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The First Principle Of U.S. Foreign Policy


What is the first principle of American foreign policy? This seems like rather an important question as we approach the selection of another commander in chief in an era of growing global instability, and six and a half years into a presidency that has yet to produce a coherent or recognizable “Obama Doctrine.”

The absence of a guiding principle is, on some level, a subtext of recent efforts to re-litigate the 2002-03 Iraq War debates. Yet there remains nothing resembling a unifying consensus on this core question within either of the two major political parties—let alone across both—on where our foreign policy should go next. But before you can analyze a proposed (or past) course for U.S. foreign policy, it is useful to start with first principles.

Our Foreign Policy Alternatives

So what, precisely, is the first principle of our foreign policy? Let’s look at the candidates.

American National Interest: Some would say our first principle is the pursuit of the American national interest, which is not a bad answer in the abstract, but it is far too vague to form any kind of organizing principle that helps guide our decisions. Saying that our foreign policy is designed to advance our national interests is sort of like saying a baseball player should try to be good at baseball.

To be sure, there are those of a progressive-internationalist bent who would argue that “American national interest” is too narrow a view, but even most of them eventually pay tribute to the argument that their preferred policy advances our national interest. In short, American national interest may be our predominant goal, but it’s not really an organizing principle that helps us make choices and select priorities.

American national interest may be our predominant goal, but it’s not really an organizing principle that helps us make choices and select priorities.

Democracy: Some would argue that the first principle of American foreign policy is an ideal that has been with us since the American Revolution: democratic self-determination for all peoples as a universal, God-given, and inalienable right. It is unquestionably the case that generations of American statesmen (and, more recently, stateswomen) have put both words and deeds behind promoting democracy and democratic institutions around the world, both as a tool of American influence and as an end in itself, perhaps most vocally in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, and George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address.

Most everyone on the U.S. political spectrum agrees that, in the long run, replacing tyrannies and oligarchies with democracies is likely to bring about a world with fewer wars, less terrorism, more commerce, and more American influence. But even a cursory glance at the history of American foreign policy shows that we have never equally supported every movement for self-determination around the globe, and indeed have willingly allied ourselves with horrible tyrants (even Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong) and at times supported coups and counter-revolutions against democratic movements.

Human Rights: Democracy is nice, some would say, but it’s an American view of the world; what’s really universal and important are the rights of man. There are strains of this thinking on both Right and Left (both of which had differing reasons for celebrating President Ford’s signing of the 1975 Helsinki Accords), although it’s most popular among liberals and progressives: the idea that our foreign policy should be driven by ideals, morals, and the protection of human rights at all times, and that the basic equality of all human beings demands that we be judged equally for failing to protect those rights, no matter whose they are, where they may be, or the situation.

Certainly, respect for human rights is both an end goal and a tool of our foreign policy, just like democracy, and has at some times been more at the forefront of our priorities than at others. But a universal and inflexible moral standard has never been a realistic framework for protecting the nation in a dangerous world. Tradeoffs must be made, and they do not always involve equally protecting every person everywhere, because we lack the power to enforce such a regime in all places at all times. And no realistic assessment of the history of American foreign policy in any period—not even under President Carter, much less presidents Obama or Wilson—shows human rights or morals to have been the overriding value animating our approach to every theater of the world.

Tradeoffs must be made, and they do not always involve equally protecting every person everywhere.

Realism: Others would take the opposite, Kissengerian/Scowcroftian view: that American foreign policy should be based around cold realpolitik, the game of power politics among states without any moral or ideological component. Most adherents of this view will freely admit that this is not how U.S. foreign policy has usually been conducted—an ironic concession for a doctrine that prides what is over what should be.

Realism, in the generic sense of seeing the world as it is and dealing unsentimentally with what must be done, is assuredly a critical element in the foreign policy toolkit. But even as a proscription, realpolitik is an unrealistic policy for the United States. Neither popular support, nor military volunteerism in our all-volunteer military, nor foreign propaganda successes could sustain our foreign policy for long if it was decided and openly admitted that America would pursue a foreign policy wholly devoid of ideals and moral content. Americans want to believe that our country fights for the right, even when our methods and our allies leave us all wanting a cold shower at best, a visit to the confessional at worst.

Stability: A close cousin of realpolitik is the old Westphalian/Metternich idea that stability and a balance of power are the best guarantors of peace, so we should leave intact any existing, sovereign government—no matter how awful to its own people, and even when it doesn’t reciprocate the principle—and stage our international interventions mainly as “peacekeeping” or nation-building efforts to re-establish government where war has intervened.

Of course, a precisely calibrated balance of power was a major part of what gave us the horrors of World War I, and the track record of respecting the sovereignty of tyrants has been neither popular nor successful in our history. Even President Obama, who is perhaps closer to this view than to any other, intervened with an air campaign to help topple the Qaddafi government of Libya.

Homeland Security: Then there’s the view that the first principle of U.S. foreign policy is some combination of protection of the U.S. homeland and avoidance of foreign entanglements. This view has a venerable lineage, going back to Washington’s Farewell Address. Its narrower, more isolationist “Fortress America” version is mostly an accurate description of U.S. foreign policy in the eighteenth century, and the broader Monroe Doctrine view that Americans should act as hegemon in the Western Hemisphere but stay out of the Eastern was more the rule than the exception in the nineteenth century before the Spanish-American War. Also within this family of foreign policy perspectives is the “Jacksonian” approach: that America should wait until it is directly and immediately threatened, then respond with such violence—lasting only so long as to make our point, then going home—that others will think twice before messing with us again. As George Kennan memorably parodied this approach:

I sometimes wonder whether…a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath—in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.

Dependence on our geographic isolation from the rest of the world made some sense in Washington’s time, but has become progressively less practical since then, from the Quasi-War with France during the John Adams administration to the Barbary Wars under President Jefferson to Commodore Matthew Perry’s opening of Japan in 1853 under the Fillmore Administration. It has no relationship at all with American foreign policy since 1898, and was more or less explicitly jettisoned after World War II when we committed ourselves to NATO, SEATO, the Marshall Plan, and a long-term presence in Europe and the Pacific Rim.

While the principles of this school of foreign policy still have some cautionary lessons to teach us, in an age of rapid and pervasive global travel, deeply interconnected international commerce, of intercontinental ballistic missiles and transnational terrorist organizations, it is simply a relic, albeit one with a strong nostalgic pull.

The most fundamentally unserious approach to American foreign policy is the notion that it should be driven primarily by adherence to ‘international law’ and subject to a web of transnational bodies like the United Nations.

American Economic Interests: There’s a long rhetorical tradition, mainly emanating from progressives and isolationists, of accusing the United States of basing its foreign policy primarily around money, ranging from the Nye Committee’s charge that the United States was lured into World War I to make money for arms merchants to the “blood for oil” chants aimed at the Gulf War and the Iraq War.

Now, there’s nothing illegitimate about considering the prosperity of our own people as an important interest, but as for the notion that great decisions of war and peace are driven mainly by money, it has the disadvantage of the fact that it is essentially a conspiracy theory completely unsupported by evidence. In all the vast foreign policy literature by academics and practitioners alike, you will find nobody who openly argues for this view of American foreign policy except to condemn it. If you talk to any of the many people who have sat in the room when big foreign policy decisions were made, or read their memoirs or contemporaneous correspondence; if you read the documents or the literature; if you listen to talks at think tanks; you will find no sign of anyone thinking that American economic considerations should be treated as an overriding consideration. A school of thought with no advocates has little to teach us.

International Law: The most fundamentally unserious approach to American foreign policy is the notion that it should be driven primarily by adherence to “international law” and subject to a web of multilateral agreements arbitrated by transnational bodies like the United Nations (UN), the World Court, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Trade Organization, etc. A species of this viewpoint was John Kerry’s 2004 invocation of a “global test,” by which the use of force is legitimated only by multilateral unanimity.

This point of view, if taken seriously at face value, elevates procedure over the substance of foreign policy. After all, if the legitimacy of a decision flows from its transnational character, than pretty much anything can be justified as “just following orders” from international bodies notwithstanding the fact that they are representatives of governments, not of peoples, often without regard to the size of the population represented by that government or its elected character.

Worse yet, in practice, an international-lawyering approach is never substance-neutral, because appeal to such bodies only becomes a determining factor when it conflicts with policies that advance U.S. interests; because historically collective organizations like the UN have been used largely as a counterweight to the United States and its allies; and because the countries that tend to do so historically are far less supportive than we are of the considerations discussed above, like democracy, human rights, and U.S. national security.

The First Principle: Triage

So, if each of these venerable ideas is inadequate to explain American foreign policy as a historic matter, or to justify its application in the future, what’s the answer? I submit that the true first principle, in a word, is triage.

Triage is in origin a medical term: the sorting of patients for treatment by the urgency of their injuries or illnesses, both in terms of severity and immediacy. Another way of putting it is priorities. Some threats—and opportunities—must get priority because they are more time-sensitive, but a proper triage-based foreign policy is not simply one that is driven from crisis to crisis without a plan. Far from it. True triage also requires tending the long-term illnesses before they become fatal.

True triage also requires tending the long-term illnesses before they become fatal.

The size and gravity of a foreign policy challenge is always a consideration; because the threat of international Soviet Communism was the primary threat to the United States, its interests, and its allies during the Cold War, the need to thwart the Soviet threat frequently took precedence over other important values, such as promotion of democracy or human rights or avoidance of foreign entanglements. But it also meant focusing on particular fronts that were contested with the Soviet Union (Vietnam, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Angola) over those that were peripheral (Lebanon, Iraq, South Africa, the Philippines). A similar calculus drove our alliance with the Soviets in World War II: Stalin and Soviet Communism were obviously a threat to us, but in December 1941 a lesser threat than both the Japanese Empire that had attacked American soil and overrun half of China and its ally, the German Reich that had conquered most of Europe and was bearing down on our longstanding ally Great Britain.

Choosing priorities on which to focus a nation’s power—whether military “hard power” or diplomatic, economic, or cultural “soft power”—is essential to avoid dissipating that power across too many fronts at once. This is the lesson both Napoleon and Hitler famously learned, to their grief: you never want to fight all your enemies at once. Even a superpower—even the world’s sole superpower—cannot do everything at the same time.  It must pick its battles, and decide which fronts demand attention, which require some minimal effort to hold the status quo, and which can be safely left alone even at the cost of some lost ground. Just as triage in the medical context sometimes requires unsentimentally categorizing some patients as so severely sick or wounded that they cannot recover, strategic triage means recognizing that some causes are lost to the point where our interests or ideals simply cannot realistically be pursued.

Why Priorities Aren’t Evidence of Hypocrisy

Critics on the Left, and sometimes on the more anti-interventionist Right, tend to regard this process of setting priorities as evidence of hypocrisy or, worse, of a pretextual foreign policy driven by secret, conspiratorial agendas. An enormous proportion of the criticism aimed at U.S. foreign policy, in fact, rests on the notion that we can’t possibly believe in any of our stated principles (i.e., any of the foreign policy principles stated above) if we do not follow precisely the same hierarchy of principles in every situation.

Foreign policy decisions don’t get made in isolation as an academic exercise in theories of containment or preemptive warfare or democracy promotion.

Thus, for example, critics argued in 2002-04 that the United States shouldn’t be at war in Iraq because there were also threats in Iran and North Korea—and, when more aggressive action against Iran or North Korea was on the table, searched for other threats to compare them to. Or critics compared the human-rights abuses of the Soviet Union to those of apartheid-era South Africa, ignoring the fact that not only was the Soviet Union much larger, its system was being actively exported to scores of nations around the world, while South Africa’s system was alone and isolated.

What is missing in this kind of criticism is a contextual understanding that foreign policy decisions don’t get made in isolation as an academic exercise in theories of containment or preemptive warfare or democracy promotion. They are made when deciding how to deploy scarce resources over a broad array of theaters. It’s not hypocrisy to have a foreign policy driven by a varied set of principles at a general level, but that applies those principles only after first assessing the relative threats and opportunities around the globe.

That setting of priorities has been the predominant theme of U.S. foreign policy for most of the past century, as lesser interests have been repeatedly subsumed into the battles against fascism, Communism, and Islamist terror. Charges of hypocrisy or theoretical inconsistency or incoherence have invariably proceeded from a failure to give adequate consideration to those top-level priority decisions.

But in the world of 2015-17, it is the top-level priority that is again up for grabs: while the Islamist threat is far from vanquished (indeed, it has been resurgent the past four years), its form and setting is quite different from where it was 15 years ago, while the clash of interests between the United States and mostly non-ideological powers like Russia and China has only grown. That is the real debate that needs to be had in the next election cycle.

The Other Half of Triage: Momentum

The other half of the “triage” equation, besides the identification of threats and opportunities, is the recognition of what is possible. That includes the crucial strategic concept of momentum. Not everything that can be done today will still be do-able tomorrow. The coalition that beat Hitler did not exist in the 1930s, and would not have existed if we’d let him finish off Stalin or Winston Churchill first; it had to be pressed in 1941 after he invaded Russia but before he could defeat either. The Kaiser saw a window of opportunity to beat the Entente Powers after Russia dropped out and before the U.S. Army was ready; he correctly perceived that this was Germany’s only chance and, when it failed, the war was lost.

Not everything that can be done today will still be do-able tomorrow.

The many coalitions that failed to beat Napoleon suffered from poor timing; but the leader of the Sixth Coalition, the Russian Tsar Alexander I, understood that once the combined armies of Russia, Prussia, and Austria were in the field together after Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia had raised them against him, they must press on all the way from Moscow to Paris to finish the job. If the Russians went home, they would be too late to help if Napoleon rose again—as indeed they were too late to arrive at Waterloo.

The dynamic of prioritization and, in particular, momentum, does much to explain the story of U.S. policy towards Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq from the early 1980s through the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s regime represented a multifaceted threat and challenge to U.S. security interests, but it is a fair enough argument that Saddam was not a materially greater threat than Iran or, arguably, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan (each in their own ways). But a final showdown with any of those states lacked momentum, which by 2002-03, had crested in our confrontation with Saddam.

The Momentum Pointed Towards War with Iraq

U.S. overtures towards warmer relations with Saddam’s regime began in 1983, when the relatively low priority of maintaining a U.S. presence in Lebanon spurred an effort by the Reagan administration (through its regional envoy, Don Rumsfeld) to seek some common ground with Saddam against the common enemy of Iran (with whom Iraq was then at war) and its Syrian and Hezbollah proxies.

When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, he not only moved back up the priority list, but a series of external events converged to create momentum to do something about him.

But a rapprochement was neither a high priority nor supported by enough momentum from other states to make a real alliance with a nasty dictator worthwhile. Relations chilled again by the late 1980s, again due to reasons having little to do directly with the nature of Saddam’s regime (including his use of chemical weapons against his own people in 1988): the Ayatollah Khomeini died, the Iran-Iraq War ended, the United States got involved in ill-considered arms sales to Iranian “moderates,” and consequently both our opposition to Iran and Saddam’s usefulness to that opposition slid down the priority list.

When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, by contrast, he not only moved back up the priority list, but a series of external events converged to create momentum to do something about him. The Cold War ended, leaving lots of excess Western military capacity and a desire in many Western capitals to make a demonstration of a “new world order” in which rogue states would be dealt with collectively. That made it suddenly easy, as it had been unthinkable a few years earlier, to assemble a large multinational coalition against Saddam. But by the nature of its membership, the coalition’s momentum would dissipate if it sought to depose him rather than just restore the status quo. So the war that ensued was driven less by principle than by priorities and momentum.

The story of the following decade was one of dissipated momentum to take urgent action against Iraq, again for reasons other than principle or the nature of the regime, and even in spite of outrageous provocations like hiring terrorists to blow up George H.W. Bush. This was abetted by Saddam’s surreptitious corruption of the UN “Oil-for-Food” program to by friends in key capitals who counselled against confrontation.

September 11 didn’t change anyone’s assessment of the direct threat presented by Saddam, but it forced a more general reassessment of priorities and regional grand strategy.

September 11 didn’t change anyone’s assessment of the direct threat presented by Saddam, either—but it forced a more general reassessment of priorities and regional grand strategy, which in turn created transitory momentum to rebuild a broad multinational coalition to deal with him once and for all. Similar momentum did not exist at the time for Iran, Syria or other rogue states, as they lacked the factors that supported it in the case of Iraq: a prior coalition war; a lengthy, costly and visibly crumbling effort at containment without an observable improvement in the regime’s behavior; Iraq’s violation of numerous U.N. resolutions that had been conditions for the prior cease-fire; and, at least compared to Iran or Pakistan, geography that suggested a greater possibility for a swiftly successful war to depose the regime.

None of these, however, were primarily assessments of principle, but of practicality, timing, and opportunity (although the vindication of UN resolutions was arguably a critical principle). So, fittingly, the long-term judgment of history about the war to depose Saddam Hussein will not revolve around the principle of preemption, the motives of individual political figures in the United States, the United Kingdom, or Australia, the degree of support in international institutions, or the rhetoric used to justify the war, but rather on the question of whether the architects of the war correctly determined what U.S. priorities should be and what was practical to expect in accomplishing them.

Timing and Momentum Explain the End of Apartheid

Timing and momentum, more than abstract principle, also explains the endgame for apartheid in South Africa. In the mid-1980s, there was a general consensus in the United States and Europe opposing South African apartheid and desiring its ultimate dismantling, but many of the leading political figures (like President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) opposed more aggressive efforts to pressure South Africa so long as it was engaged in a war against Soviet-backed Angola and Communist Cuba in Namibia.

The external situation changed, and that affected its place in the hierarchy of priorities.

But by 1987-88, the end of Soviet subsidies made the Cuban war effort untenable, the facts on the ground (i.e., the spring 1988 battle of Cuito Cuanavale) prepared both sides to make peace, and a Reagan-Gorbachev superpower summit paved the way to separate the conflict in southern Africa from the rapidly-unwinding Cold War. With the December 1988 signing of the Tripartite Accords in New York ending the Namibia war against that backdrop, the major barriers to assembling international momentum to turn the screws on the white apartheid regime were gone. The regime, seeing the writing on the wall, soon released Nelson Mandela from prison and allowed the free elections that ended the apartheid era. At no time in this process did American or European ideas or principles about South Africa change significantly. The external situation changed, and that affected its place in the hierarchy of priorities. Similar dynamics can be seen in U.S. policy in the 1986-2000 period in Panama, the Philippines, Serbia, and Somalia.

Moving to the current time, the inability of the Obama administration to make a triage-based case for its initiatives in Iran, Cuba, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt in recent years goes a long way to explaining the difficulty the administration has had in selling its policies to the public or even to normally compliant members of its own party in Congress.

The efforts at détente and engagement with Iran and Cuba are superficially compared to Nixon’s opening of Communist China in 1972, but that parallel ignores the triage and prioritization inherent in Nixon’s move: his goal was a great-power alignment with China against the main enemy, the USSR, as well as Chinese acquiescence in a peaceful resolution of a long U.S. war on its doorstep (Vietnam, a piece of the Nixon-to-China strategy that didn’t pan out so well and one with unfortunate parallels to the post-2013 situation in Iraq). By contrast, there is no common cause that unites us against a greater foe with the Castro regime, and none the administration will publicly admit that unites us with the Iranian mullahs.

It is impossible to identify a common thread to Obama’s foreign policy anyone will admit to pursuing.

The search for a common set of priorities remains elusive. In Libya, the Obama administration’s bombing campaign helped topple a traditional Arab nationalist dictator (one the Bush administration had defanged) in favor of a popular uprising with strong Islamist factions. In Egypt, the administration was late and hesitant in supporting a similar popular, Islamist uprising against another Arab nationalist dictatorship. In Syria, the administration threatened a bombing campaign against a third Arab nationalist tyranny that was locked in a war against ISIS, after reassuring the public that it did not intend to topple it.

In Iraq, by contrast, it has used aerial bombardment against ISIS. The ideological inconsistency of these decisions could be justified if they represented a triage-based strategy of pursuing a common set of strategic priorities, but it is impossible to identify a common thread that anyone will admit to pursuing.

Balancing Our Competing Foreign Policy Values

American foreign policy since the nation’s birth has always been called upon to balance, rather than choose among, the competing values it pursues: homeland and economic security, democracy and human rights and liberties, liberation and stability, international law, and a balance of power.

But the first, guiding principle in most of our national decisions has been, and should continue to be, triage: identifying the largest and most pressing threats, assessing what is feasible in responding to them, and ordering all our other value judgments accordingly. The foreign policy and national security and defense policy debates of the next year and a half should get past the slogans and the theories and seek to test, above all, how the candidates and the parties make those crucial assessments.