Regional Problems, Regional Answers

Instead of rushing out to solve the world’s problems, the United States should take a more careful and calculated approach to humanitarian issues—leaving a larger role for regional powers.

America may be the "greatest force" in the world "for good," a theme reiterated in the recent presidential town hall debate-but its power is not unlimited-a point that moderator Tom Brokaw explicitly mentioned in asking how the current economic crisis affects our ability to intervene in the global arena.

Last year, Justine A. Rosenthal wrote in these pages that Americans are

consumed by every problem, every slight. Our vision is too clouded to see where we're welcome, where we're not and where someone else may solve the problem just as well-even if not exactly to our liking. This doesn't mean that we return home with our tail between our legs, but rather that we figure out where our fundamental interests lie before we decide to throw our weight around. It is not about giving up our position. Quite the contrary, it is about picking and choosing our engagements so that our leadership in the world is enhanced, not diminished. The current course seems unsustainable and often counterproductive.

The presidential campaigns have not wanted to address her points, but others in the American government echo her concerns. At the National Defense University on September 28, commenting on U.S. strategy, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made it clear that "not every outrage, every act of aggression, every crisis can or should elicit an American military response, and we should acknowledge that."

So can we come up with a set of principles, some guidance, that can be used to frame policy? It does seem that over this past year, the vague outlines of an approach have begun to take shape-when, despite calls for a much more robust and interventionist stance, Washington was content to play "second fiddle" in dealing with the crises in Burma and Zimbabwe.

The main determining factor should be for U.S. policy makers to assess the reactions of the immediate neighbors to a crisis that does not directly impact key American interests. In the cases of Burma and Zimbabwe, for instance, there was no direct threat to the United States from the humanitarian and political catastrophes. In addition, rising and resurgent powers have an increased ability to respond-one only needs to chart the growth, for example, in India's own airlift and sealift capabilities over the last decade. Certainly, the fact that the United States has become bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan has contributed to an unwillingness to take on new missions-but it also has forced other powers who regularly mouth the rhetoric about multipolarity to take seriously the obligations that come with it.

Sometimes, the immediate and intermediate neighbors to a crisis may not have capabilities. Here, the U.S. strategy in Sudan has also been instructive-for Washington not to become the first responder, but to provide support when needed-and when asked.

There have also been some important side benefits. Because a Marine Expeditionary Force did not invade Burma-despite calls from American pundits for such a move-it forced the regional heavyweights-India and China-to step up to the forefront in delivering humanitarian aid. It also caused some of the other, smaller states of Southeast Asia to reassess their position towards the United States-meaning that there has been a renewed willingness to ask the United States to continue to play a major role in the region's affairs, a change from the trend in the middle part of this decade, where, at venues such as the Asia Summit, there was a concerted effort to exclude Washington. A more muted role for the U.S. in the Zimbabwe crisis weakened the ability of Robert Mugabe to rally support from other African states on the grounds of defending sovereignty against "neocolonialism" and meant that public opinion in South Africa was able to pressure the government to take a more active role in brokering a power-sharing agreement.

"Regional solutions for regional problems" ought to be the cornerstone of any future U.S. foreign-policy doctrine. It would be a good step if either presidential candidate would endorse that line of thinking.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national security studies at the Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own.