Colin Powell has a piece in the current Foreign Affairs wherein he points out that U.S. foreign policy is much more than just the war on terrorism.

It is an unfailingly effective applause line for critics of any U.S. administration to charge that the president has no vision for the world, that he has no strategy. Every trouble is attributed to this failing, as though the world would otherwise be perfectly accommodating to U.S. purposes. Unfortunately, this criticism has come close to being true in some administrations. But it is not true in the present one. President George W. Bush does have a vision of a better world. And he also has a strategy for translating that vision into reality. I know — I was present at its creation.

The president’s strategy was first laid out publicly in September 2002, in the National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS). A succinct document of fewer than 40 pages, the NSS defines U.S. policy priorities in eight substantive sections. Together, these parts add up to an integrated strategy that is broad and deep, far ranging and forward looking, attuned as much to opportunities for the United States as to the dangers it faces.

Of course, a public strategy document cannot be entirely frank about all the choices that U.S. leaders make; we do ourselves and our allies no favors by telling our adversaries everything that we think and plan. Nonetheless, this administration’s public pronouncements have been remarkably candid. They reflect the personality of the president himself, a man who, with great consistency, says what he means and means what he says.

It is somewhat odd, therefore, to discover that our foreign policy strategy is so often misunderstood by both domestic and foreign observers. U.S. strategy is widely accused of being unilateralist by design. It isn’t. It is often accused of being imbalanced in favor of military methods. It isn’t. It is frequently described as being obsessed with terrorism and hence biased toward preemptive war on a global scale. It most certainly is not.

These distortions are partly explained by context. The NSS made the concept of preemption explicit in the heady aftermath of September 11, and it did so for obvious reasons. One reason was to reassure the American people that the government possessed common sense. As President Bush has said — and as any sensible person understands — if you recognize a clear and present threat that is undeterrable by the means you have at hand, then you must deal with it. You do not wait for it to strike; you do not allow future attacks to happen before you take action.

He concludes:

We must not take the present peace among the world’s nations for granted. Today’s peace will not just take care of itself. We have to work at it with patience, mindful that major war has broken out in the past despite a widespread conviction that it simply could not happen again.

Of course, we want to promote human dignity and democracy in the world, to help people raise themselves from poverty, and to transform the inadequate system of global public health. We are pursuing these goals right now. But only if the deep peace of our era can be “preserved, defended, and expanded” — to use the president’s words — can we pursue these goals for as long as it will take to achieve them.

And make no mistake, these are the central goals of American policy in the twenty-first century. We fight terrorism because we must, but we seek a better world because we can — because it is our desire, and our destiny, to do so. This is why we commit ourselves to democracy, development, global public health, and human rights, as well as to the prerequisite of a solid structure for global peace. These are not high-sounding decorations for our interests. They are our interests, the purposes our power serves.

Because this is so, the United States’ reputation for honesty and compassion will endure. Today, U.S. motives are impugned in some lands. But as we preserve, defend, and expand the peace that free peoples won in the twentieth century, we will see the United States vindicated in the eyes of the world in the twenty-first.

It would be churlish to claim that the Bush administration’s foreign policy has been error-free from the start. We are human beings; we all make mistakes. But we have always pursued the enlightened self-interest of the American people, and in our purposes and our principles there are no mistakes.

Our enlightened self-interest puts us at odds with terrorists, tyrants, and others who wish us ill. From them we seek no advice or comity, and to them we will give no quarter. But our enlightened self-interest makes us partners with all those who cherish freedom, human dignity, and peace. We know the side on which the human spirit truly abides, and we take encouragement from this as our strategy unfolds. In the end, it is the only encouragement we really need.

Well stated. And very interesting that Powell, widely considered to be at odds with much of this policy, is the one making this declaration.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Terrorism, World Politics, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. But isn’t his job as Secretary of State to advance the President’s policies? If he had a real problem with his boss’ policies he wouldn’t have stayed at State this long.