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Vol. LXII, No. 41
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
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What’s Next for American Foreign Policy? Speakers Propose “Prosperity Agenda”

Ellen Gilbert

After enumerating the dismaying list of problems (terrorist threats, anti-Americanism at an all-time high, the economic crisis, just for starters) that await the country’s next President — be it Senator Obama or Senator McCain — when he assumes office in January, foreign policy expert Nancy Soderberg assured an audience at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs last week that “it’s all solvable.”

Speaking with her co-author Brian Katulis about their recently published book, The Prosperity Agenda: What the World Wants from America and What We Need in Return, Ms. Soderberg suggested that for the last eight years, the U.S. has “confused great power with absolute power,” believing we could solve the world’s problems alone. By not acknowledging that global challenges need global solutions “we’re weaker,” she said, and Pew Research Center polls have the numbers to prove it: over 55 percent of “our best buds, the Brits” currently don’t trust the U.S. in its war on terror.

Offering another striking illustration of America’s decline as a role model for world ideals, Ms. Soderberg asked the audience to recall which symbol of freedom the Tienamen Square protesters used in 1989 (the answer was the Statue of Liberty). How many liberation groups would use that same symbol today, she wondered (the audience thought zero).

The solution, according to Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Mr. Katulis (Princeton M.P.A. ’00) and Ms. Soderberg is a “prosperity agenda” that will promote a sense of well-being in other nations. They, in turn, will be more willing allies in our efforts to curb terrorism. In spite of increased anti-Americanism, the authors insisted, we are still the “world’s superpower,” with the wealth and ability — given the right leadership — to advance hope for “a decent life” in other countries

“When America does the right thing the world notices,” said Ms. Soderberg, who is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of North Florida and former Alternate Representative to the U.N. She pointed to the good will engendered by America’s swift response to the devastating Asian tsunami in 2004, and the pro-Americanism that prevails in small African countries where HIV/AIDS assistance from the U.S. has made a significant difference.

Mr. Katulis said that people in the two dozen countries he has visited in the years since he graduated from the Wilson school “are not opposed to freedom and democracy,” it’s just that they have “different priorities.” These include having stable communities, enough to eat, and good educational systems. This country’s original approach to Iraq was “inappropriate,” he said, noting that the recent success of the “surge” had more to do with adopting different tactics and showing more regard for the Iraqis’ well-being than with sending over greater numbers of soldiers. “It’s not about shooting and killing,” he observed. “It’s about governance.”

According to the authors, Mr. Obama appears to be the more likely of the two presidential candidates to carry out the authors’ proposed “prosperity agenda.” They find Mr. McCain’s notion of “enduring peace built on freedom” uncomfortably close to Mr. Bush’s “freedom agenda,” with its notions of “us vs. them” and “good vs. evil.” Ms. Soderberg pointed to Mr. Obama’s speech during his visit to Berlin as evidence that he “looks at challenges in the world as interconnected,” recognizing the “need to address them in a multi-lateral context.” They did fault Mr. Obama, however, for his failure (as well as Mr. McCain’s) during the recent debate to address the issue of what it would cost this country to achieve its goals.

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