America’s Hollow Foreign-Policy Debate

July 10, 2014 Topic: Grand StrategyForeign PolicyPolitics Region: United States

America’s Hollow Foreign-Policy Debate

"Our insular arm wrestling has made us helpless bystanders, watching a string of foreign-policy defeats, the likes of which we have not experienced since the 1970s."

The military should be a voice, not a veto. Unfortunately, as the number of people in public life with military experience continues to decline to tiny levels, the urge to defer to the uniformed military is overwhelming. The military cannot say that something is “too hard,” because that is not their decision to make. Rather, military leaders can only lay out the costs and risks of a potential action, and then leave it to the civilian decision makers to determine if those costs and risks mean the goal is “too hard.” The political authorities are the ones who must answer to the people, and thus they are the ones who must decide when the expenditure of blood and treasure is warranted.

I doubt, as elections approach, that right or left will find much common ground here. The president, in denial about his administration’s many failures, has retreated into churlish defensiveness . His opponents, emboldened by the impending collapse of a presidency, have advanced with relentless criticisms, many of them unrealistic and some of them downright disrespectful and un-American . But we, as citizens, can do better. We can start by remembering that foreign policy is not a game. Billions of lives are at stake, every day, including our own. We should debate and act with that in mind. It is a responsibility that rests heavily on our shoulders and is a greater burden than we have lately been willing to accept.


Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. His most recent book is No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (University of Pennsylvania, 2014) The views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter: @TheWarRoom_Tom.

Image: Flickr/ U.S. Army /CC by 2.0