Politics & Policy

Down With Stability

The world is changing, as is our approach to it.

President George W. Bush looked relaxed during Tuesday’s speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He spoke fluidly and confidently; stylistically it would have been called a “home run” during the campaign season. The speech has garnered heavier than usual media attention, which is a good measure of its effectiveness, particularly a Tuesday-morning address dealing with Mideast foreign policy. The president covered the current controversies. He repeated his call for Syria to end is military occupation of Lebanon before the scheduled elections. He reiterated a theme from the State of the Union message that Syria and Iran are the world’s chief state sponsors of terrorism, and our patience with them is ending. He noted the progress being made in promoting freedom in several countries in the Middle East, and restated his objective of “ending tyranny in our world.”

These were all positive messages, and they showed that the administration is maintaining the foreign-policy offensive. But apart from the specific policy statements, one segment in particular got my attention:

By now it should be clear that decades of excusing and accommodating tyranny, in the pursuit of stability, have only led to injustice and instability and tragedy. It should be clear that the advance of democracy leads to peace, because governments that respect the rights of their people also respect the rights of their neighbors. It should be clear that the best antidote to radicalism and terror is the tolerance and hope kindled in free societies. And our duty is now clear: For the sake of our long-term security, all free nations must stand with the forces of democracy and justice that have begun to transform the Middle East.

I’ve quoted the passage in full for the sake of context, but what I thought most significant was the first sentence. President Bush was signaling a historic development–the end of the stability paradigm, i.e., the belief that the objective of international politics is to keep the world in a steady state, blunting the impact of change and extinguishing crises as they arise. The stability paradigm has been a staple of politics for decades. It has been so basic to international relations for so long that diplomats, scholars, and policymakers treat it as a necessary component of statecraft. This fealty to stability was a product of the Cold War; its purpose was to prevent small crises from escalating, and perhaps reaching the point of nuclear conflagration. Crisis management became a recognized sub-field in the international-relations discipline. One of the most popular case studies was the outbreak of the First World War. A local crisis–”some damned thing in the Balkans,” as Bismarck had predicted–sparked a chain of events that culminated in a global conflagration. This was obviously a situation to be avoided, and the need became dire with the advent of nuclear weapons. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a positive example–crisis contained, nuclear war averted. Hence the stability paradigm; since small crises can lead to the end of the world, they require the full attention of the international community to make sure that they do not spiral out of control. The safest thing to do is to maintain the status quo forever. Stability became an objective, and in time took on the characteristics of a value. It was what prevented the United States from taking the war north in Vietnam. It was the impulse behind the ABM Treaty and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. State sponsors of terrorism exploited it, because they knew that their provocations would not be met with determined force. And those who challenged the paradigm, like Ronald Reagan, were denounced as dangerous, misguided, or ignorant of the ways of great powers.

I suppose it is comfortable to think of an unchanging world, but change is fundamental to existence. The stability paradigm offered a false hope of a world devoid of major challenges. History sometimes reaches turning points, and we ignore them at our peril. The question then becomes whether we will seek to shape events or be shaped by them, to lead or to stand aside. President Reagan chose to lead, with positive consequences thought impossible when he took office in 1981. President Bush has also assumed a leadership posture, with encouraging results that are gaining pace on a weekly basis. Moreover, our current leadership does not have to face the possible end result that gave the stability paradigm its relevance and influence, namely the outbreak of global thermonuclear war. We look at crises differently today. They are no longer seen as potential catalysts for a mechanical, irrational escalatory spiral leading to certain destruction. Crises are opportunities. Change is good. And trying to delay or prevent necessary change leads in the long run to even greater instability.

The reason this is so important is that it signals to the people building free societies in the Middle East–in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, or elsewhere–that we are truly with them, that if they take action to create change we will support them. This is not 1956 when the United States encouraged resistance to the Soviet Union but would not follow through for the Hungarian freedom fighters. Nor is it 1968 when we failed to defend the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia. Sure, our policymakers had the rhetoric down, it was just unfortunate that Eastern Europeans yearning to throw off the Soviet yoke took it at face value. However, President Bush has shown through his actions that what he says, he means. Damascus should take seriously the president’s deadline for withdrawal from Lebanon. The last time he set a deadline that a Baathist regime ignored it did not end well for the Baathists. Countries that sponsor terrorism should look at the constructive example of Afghanistan. And Iran’s persistence in openly pursuing the nuclear option cuts through the ambiguities that characterized the debate over Saddam’s WMD programs. (Will the critics of the Iraq war who charged there was no WMD rationale sign on to Iran’s program as a casus belli? Don’t count on it.)

These are exhilarating times. President Bush called it a time of courage. Yes, the future will require courage, and wisdom, foresight, and sound judgment. Bringing about change is never easy. But it begins by embracing the certainty that change comes whether we will it or not. We saw as much on 9/11, the culmination of a decade of drift, of evading responsibility, of allowing others to chart the course of events. Now, three and a half years later, the map of freedom has been transformed in ways that the terrorists would never have believed possible. And this is just the beginning.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.


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