Course Correction

Course Correction

America needs a foreign policy that abandons triumphalist clichés, flawed assumptions and predetermined conclusions in favor of facts and serious analysis.

President Obama’s “pivot”—now known as “rebalance”—to Asia lent further credence to Chinese concerns over a hostile U.S. containment and regime-change policy. In addition to widely publicized military deployments and open discussion of U.S. capabilities to penetrate China’s anti-access/area denial systems, the “pivot” has also included the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a major regional trade agreement. The problem is not TPP itself, which could benefit the United States and its allies. Rather, it is that the Obama administration explicitly championed a defining U.S. initiative as a means to outmaneuver China in Asia’s economic architecture. “If we don’t write the rules,” the president declared, “China will write the rules out in that region.”

This pattern of needlessly provoking China has become the norm. Consider one of countless examples: the Obama administration’s decision to encourage the Philippines’ legal challenge to Chinese claims in the South China Sea under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the U.S. Senate has refused to ratify. Why would the Obama administration believe that China would abide by the court’s decision when Beijing declared, at the outset, that it would not accept the legitimacy of the arbitration process? As Harvard’s Graham T. Allison has observed, “None of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council have ever accepted any international court’s ruling when (in their view) it infringed their sovereignty or national security interests.” The greatest practical consequence of this episode, it seems, is that others may be emboldened to press claims against Beijing that neither they nor the United States have the will to enforce. Picking fights it is not determined to win undermines America’s position.

Repeatedly provoking other great powers without being prepared to force their compliance with U.S. preferences may have dramatic global consequences. America’s well-intentioned desire to stand by its allies has catalyzed a geopolitical realignment to the detriment of American interests. China and Russia are now pursuing a rapprochement explicitly designed to check American power.

If terrorism is the most immediate threat to American security, a Beijing-Moscow partnership represents the greatest long-term danger to American global leadership. There are serious differences between China and Russia, and both have compelling stakes in avoiding serious confrontation with America and its allies. For all their differences, however, Chinese and Russian leaders share the perception that U.S. policy—including Washington’s support for their neighbors—amounts to a containment regime designed to keep them down. This perception is not insignificant. Beijing and Moscow can profoundly complicate the conduct of U.S. security and foreign policy without a formal alliance or overt hostility to America. Consider today’s realities, including China-Russia diplomatic coordination in the UN Security Council, a more permissive Russian attitude toward the transfer of advanced weapons systems to China, and increasingly large and complex joint military maneuvers. And this may only be the beginning.


UNFAVORABLE DYNAMICS in Europe and Asia point to a more fundamental flaw in U.S. strategy: an unwillingness to look critically at alliance commitments in relation to American interests and the current international environment. Broadly speaking, strong alliances are a key foundation of U.S. international leadership and a major contributor to national security. Yet alliances are human institutions, not religious relics, and deserve regular and thoughtful scrutiny to ensure that they serve their intended aims.

NATO, established after World War II to address the existential threat of Soviet imperialism, has in some cases committed the United States to unconditional security guarantees that were appropriate at the time, but are now of dubious wisdom in a different world. However ominous Russian policy toward its neighbors may be, it is difficult to see how most Eurasian conflicts impact vital U.S. interests. Russia’s heavy-handed conduct in the former Soviet Union, though troubling, is not an existential threat to the United States—not unless nuclear weapons become a factor. Sensible policies articulated from a position of strength can avert that outcome and make U.S. allies safer.

Meanwhile, countries that are routinely described as close American friends have done a great deal to endanger the sovereignty and security of the United States. Mexico has paid virtually no price for its failure to cooperate in limiting illegal immigration, which has profound consequences for the economy, security and society—and, over time, could even change the American electorate, without its consent. Supermajorities in Congress have held Saudi Arabia partly responsible for the 9/11 attacks, yet the U.S.-Saudi relationship has only expanded since the days when the Soviet threat and the high price of oil first drew the two countries together.

A bottom-up review of current alliances to assess their contributions to U.S. security, prosperity, values and leadership would be a sensible first step for the next administration. Relationships that contribute more trouble than security to America should be retooled or curtailed, using a scalpel rather than an axe. After all, collapsing the flawed structures and bad habits of the triumphalist post–Cold War years could prove worse than the status quo. Moreover, Washington must make clear how any changes will strengthen U.S. security and leadership and avoid adding to Obama-era international impressions of U.S. retreat and retrenchment.

One way to accomplish this is by setting clear expectations within alliance relationships. The NATO treaty’s well-known Article Five, which commits alliance members to consider an attack on one as an attack on all, requires America to “assist” its allies, but only through “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” U.S. officials should explain to NATO allies that while America is committed to defending them in the event of an unprovoked attack, Article Five is not a license to engage in reckless or provocative conduct. Indeed, America’s defense commitment to Taiwan already incorporates this notion. Washington could also encourage leaders in especially vulnerable states like Estonia and Latvia to reflect more deliberately on the fact that U.S. efforts to defend or liberate their territory could lead to their utter devastation, even without escalation to tactical nuclear strikes by Moscow or Washington. They could also reflect on the ways in which their own words and deeds could make such a conflict more—or less—likely.

The West’s complex and contradictory relations with Russia and China are likely to retain adversarial elements for years to come. For this reason, American power remains a cornerstone of international security and U.S. alliances remain key tools. Nevertheless, new thinking on when and how to exercise power is long overdue. Too often, U.S. leaders have expended American resources on causes incidental to vital interests.

This is not a call to avoid using force or a banal statement that force should be but a last resort. On the contrary, in some circumstances, force may be the most appropriate instrument and thus a first resort. At the same time, military preponderance is a key tool in ensuring successful diplomacy on U.S. terms; its value is in the leverage it provides in securing fundamental American interests, not its regular employment to achieve peripheral aims. In the same spirit, Washington should acknowledge that the liberal use of economic sanctions has surely contributed its fair share to human misery and is not inherently less costly to America or less threatening to its targets than armed conflict. In considering whether to employ military power, economic coercion or other tools, Washington should assess costs, benefits and risks—including unintended consequences—much more systematically and frankly.

If the next president pursues a new strategy, he or she should expect resistance from America’s entrenched foreign-policy establishment. Recent fiascos from Iraq to Libya have been bipartisan affairs, and many will seek to defend their records. Similarly, foreign-policy elites in both parties have internalized the notion that “American exceptionalism” is a license to intervene in other countries and that “universal aspirations” guarantee American success.

Despite the presence of many individuals of common sense and integrity in government, U.S. leaders have too often forgotten that jumping off a cliff is easier than climbing back to safety. Notwithstanding the election of some well-informed and thoughtful individuals to the Senate and House of Representatives, the Congress has largely abdicated its responsibility to foster serious debate on foreign policy and has failed to fulfill its constitutional role as a check on executive power. The mainstream media has become an echo chamber for a misbegotten and misguided consensus.

But Americans can no longer afford to accept bad policies in the hopes that things will somehow work out. Today’s world is too complex and too dangerous, with more major powers, less discipline among international blocs and factions, and greater power for nonstate actors. In the past, geography and American power allowed Washington to make serious mistakes at relatively low cost. In the future, the United States will not be able to count on this luxury. With determined leadership, the same executive power that has been used so irresponsibly over the past two decades can put the country back on a sustainable path, with periodic course corrections from an active Congress and a discerning media. The next president cannot single-handedly fix the Congress or the media, but he or she can and should take a hard look at the executive branch, particularly the bloated National Security Council. Of course, any significant change in U.S. foreign policy will also require the new president to select top officials based on their alignment with his or her objectives and style rather than political correctness or perfect résumés. To do otherwise would be to sabotage any efforts at change from the start.