Voters Should Demand a Strategic Vision in Foreign Policy From Candidates

As both parties hold presidential debates, issues in the nation’s foreign policy inevitably will be discussed. After all, although the U.S. Constitution actually gives Congress more authority in foreign and defense policies than the president, chief executives, ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt, have wielded the constitutionally narrow role of commander-in-chief too broadly, so as to even claim exclusivity of power in foreign affairs. Thus, during this last little bit of American history, the president has become too powerful in external relations, and Congress has been too timid to reassert its authority – for example, in reclaiming its power to declare war. Given that this unfortunate reality will probably continue, the strategic vision of each presidential candidate for the proper U.S. role in the world becomes very important.

Yet most elections in the United States are decided on domestic issues, such as the state of the economy, because Americans don’t believe, probably correctly, that happenings in faraway foreign places affect them as much. But because foreign crises and the American response to them – such as the prolonged wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq – can periodically cost many lives and trillions of dollars, prudence demands that American citizens pay more attention to foreign policy when casting their votes. Voters should demand to know not only each candidate’s view on what the U.S. government should do about this or that foreign crisis – such as the civil war in Syria – but also how this position fits into each candidate’s larger vision of what the proper U.S. role should be in the world.

And those candidates that criticize the current administration’s alleged caution overseas and advocate greater U.S. action abroad – which both Democrats and Republicans, do – should especially be probed on the "vision thing." Oftentimes candidates arguing for a more robust U.S. policy in a particular venue – that is, most of the Republicans and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side – don’t tell the voter what specific vital U.S. strategic interest is threatened there, for example, in Syria and even Iraq. Ever since World War II, the United States has been the world’s policeman, and this role has been accelerated into a state of perpetual war since the demise of America’s main rival on the world’s stage – the Soviet Union – removed any constraint from U.S. military interventions around the world. Yet the majority view in U.S. foreign policy-led by neo-conservatives on the right and muscular liberals on the left – can no longer be sustained with the available U.S. resources. However, conserving the nation’s treasury never seems to be a problem when running for president, as candidates routinely have said that the U.S. government should have been more involved in this or that crisis or conflict.

Not wanting to be seen as weak, candidates have spent very little time in the campaign telling voters why more intervention in one place or the another is strategic to U.S. security – and if past campaigns are any indication, this will not change. Candidates and voters have not been able to see the forest (an appropriate and affordable global strategic vision for the United States) for the trees (putting out fires in the latest god-forsaken hellholes). Yet the United States is terribly overextended in the role of global cop – it accounts for about 50 percent of the world’s defense spending, has formed many one-sided alliances to protect many well-off countries, and occupies costly foreign military bases all over the world to do so. Also, the United States has given up billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid and trade concessions over the years to coax such allies to let us have those bases in their countries to defend them. Doing so has contributed to the $18 trillion in national debt. As candidate Donald Trump might say, "It’s huge!"

In the aftermath of World War II, when the United States adopted this non-traditional global cop foreign policy, many of U.S. allies were devastated by war and potentially faced destabilization or invasion by the Soviet Union (although the latter was unlikely because the Soviet Union was the most devastated country of all). Now many of these allied countries are wealthy – and thus should be doing much more to defend themselves – and Russia is only a former shadow of the Soviet Union (although Syria and eastern Ukraine are a mess, President Obama is right that Russia is playing a weak hand in both places). After World War II, with no war devastation, the United States accounted for about half the world’s economic output (GDP). Now the United States has less than a quarter of that output.

By any standard, the United States is overextended – as many now defunct empires of the past, such as the British, French, and Soviet Empires most recently have been – and needs a retraction of its security perimeter to allow economic rejuvenation. Economic health is the underpinning for all other types of national influence: military, social, and cultural power.

Instead of candidates telling us that we needed to leave American troops in Iraq perpetually to fix a hopeless, make-believe country and that we needed to avoid being wimps and go bigger in Syria, another artificial cauldron of dysfunctionality, we need them to propose a sustainable strategic vision overseas that will ensure that American power will not eventually follow the empires of yore into the dustbin of history. Both traditional conservatives, who know that constant war leads to big government at home, and non-Wilsonian liberals, who know that foreign adventures rarely bring democracy or humanitarian outcomes to the target countries, should take back foreign policy from their more aggressive ideological brethren.

One possible more limited and affordable strategic vision for the United States might be to act as it did in World Wars I and II: as a "balancer-of-last-resort" to intervene only when another hegemonic great power, such as Germany or Imperial Japan, threatens to disturb the balance of power in a region of high economic and technological output (Europe or East Asia), the resources of which could eventually be turned on the United States. Let’s face it, when politicians "blow sunshine" by telling voters that America is the "indispensable nation" – that is, the only nation that can solve the big problems of the world – they are not only wrong, but they want to pick your pocket to pay for it all.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.