Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

An Uncertain Superpower

James Skillen


November 24, 1997

Now that the Cold War is over, one might think that the United States, the one remaining superpower, could more easily have its way with the world. Instead, other nations often ignore us and we are finding it harder, not easier, to decide on national priorities.

For example, for decades most Republicans and many Democrats believed in free trade, and presidents since Gerald Ford have had fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements. Now, however, that consensus is weakening. Most multinational corporations, even the "American" ones, increasingly make their decisions not on the basis of what's good for America, but on the basis of what's good for themselves. They favor free trade. American labor organizations, by contrast, have become more nationalistic and protectionist. And many environmentalists insist on international rules limiting trade not for nationalist or economic-growth reasons but to protect the global environment.

The recent battle over fast-track reauthorization shows that American foreign policy is sometimes the result of special-interest conflict that can make or break decisions. In this case, trade policy appears to be taking shape apart from a principled framework that demonstrably advances both our domestic common good and a just world order.

Free trade may be the best international means of maximizing economic growth. But if free-trade rules work to the disadvantage of people in some regions (including some parts of the U.S.) and can do little by themselves to strengthen good government in weak or badly governed states, then free trade cannot serve as the guiding principle of foreign policy.

On a somewhat different level, the current crisis over Saddam Hussein's prohibition of U.N. weapons inspections reveals the lack of a principled framework guiding the administration's policy making in face of conflicting national interests. The United States certainly ought to help build coalitions of states for diplomatic purposes. And as the world's dominant military power, it must be prepared to exercise responsibility to help check military threats to its allies. But the administration's aim in coalition building and in showing force in the Gulf has not been clear.

Whether Saddam Hussein is reigned in by means of military force or diplomatic maneuvering, the larger question will remain: what kind of international regime of justice is the United States helping to build? It is not enough to say that our national interests include protecting access to oil, controlling chemical weapons, building coalitions of states to oppose dictators, and affirming the importance of international law. Together, these interests do not add up to a solid framework to guide long-range policy making, whether in regard to Iraq or China or any other country or region.

It is becoming ever more clear in the debates about America's role in the world that our national interest can hardly be grasped without a conception of what constitutes sound policy making that promotes international and domestic justice.

It is not at all idealistic, then, to claim that one of our top practical priorities as citizens should be to elevate the arguments over these issues to the level of serious debate about the nature of public justice both domestic and international. Otherwise, victory or defeat for fast-track and an ad hoc decision about how to deal with Saddam Hussein will remain isolated incidents, never helping us rise above the temporary accommodation of interest-group conflicts. And that will surely keep us in the dark and undermine responsible American leadership in the long run.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”