Prioritize Foreign Policy Over Domestic Policy

Deciding who to support in a US Presidential election often comes down to a matter of priorities. The two party system rarely offers a candidate that can be supported wholeheartedly by anyone. Instead, we decide what issue we care about most, determine who is the least bad on that issue, and then vote for them. The process isn’t terribly satisfying and it doesn’t produce good results. But for better or worse, it’s the best thing that many Americans have come up with. Thus, the question of priorities is critical.

Political issues can be categorized in many ways, but perhaps the most important distinction is between domestic policy and foreign policy. Regardless of whether you’re a liberal, libertarian, or somewhere in the middle, deciding between these two areas is an important decision. My goal today is to argue that foreign policy issues should be your top priority if you see equality or alleviating human suffering as a primary political goal.

There are good arguments to be made on both sides of this debate of course. I recently encountered one that is worth discussing at length. It came from a colleague who is a strong supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders, and he offered a unique justification for the Senator’s nearly exclusive focus on domestic policy issues. We’ll use this argument as a jumping off point, and treat the Vermont Senator as a helpful foil. To avoid mischaracterizing my colleague’s position, I’ve reproduced it below:

[Bernie’s] platform is largely domestic as a foreign policy, meaning that as he pursues his agenda to improve the plight of all people in the US (because he has clearly stated that immigrants – illegal or otherwise – enemy combatants, and all non-citizens in US custody deserve equal treatment under the law) the US will then be in a healthy enough position to improve the plight of all people. We must lead by example. If we are not the pillar of equality and justice how can we advocate for equality and justice across the globe? If we are not a stable and secure nation of opportunity for all how can we help other nations become stable and filled with opportunity?

Though he and I would likely disagree on the best means for achieving these ends, no one should question the merits of the goals expressed. In some ways, it is a modern edition of the “City upon a hill” vision offered by the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop (and cited by many politicians since).

And it makes perfect sense as far as it goes. Obviously, no one likes to take advice from a hypocrite. If the US is to be a positive leader, it must do so by leading by example.  I completely agree with that sentiment, and I sincerely hope that I live to see the day when America’s role in foreign policy will be confined to only leading by example. But that day is a long way off.

Today, the United States is not a neutral actor in global affairs. On the contrary, the US government is directly or indirectly responsible for much of the suffering that exists in the world today. As President Obama recently bragged, the US has dropped bombs on seven countries during his Presidency. And since most humans tend not to idolize those that bomb them (or other innocent people for that matter), my argument is simple: Before we can consider leading by example, we have to stop causing and enabling direct harm around the world.

It’s fair to say that US policy is hypocritical in domestic affairs as well as foreign ones. Thus, US credibility is unlikely to be restored until both issues are remedied. So in the short run, our priorities must be decided on where we can do the most good (or stop the most harm, if you prefer). And since it is impossible to intellectually justify prioritizing the interests of Americans over other people, we have to consider each of them equally. So let’s consider the numbers.

First, let’s look at the likely beneficiaries of positive domestic policy. Let’s set aside economic questions, and presume for the sake of argument that Bernie’s policies would work precisely as hoped and have no negative unintended consequences. In this light, the primary beneficiaries of Bernie’s policy would likely be the following:

  • 2 million Americans currently incarcerated. According to Wikipedia as of 2013, the full prison population in 2013 was actually 2.2 million, and we’re assuming the overwhelming majority (~90%) were incarcerated for marijuana possession or given preposterously long sentences thanks to mandatory minimums. Bernie has campaigned on addressing both of these issues.
  • 11 million illegal immigrants, which Bernie would offer a path to citizenship.
  • 45 million Americans living in poverty. Of course, it’s unlikely poverty would be fully eradicated by a Sanders or any other presidency. And one could quibble with the definition of poverty, since US poverty isn’t quite as bad as say, Yemeni poverty. But again, let’s just assume all of these people receive significant benefits for the purpose of the argument.

Adding all these up, a deeply optimistic outlook for a Sanders presidency focused domestically would suggest he could help 59 million people. Not too bad. Now let us consider the number that could be helped by a radical change in US policy abroad. Apologies in advance for the long list:

  • 32 million – Afghanistan
    The population of Afghanistan as of 2014. Last year, a record 11,000 civilians were reported killed in Afghanistan, and it’s fair to say that essentially the entire country has been destabilized by the ongoing fighting. The US bears responsibility for this by first overthrowing the government of that country in 2001 and continuing to occupy it, bomb it, and support a government that lacks popular support (or any meaningful control outside of the capital city). If the US left Afghanistan, the country would have a chance at self-determination and things could finally start to stabilize.

  • 17 million – Syria
    The population of Syria proper was around 17 million. By now, this number is probably much lower due to casualties and more refugees fleeing the country. The US was not the only catalyst of this crisis, but our actions, and those of our allies, have prolonged it. If the US were to withdraw support for the not-so-moderate rebels in that country and (ideally) attempt to convince allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia to stop fueling the flames, an enduring ceasefire could be reached much sooner. 

  • 1.6 million – Iraq
    The population of Anbar province in Iraq circa 2011, which is now mostly controlled by the Islamic State and likely less populous. Obviously, the entire country of Iraq has been disastrously destabilized by the US invasion of 2003 and the brutal sanctions regime before that. But as of right now, most of the suffering is occurring in territories held by the Islamic State. And as the past year and a half of bombings suggest, the Islamic State, like any other insurgency, cannot be defeated by airstrikes. Instead, the US is its greatest recruitment tool.

  • 26 million – Yemen
    The approximate population of Yemen. Fully 80% of Yemenis are now in need of humanitarian aid after nearly a year of war and blockade by US ally Saudi Arabia, and the entire country has been destabilized. While Saudi Arabia initiated this crisis, it is fully enabled by the US government, which permits the sale of weapons, refuels the Saudi planes, and reportedly even helps select the targets. Without US support, the War in Yemen could not persist. It’s true that Yemen was exceedingly poor before the recent war as well, but the US bore a share of the blame for that as well by backing a despotic government in the name of, of course, counterterrorism.

  • 6 million – Libya
    The approximate population of Libya, as of 2013. Like Iraq, this country was also destabilized by a military intervention pushed by the US. France was a major driver as well, to be sure, but it couldn’t have happened without US support. The country remains in chaos as ISIS has gained a foothold and two separate governments are competing for control.

  • 4.4 million – Palestine
    The approximate number of Palestinians living in Gaza, East Jerusalem, or the West Bank. The much-hyped two state solution is no longer possible. But the blockade of Gaza, the continued theft of land from Palestinians in the West Bank, restrictions on freedom of movement, and the two-tiered legal system would not endure long without diplomatic cover and the ever-reliable American veto on the UN Security Council.

The above is not a complete list; these are just the most obvious crises occurring at present. It omits a share of the blame for the current plight of Egyptians, Ukrainians, Iranians, Somalis, Pakistanis, Cubans, Sudanese, and Bahrainis,  and probably others I’m neglecting. It also omits the numerous refugees that have been driven from all of these countries. But even without explicitly including these groups, the total people that stand to benefit would be 87 million, far higher than the maximum conceivable figure domestically.

And it’s worth noting a key difference here. For people to be helped domestically, a president would have to pass and implement radical policies that may or may not work as intended. To make positive change in the realm of foreign policy, we just have to stop doing the wrong thing. That is much easier, especially since the president has much more control over foreign policy than domestic. Stop bombing countries, stop overthrowing governments, and stop imposing sanctions that only hurt civilians and never actually change policies. (And no, Iran is not a case where they “worked.”)

When you really think about it, there’s no contest between foreign and domestic policy. Foreign policy affects more people, most of whom are more desperate, and there is a clear path to stop causing harm. For all these reasons, foreign policy should be the top priority for anyone that cares about human suffering, regardless of what their politics are. Bringing it back to Bernie, this makes it difficult to understand his focus on domestic policy if he really cares about equality as he seems to. It also makes it impossible to defend his rather disappointing record on foreign policy issues. To me, the only plausible explanation is that he’s a nationalist. It’s surely not a unique vice among politicians, but we should still recognize that reality.

And ultimately, it would be great if the US got its house in order and could lead the world by example. But before we get there, we should probably stop destroying other people’s houses.

Eric Schuler is the author of The Daily Face Palm blog, which focuses mostly on foreign policy and bad economics.