Toward a More Effective Foreign Policy

This is going to be a more lengthy blog post than usual. The topic deserves it, so please bear with me.

mhproofOur foreign policy is a mess. It is incoherent, ineffective, and confusing to friends and foes alike. This is not solely Obama’s problem, though he certainly owns it now. This situation has prevailed to some degree at least back through the Bush ’43 and Clinton administrations. Moreover the outlook looks bleak for the next administration if the statements of likely candidates are to be taken at face value.

Does anyone know what we are really up to in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and the South China Sea? And what exactly are our policy objectives for Israel, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, and the European Union? Are our actions and capabilities consistent with these objectives? It isn’t all bad, but you get the idea, don’t you?

History has crucial lessons that we seem to have forgotten. And worse, we seem to take exactly the wrong lessons in a few cases. I have puzzled over this because it isn’t as though we have suddenly become duller and, whatever the strident political forces claim, our leaders and professional diplomats are not especially incompetent. My guess is that we as a nation simply don’t care and this is reflected in where administrations focus attention.

shrekOur international activities have come to resemble a fire department. We do minimal fire prevention while keeping our eyes on hazardous conditions, leaping into action only when the fire alarms ring. Meanwhile our ambitions and rhetoric are completely out of sync with this mainly reactive approach. We loudly proclaim that everyone should emulate our way of life while largely ignoring their history and special circumstances. We show no empathy and, as the preeminent world power, we just blunder around, stepping on toes and incessantly nagging everyone. We are like an ill-mannered version of Shrek.

I am not reciting this litany of futility just to vent my frustration. I do have an idea for how to improve matters. If we just stick to the following simple rules I think we would be well on the way to modest success. Call this my “Modest Proposal” – and yes, I am aware of the ancestry of this phrase.

But first, let me be clear that I have little confidence that any politicians will read or follow these rules. However you, dear reader, are a voter. In the coming presidential election cycle there is a good chance you will come into contact with candidates and have a chance to talk with them. So, think of one or more of these rules and challenge the candidate to support his positions on their basis. If he stammers, spews a canned message, or fails to convince you, cross him off your list.

So here are the 15 rules. Some are general prescriptions; others are very specific. I have added a few illustrative comments to show how they work. See what you think.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep or threats you don’t really intend to carry out. Don’t let emotions or popular sentiment influence these decisions. There should be no more fake lines in the sand. This applies to implied promises too. Don’t encourage any more popular uprisings unless you fully intend to support them with our blood and treasure.

Remember, Americans will not back a policy for long if they don’t understand it or aren’t convinced that we have a commensurate vested interest. Occasionally, of course, sudden emergencies arise where there isn’t time for proper preparation. But that is far less common than many politicians suppose if there is good strategic planning.

Influence the world by setting a good example and not by trying to force our way of life and beliefs on others. This starts at home. Nagging others to adopt our ways is like trying to teach a pig to sing. It won’t work and it only serves to annoy the pig. When was the last time we met with China without poking them about their human rights abuses? That makes us feel righteous and plays well to the boobs at home, but it does nothing at all for our national interest.

No international agreements are worth the paper on which they are written unless the parties most vitally involved really want them to work. Lay off trying to impose a resolution to the Israeli/Palestine conflict that neither party wants. We might get our way but nothing good or lasting will come of it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act as an honest broker when the time is right.

Always take a serious and unbiased look at how any situation appears through the eyes of all parties involved. Just how did we think Russia would react when we encouraged their neighbor Ukraine to defect from their sphere of influence? Did this even enter into our judgment at all?

Don’t start a fight if your opponent cares a lot more than you do about the outcome. You may win but the cost will be much more than you think or what you are willing to pay. And you may lose as we did in Vietnam, or be embarrassed as we now are in Ukraine.

We are not the world’s policeman. It is a thankless job, we are ill-equipped to take it on, and failure makes it our problem from then on. That doesn’t mean we should withdraw from the world’s stage or that we cannot be a Good Samaritan when the need arises.

Nation-building from the outside is usually a fool’s errand. There are exceptions whenever we are the root cause of the target nation’s collapse and we are the only alternative, such as in Germany after WWII. But even then we must be prepared to go the distance and not to underestimate the job or overestimate the applicability of our solution. We destroyed Iraq and we can’t remake it anew in the old colonial framework.

Ensure that our friends can trust us and our enemies fear us, and be clear about which is which. There are no permanent friends or enemies. Watch what other nations do and act accordingly. Be skeptical of the old adage that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. No he isn’t, although you two might fruitfully but warily cooperate for a while. Accept neutrality if that is a nation’s choice and it isn’t a camouflage for hidden negative bias. Don’t make everyone choose sides; you might not like the outcomes.

The closest ties we can establish with other countries are commercial, not military. Properly structured, these create a commonality of interest that is binding and lasting.

When considering any policy that might result in regime change, make absolutely sure that the replacement will be better. The standard to be applied is that it must advance our national interest, not some idealistic dream. What did we really think would arise from our toppling of Gaddafi in Libya or our encouragement of the removal of Mubarak in Egypt? And how sure were we?

Hope is not a strategy (See link). Always have a plausible and acceptable Plan B. If the outcome of Plan B is not appreciably better than the situation you are addressing, rethink Plan A.

Set intelligent priorities based on our capacities, strengths and limitations, not upon our needs or desires. Bush ’41 did that admirably in the first Gulf War. He didn’t overreach and try to topple Saddam even though we could no doubt have done it. Later we did, and see how that has turned out.

For every major foreign policy decision, make sure that all views are represented and heard respectfully. When making hard choices Presidents tend to narrow the discussion to a few confidants who, unfortunately, totally rely on his good will.

Admit mistakes promptly and really strive to do better next time. This does not make you appear weak, quite the opposite. The lie is often worse and more corrosive than a frank admission. And you look a fool to boot. This is a lesson that politicians never seem to learn, whether in national or international affairs. A corollary is never race to assert facts that haven’t been verified. The recent furor over the Benghazi incident illustrates this powerfully.

As a final note, my assessment is that the Obama administration may have set an all-time record by breaking almost every one of these rules. Unfortunately he still has 18 months or so to complete the job! So the current mess has an author. But before my Republican friends nod sagely and say how much they agree, I think the previous administration didn’t do appreciably better. Process is just as important as policy (See link).

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