The Phoenix project

by Henry Farrell on July 30, 2008

I have a “bloggingheads”: with Jacob Heilbrunn of _The National Interest_ here on various foreign policy issues; one of the most interesting of which we never got around to debating. A bunch of Democratic foreign policy types, which once included Susan Rice of the Obama campaign, have come out with a new document, the so-called “Phoenix Initiative”: Now in one sense, manifestoes like this are ten a penny at this stage of the election cycle – they’re the calling cards that foreign policy elites use to try to sell themselves to a potential incoming administration. But what’s unusual about this one is the near total lack of self-congratulation about the US as the one essential nation, leader of the free world etc. Instead, the document’s main message is that the US’s military predominance doesn’t count for as much as it used to, and in a globally connected world, not only are other forms of power becoming more important, but other countries are going to take the lead on many key issues, and the US should get used to this. I’m a little surprised to see so little of the usual bombast in a document like this – even liberal internationalists used to talk a few years ago about how the US needed to create the institutions for a global system that would ensure US soft hegemony. Now, this group at least, isn’t talking in these terms, but implicitly suggesting that the US is just one large power among several. It’s an interesting change in rhetoric.



David Moles 07.30.08 at 5:26 am

Not to be confused with the Phoenix Program.


Steve LaBonne 07.30.08 at 12:54 pm

That’s nice. Now when it becomes possible for politicians to talk like that, I’ll get more excited. Obama himself never misses an opportunity to do the leader-of-the-free-world routine.


astrongmaybe 07.30.08 at 3:07 pm

“…create the institutions for a global system that would ensure US soft hegemony…”

or as one 2002-3 “peace” slogan had it: “Win Without War!”

For a non-American, newly moved to the US, that phrase was just as disturbing as all the neo-con triumphalism of that moment.


Grand Moff Texan 07.30.08 at 4:31 pm

So, are you just sampling the noise, or are these people (like Susan Rice) likely to apply this as an operative philosophy?

No, I don’t expect an answer to that question, because there likely isn’t one. I’m just wondering.


Order of Magnitude 07.30.08 at 6:56 pm

First, the US is distinctly NOT “just one large power among several,” regardless of what euro-socialist wish in their most fevered moments. Whenever ‘hard’ security matters are involved — and history has not ended into a dénouement which makes hard power superfluous — the US is the *only* power that matters. Sure, the lamb can lie down with the lion anytime, but for now, only the lion will survive that encounter.

In matters of hard security the UN and any other international arrangement, if they are effective at all (and in the majority of cases they are not), are so because they are extensions of US might.

Diplomacy only works if it is backed by the *credible* use of force. To take matters to a caricaturistic exageration, the current split is between those who want 100% diplomacy with a priori abdication of any threat of violence vs those who want to use both diplomacy AND military power. The recent reemergence of Karadzic serves to remind those willing to see reality of the indispensability of the US and the criminal nature of postmodern historic experiments — done, as always, on other people’s children.

Second, is the US expected to be the ONLY country which does not act on its national interest?! And expected by whom?


christian h. 07.30.08 at 7:26 pm

Crap. I actually made the mistake and read some of that stuff. The best part so far is where “anti-American social movements” are classified as one “threat beyond U.S. borders” that “[won’t] leave us alone”.

there’s some reasonable stuff, to be sure – “Democracy […] cannot serve [its] purpose when exported through the barrel of a gun” – but on the whole is the same old liberal bs – a different way of imperialism, but still imperialism – including interventionism: ” Force should never be used as a first choice, but in some cases it may need to be used sooner rather than later, particularly when innocent lives are at stake or
when grave dangers are emerging. […] [I]t is necessary to use force preventively if and when the circumstances demand”

Plus, big-time buzzword alert (to no-one’s surprise, I’d guess). “strategic leadership”, “civil society”, etc. pp..


BillCinSD 07.30.08 at 10:28 pm

It’s good to see Tom Friedman commenting on a blog post


John Quiggin 07.31.08 at 2:39 am

“The recent reemergence of Karadzic serves to remind those willing to see reality of the indispensability of the US ”

Or, perhaps, the decision of the Serbian authorities to ship Karadzic to the Hague reminds those willing to see of the extent to which the EU (despite its past failures) has replaced the US as the indispensable power in a large part of the world.

Maybe if Gore v Bush had come out differently, this wouldn’t have happened. But there’s no point in harking back to the 90s now, as OofM wants to do. The damage Bush has done to the US won’t be repaired simply by a change of government.


derrida derider 07.31.08 at 4:08 am

“The recent reemergence of Karadzic serves to remind those willing to see reality of the indispensability of the US …”

LOL! Karadzic was handed over after European pressure to a court whose remit the US does not recognise and which it has tried its best to undermine by threatening war if any US citizen ever faces that court. Seems to me this is a very poor example indeed of US “indispensability”.

Declining empires never acknowledge their decline until it’s far too late. In 1948 the US had over 50% of world GDP. It now has around 20%. On present trends Chinese GDP will pass that of the US in a couple of decades, and you can expect Chinese military power to pass that of the US within a decade or so after that. And China is just one power.

If the US still insists on pretending to itself that it is omnipotent, then sooner or later it is going to suffer a very nasty fall.


Dave 07.31.08 at 8:44 am

Re. those that disparage comment #5, how DOES diplomacy work without credible force? Do we really have any evidence that people, especially people who run states, are nice – and specifically, nicer than ordinary people, who quite evidently require the police and courts to make them behave in a civilised fashion?

This kind of question reminds me of some attitudes to China – most especially, amongst the professional boosters [e.g. Martin Jacques]. Their supposition that China isn’t a threat to the West relies on an entirely idealistic notion that China is somehow better than the West. If, in fact, China’s interests, concerns and operating procedures are in any way similar to those of the Western powers, then those powers ought to be dam’ scared of China, and deeply hostile to it, because China will do what the West has spent the last 300 years doing: anything it can get away with. And assuming that China is just like ‘us’ seems to be the only logical course not tainted by patronising reverse-racism.


Order of Magnitude 07.31.08 at 8:58 am

The wars Milosevich, Karadzic et al started ended *only* due to the brief and cheap military interventions by the US, after protracted negotiations by the EU *failed* to prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

The left-wing mind is short circuited by the Balkan wars because (1) diplomacy failed, and with it the European postmodern mirage failed abysmally its first real test (2) left wingers in Serbia morphed effortlessly into genocidal nationalists adding credence to the observation that fascism and communism are the two faces of the same Janus-faced monster, (3) the US military intervention worked (again), (4) the US saved Muslim lives , (5) the US intervened despite the geostrategic irrelevance of the area (including, chiefly, its lack of oil).

Karadzic could have been apprehended if this were truly a vital national security interest of the US or a handful of other states with the surveillance, intelligence or other military means to do it. It is much more effective though to nudge the Serb elite to face the recent past, by forcing them to topple Milo (check) and apprehend and hand over people like Milosevic & Karadzic (check and check). The whole Serb elite — and to some extent the Croats, as well — have a lot or reckoning to do, starting with the late 1980’s shift towards extreme nationalism, embraced by virtually the entire Serb elite (its National Academy included).

derrida: Yes, in relative terms the US has declined from 1948, partly because others rebuilt war-torn economies (and now technology serves as a great equalizer). Extrapolating China’s recent development into the future is hazardous, though. It’s easy to grow at 10%/yr when you start from a GDP/cap of a few hundred dollars. Once you reach middle levels, the institutional framework of resource allocation and decompressing tensions and conflicts in society become a lot more important and will make or break China. As long as the key issue is to build basic infrastructure and lift peasants from famine, engineers and technocrats operating in a top-down authoritarian framework can do a reasonable job. Will see how they cope once GDP/cap passes $10k, say.

John Q: The pull of the EU was clearly attractive for the institutional reform of post communist EEurope, and the Serbs are catching on, two decades too late. You are deliberately ignoring though the security vacuum that is Europe sans the US. I mean western Europe too, not just Central or Eastern E. A prerequisite for the so-called indispensability of the EU in the area is the US-provided security.


Naadir Jeewa 07.31.08 at 9:24 am

Without reading the whole thing, the key points seems very similar to David Milliband’s call for a “Green Peace,” using liberal and social democratic impulses in regional instutions within a multipolar world to transition to a low-carbon economy, thus reducing resource-based conflict and dutch disease.


Sylny 07.31.08 at 11:44 am

I think that Obama’s job (should he and we choose to accept it) is to get this country over the “we’re number one” hump. He can’t very well say this and expect to get elected to office–but I think he understands very well that American power from 1945-1968 or so was based on an aberration: Europe and Japan were leveled as a result of World War II, and the so-called developing world hadn’t started to develop yet. It’s a condition that couldn’t possibly last forever–and hasn’t. Boomers and their elders still carry that “we’re-the-only-game-in-town” mindset, but it’s dangerous and counter productive–and Obama and people like Susan Rice and Samantha Powers understand this. We need to be one–not #1– in a concert of nations that are relatively wealthy and respectful of human rights.


Lupita 07.31.08 at 6:22 pm

This is not a document of domination, denial, or disengagement

Disengagement, no, but domination and denial, it absolutely is.

If Obama wins and incorporates its authors into his inner circle, this document will be known as the new “New American Century” and its authors as the neo-neocons. It clearly sides with the continuation of empire (“the terms of the global economy, long dictated by America”, “America must also continue to be a robust provider of security in the world”, “the prevalent presumption that America must always be in charge”, “policy makers charged with regulating the global economy”) simply because it is too scary to consider otherwise, (menacing states, anti American social movements, terrorists, infectious diseases, virulent diseases, computer hackers, foreign dangers, whims and vagaries of foreign oil exporting countries, irresponsible behavior by the leaders of Iran and Venezuela).

There is denial of the impact of three decades of neoliberal looting of 3rd world countries through financial meltdowns, privatizations, IMF meddling, and military occupations. There is total denial of something called the left in the rest of the world and no mention of sovereignty.

Our young people are our greatest asset; with the proper education, values, and motivation, they can engage the world

it was time for a group of younger foreign policy thinkers to come together and work

One wonders if these “younger foreign policy thinkers” have the proper education to engage the world – having lived in a foreign country and speaking a foreign language comes to mind. They seem terribly parochial, trembling with fear inside their little bubble.


Dave 07.31.08 at 6:48 pm

“…in a concert of nations that are relatively wealthy and respectful of human rights…”

What about the others who aren’t?


Lupita 07.31.08 at 7:09 pm

Susan E Rice, Condoleezza Rice… what a coincidence.


John Quiggin 07.31.08 at 10:10 pm

“A prerequisite for the so-called indispensability of the EU in the area is the US-provided security.”

Umm, security from what threat? The Russians? As far as conventional military attack is concerned, the EU is overwhelmingly stronger than any potential attacker. And the “security” provided by the Bush Administration in relation to terrorism and the threat of nuclear proliferation is a negative contribution.

Really OofM, your comments make it look as if you’ve been asleep for the past twenty years.


Order of Magnitude 08.01.08 at 2:50 am

My antipodean friend John, I am an EU citizen, born, raised and educated there.

Your points e.g. about “the EU [being] overwhelmingly stronger than any potential attacker” show that you have not begun understanding what Europe is about.

I will continue to refrain from questioning your familiarity with the major themes of Aussie politics and history.


Down and Out of Sài Gòn 08.01.08 at 4:00 am

Order of Magnitude – the Balkan wars were in the early 90s – more than 13 years ago. That’s a small span in the lifetime of any country – except that 7.5 of those years were under Bush. The United States was indispensible then – now not so much.


Order of Magnitude 08.01.08 at 5:00 am

If you are captivated by the theater (soap opera?) of politics then Bush, Cheney & Rummy are all that matters (that’s why our standing is “bad”). On the right, the Chirac -> Sarko and the Schroeder -> Merkel changes do the job (that’s why transatlantic relations are “improving”).

In reality security interests and arrangements have their tectonic-like motion and Europe and the US have begun drifting apart way before the Bush years. This is worth repeating for those who tie themselves up in a knot over the Bush years.

Hard power is here to stay, although I personally find J Nye’s soft power argument quite persuasive. The US has the resources to deploy and use ample amounts of both.


John Quiggin 08.02.08 at 12:32 am

#18 If your best argument is a claim (unverifiable, NTIM) to be an EU citizen, and therefore an expert, I think we can call this one.


Order of Magnitude 08.03.08 at 7:22 am

I don’t give a damn if you believe or not that I am an EU citizen; I sure am not going to send you a xerox of my passport.

With this sneaky insinuation you try to shift the topic away from my assertion that when you talk about the ‘overwhelming strength’ of the EU, you show you really don’t have a clue.


Michael Connolly 08.03.08 at 1:11 pm

Others have noted the shakiness of Order of Magnitude’s logic, but have not commented on his “facts.”

“The wars Milosevich, Karadzic et al started ended only due to the brief and cheap military interventions by the US, after protracted negotiations by the EU failed to prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.”

In fact, having been a abservant adult during this period and for some time before, I remember quite well that it was the Europeans – the French in particular – who were quick to commit troops to the Balkans and the Clinton Administration that dragged its feet and did everything it could to sabotage the combination of hard and soft power by the Europeans. Back in the supposedly indispensable nation, the opinion that genocide in the Balkans might be a smaller problem than the rise of an unruly and disobedient EU had two foci: the Pentagon, which was a willing accomplice to the slow-moving coup against Clinton, and the US Foreign Policy establishment, which was loudly fearful that the EU might eclipse NATO.

These inconvenient truths are hard to square with Order of Magnitude’s narrative, which appears to be a retread of the “Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus” songbook.


Order of Magnitude 08.05.08 at 2:13 am

It’s funny to see how quickly differences of opinion degenerate into attacks ad hominem. Finally, Michael Connolly says something beyond speculating on my level of alertness, nationality, experience, etc (leaving aside the ‘songbook thing’ — I am a great fan of American diplomatic successes, Michael).

A few points:
– I disagree with your assessment of the significance of European troop involvements in the area. The point is not whether the French or any other Eu committed troops to the Balkans. After all, Srebrenica was a “safe haven” “guaranteed” by the “hard power” of Dutch EU soldiers. It would be all Roi Ubu had it not been for the genocide of Srebrenica. The point is that the Serbs (and Croats) did not fear the Europeans. Correlation is not causation, yet the genocide (or say, major hostilities) ceased *TWICE* after US military interventions. Can you pls explain that?

– The US is a superpower on the cheap. It has military power widely estimated to equal that of its next 10-14 rivals. And it is a superpower _on the cheap_ because it acquires this barely 3-3.3% of GDP spent of the military. In the EU France spends the most in absolute terms and it comes out at only ~ 2.5-2.7% of GDP. The EU lacks the power, the technical ability to project power and the will in its population and political elites alike to use said power, certainly when compared to the US. That is one of the main reasons why the US is the indispensable nation.

– Michael, there is a difference of opinion between us as to whether the US “dragged its feet” (as you claim) or it was asked to stand by while the newly confident EU sorts out its own backyard (as I think).

– The US is right, I believe, to act on its national security and prevent or nuance/shape the rise of a rival and possible adversary. You don’t seem to tbe bothered by the concept of an assertive EU acting on its interest. Are you using a double standard which is much more stringent vis-a-vis the US?

– What do you base your claim that the “US Foreign Policy establishment [] was loudly fearful that the EU might eclipse NATO”? Thanks.

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