America Needs a Quagmire-Proof Foreign Policy

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.

This recommendation to use force less more effectively is an outgrowth of an observation that the United States, in particular, has engaged in a series of interventions on a regular basis—Derek Reveron notes that, on average over the last sixty years, the United States has resorted to military action overseas about every three years—but has done so in a haphazard and unfocused way. In many cases, when the United States has resorted to force, it has been neither fully committed nor prepared to employ force in a way that would guarantee success, in part guided by the political imperative of guaranteeing that action would be low in cost and low in casualties. This leads other countries to be concerned both about becoming the targets of a haphazard U.S.-led intervention, and to lose respect for the effectiveness of U.S. power. This occurs precisely because of the lack of American follow-through and commitment. A Security First approach would attempt to make the exercise of U.S. power predictable, and to reduce uncertainty about when, where and under what circumstances Washington would be prepared to undertake military action.

Security First would reduce the types of casus belli that might trigger an armed intervention to two types of actions. The first is behavior that threatens the very nature of the global order (proliferation of WMDs among terrorists, for instance) or which threatens the security of the United States or a treaty ally; the second, egregious actions that undermine the very basic right to survival. Etzioni maintains that the United States and other countries must absolutely be prepared to intervene and use overwhelming force in a focused and decisive manner. For a Security First approach to have any credibility, it is absolutely critical to demonstrate that red lines—particularly when dealing with questions such as nuclear proliferation—will be enforced. But the use of force must be precisely targeted to deal with the specific violation, say, to eliminate a WMD capacity or to protect a designated civilian population from attack, and to avoid the temptation of mission creep, that is, the temptation to extend the mission in favor of wholescale regime change and social engineering. The goal must be to do what is needed to terminate the offending behavior.

This paradigm also demands that an American statesman who wishes to be both moral and effective be prepared to undertake a sober assessment of the world's problems, giving priority to tackling the threats that are most egregious to American national security, and most universally applicable. Then the best partners for tackling those challenges must be identified—with the recognition that they will not always be liberal democracies. After all, there is an insufficient number of advanced, developed democracies that can, in partnership with the United States, solve critical world and regional problems by relying solely on their own resources and capabilities without reference to the other major powers in the world. Nondemocratic, non-liberal states and societies must be solicited as partners, but they will not accept any such invitation if they believe cooperation with the United States and its allies will be followed by attempts to bring about forcible regime change. To forge effective cooperation with such states, a bargain to cooperate on the “big issues” must include the right to be left alone on lesser issues, where their practices conflict with the preferences of a liberal democracy.

Etzioni has argued for an accord that would gain universal commitment to a series of basic “right-to-life” protection. However, as he maintains, a regime that possesses good governance and that guarantees basic security is sufficient for the time being, and should be able to partner with the United States and enjoy guarantees that it would not be undermined or overthrown with U.S. support. There is no need to demand immediate steps toward achieving a constitutional or democratic regime. Moderation in behavior rather than conformity in belief is the driving goal—the notion that “bad regimes can improve their behavior.” Getting an illiberal state or political movement to moderate and temper its internal and external actions (for example, eschewing violence) is better than gambling on regime change that could either destabilize a country, if it succeeds, or alienate a government and cause it to withdraw from any cooperative efforts, if it fails. The emphasis is to promote “de-tyrannization” rather than democratization.

So, the foreign policy decision maker must be guided by the ethics of a battlefield surgeon engaged in triage, not those of a family practitioner operating in a peaceful suburban neighborhood.