For the past few decades, there have been two dominant schools of thought on foreign policy: the liberal interventionist camp, and the neoconservative interventionist group. The intellectual foundation for these two schools of thought was always thin, but both have failed to create positive outcomes for U.S. global interests. If America’s vital national interests are to be safeguarded, we need new ways of thinking and acting international stage—ways that accurately reflect the evolving and sometimes chaotic world of 2016.
It’s time to jettison the old ways of thinking for a new school of thought that takes the world as it exists—some of which is violent, anarchic, and threatening, and other of which is peaceful, stable, and friendly—and form an American foreign policy that firmly defends the security and freedom of American citizens while fostering, to the extent possible, a stable international environment.
This new thinking would be willing to push the envelope in seeking the most stable world possible, guaranteeing the security of our country, and providing the greatest economic opportunity possible.
Neocons and Liberal Interventionists Embrace the Same Militaristic Approach
Neoconservatism has held that to secure America, the U.S. needs to go abroad militarily to shape the internal affairs of other countries, even if that means preemptively striking hostile powers and actors. The liberal interventionist school of thought has generally focused on using military power to resolve humanitarian concerns abroad, support for international law, and likewise spread democracy to other nations.
Unfortunately for the neoconservatives, it has become painfully clear over the past decade that relying on the military to solve the majority of international problems has produced a worsening of the very conditions it sought to solve. Liberal interventionists have had a heart for those on the wrong side of inequality globally, but have believed that using or threatening to use force was an effective way to solve problems.
Both schools of thought have it wrong. This fact has made them operationally indistinguishable. This is why neoconservatives or military primacists, like Lindsey Graham, often recommend similar military actions to liberal interventionists, like John Kerry. There is now effectively one bipartisan school of thought in foreign policy. Some scholars have called it “liberal hegemonialism” or “primacy.”
When Republicans are in charge of the White House or Congress, the fused hybrid most often manifests itself by deploying lethal military power to select global hotspots, trying to coerce or destroy opponents in an attempt to bend them to U.S. will.
When Democrats have the power, they almost reflexively use military power to compel states to adopt American-approved democracy, or behave in ways they believe others ought to behave, whether others agree or not.
But the difference between the actions taken by the GOP and Democratic parties is more a nuance than a distinction. The Republicans can’t seem to accept that the Cold War no longer exists. And Democrats appear unwilling to recognize that some violent actors are irredeemable. Both have failed America, and today’s new reality demands a new school of foreign policy thought.
We Need a New Theory of Foreign Policy
Any new theory of foreign policy must have a rational basis for operating in today’s complex, hostile, friendly, violent, peaceful, pessimistic, and challenging world. The character and culture of the United States must form the basis for international policies within this often unstable environment. It must protect American citizens, safeguard the Constitution and the freedoms it enumerates, and foster the most effective trade relations possible. It must also:
- Be supported by a powerful, world-class military, yet be restrained and prudent in its application abroad.
- Use this dominant power abroad when the security of the United States is either attacked or credible evidence shows an attack is genuinely imminent—yet use these measures only when thorough diplomatic efforts have been exhausted, truly as a last resort.
- Seek win-win negotiations with other states in diplomatic and economic matters.
- Accept the demonstrated will of the people in other nations in choosing how they want to be governed, even if it is not a system we would choose or prefer.
- Respect other countries—their various, rich, and complex cultures—accept they represent many ideologies and ways of thinking, often different than that of the United States, even if we wish they might follow our liberal democratic example.
- Promote considerable diplomatic engagement, working towards ever-improving relations with the nations of the world, and—to the extent it is possible—be at peace with all.
- Aggressively engage the world in international trade, seeking new markets for U.S. goods while solidifying those that already exist.
- Seek to help other peoples with humanitarian assistance of various types when requested, and when doing so, not compromise U.S. national security or interests.
- Advocate for diplomatic relations with other nations in cases where there is any chance of fostering peace or global stability.
- Recognize that states will at times be in opposition to the U.S. When this situation occurs, appropriate counteractions will be taken to safeguard American citizens.
- Recognize there are limits to power and that, however desirable a favored outcome, the U.S. cannot always force it into being.
- Seek to promote freedom, respect, and democracy abroad—but primarily believe this is most effectively done when we model it such that others desire, on their own and in their own way, to adopt them.
- Reserve the freedom to take any action that proves necessary to safeguard American security however a threat may manifest itself.
This new school of thought would not:
- Hold select nations to be permanent enemies or permanent friends.
- Seek to use lethal military power as a policy option of first choice.
- Believe that the United States has either the obligation or the authority to impose its culture or form of government on others abroad.
If America Doesn’t Fight Every War, That’s Okay
There is a thinking that quietly undergirds the beliefs of sizable numbers of Americans across the political spectrum regarding the use of force abroad. Namely, they believe that if the U.S. military doesn’t “lead” by fighting extremism or stopping civil wars like those raging in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, then other forces will “fill the vacuum” to our detriment. This is a commonly held fear, but one that is not supported by the historical record.
In the 1950s and 60s, there was great fear that if Vietnam fell to Communism, other nations would fall under its domination like dominos falling on one another. Yet after a decade of war and the deaths of over 50,000 Americans, Vietnam did fall to the Communists. No harm to the United States resulted, and no other nations followed their example.
It is inescapable that some peoples in the world have not, do not, and may never like America. It is equally true that this dislike does not necessarily translate into a professed desire or (more importantly) a military ability to kill us. We needn’t automatically confront, contain, or attack them militarily.
When dislike turns to hostility and it’s possible that others may seek to harm American citizens or allies, then other measures become necessary. Further, since it is impossible to know when, why, or how hostile forces may seek to harm America, it is appropriate and necessary to maintain a strong military that can immediately and powerfully respond to a range of threats. We should engage the world more, not less, but in productive ways.
Let us dismiss worn-out theories of foreign policy. They may have had utility in the past but are now obsolete. It is time to adopt updated guiding principles. In short, it’s time to move forward with a foreign policy that works.