3 Foreign-Policy Turkeys That Shouldn’t Be Pardoned

"Mercy is entirely appropriate for the occasional Thanksgiving turkey, but some foreign-policy turkeys are long past their sell-by dates."

Mercy is entirely appropriate for the occasional Thanksgiving turkey, but some foreign-policy turkeys are long past their sell-by dates. And even when they were fresh, none of these three had much meat on its bones. So it’s time to be ruthless, kill these ideas, and move on to more constructive and practical approaches.

Establishing international limits on greenhouse emissions:

Yes, climate change is a real issue. And yes, human activity is making it worse. But the idea that international agreements to limit emissions will make a meaningful difference in addressing the problem is a nonstarter—it ignores both fundamental economic realities and human nature.

We can’t reduce greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere (the cause of warming) without stopping new emissions that add to existing concentrations. Since economic growth today directly correlates with greenhouse-gas emissions, this means stopping growth, too—unless we find a way to break the link between growth and (mainly) carbon-dioxide emissions. Whether or not they have the right to vote, citizens in major emitters won’t accept the costs (whether in taxes or higher utility and gasoline prices) currently necessary to reduce emissions sufficiently to stop and reverse climate change. So we need new technologies. With them, we have a chance. Without them, we don’t—regardless of what the United States, China or anybody else may agree to. This is where human nature comes in, because governments will eventually withdraw from or violate agreements that undermine their economic interests. Companies and private individuals will likewise violate laws and regulations that they view as too restrictive—they will risk paying unpredictable occasional fines to avoid predictable daily costs. The time and effort spent discussing top-down limits (even soft ones like in the deal President Barack Obama recently reached with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping) would be better employed promoting domestic innovation.

Saving Ukraine with U.S. energy exports:

America’s surging gas and oil production are of enormous benefit to the United States economically, strategically and in other ways. But it is not enough for America to have excess production and Ukraine to be too dependent on Russia without commercially viable options to export U.S. energy to Ukraine. Without them, U.S. exports (which the Congress will hopefully authorize) will go elsewhere and Ukraine will have to find other ways to deal with its reliance on Russia or—if the last two decades of Ukraine’s history are any guide—ignore this problem instead.

Ukraine’s dependence on Russia is ultimately a product of corrupt leaders in the country’s government and private sector who have avoided reforming Ukraine’s energy sector, which would require raising prices for politically influential industrial consumers, as well as residential customers (also known as voters). Rather than taking the painful political action necessary to rationalize Ukraine’s energy sector—raising prices to force efficiency improvements and waste reduction—Ukraine’s leaders have preferred to buy vast amounts of natural gas from Russia through nontransparent contracts that provide huge opportunities for private gain at the public expense. Since real reform could mean shutting down some major industrial enterprises, their reluctance is understandable. Their corruption, on the other hand, is inexcusable—particularly in view of its consequences for Ukraine.

Unfortunately, U.S. exports won’t solve this problem, because it would be time-consuming and expensive to find ways to get American natural gas to Ukraine. This in turn means that U.S. companies have better markets elsewhere—unless American taxpayers are prepared to subsidize exports to Ukraine, which seems unlikely. And even if U.S. companies could replace some of Ukraine’s imports from Russia, this would facilitate the country’s destructive status quo. Far better to press Kiev to implement the painful reforms Ukraine needs and to encourage parallel action to improve the investment climate in Ukraine, which has underutilized gas reserves of its own.

Ousting Assad and destroying ISIL at the same time:

Unfortunately, American politicians aren’t so different from their Ukrainian counterparts in one important respect—they don’t like to make painful choices. So it is far more appealing to President Obama and, for that matter, Republican Senator John McCain, to pretend that the United States can simultaneously help Syria’s moderate opposition to force President Bashar al-Assad from power and crush radical fighters of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant without making a very substantial U.S. military commitment. This won’t work.

One widely discussed flaw in this plan is that Syria’s moderates are simply too weak. Arming and training them isn’t enough, as there are too few of them. Also, if we have learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that arming and training indigenous forces takes far longer than one would expect. If we don’t severely damage ISIL sooner than that, we will have big problems across the Middle East. If we do, Assad will use the opportunity to crush the moderates. Another top lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan is that weapons and training are not a substitute for the will to fight, which some in those two countries have not displayed, even when their communities and homes were at stake.