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A strategy from Venus? Comment on the US National Security Strategy 2006

01 March 2006

In his now famous essay 'Power and Paradise' Robert Kagan forcefully argued that 'America was from Mars and Europe from Venus' and as a consequence of this America and Europe were diverging and going down different paths. Living in a Hobbesian world of survival of the fittest, American foreign policy was becoming more unilateral, less ideological and more explicitly focused on interests. Meanwhile Europe was living in a Kantian 'paradise', adhering to multilateralism and the rule of law.
After 9/11 US foreign policy was decidedly unilateral, it became highly militarised and also heavily ideological, stressing America's moral mission to 'fight evil'. The subsequent 2002 National Security Strategy confirmed this evolution and introduced the doctrine of pre-emption, which was subsequently applied to Iraq, but also spoke about promoting 'liberty worldwide'.
The revised National Security Strategy, published on 16 March 2006, moves America's security thinking away from Mars and closer to Venus. The document's two pillars; promoting effective democracy and working with allies, resemble Kantian ideas. Clearly, the strategy indicates that this administration is serious about promoting democracy abroad. The level of attention given to this and the conceptual sophistication surrounding the topic in the strategy suggests that the promotion of democracy is not just propaganda but has become a core tenet of US foreign policy.
The strategy argues that 'The United States champions freedom because doing so reflects our values and advances our interests'. Of course, parts of this claim could be dismissed on the grounds that American values were not enough to promote freedom in the past (most notoriously during the Nixon-Kissinger era), why should it be any different now? But the document puts forward a very convincing case as to why the promotion of democracy is essential to America's interests, especially in the war on terror. In a departure from the 2002 document, the 2006 strategy emphasises the need to win the 'battle of ideas'. The socio-political phenomena that give rise to terrorism - such as political alienation - can only be addressed by nurturing democracy and encouraging the spread of freedom.
The 2006 strategy appears also to have overcome the naivety which had overstated the degree to which non-democratic regimes would rapidly give way to democracy once free elections occurred - an assumption present in the 2002 strategy. The new strategy also recognises that new democracies wouldn't necessarily look like America and that local traditions and cultural specificities would remain and help form the foundations of democracy. Finally, the US commits itself to pursue economic aid and trade-related policies that would boost prosperity in those countries that have embarked on the course of political reforms.
Is the strategy equally serious about the other element of Kantian order - co-operation amongst the nations? The document certainly stresses the need for working with 'friends and allies' when facing major security threats. However, whilst the strategy speaks about 'effective multinational efforts' it dedicates markedly less space to existing multilateral institutions. In other words, the US recognises the need for working closer with other states but it does not necessarily want to tie its hand by always acting via international institutions. Still, even here the tone is markedly different and more Kantian than Hobbessian.
What implications will the new document have for the EU? The reinforced emphasis upon democracy-promotion will place new pressures on the EU to join this effort. However, in its current crisis of confidence, it is rather unlikely that the EU will do so. For example, the EU's approach to the crisis with Iran has been almost exclusively focused on the nuclear issue. The US's approach was always broader - including demands for political reforms - the 2006 security strategy confirms this in an explicit way. Europeans continue to rule out the use of force towards Iran, whilst the US Strategy says that force may be used against any country that harbours terrorists and goes on to mention Iran and Syrian in this context.
The 2006 strategy is a strategy of a confident power setting out to pursue an expansive foreign policy. Yet, the US public is anything but confident these days. Support for the President is down and so is the perception that things are going in the right direction in Iraq. Three years after America chose to invade Iraq and apply its new doctrine of pre-emption, the war is largely perceived as a mistake in the US. The American public is worried about the economy, the country's collapsing image in the world and of course about its troops in Iraq. Whilst President Bush may be setting out to go to Venus, the American people would rather just stay home.