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Foreign Policy

10/30/08 5:55PM By Bill Mares
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(HOST) Commentator Bill Mares is a writer, educator and former legislator who says that American foreign policy often appears to be a confusing mix of competing interests and conflicting claims. So he's decided to help sort things out.   

(MARES) For ten years I taught American foreign policy to high school students.  Then I compressed that semester-long course into five evening classes for adults. Now I propose to compress THAT into a handy thumbnail guide for the foreign-policy-challenged voter.  You can use it to examine any foreign policy problem.         

We start with a useful text-book definition: Foreign policy is the collection of goals and objectives our government tries to gain in its relations with other governments and groups abroad.  Throughout our 232-year history, three conflicting tensions have influenced our relations with other nations.  In the first, isolationism has battled with the urge to intervene. In the second, we've been torn between going it alone - and seeking allies.  And third, our ideology has been a muddle of high ideals and low self-interest.   The quick and dirty test of those foreign policy goals and objectives is whether an action is "in our national interest."
        
It helps to break that phrase into three parts: security interest, economic interest and ideological interest.  Knowing that much helps you to see how the interests often overlap and even conflict, as in the invasion of Iraq or confronting China over human rights.
         
HOW we reach those goals depends upon the kinds of power we have and use, meaning military power, economic power, modern technology, geography, and national morale.
         
Eight years ago, there was a good deal of cheap talk about how the American Colossus towered over the world as the one and only superpower.  I leave it to you to decide how much power we have today.      

To carry out its foreign policies, the government has a menu of several dozen tools of "hard and soft power," such as cultural exchanges, summits, foreign aid, trade agreements, boycotts, alliances, espionage and war.  Under the Constitution, the Executive Branch conducts foreign policy, but everyone influences it.  That starts with Congress, with its spaghetti bowl of committees, regional interests and 535 egos.  Swarming around Congress are legions of lobbyists of every stripe.  And then comes the media in all its many forms from the Associated Press to the blogosphere.   Opinion polls, think tanks, foreign governments, a myriad of citizen groups, and even individuals, have their say.
      
It's a messy, imperfect process that recalls Bismarck's remark about watching legislation and pork sausage being made.  Most of the time, policy is not a choice between good and bad, but between bad and worse.  

But still, with hefty measures of intelligence and humility, we hope, we have to choose, even if declining to take action is sometimes a good choice. But declining to vote really isn't - because all of what I just described really begins in the voting booth.
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