Resisting America's Unstoppable Urge to 'Do Something'

Resisting America's Unstoppable Urge to 'Do Something'

Can the next secretary of state resist the urge?

Congratulations, Rex Tillerson, on your nomination as secretary of state.

Condolences may also be in order. Assuming you are confirmed, you will have your hands full explaining President Trump’s tweets to the rest of the world, putting out fires, managing relations with allies, friends and frenemies, and implementing the president’s foreign-policy agenda in an increasingly complex and dangerous world.

But your biggest challenge may not be abroad but much closer to home. The foreign-policy bureaucracy over which you will preside—and the Washington elites of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives cling tenaciously to an interventionist philosophy which appears to be out of step with your boss’s predilections for a less active U.S. role abroad.

Will you become the master or captive of this bureaucracy and the foreign-policy establishment?

For all his rhetoric and bravado, the president-elect has urged the United States to adopt a less activist posture abroad, especially in the Middle East. These instincts, which according to numerous polls are very much in tune with the sentiments of most Americans, are reflected in his stated opposition to America’s role as the world’s policeman, nation building abroad, interference in the internal affairs of other countries, the promotion of democracy and human rights, and fighting costly wars in the Middle East when American vital interests are not at stake. He has also urged America’s allies to do more to defend themselves, so that the United States can do less.


But if you walk the corridors of the State Department on a typical day, as the two of us did for decades, there are dozens of meetings that bring together exceptionally bright, talented and capable diplomats to discuss how the United States can proactively take the lead in solving the world’s problems or defusing the latest crisis du jour. They may not always agree, in State Department lingo, on a “way forward.” There is invariably agreement, however, that America must always “do something.”

The impulse for America to solve every problem, anywhere in the world, is noble and inspiring, and it has often been a force for good. But more often than not in the last twenty-five years, America’s misguided hyper-activism has produced disaster, especially in the Middle East. Indeed, the Constitution talks about creating a more perfect union; it doesn’t commit America inexorably and always to creating a more perfect world.

Here are four reasons why the ethos of “just don’t sit there, do something” is hard-wired into the DNA of America’s diplomats—and why it won’t be so easy to put the Trump America-first, risk-averse brand on U.S. diplomacy.

Because We Can

For all the hand-wringing about America’s decline, it is still the most powerful country in the world. As the ancient Greek philosopher Thucydides said, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Because America is so secure and powerful, it has the luxury of being able to go out, in the memorable words of John Quincy Adams, “in search of monsters to destroy” where most other countries dare not tread. And because of its wealth and geographic security , it can afford to commit serious foreign-policy blunders and still recover.

Just because America can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that it should. Iraq and Afghanistan—the two longest wars in American history, where the standard for victory quickly became not “can we win?” but “when can we leave?”—are cases in point. And we need to be very wary of situations (see Syria) when half-measures are just enough to get the United States committed but not enough to affect the outcome on the ground, or of taking on challenges where conditions on the ground almost certainly doom grand ambitions. And yet, as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we try anyway and fail, damaging our credibility because Israelis and Palestinians say no to us without cost or consequence. The desire to do something is motivated by good intentions, but we know from our experience in the Middle East where that road often leads. And at the end of the day it is outcomes—successful ones, not motivations and intentions—that count, and these should be the final arbiter of the success of American policies.

Because We’re Naïve

One of the biggest drivers of the do-something imperative is the simple fact that we think we understand the world, when in many respects we really don’t. Part of the problem is that we see other countries’ circumstances far too often through our own unique prism. This leads to a preternaturally naïve view of why other nations—small and large alike—behave the way they do.

Think about it: we are the only great power in the history of the world that is in the fortuitous position of having non-predatory powers to our north and south, and fish to our east and west. These two oceans—our “liquid assets,” as historian Thomas Bailey described them—have freed us in large part from the forces of history and geography that shape the worldviews of most of the other nations with which we deal. They are fundamentally suspicious and mistrustful; consumed with security, deterrence and spheres of influence; and imbued by a darker view of history that makes it harder to accept the U.S. view that the world has become so globalized that every nation should have some kind of stake in the other’s success.