IN THIS year’s campaign debate over foreign policy, something was missing—the intertwined elements of American interests and American blood. In the rhetoric of President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, seldom did we see rigorous analysis about the country’s true global interests and how much citizen blood we should expend on behalf of those interests. We got vague pronouncements about American exceptionalism, using American power to salve the wounds of humanity, the pacifying effect of spreading democracy, the necessity of America’s global dominance and the need to thwart anti-Western terrorists.
But there was little talk about how these missions actually would affect the lives of Americans, the global balance of power or U.S. security. There was even less talk about the appropriate price, in terms of American lives, to be paid for these missions. And yet this ultimately is any president’s crucial foreign-policy decision matrix—how he or she defines the country’s vital interests and how that squares with the ultimate cost.
As Germany’s Otto von Bismarck, that cold-eyed realist of the nineteenth century, once remarked, “Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.”
This is not to say that citizen blood is too precious to be spilled in pursuit of national interests. Many of our presidents heralded as among the greatest expended plenty of American blood on behalf of American interests. But it’s wrong to send young soldiers to their deaths for causes unrelated to serious national interests. Bismarck captured this when he predicted in 1888—with remarkable prescience—that the next great European war would be ignited in the Balkans. Yet he insisted those lands weren’t “worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” Germany had no strategic interests there worthy of German blood.
In our time, the lack of clarity about U.S. strategic goals in the post–Cold War era has spawned all kinds of mushy thinking about what our role in the world should be and what circumstances justify U.S. intervention abroad.
Consider President Obama’s actions in Libya. Much has been written about the obfuscation that attended the United Nations debate—focused as it was on protecting Benghazi civilians from mass killings by the forces of Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, when the actual goal was the elimination of Qaddafi’s regime. It’s a worthy critique. But conservative commentator Stanley Kurtz, writing in National Review Online, offered another insight—namely, that the sequence of events indicates Obama was more interested in protecting Libyan lives than in regime change. Kurtz speculates that Obama wanted to establish the precedent of humanitarian intervention—the so-called responsibility to protect—in U.S. foreign policy.
Obama received ample credit for sparing American lives in the Libyan intervention, but Kurtz is correct that the precedent has been established for future adventures that could entail much greater military involvement and cost. And the president made no effort to justify the mission in terms of U.S. vital interests. Instead, he lauded the kinds of Wilsonian missions that fall under the rubric of the responsibility to protect. “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and—more profoundly—our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances,” declared the president, “would have been a betrayal of who we are.”
Such thinking is a post–Cold War phenomenon. During the West’s confrontation with the Soviet Union, which had positioned itself ominously in the Eurasian heartland, America embraced a crisp understanding of its interests and mission. The goal was to thwart the spread of communism into areas of strategic importance to the West, particularly Europe. Given Europe’s devastation in World War II, America embraced the role of military protector of the West and stabilizing force in the world. This big job was defined in simple and clear terms. And the approach adopted to pursue it—containment—minimized the expenditure of American blood.
The first imperative was to save the West from the 1.3 million Eastern bloc troops positioned menacingly on the doorstep of Western Europe. This was accomplished through the heroic leadership of Harry S Truman and is remembered through numerous powerful actions—aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, creation of NATO, reorganization of the U.S. military and intelligence operations, and more. Once the Soviets understood that their own cost of overrunning Western Europe would be too high in blood and treasure, the Kremlin adopted a new approach of destabilizing the West’s interests in far-flung regions around the Eurasian heartland. As writer Robert D. Kaplan has pointed out, the Cold War became a contest for control over vast areas of strategic significance on the Eurasian periphery.
This epic struggle led to hot wars in Korea and Vietnam that required greater expenditures in U.S. casualties than the American people would accept. That necessitated negotiated settlements that proved not altogether satisfactory. But generally the United States avoided the kind of high-cost hostilities that could have sapped popular approval for the policy, and America capped the forty-three-year Cold War with a signal victory.