How Not to Get Fresh Thinking on U.S. Foreign Policy

Over at the venerable Washington Post (which as far as I know is not being delivered by drone -- yet!), David Ignatius had an interesting piece calling for a fresh look at foreign threats. Here's the money quotation:

"A modest proposal is that Obama should convene a younger group of American leaders: strategists, technologists, professors. It would be a learning exercise -- to understand how the country should deal with the problems of the next 10 years without making the mistakes of the past 10. What has America learned from its struggles with Islamic extremism? What lessons do we take from our painful expeditionary wars? How can Americans too young to remember the Iranian revolution of 1979 engage that country, but also set clear limits on its behavior?

"Happily, a new generation of thinkers could form the bipartisan group I'm imagining. If you don't know their names yet, you should: Marc Lynch of George Washington University, known to his online fans as "Abu Aardvark"; David Kilcullen, one of the architects of counterinsurgency success in Iraq and author of "Out of the Mountains," an iconoclastic new book on future urban conflicts; Michèle Flournoy, a clear-eyed former undersecretary of defense; and Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, two technological wizards who advised the State Department under Hillary Clinton and are now with Google and Johns Hopkins University, respectively. I'd add the administration's own Salman Ahmed, Tony Blinken, Ben Rhodes, Wendy Sherman and Jake Sullivan."

This is a good idea, but as Sean Kay pointed out in an email to me, most of the names that Ignatius proposes are familiar inside-the-Beltway insiders. They are younger than graybeards like Brent Scowcroft or the prominent foreign-policy types of my generation (e.g., Richard Haass, James Steinberg, Susan Rice, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Tom Donilon, etc.), but it's not a group that has shown much inclination to challenge the prevailing narratives and consensus ideas that have driven U.S. foreign policy for the past two decades (or more). Instead, most of these names are enthusiastic liberal internationalists, fully convinced that it is America's right and responsibility to run or at least manage world affairs. For the most part, it is not a view with a significantly different appraisal of the current threat environment either.

If you put all these folks in a room and had them thrash out the future of U.S. foreign policy, you'd end up with something like the Princeton Project on National Security or this recent report from a task force organized by the Project for a United and Strong America. Apart from some trendy references to climate change, women's empowerment, and transnational threats, you'd still have a strategy that called for the United States to take the lead in solving most global problems.

Nonetheless, Ignatius is surely correct that there has been remarkably little imaginative thinking about America's role in the world and a dearth of serious debate about the fundamentals of U.S. grand strategy. This situation is especially surprising because there were two obvious moments when a serious rethinking of U.S. grand strategy should have occurred but didn't. The collapse of the Soviet Union marked a fundamental shift in the global balance of power every bit as significant as the emergence of bipolarity at the end of World War II. The disappearance of America's main rival should have sparked an intense reassessment of America's global posture: In the absence of a peer competitor, was it necessary or wise for the United States to spend a substantially greater fraction of its national wealth on defense than its many wealthy allies were, to deploy powerful military forces around the world, and to take on increased security burdens in several areas?

America's European and Asian allies were seriously concerned that the United States might seek to maximize its "peace dividend" and reduce its global commitments, but this possibility barely registered back in Washington. Instead, most of the discussion revolved around how far the post-Cold War Pax Americana should be extended, and no prominent foreign-policy officials proposed reducing America's global role by even a modest amount. To be sure, a handful of academics and policy wonks called for significant retrenchment during the Clinton years, but their views attracted little attention inside the Beltway and had zero impact on U.S. policy.

One might also have expected a serious debate on U.S. grand strategy in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the 2008 financial crisis. These events exposed the folly of some earlier decisions and underscored the limits of U.S. power, and together they helped elect Barack Obama, who at least sounded like he wanted to do things differently. Yet the 2008 election proved to be a turning point where policy did not turn very much: The tone and tactics of U.S. foreign policy shifted in certain ways, but the core principles remained unchanged and for the most part unquestioned.

Indeed, at no point in the post-Cold War era did the United States seriously consider reducing its global military role or cutting back on some (though of course not all) of its security commitments. The Obama administration did withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq and set a deadline for the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, and U.S. force deployments have shifted in response to regional events and specific policy decisions. Yet the United States continued to spend more on national security than the next 20 countries combined -- even after the sequester -- and it maintains extensive security commitments on every continent. Remarkably, we seem to be deeply worried that we might have to come home from Afghanistan.

Perhaps a major revision in U.S. grand strategy was neither necessary nor wise, and maybe U.S. leaders were correct to maintain such an expansive global role (and ambitions to match). Nonetheless, it is still striking that an event as momentous as the end of the Cold War, or the combination of two costly quagmires and a global financial collapse, had only a minor impact on U.S. foreign and national security policies and caused only minor ripples in the elite consensus on America's preferred role in the world. And in terms of the foreign-policy establishment, the difference really isn't generational. It mostly has to do with whether one is a part of the long-standing neoconservative/liberal internationalist coalition that has been running foreign policy for a long time. Ignatius is right to call for a fresh look at these issues -- especially the question of just how large these alleged "foreign threats" really are -- but we'd need to include a more wide-ranging cast of characters to get some genuinely new thinking into the mix.

Photo: tiff_ku1/Flickr

Stephen M. Walt

The New Foreign Policy Sobriety

FP colleague Dan Drezner has a good post up on the recent Council on Foreign Relations/Pew poll of U.S. attitudes toward foreign policy, which shows a wholly unsurprising decline in American enthusiasm for a really active international role. No, Virginia, this isn't a sign of growing "isolationism," because Americans clearly still believe in engaging the rest of the world and aren't advocating a retreat to "Fortress America." But it is a sign of diminished interest in trying to "pay any price and bear any burden," and it marks a (possibly temporary) convergence in elite and public attitudes on this question. After all, this is a year when the president of the highly internationalist CFR published a book calling for the United States to focus more attention at home.

As Dan notes, this shift is the entirely predictable result of the past couple of decades of American global activism, especially the setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan and the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. If all that activity had achieved consistently positive results or if the results had been mixed but the cost had been low, then most Americans wouldn't have noticed or cared, and the neoconservative/liberal internationalist alliance of Ambitious Policy Wonks could have continued to run around the world pursuing their various pet projects. But by 2013, it has been clear that the costs weren't low and the results weren't great, with the impact on public attitudes that we now see.

One hates to keep dumping on George W. Bush's administration, but facts are facts and it's hard not to see them as mostly responsible for this shift. Bill Clinton had an ambitious global agenda, but he was extremely leery of open-ended overseas commitments and especially wary of sending U.S. ground troops to overthrow or occupy other countries. When he did intervene, he did it with multilateral support and handed the task off to others as quickly as he could. Barack Obama has been pretty reluctant to make big military commitments too. He agonized over the Afghanistan surge (and put a strict time limit on it), refused pressure to attack Iran, and took a back-seat role in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. Instead of big, costly invasions, he has used drones and special operations forces in a lot of places, just as Clinton used cruise missiles and air power. And like Clinton, he has placed more emphasis on genuine diplomacy, which may still yield decent results on a least a few issues.

By contrast, Bush made the fateful decisions to invade Afghanistan and then Iraq and ended up in costly quagmires in both countries. He did this partly in a panicked reaction to the 9/11 attacks, partly because he bought the neoconservatives' goofy program for using the U.S. military to spread liberty throughout the Middle East, and partly because the initial success against the Taliban convinced him that the United States now had the recipe for regime change "on the cheap." Unfortunately, removing a regime you don't like doesn't necessarily make things better, and it often creates as many problems as it solves. And his administration was never very enthusiastic about diplomacy, especially during his first term, and for the most part was never very good at it either.

The CFR/Pew poll suggests that both elites and the mass public have learned an important lesson. The United States is very good at deterring large-scale conventional aggression and very good at reversing it when it occurs (as when Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait in 1990). It's also still quite good at "commanding the commons" (e.g., oceans and airspace), which is a valuable global public good. But the U.S. government is not good at running other countries, especially when these states are fragile, internally divided, generally opposed to foreign interference, and very different in culture and history from the United States. Nor is the United States likely to get better at it with practice. The American people have little objection to the United States continuing to perform the former set of tasks, and they have little interest in trying to do the latter. If a similar realization encourages ambitious foreign-policy elites to shelve some of their own interventionist instincts, so much the better.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images