Desperately Searching for a New Foreign Policy

Other than an increasingly beleaguered band of administration factotums and neoconservative propagandists, few Americans defend the decision to invade Iraq. The mistakes have been too catastrophic and too many for the rest of us to take seriously more of the same promises about the coming new millennium in Iraq.

But the crisis of U.S. foreign policy runs deeper. The neocon cabal’s incompetence was truly astonishing, but its ideas were even worse. The idea that America could reengineer the globe, running roughshod over religions, traditions, ethnicities, nationalities, cultures, and histories turns out to be the foreign policy equivalent of phrenology. Its practitioners should be consigned to the footnotes of international relations texts as the prime example of what not to do.

It is not enough for the rest of us to run screaming from the room whenever a neocon armchair warrior walks in, however. We must engage in the burgeoning policy battle over what is to follow Iraq. As we clear away the wreckage left by the Bush administration, we must ask: how should America act and what should it do in the world?

Already journals and magazines are running articles on reestablishing American leadership, restoring trust in Washington, and regaining the moral initiative. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) might be demanding withdrawal from Iraq and former Gov. Mitt Romney might be edging away from President Bush’s failed war, but both promote a foreign policy vision that looks remarkably like that of the administration, with the U.S. as dominant power, possessing an expanded military, and ready to intervene any where at any time for any reason around the globe.

They, and most of their competitors – with the notable exception of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) – seem to be saying, “trust us.” Turn the keys to the U.S. military over to them and let them wage war whenever they desire. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine that doing so could turn out worse than it has under President George W. Bush. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) probably would have had us at war with North Korea had he been president; former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) seem ready if not anxious to attack Iran. Ironically, Iraq truly would be a cakewalk compared to conflict with Iran.

The time for “trust me” global imperialism is over. Americans need to change their government’s foreign policy as well as their elected officials. The fact that the U.S. is the strongest nation on earth does not require it to attempt to micro-manage the world. Advocates of a new, militarized imperium constantly claim that America has such a responsibility because it has the ability, but that’s nonsense.

Washington has proved that it is unable to run the world, despite its attempts to do so. But ability and competence are not the most important considerations. The wealth and especially the lives of Americans should not be squandered in national crusades, no matter how grandiose or humanitarian they might sound.

The principal responsibility of those chosen to lead this great country is to protect the lives, liberties, and prosperity of Americans. The interests advanced should be truly national: the job of the U.S. government is not to enrich U.S. corporations, open new markets for American businesses, enable U.S. ambassadors to order around foreign politicians, determine the political systems of other states, or even attempt to save foreign peoples from oppression.

Nor is the U.S. justified in doing anything it wants even if an American interest is at stake. Concern for others must limit Washington’s actions – for instance, the desire for wealth, resources, trade, influence, and more cannot justify aggressive war no matter how much it might seem to benefit America.

Perhaps the best foreign policy approach is to take the classical philosophy of realism and temper it with a sense of moral constraint. Doing so precludes both well-intentioned but foolish moral crusades and callous, self-interested campaigns. A thoughtful approach along these lines comes from Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman in their book Ethical Realism.

What would a foreign policy that was both realistic and ethical mean in practice? First, Washington would no longer defend populous, prosperous allies able to defend themselves. World War II and the Korean War are long over. Europe, Japan, and South Korea should protect themselves and their regions.

An American retrenchment in Asia and Europe would signal the success of Washington’s earlier policy. U.S. defense guarantees allowed these nations to recover economically and develop politically. They are now capable of doing what normal countries do: safeguard their own security. Of course, Americans would retain cultural, economic, and political ties with what have become important international friends.

Second, America would abandon efforts to remake failed systems. Whether Bosnia or Kosovo or Somalia or Iraq, Washington should keep its hands off. It is hard enough to implant democracy where supportive domestic institutions and attitudes are absent. It is even harder to create a liberal society, of which democracy is merely one component.

The problem is not that people of particular regions, religions, or cultures are unable to develop liberal, democratic societies. The problem is that only these people can construct enduring institutions, and must do so in their time, not ours.

Finally, U.S. policymakers should stop acting as if they have been specially anointed to run world affairs. Americans, as individuals and through a multitude of organizations and forums, should be actively engaged in the world. Our country is filled with creative, generous, and able people who have much to offer those around the globe who share our humanity. And Americans should act on their own, outside of government action.

Washington, too, can cooperate with other governments. But the U.S. need not run every alliance in every region. The U.S. need not provide the largest contribution to every foreign aid institution. The U.S. need not maintain upwards of 1000 military installations around the world. The U.S need not lecture every other nation on almost every subject.

During the Cold War America became something it never was before, a global interventionist, constant micro-manager, and perennial warrior. But that moment is over. America’s allies have prospered. America’s enemies have largely disappeared. The problem of terrorism actually is exacerbated by intrusive foreign military intervention. The U.S. should again become a normal country.

Today, most Americans realize that U.S. foreign policy is in crisis. If America is to thrive in the future, it must take a new approach to the world – realistic and ethical, tough and humane.

The problem is not a lack of good intentions among today’s policymakers and candidates. The issue isn’t even competence, though, in fact, that quality has been sadly lacking of late. The problem is philosophy. Hubris dominates both the right and left. That will never change if we leave foreign policy up to the usual politicians and activists. The rest of us must break free of today’s partisan divide and take our country in a new direction.

Read more by Doug Bandow