Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Presidential election gives U.S. a chance to radically reconsider its approach to foreign policy

REUTERS/Peters Andrews
U.S. soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 70 Armour, sit on top of their tanks in the desert near the southern Iraqi city of Karbala, in 2003.

The Iowa caucuses finally are upon us, but presidential candidates have been pounding each other for months already about foreign policy: Toss out the Iran nuclear treaty! Make the sand glow in Syria! Start a trade war with China!

Most of the rhetoric is less than illuminating. So instead, let’s focus for a few moments on another debate, over how the next president should approach the rest of the world. It’s a theoretical argument, but it has real consequences. And it might just create a framework to think about all that heated campaign rhetoric.

Against intervention

Harvard political scientist Stephen M. Walt launched the debate this month with a piece published in Foreign Policy. You can read it here. But in a nutshell, he argues that many global trouble spots, and the U.S. itself, would be better off today if American presidents hadn’t tried to remake the world in the past 20 years.

In foreign policy circles, Walt is a “realist,” who argues that above all, conducting international relations is about having enough power to ensure your security in a hostile world. Here is a quote from his Foreign Policy piece:

Realists believe nationalism and other local identities are powerful and enduring; states are mostly selfish; altruism is rare; trust is hard to come by; and norms and institutions have a limited impact on what powerful states do. In short, realists have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint, no matter how appealing it might be in the abstract.

That skepticism, he makes clear, applies to approaches followed by both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists. Hard-headed realists would not have invaded Iraq, he argues, nor engaged in nation-building in Afghanistan, vastly enlarged NATO (thereby antagonizing Russia), launched a bombing campaign in Libya and announced a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria because that country was not a vital U.S. interest.

Realists would be wary of a special relationship with Israel. They might have cut their losses in Afghanistan sooner. They would have pursued the nuclear agreement with Iran, but started earlier when Iran’s program was smaller, and might have ended up with a better deal.

It’s all about defining and pursuing what is narrowly in the national interest. While realism is a longstanding approach to foreign affairs, it’s also a rather dreary way of looking at the world that doesn’t really take into account America’s idealism, its sense of exceptionalism and its capacity to do good.

Is this what we want to be — should be? Would everyone be better off the U.S. approached the rest of the world more like, say, China does? Is the problem that the U.S. acted at all in these cases Walt cites? Or were some efforts worthwhile, but poorly thought out and executed? Is it a question of strategy, or of tactics?

In defense of a moralistic foreign policy

Walt asks why there aren’t more people who think like him writing for the opinion pages of major U.S. publications. Among those he called out by name is Roger Cohen of the New York Times, and Cohen answered a few days later.

Cohen acknowledges, for instance, that it is hard to make a case that vital U.S. interests were at stake in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. But he argues that the moral case for intervention was overwhelming. President Clinton did intervene, and if Bosnia is still a mess today politically, at least the fighting stopped.

Clinton still is haunted by another conflict that happened at the same time. While it was far from crucial to U.S. wellbeing, Clinton says that if he had acted sooner, the U.S. could have stopped the Rwanda genocide of 1994 and saved perhaps 300,000 lives.

Cohen also pushes back on NATO expansion, arguing that extending the alliance’s shield has protected countries along the Baltic coast and in Central Europe. The two countries in which Vladimir Putin has intervened militarily — Georgia and Ukraine — are not NATO members.

Take away the urge to expand liberty around the world, he says, and very little is left of U.S. foreign policy.

Realism unrealistic

At the Brookings Institution, Thomas Wright contends that realists like Walt have moved so far outside the mainstream that their ideas have little chance to be adopted. For decades, it has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy to nurture institutions that bolster a U.S.-led international order. Organizations like NATO enhance cooperation among American allies who might otherwise find themselves at each other’s throats.

Amidst the chaos in the Middle East, concerns about terrorism and testy relations with Russia and China, Wright says those promoting a cautious policy aimed at strengthening that international order will be heard out in Washington.

Even if the U.S. is unlikely to pursue a foreign policy focused narrowly on self-interest, the questions remain: What are your priorities? How do you pursue them?

How is the best way to protect the homeland from international terrorists? Are you willing to hold your nose and do business with Putin? How important is it for the U.S. to be a force for good in the world, and how can you be sure the effort won’t backfire?

Good questions — to which good politicians probably will avoid giving a direct answer. But as the campaign goes on, they’ll give us some clues.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/25/2016 - 10:13 am.

    Very good questions

    …in those last 3 paragraphs. It’d be great to get honest answers from the current list of candidates, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for them. Even if the public gets answers of a sort over the next few months, it’ll be difficult to parse the “heated rhetoric” of the current, already-chaotic campaign to try to get a clue about specifics in terms of what candidates might actually *do* if they gain the presidency.

  2. Submitted by Doug Gray on 01/25/2016 - 10:39 am.

    20 years?

    more like 160 years:

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/25/2016 - 11:49 am.

    An interesting reiteration of the Realist position and its contrast with American optimism and generosity. But the article really should have made a distinction between the nuanced foreign policy statements and positions that have come out of the Obama White House, Hillary Clinton’s campaign and even Bernie Sanders’s campaign, and the gross and ill-informed bombast that’s coming from the GOP candidates.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/25/2016 - 11:58 am.

    First thing to keep in mind is that foreign policy is rarely directed at the people in the various countries–it is to support or topple the leaders of those countries.

    That’s generally why it goes wrong–we are ignoring the current situation widespread in the country and look at the ruling class that may or may not be representative of the people.

    We’ve fought decades in wars where we really did not assess the support for what were were supposedly trying to do.

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/25/2016 - 02:56 pm.

    Liberal media

    Marc’s point is well taken about what Presidential elections are supposed to be about. But I think the “Washington Consensus” is, as Andrew Bacevich wrote about in his book by that name six years ago, the electorate has no say in what the elitist foreign policy establishment want. What they want is to maintain their iron lock on power and that means perpetuating a narrow framework for US foreign policy options. Bacevich in his book convincingly demonstrates that the idea for these Washington elites is that the US grew out of the Cold War and has never been revisited since by any sitting executive, much less questioned. Admittance into the Washington insider club requires faithful adherence to this consensus that it is necessary for the US to “project” global power. Thus it is necessary to spend six times on “defense” what the rest of world spends combined. Never mind that all this money spent on military gadgets, hardware and “black ops” and propaganda only seems to make the US more insecure by making our country more despised. No one seems to have the will or power to put a stop to this madness.

    It’s good to know here are others, like Walt, who agree with Bacevich. Too bad nobody in any main stream “liberal” media outlet they never get to have a platform for this point of view.

  6. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 01/25/2016 - 06:15 pm.

    I think I’m much more of a realist than Prof. Walt

    I would very much like for Mr Porubcansky or some other knowledgeable person to ‘larn me about when American intervention has, in fact, been motivated by “America’s idealism, its sense of exceptionalism and its capacity to do good.” To my (dreary) apprehension, the overseas projection of American power nearly always has been driven by the self-interest of those able to command and direct it, cloaked for the benefit of us rubes in the idealistic rhetoric of spreading democracy, freedom, etc.

    In the best case (and not a good one for an economic minimalist/localist like myself) intervention supports some measure of humane and open societies abroad to provide stability for capital and markets; from there it goes downhill to supporting authoritarians in the interest of cheap production inputs and to keep democracy movements at bay, arrogating resources, undermining or deposing popular governments for their resistance to arrogation of their resources or sovereignty, securing bases for power projection, enhancing the global profits of the military/industrial complex, and in general making mischief for those seen as adversaries.

    So the first, and easy, case is opposing U.S. internationalism because it is predominantly malign and, over the long run, has been quite contrary to “ensuring our security in a hostile world.” It is on behalf of centralized power, consequences to the ordinary folks be damned – we citizens typically have much more in common with the citizens of the lands where our mayhem ensues than we do with those who purport to make policy and wage wars in our name. The question of internationalism when U.S. motives are good is an interesting one, but essentially hypothetical.

    The author asks what is the best way to “protect the homeland” against terrorists. As Mr Gray suggests, the best way would be to unravel a very large number of decades of U.S. and Western intervention abroad.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 01/26/2016 - 01:47 pm.

      Teddy Roosevelt’s Legacy?

      While his boss was on extended summer vacation back when Washington was still very much a hot and humid mosquito haven, TR took that chance to have the Naval Fleet painted white, to then be sent on an international “good will” mission, also to project America as a symbol of power as seen by TR.

      Well, we’ve been somewhat encumbered by that display ever since, perhaps most obviously in our later delayed (expedient, in my opinion) decision to righteously save Europe in 1917.

      For good and bad, we’ve carried our flag around the globe ever since.

  7. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/25/2016 - 07:43 pm.

    Real realism

    Mr. Walt is indeed a realist in his quote: “Realists believe nationalism and other local identities are powerful and enduring; states are mostly selfish; altruism is rare; trust is hard to come by; and norms and institutions have a limited impact on what powerful states do. In short, realists have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint, no matter how appealing it might be in the abstract.” I don’t see how one can disagree with this so Mr. Cohen just doesn’t see the world the way it is which doesn’t help.

    Unfortunately, Mr. Walt’s realism ends with his description of the world because in his conclusions from his realistic picture he becomes an isolationist. All his recommendations add up to one big one: Do not get involved; so one may conclude that in the time before WWII he would have suggested cutting a deal with Hitler and staying on the sidelines. But withdrawing from the world will never help national interests because others will just pursue their interests more aggressively.

    Of course, Mr. Cohen’s approach is equally misguided. Intervening where America has no interests is a waste of resources (both people’s lives and taxpayers’ money) and does not make the world safer. Of course, it should be noted that based on this approach, bombing Yugoslavia and Libya is no different than bombing Iraq and Syria so those who supported the former must have supported the latter.

    The logical conclusion from Mr. Walt’s realistic understanding of the world should be the following: If American interests are not involved, military interference is unnecessary; however, if American interests are involved (and they are involved quite often), military interference is essential and the force used should be so overwhelming that a decisive victory is guaranteed. As a result, in the future the enemies will be afraid to undermine America and less interference will be required.

    Simple example would be an Iraq war done right. American interests were involved (Saddam threatened America and, according to all intelligence reports, was trying to acquire nuclear weapons so military intervention was necessary. But as soon as objective of the military campaign was achieved and American interests were upheld (i.e. Saddam was defeated and captured), it was time to leave because helping Iraqis build democracy had nothing to do with American interests which were supposed to be to get rid of the dangerous government. If this were done, the world would have been much safer and more stable now and American role as a world leader would not have been challenged. Incidentally, millions of lives would have been spared…

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 01/26/2016 - 10:12 am.

      I seem to recall…

      …something about some kind of weapons… weapons of mass destruction was it? Anyone? Bueller?

      “An Iraq war done right” would have been an Iraq war not done at all. Saddam was effectively contained and could have remained so indefinitely at a level of expenditure of lives, fortunes and sacred honor orders of magnitude less than the reality unfortunately ignored before the fact by the neoconservative policy establishment.

      The fact is that the US always intervenes in its own interests (that is, the interests of its One Percent). Always. The “exceptional” sense that the US acts any differently in the world or for any other aims than any other powerful nation, past or present, is as valid as the “exceptional” sense of accomplishment from receiving a prize for participating in a kid’s soccer tournament.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/26/2016 - 07:57 pm.

        You recall it correctly – all intelligence services at that time agreed that Saddam was pursuing WMD. And the victory in an actual war was quick, decisive, and with minimal casualties which would have left a legacy of invincible decisive America for many years to come had we not tried to help (as always, when government helps, the results are less than helpful). It is not an accident that Libya gave up its nukes and Iran asked for mercy after that victory… When will people admit that apples and oranges are not the same? As for America “always” intervening in its (or its 1 percent) interests, I would like you justify this statement for Libya and Yugoslavia bombings…

        • Submitted by Doug Gray on 01/27/2016 - 02:08 pm.

          I can name that tune in one note


          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/27/2016 - 06:51 pm.

            Is there any oil in Yugoslavia? And Kaddafi was selling oil perfectly well before he was bombed… after which oil production in Libya plummeted. Plus, neither America nor Europe ever had any intention to move into Libya. So, what does oil have to do with bombing Yugoslavia and Libya?

  8. Submitted by Jim Million on 01/26/2016 - 11:54 pm.

    Patient, Philosophical Prose Postings Tonight

    Mr. Holtman (recently followed) writes with reason, regardless of perspective. Many thanks. What’s the old saying? Something like it’s not so much in the deed, itself, but in the doing of it. Thoughtful prose of good style is much appreciated (often needed) in these comment threads. So, here’s a take on some reactions—also in a mood of wistful resignation.

    In any case, tonight I will take some exception to what I read in several comments as frustrated resignation more than isolationism. Maybe I’m wrong about that. We cannot go back to 1914 (wish we could, truly) and maintain our stated political position to stay out of WWI. Certainly, most everything that has happened to transfer world responsibility/power to US has occurred since 1917 in our history, not necessarily because we planned it that way. I remind myself that U.S. diplomats pretty much stayed out of treaty particulars and discussions, all the while very worried about future German problems stemming from the harsh terms dictated by England and France, most aggressively by France. Unintended consequences, etc.

    [Many do not know this was a boldly stated concern of at least one British observer/aide: J.M. Keynes.]

    The 30s were very tough here for several reasons most people know. America did return somewhat to isolation for awhile, until FDR’s people turned in favor of backing/arming Britain. Much has been written about mixed motives in all of that; however, we did move earnestly into WWI pt. 2. Much has also been written about Pearl Harbor, its intrigue and motivations; however, America was again well into European War before 12/11/41.— we just did not publicize the reality. By 1942 we were absolutely into Asian War #1 (dismissing minor older scuffles here and there).

    The European economies never quite recovered with proper budgets for ex-parte governance. They had more than enough trouble just trying various communal trade structures: Common Market, EEC, EU, and coming soon, yet another Europe iteration.

    Our problematic position as “world protector-defender-financier” (discussed well by Mr. Holtman and others here) ironically stems from the certain fact we won both WWI & II, that is, European colonial histories were maintained, at least well into the late 50s, anyway. The European economies never quite recovered with proper budgets for ex-parte governance. They had more than enough trouble just trying various communal trade structures. So, America pretty much bailed them out of “the Arab Question,” as they liked to think of it. Yes, we’ve had our truly own cynical interests at play all the way, but so what? Self-interest is important. And, we’ve been left/stuck with the responsibility for much of the old European colonial empires.

    And here we are, a richer nation than most all others mainly because the old European industrial powers literally blew themselves up, with our help, of course. With that wealth now in America, we also assumed the housekeeping duties of post-colonial France and Britain, you all mostly know where. Yup, pretty much where we are today, last year, last decade or two or three — Not exactly a great lease-to-own deal.

    That’s pretty much how I see how we grew to be Super Nation….because nobody else would or could — even the Soviet Union in the end. Europe is now again pretty much toasting over its own electric elements. Russia is—–who really knows? Now, on to Japan and China, anyone? Aarghh…..

    Well, it’s getting late and I’m getting tired. Let’s leave Japan and China for another night. We, at least currently, seem to have had better results in the Pacific. I guess that’s also why we are finally “pivoting to the West.”
    Frankly, in many ways, this would really be a good era to be Canada. Mark, perhaps you might find a way to bring Maple Leaf Land into one of your articles.

Leave a Reply