America Needs a Quagmire-Proof Foreign Policy

The next U.S. president can't afford to drain resources indefinitely.

Some of those who have had the chance to read my contribution to the March/April 2016 issue of the National Interest have taken me up on the implied challenge at the end of the article. If I believe that U.S. foreign policy across both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations displays a serious “imbalance between resources and requirements” that has been produced by an unwillingness on the part of the American national security community “to contemplate hard choices and entertain unpleasant tradeoffs,” is there any viable “new approach” that might succeed? We’ve already tried things like “smart power,” which, while an appealing tagline, has not succeeded in providing a template for policy. Is there something that the next administration could use to better guide U.S. foreign policy choices, a workable paradigm for American foreign policy that answers moral considerations and that provides a rationale for American intervention and engagement in the world, yet can provide a template for avoiding perceived disasters like the Iraq War, the crises in Libya and Syria and the possibility of unintended conflicts with rising powers?

Both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, in turn, proved unable to bridge the gap between their rhetoric and pledged commitment to defend values and the actual policies they were prepared to execute on the global stage. Moreover, neither president’s national security teams seemed willing to grapple with the implications of the assessment Amitai Etzioni provided: “that the world is a harsh place and that it is difficult to change, and hence we should carefully select where we employ the scarce resources we actually command.” Perhaps they feared that a public embrace of a strategy of greater selectivity would undermine U.S. claims to leadership of the global community of nations—but a steady stream of ambitious failures over the last sixteen years cannot be said to have enhanced the U.S. position.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s observation a decade ago, that the United States looks like “complete hypocrites in the eyes of the world” when its actions (or lack thereof) are compared with its solemn pronouncements about America’s obligation to end tyranny and spread democracy, remains valid today. At the same time, however, Americans are not comfortable with embracing an amoral realpolitik and, while there may be support for a degree of retrenchment, a purely isolationist approach is undesirable, since America’s own security and prosperity are intertwined with the global system the U.S. has helped to create and maintain.

My critique was that much of what we are hearing from this election year’s candidates is the vague assertion that a new executive in the White House will do a better job at executing the current international interventionism (in either its liberal or conservative variants). Instead, I believe that it is time to reconceptualize U.S. foreign policy aims for the twenty-first century—and as part of that process, it is time to give the “Security First” approach (as initially articulated by Amitai Etzioni) a second look.

This perspective builds on the observable track record of countries like the United States, which overestimate their ability to initiate and sustain broad-based transformations in other societies while mitigating the security risks. At the same time, as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has observed, the challenge now facing policy makers is not to transform the world but to quarantine and manage critical problems in order to safeguard as much of the status quo as possible.

The starting point of Security First is the moral obligation on avoiding disorder whenever possible—even that chaos unleashed in the apparent service of a good cause. Chaos is the biggest violator of human rights, starting with the core right to life and the right to enjoy the basic security of both person and property. The more securely states protect life, the greater chance there is for the extension and furtherance of other rights. Because the use of military force—essentially the employment of the tools of chaos by a state—is so fraught with peril, it must be used only when all other options have been exhausted, and as a last resort. Indeed, in recent times, very few societies (whether South Sudan, Iraq or Libya, among others) have been shown to enjoy a higher quality of life or greater social peace as a result of war or armed intervention. The decision to use force must also not fall into the trap of optimistically overestimating U.S. capabilities, and consequently underestimating the actual amount of time and resources an operation might need in order to succeed.