October 2, 2008

October 2, 2008 | Commentary on

A to-do list: Be proactive, build international institutions that work

Our elected officials in Washington tend to worry about the danger of the day - competing with China, taming Iraq, reacting to Russia, reassuring skittish global financial markets. Sure, the next president will need to deal with these. But if the White House sets its foreign-policy priorities by lurching from one crisis to the next, there will be no priorities beyond the morning headlines on CNN.

A proactive presidency requires entering office with a serious "to-do list," a set of tasks that transcend regional challenges and functional issues. That means having goals that will advance the freedom, safety and prosperity of Americans regardless of which worrisome world affair demands attention.

Picking the tasks that can best protect the liberties of all Americans, provide for the common defense, and advance free markets is the easy part. The next president should:

Establish new international institutions. During the 20th century, the United States helped create most of the major modern international organizations, from the United Nations to the World Bank. Today, though, many of these institutions don't serve U.S. interests very well.

The principal reason these organizations fail is that the price of admission is so low. Almost any nation, from a parliamentary democracy to a ruthless dictatorship, gets an equal vote. It's unlikely, of course, that any international institution gone bad can be disbanded. Still, America could do a much better job holding them accountable and demanding transparency.

That, however, is not enough. There is no reason America cannot play a pivotal role in creating the institutions that will better serve the interests of the United States and its friends and allies in the 21st century.

Membership should be limited to nations that share a commitment to freedom and have the capacity to act in the interest of itself and its fellow members. We also need to protect against "mission creep." These institutions should strengthen voluntary bilateral cooperation between nations, not supplant the governance of state. The next president should seek to develop three such institutions - one focused on security, one on economic freedoms, and another on individual freedoms and human rights.

Rein in national security. The greatest proliferation threat is not weapons of mass destruction, but policymakers with mass disruption on their mind - officials who would label every foreign-policy matter, from avoiding bird flu to procuring fresh water, a "national security" issue.

To make matters more confusing, international organizations such as the United Nations have created terms such as human security, arguing for a collective responsibility to keep people free from want and fear. The problem with that approach is the tendency, in dealing with security interests, to centralize power and decision-making and restrain individual freedoms and free markets. It also justifies military solutions for everything from dealing with AIDS to oil.

Making every global challenge a security issue trumps free markets and limits personal freedoms. The concept of national security needs to be put back in the box, reserved for moments of peril in dealing with people (either states or nonstates) who threaten through the use of violence to take away the political freedoms that governments are supposed to protect.

The next president should put an end to national-security proliferation.

Promote national competitiveness. Unless Washington adopts an unashamedly pro-competitive agenda in the near term, America will cease to be a first-rate global competitor in the long term. Not even the most competitive liberal democracy can hope to overcome a government that works against the best interests of its citizens. It would be like world-class sprinters who tie their own shoelaces together.

Sustaining America's competitive edge is a vital part of ensuring a successful foreign policy. Nobody respects a loser. Promoting free trade, educating the U.S. workforce, unshackling innovation, and investment are key to keeping this a nation a force to be reckoned with.

Focusing on these foreign-policies priorities won't help a president predict the next danger of the day. But it will best prepare the nation to address and prevail against any challenge that rises up against us. That is a legacy any administration would be proud to leave.

James Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation and author of "G.I. Ingenuity" and "Private Sector, Public Wars".

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in the Philadelphia Enquirer