Finally, while very few U.S. administrations have been able to avoid the trappings of American exceptionalism, the current administration’s rhetoric borders on the xenophobic (or Islamophobic). The foreign policy that follows from it is exactly of the sort that leads easily to the political folly and moral excesses that Morgenthau cautioned against. President Trump has vowed to wipe the Islamic State from the face of the earth, and generally sees “radical Islam” as an evil that must be eliminated. Thus, President Trump ordered drone strikes in Yemen each of the first three days of his presidency, and generated significant international (and domestic) backlash to the travel ban imposed against seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The “war on terrorism,” begun under George W. Bush and continued under Barack Obama, has all the potential to expand under the current administration into a global American crusade against “radical Islam.” While the previous administration greatly expanded U.S. drone strikes against terrorists (with over twenty-six thousand U.S. bombs dropped in seven countries in 2016), President Obama employed U.S. military power in a manner consistent with realpolitik, treating terrorism as a matter of national security while downplaying its ideological character. It is President Trump’s tendency to transform the war on terrorism from a security threat into an ideological struggle against “radical Islam” that is particularly worrying, since, as Morgenthau notes, “a foreign policy founded upon moral principles rather than the national interest issues, by its inner logic, into the tribalism of religious wars and of nationalistic crusades.”
Terrorism is a serious security threat, especially because of the risk that terrorists could acquire weapons of mass destruction. For example, there is a real danger that terrorists could acquire nuclear materials or weapons in Pakistan. Yet the threat of terrorism will not be eliminated—if indeed it can ever be truly eliminated—through travel bans that alienate Muslim countries, or by raining down American fury on Muslim towns. Such recklessness in foreign policy and military force will not only prove ineffectual in the struggle against terrorism and Islamic State, as it did in the Vietnam War, but will most likely produce more terrorists than it eliminates. Terrorism is best fought through multilateral solutions (e.g., intelligence sharing and nuclear security), and through the cautious and precise employment of U.S. military force. Any sensible national-security analyst knows this, but there is the real danger that U.S. foreign policy under the current administration will be driven more by moral absolutes than political prudence. If this is the case, then not only will civilians suffer the consequences of bad foreign-policy decisions, but U.S. national interests will be sacrificed in equal measure to the degree that U.S. foreign policy loses sight of Morgenthau’s six principles of political realism.
Nathan A. Sears is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Toronto, specializing in international relations theory, classical realism, international security, and strategic studies.
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