Michael Clarke: The New President's Foreign Policy

Americans have a reputation for isolationism, and indeed, this year's race for the U.S. presidency has focused largely on domestic issues like religion, race relations and unemployment. Yet today's problems, from global warming to terrorism, are more likely than not to require international solutions. As American influence wanes and developing-world powerhouses like India and China grow in importance, whoever sits in the White House next year will have to navigate a challenging international environment. Michael Clarke, a distinguished professor of defense studies at King's College in London, is the director of the Royal United Services Institute and has advised the House of Commons Defense Committee since 1997. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Barrett Sheridan about what foreign-policy issues will top the agenda for the next administration. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What will be the most pressing issues for the next U.S. president?
Michael Clarke: The next president has got a really full IN box. You've got all of the issues in the Middle East, which is on a knife's edge at the moment. The relationship with Russia is extremely important. And the terms of a new transatlantic bargain are sort of vaguely being developed. These are three huge issues which are actually very urgent and at the top of the IN tray. Not very far below those is an even more important issue but one that's not as urgent: the relationship with China.

When you say transatlantic bargain, what are you referring to?
The transatlantic bargain during the cold war was implicit, and very, very strong. That bargain has been wearing a bit thin since before the end of the cold war, because conditions were changing. Now we've got to really define what we think an effective transatlantic bargain would look like. Everyone in Europe is trying to mend fences with the United States, but there is a sense that there's no point in trying to mend the fences too much with the outgoing Republican administration. Europeans are getting ready for proper engagement with the incoming administration, which won't really begin until the middle of 2009.

Do Europeans have a preference for one candidate over another?
I think there's a sense that [Republican Sen. John] McCain is an experienced player and he will be prudent.

In a way that the Bush administration was not.
Exactly. Nobody ever felt the Bush administration was a safe administration, or an administration that you could rely on to take clear, sensible decisions. I think that hostility was overstated, but that's been the perception. McCain is a safer bet. Among the Democratic candidates, there is a greater attraction to [Sen. Barack] Obama, because he's saying the right things. Hillary represents another dose of Clintonism, which was not very impressive--when [Bill] Clinton was president he wasn't a very popular man, but his popularity has soared as an ex-president. I think there's some skepticism about Hillary and some sense that for all her assertion of experience, she wouldn't represent all that much experience. So of the three candidates, I'd rate them, at least in terms of approval in London and Berlin, as McCain first, Obama second and Hillary third.

The Western world has lately had strained relations with China, especially after protests in support of Tibetan independence. How can the next U.S. president navigate China and all its particularities?
The issue of China is so huge that I don't think any single policy or strategy will fit the bill. If you think back to Nixon's opening toward China in 1971, in a sense that was a relatively one-dimensional policy, because they only had to open up at the strategic level. Now the China issue is strategic, economic, social, it relates to third and fourth parties elsewhere in the world, it's about competition in the Middle East, it's about competition in Africa. The policy can't be articulated in one article in Foreign Affairs. But if there's a single orientation, then it is the orientation of trying to ensure that China exercises its growing strength from within a rule-based system. We have an enormous interest in getting the Chinese to sign up to the rules of the international system as they've been articulated. That is fundamental to the future of the next 50 years. So policy toward China must be based upon engagement on all these different levels, with an emphasis on rules. And of course we can only make that stand if we're confident about those rules ourselves and we seem to be observing them ourselves.

The developing world is catching up to the West, and some analysts have forecast the resultant decline of American influence in the world. Do you agree?
Yes, I think that's right. American dominance has been very short-lived. What we're going to see is that America is still going to be the most important and biggest single player in the system. But there's a difference between having strength and being able to shape the nature of the system. The United States was sole remaining superpower after 1991--that hasn't lasted more than a decade and half. And it wasn't just Iraq that caused that. The deeper trend of world politics, the diffusion of power--all those things are a symptom of a very different political environment in the 21st century. So the U.S. can't exercise dominance. It can exercise leadership, but that leadership has to be based on some other international consensus. It's not now so obvious what that consensus would be. The United States, Europe, even China--they're not sure where they're going. The world is characterized by a great lack of strategic thinking on everyone's part. We have to fashion a consensus, and America can lead that consensus--it's not automatic that they will lead it, but it is certainly capable of leading it.

Any final thoughts?
The Francis Fukuyama idea about the end of history: it's clear now that that's not the case, and that liberal democracy is not necessarily a fact of life, it's not beyond challenge. It's not just Al Qaeda and the terrorists: the Russians, the Chinese and many African states are prepared to say, "We will not sign up to this free-trade liberal capitalist system. We will pursue prosperity through a more autocratic route." Fukuyama's point was that we fought for [a liberal democratic order] for 50 years during the cold war, we've won, and we've [made liberal democracy] an international fact of life. Well, it isn't. It's still got to be fought for.