Capstones: The Problem of Foreign Policy

By Alan W. Dowd, 3.3.15

Americans realized after World War II that “security was something that had to be worked at, to be managed,” Derek Leebaert writes in The Fifty Year Wound. “Americans could not turn their backs on the world.”

Yet today, 58 percent of Americans say the United States “should not take the leading role…in trying to solve international problems.” Pew polling reveals that 52 percent of Americans say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”—up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964. The Obama administration uses phrases like “leading from behind,” “nation-building at home,” “Don’t do stupid stuff” and “strategic patience” to explain its standoff, hands-off foreign policy. If nothing else, give the president credit for being in tune with a majority of the country.

The president seems to believe there is a trajectory to history leading inevitably to a freer, better world. This is what he means when he talks about the “arc of history,” or points to “the quiet force of progress throughout our history,” or declares a regime or movement on “the wrong side of history.” And this is why he doesn’t seem to worry about Putin dismembering a sovereign nation-state in the heart of Europe, and thus upending the post-Cold War order in Europe; or ISIS rampaging through Iraq, and thus reversing the hard-earned gains of the surge; or Iran edging ever closer to the nuclear club, and thus triggering a Sunni-Shiite nuclear arms race; or China expanding its influence and territory (literally), and thus nudging America from its position of primacy in the Pacific; or sequestration limiting America’s reach and role, and thus jeopardizing the liberal global order that America sustains and sustains America.

“No worries,” as people absentmindedly say nowadays. The president believes that history is on the side of progress and that the future belongs to freedom—regardless of how engaged or active, disinterested or aloof, America’s foreign policy happens to be.

If only this were true. If only America could take a vacation from the tedium of foreign policy. If only the world could be set on auto-pilot to some Tomorrowland destination where freedom has neither frontiers nor enemies. If only security didn’t need to be “worked at.”

But it does. History itself teaches that national security and international stability don’t emerge by accident, that free government doesn’t endure by magic, that the natural order of the world is not orderly, that when liberal powers fail to promote a liberal global order, the “arc of history” bends toward darkness. See, for example, 1939 and 1979.

For a great power like the United States, there is no vacation from the burdens of leadership, no goldilocks solution to global challenges, no way to safely entrust America’s interests to the currents of history. In short, foreign policy is not a program to be fixed or phased out, but a problem to be managed.

Just think about the century-plus America has been a power-projecting nation.

The Spanish Empire posed a foreign-policy problem to the United States—a threat—and what it did in Cuba was a problem to the Cuban people and a scar on humanity. No sooner had Washington solved that problem than it faced the problem of success: pacifying the Philippines, administering Cuba, defending far-flung possessions.

When a debt crisis consumed Venezuela—and Germany and Britain made menacing moves to solve it by force—TR declared that the United States would intervene as a “last resort” to ensure that nations in the Americas did not invite “foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations.” He warned that mismanagement and incompetence of the sort Venezuela succumbed to “may force the United States, however reluctantly…to the exercise of an international police power.”

TR’s action solved the debt crisis, averted a great-power war, prevented Britain and Germany from seizing South American territory, and preserved the Monroe Doctrine, but it set a precedent that would be used as an excuse to justify repeated U.S. intervention in Latin America, which created other problems.

As American power grew, TR aspired for the United States to have enough battleships for two fleets—an Atlantic fleet and a Pacific fleet—and a base for projecting power into the Pacific. Pearl Harbor solved that problem, and by the end of TR’s presidency, large sums were being allocated for dredging, expanding and readying Pearl Harbor to host a fleet of American warships. That solution, of course, would present its own set of problems—and a tempting target—33 years later.

Wilson’s solution, initially, to the foreign-policy problem of general war in Europe was neutrality, which did little more than defer dealing with the problem to a later date. Wilson’s next solution was the very opposite of neutrality: waist-deep engagement in Europe’s civil war, a League of Nations to enforce peace, a world made safe for democracy, an endorsement of self-determination movements. These well-intentioned solutions created as many problems as they solved.

America’s postwar turn inward aimed at insulating the nation from the problems caused by European intrigues, but it only allowed those problems to metastasize.

Appeasing Japan directly and Germany indirectly—FDR cabled Chamberlain after Munich, “Good man”—may have addressed the problem of going to war in the 1930s, but it did nothing to prevent America from being drawn into war in the 1940s.

When America solved the problem posed by the Axis tyranny by crushing it, a new problem emerged: the Soviet tyranny.

Contrary to revisionist history, the Truman Doctrine was not a worry-free, one-size-fits-all solution to every foreign-policy problem during the Cold War; rather, the Cold War was a series of crisis-management episodes that demanded constant attention and tailored responses.

Think about it: The division of Germany was supposed to be a solution, but it proved to be a lasting problem—one that required constant engagement by Washington.

Acheson’s “defense perimeter” in the Pacific set out to solve a foreign-policy problem but actually created one, as the communist bloc saw it as a green light to take South Korea. Truman’s response preserved South Korea and validated his containment doctrine, but more than six decades later, Washington continues to wrestle with the problem of North Korea.

The deal to end the Cuban Missile Crisis averted World War III, but it undercut the Monroe Doctrine and, in effect, approved a Soviet base 90 miles off America’s shores.

Intervening in Vietnam was supposed to solve the problem of falling dominoes, but South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos all fell to communism. Quitting Vietnam was supposed to solve the problem of superpower hostility, East-West tension and global instability, but it paved the way for a period of self-doubt and decline in America, yielded a one-sided détente, and gave Moscow a window of opportunity. By 1979, Moscow had increased military spending; enlarged its military; grown less, not more, accommodating; and expanded its global footprint.

When America awoke and the battle was rejoined—in Central America, the Caribbean, Poland, Africa and Afghanistan—the Soviet Union was mortally wounded. The peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union and its global empire was a towering foreign-policy success that led to huge foreign-policy problems: the end of a durable global order; loose nukes; reawakened ethnic rivalries and wars; the rise of tribalism and terrorism.

Amid the post-Cold War tumult, Desert Storm addressed a narrow tactical problem: Saddam Hussein would not be permitted to control Kuwait’s oil reserves. But it, in effect, triggered strategic problems: America would need to protect Saudi Arabia—Osama bin Laden it called “the land of the two holy places”—from a wounded Saddam, and bin Laden would plot and wage a global guerilla war against America as a consequence.

Abandoning decades of realpolitik after 9/11 by toppling tyrants and terror states liberated millions in the Middle East, but it also removed the lid that kept the cauldron from exploding. Withdrawing from the Middle East after Iraq’s brutal postwar war solved the political problem of U.S. casualties, but it paved the way for chaos—and ISIS.

All of this underscores that foreign policy requires constant attention—and that the worst approach of all for America and the world is a foreign policy of disengagement and disinterest.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose