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?

The incoming Trump administration doesn’t seem to be in thrall of the do-something mentality. But then again, it’s one thing to campaign on avoiding risks; it’s quite another to deal with the realities of governance where the internal and external pressures of taking risks can make themselves felt. America isn’t a potted plant. It has vital interests to protect, allies to buck up, and enemies to contain and, if necessary, confront. But, as someone once said, the cemeteries are filled with indispensable people. That America can do something doesn’t mean it should; and even in those cases where it feels it must act, particularly with military power, the United States needs to think about consequences and do the best job it can to ensure it has the means to achieve its ends.

A little over fifty years ago, J. William Fulbright, in his classic book The Arrogance of Power, wrote that, “the attitude . . . which is no longer valid is the arrogance of power, the tendency of great nations to equate power with virtue and major responsibilities with a universal mission . . . maturity requires a final accommodation between our aspirations and our limitations.” Words to conduct foreign policy by.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. Richard Sokolsky is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former member of the secretary of state’s policy planning staff.

Image: Rockwell B-1 Lancer. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Oletjens​