were strong. Only this better world can ensure America’s long term security
‘In this world, tyrannical regimes are not welcome. In fact, totalitarian regimes, you should know now, we will treat with you, we will accept your diplomats, but we will not respect them as legitimate representatives of your country if your country’s government is not a legitimate representative of your people. We must get away from having policies for individual dictators or kings. Instead, we are on the side of the people. We may not always know what that means, but we will make the assumption that the people want, at least, these four things: 1) a say in how their government is run 2) the ability to make a decent living 3) the freedom to choose their own religion 4) the desire for their government to deal peacefully with disagreement both domestic and foreign.
‘Creating this new world will not be easy, but it is the only way to ensure our collective and long term security and prosperity. Thank you.”
We missed our chance and it makes me sad.
(I have been listening to a lecture course by Dr. Salim Yaqub, University of Chicago called “The United States and the Middle East 1914-9/11.” Professor Yaqub got his PhD at Yale and he currently teaches at UC Santa Barbara where he heads the Center for Cold War Studies and International History. I find the lecture series fascinating, but I think he tends to denigrate the United States a little bit and leans left generally.)