Embarrassed to Explain US Foreign Policy

I‘m off in Norway today, the guest of some folks interested in U.S. foreign policy. They want me to explain what Americans think of international events and how policymakers formulate foreign policy. It’s a daunting, or perhaps more accurately, an embarrassing, task.

Americans know very little about the world. Their ignorance is almost charming. In one sense, it’s good that most people are more interested in spending time with family and friends and in earning a living than in plotting a coup in some faraway land, waging a war against some emerging power, or issuing foreign ultimatums over random economic and political demands.

Unfortunately, however, as a result Americans have essentially delegated the power to do all of those things to a Washington-centered elite. When things go wrong, Americans get angry. Then the politicos start blaming each other. Specific policies sometimes change, but Washington’s interventionist enthusiasm always quickly returns.

It’s not a pretty spectacle. Most Americans are not ideologically committed to turning the U.S. into an imperial power. Few of them would like to spend months or years patrolling failed foreign states, such as Iraq. Most of them turn against needless conflicts when it becomes evident that they aren’t going to be short and sweet.

Indeed, when wars go bad – conflicts like Iraq and Somalia – the public eventually says "enough!" President Bill Clinton perceived that the debacle in Mogadishu destroyed domestic political support for the mission, so he brought the troops home.

Anger over the Bush administration’s Iraq war, dishonestly initiated and incompetently waged, led voters to transfer control of Congress to the Democrats. The failure of Congress to override continuing presidential support for the conflict may lead voters to give the White House to the Democrats as well. Indeed, though the crazy Republican candidates (Rudy Giuliani and John McCain) might be prepared to occupy Iraq forever, the other GOP wannabees likely would bring home the troops for political reasons, if nothing else.

Yet in a perverse sense the biggest foreign policy problem is when the costs seem low. Then the public simply ignores the issue, giving policymakers wide discretion to continue advancing interventionist policies running contrary to America’s national interests.

How else to explain continuing American membership in NATO, especially a NATO that keeps expanding? In the 1950s and 1960s Europe needed defending from the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. From whom is America defending Europe today, a continent with a population and GDP larger than America’s?

Moreover, what sense does it make to continue expanding NATO up to the borders of Russia, absorbing countries with multiple disputes with Russia, a nuclear-armed power? The Baltic states and Poland, in particular, offer Washington security costs, not benefits. It would be even more foolish to include in an alliance that technically remains the “North Atlantic” Treaty Organization the countries of Georgia and Ukraine.

However, the American people remain blissfully unaware of and disinterested in their nation’s foreign policy. If America ends up at war with Russia over a recent addition to NATO, voters might then take notice. Otherwise they just don’t care.

Similarly misguided is America’s continuing defense of South Korea. The South has upwards of 40 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea. Seoul is friends with all of its neighbors, even the North’s former allies, Beijing and Moscow. Most South Koreans no longer fear Pyongyang; in fact, they have been lavishing subsidies and aid on North Korea for years.

America’s policy-making elite naturally offers a multitude of arguments to maintain the same military commitment more than a half century after the end of the Korean War. But what normal person would support spending billions of dollars to raise and maintain overseas thousands of troops to guard South Korea?

Then there’s Japan. The second ranking economic power on earth, Japan could do far more to protect itself and its region. Its neighbors prefer that Washington do the job, but so what? That doesn’t make the policy in America’s interest. Again, American elites rather like the idea of the U.S. attempting to run the world. But the vast majority of Americans, who have to pay the bill, probably would be much less enthused if they thought about it.

Beyond such major commitments, Washington has dribbled bases and forces around the world. It’s a policy of which Americans are largely ignorant. To the extent that they believed that such facilities advanced American security, they might support them. But alliances and bases can act as transmission belts of war at a time when we should be building firebreaks to war.

Although serious armed conflict is unlikely in either Asia or Europe, Washington’s explicit promise to defend the Baltic States and Eastern Europe necessarily makes all of those nations’ squabbles with Russia America’s squabbles as well. Washington’s implicit guarantee to Taiwan does the same thing with China next door. Bringing nations like Georgia and Ukraine into NATO would add more problems to America’s portfolio.

Advocates of scattering security guarantees around the globe argue that they deter aggression, which undoubtedly is true to some degree. But U.S. security guarantees also ensure American involvement in conflicts that would be little relevant to U.S. security. With the Cold War over, South Korea doesn’t much matter to America. It’s an important trading partner, but nevertheless remains a minor factor in American prosperity. Poland wasn’t important to America’s defense even during the Cold War. Promising to go to war in such circumstances is no bargain, even if the chances of conflict seem small.

Especially since guaranteeing the security of other nations changes their incentive for irresponsible behavior. That is, so long as small countries act in the belief that Washington will rush to their defense in a conflict with a bigger power – China and Russia most obviously today – they are likely to act more aggressively. We can see that phenomenon at work in Taiwan, which has adopted a confrontational stance with Beijing over Washington’s objections. With America behind them, why not assert their interest?

The challenge for non-interventionists is to break through the public’s ignorance to build popular support for overturning elite opinion. It won’t be easy, obviously. But it never has been. However, without the emergence of a real opposition to today’s aggressive foreign policy, we are doomed to continue following current policy around most of the world.

Ron Paul has made progress. But we have far to go to turn make foreign policy into an issue that moves voters and, in doing so, stirs so-called major candidates to challenge the interventionist status quo. Only then will we be able transform the American empire back into the American republic.