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How America Stopped Thinking Strategically

strategy

Peter Beinart brilliantly encapsulates the tensions in US foreign policy that those of us in the field have been wrestling with since the end of the Cold War. As the story goes, the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the raison d’être of America’s decades-long grand strategy of containment and guiding principle has emerged to take its place.

Today’s foreign-policy disputes rarely consider the way America’s response to one crisis might affect another. Adopt a tough stance on China’s air-defense zone, for instance, and Beijing is less likely to join the West in condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Severely punish Russia for that aggression, and Moscow is less likely to help America enforce sanctions against Iran. Take an ultra-hard line on Iran’s nuclear program, and Tehran is less likely to help broker an end to Syria’s civil war that the U.S. can live with. Instead of discussing each threat in isolation, America’s politicians and pundits should be debating which ones matter most. They should be prioritizing.

But Beinart traces the origins of this problem not to the end of the Cold War but to its beginning.

To understand how Americans stopped doing that, you need to go back to the middle of the 20th century. Over the course of the 1940s, as America lurched from isolationism to world war, foreign-policy strategists such as George Kennan and Walter Lippmann roughly outlined America’s core interests around the world. First, the United States must continue to prevent an enemy power from establishing a beachhead in the Americas, a principle set forth in the venerable Monroe Doctrine. Second, no enemy power should be allowed to dominate Europe, thus threatening what Lippmann called the “Atlantic highway” connecting the United States to Britain and France. Third, no enemy power should shut the United States out of East Asia; that’s what had precipitated war with Japan. Fourth, no adversary should block America’s access to Middle Eastern oil. But beyond these areas, U.S. interests were limited. “I am more and more convinced,” Lippmann wrote in 1943, “that it is just as important to define the limit beyond which we will not intervene as it is to convince our people that we cannot find security in an isolationist party.”

Emphasis mine. Beinart notes, correctly, that just because we continually followed a policy we called Containment does not mean that we consistently followed the same policy. Indeed, we ignored Kennan’s advice to our peril. Just as “Terrorism!” and “Democracy!” spark cries from serious people for American intervention in places of limited American interests in the post-Cold War world, cries of “Communism!” did so during the Cold War.

In the wake of World War II, as American politicians grew increasingly fearful of the Soviet Union, Kennan warned that it was foolish to talk about foreign threats without defining national interests. If America didn’t first determine which chunks of the globe were worth defending, any place Moscow threatened would become important to the United States. The U.S. would effectively outsource its foreign-policy decision making. “Our opposition to Communist expansion is not an absolute factor,” argued Kennan in 1947. Rather, containment “must be taken in relation to American security and American objectives.”

Over the decades, Lippmann and Kennan saw their worst fears realized, as U.S. presidents increasingly equated containment with stopping Communism anywhere on Earth. In January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson did not include South Korea in America’s “defense perimeter,” only to see his boss, President Harry Truman, rush troops there once Pyongyang attacked. Dwight Eisenhower didn’t consider South Vietnam important enough to defend militarily; Lyndon Johnson did. By the 1970s, some American hawks were warning about the consequences of Communist control of Somalia and Angola.

What came after the Cold War, then, was a continuation of, not a sharp break from, a pattern. But the removal of the fear of sparking World War III and launching global Armageddon did change the calculus.

Promoting democracy and defending human rights were considered expressions of American values. Any country that opposed the expansion of American power was deemed a threat. But without the language of interests, as Kennan had warned, championing American values and opposing foreign threats were limitless endeavors.

Foreign-policy strategy requires harmonizing means and ends, yet during the first two decades of the post-Cold War era, American foreign-policy commentators stopped trying to “define the limit” to America’s overseas ends. The results of this shift are especially troublesome today, as America struggles with reduced means. After years of post-9/11 increases, America’s defense budget is decreasing. There’s also less money for foreign aid. Challengers like China, Russia, and Iran are fighting the enlargement of American power and American-style government. Obama, by withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and resisting military action in Syria and Iran, has tried to better align America’s overseas obligations with its domestic resources. But he’s encountered relentless criticism from hawks who want America to push forward, as hard as possible, on every frontier.

Without using the word, Beinart advises a return to Realism:

[R]eporters should begin their coverage of each foreign crisis with this question: Why should Americans care? In today’s environment, that sounds churlish. But it didn’t always. Lippmann famously called U.S. foreign policy the “Shield of the Republic.” Part of his point was that the best yardstick for evaluating U.S. policies overseas was their effect on citizens at home. By asking why Americans should care that Russia controls Crimea or that Iran has a nuclear program, journalists would force a discussion of American interests. They’d make politicians and pundits explain exactly how events in a given country might make Americans less safe, less prosperous, or less free. In some cases, after all, when America enlarges its sphere of influence, its citizens lose more—in money, freedom, or blood—than they gain. Focusing on ordinary Americans would bring attention to this possibility.

At times, the politicians or pundits might admit that Americans have no tangible interests in a given country, just a moral obligation to prevent killing, poverty, or oppression. That’d be fine. At least they’d be making their case honestly.

My major professor in graduate school, Don Snow, used a similar device with the conflicts of the (now long ago) day. “Take out a clean sheet of paper,” he’d say, “and write down all of the ways [democracy in Haiti, a cessation of violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kurdish self-determination] would improve your life.” The exercise was rhetorical, of course, as the paper would remain clean.

As it turns out, ignorant though they might be about the facts of international affairs or even basic geography, the American people are generally quite wise on making these choices. Naturally, they support kinetic military action in response to direct military attacks against us or our close allies. The instinct to fight in those circumstances is universal and it’s bolstered here by the knowledge that we’re almost certain to prevail militarily. Additionally, Americans almost universally support intervention to perform humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and other non-kinetic missions to help people in other countries. They see these as the right thing to do given our place in the world and worth the relatively low cost to perform. Intervention in other people’s civil wars? Our default position is No. It takes some powerful convincing to move off that default.

Oddly, however, American presidents and other political leaders seem to have a harder time with this than the general public.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Oddly, however, American presidents and other political leaders seem to have a harder time with this than the general public.

    Sorry James but there is nothing odd about it. There is a great deal of money to be made in military actions and war and Presidents and political leaders are highly influenced by the military industrial complex..

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    There is a great deal of money to be made in military actions and war and Presidents and political leaders are highly influenced by the military industrial complex..

    I think this explains a lot of our defense spending and decisions on hardware and the like. But I don’t think we make decisions to go to war based on pressure from industry.

    The reason that presidents are more prone to intervene than the general public, I think, is simply a function of sitting in the big chair and feeling enormous pressure to “do something” that the ordinary citizen—or even the same individual in any other political office—doesn’t.

    As to Congress, there are a multitude of reasons. There are a significant number of ideologues, both neocons and liberal interventionists, in important positions that are pro intervention as a matter of course. And there are partisan reasons to being against whatever it is the sitting president is doing. For Democratic presidents, in particular, it’s useful to paint them as “weak” when they refuse to take major military action.

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  3. Tillman says:

    Obama, by withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and resisting military action in Syria and Iran, has tried to better align America’s overseas obligations with its domestic resources.

    That is not how I remember it. Iran, yes, a Republican president would’ve bombed it back to the stone age three times over by now, but Syria I recall quite differently.

    Unless you subscribe to the idea that Obama was bluffing. I don’t.

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  4. DrDaveT says:

    One problem with Realism is that, like all profit motives, it tends to be short-sighted. Ask yourself in 1940 “How will my life be improved if India is a functioning democracy?”, and the paper stays clean. Ask yourself “How will my grandchildren’s lives be improved?”, and the answer is different.

    On even longer time scales, classical Liberalism believes that all of us are better off as more and more of the world adopts the Liberal ideals of democracy, free trade, equality, secularism, and peace. Policies that work toward that long term goal, even if they show no immediate local benefit, can be justified on that basis — if your population isn’t too self-absorbed.

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  5. Slugger says:

    Simple ignorance is our problem. I was watching one of the news channels, it does not matter which one, during the Egyptian unrest following the death of Mubarak. Suddenly it me that none of the talking heads had ever been to Egypt, none spoke the language, and none knew the history of the country. The same people talk about Syria, Ukraine, missing jetliners, healthcare, the economy, the operations of the VA, and North Korea. I remember seeing Wolf Blitzer, who had been a Middle East correspondent, on Jeopardy where he missed a question about Nazareth. We are getting our information from people who know nothing about the topic. If there is a crisis tomorrow in Pakistan, will our TV’s be full of people who know the country, its history, its culture, its inhabitants, or language? I don’t think so; I think will see the same crew as always giving their opinions. Since heir opinions are based on no knowledge, we get ideologic purity and partisan rabblerousing for everything.
    In an age where information travels faster than ever, we are listening to stupid people. We can not think strategically because we do not know what is going on.

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  6. michael reynolds says:

    Sorry, no, the American people are not repositories of foreign policy wisdom. The American people are ignoramuses.

    In an organized world strategy is more useful than in an unorganized world. Nazis vs. The West, or Communists vs. The West is organized. Us and them. Good guys and Bad Guys. That’s been the model since December 7, 1941. And crucially, the American people were able to grasp that world view: it was simple good and evil, which is all the people can handle.

    But that’s no longer the model. We have separate, largely stand-alone issues with North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Israel, Cuba, Russia and China, just to hit some of the high points. I think a grand strategy that somehow folded these unique problems into some overarching system of thought would be inadvisable. I think we’re in an opportunist moment rather than in a grand strategic moment. But that demands a level of subtlety our people are incapable of.

    To be a good opportunist doesn’t require a rigid strategic frame, but it does require prudence and a clear set of goals. What do we want? That should be the simplest question for any country, company or individual, and yet it is rarely seen clearly. People have a very hard time keeping their eyes on the prize.

    I think for us the prize is first and foremost stability. We need reliable trading partners and we need governments capable of enforcing their own laws within their own borders as well as participating in international institutions. Given a choice between a genuine democratic state with appropriate institutions and an authoritarian state, we obviously prefer the former. But given a choice between an authoritarian state and a failed state, we must prefer the former. Our troubles are not coming from nation-states so much as from bits of territory outside the control of a government – Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Somalia. Cuba’s an enemy but not a problem because they are stable. Egypt’s a friend but a danger because they may become unstable. Terrorism grows in instability.

    But there’s the problem of the American national character. We don’t like thugs and we don’t like to see people suffering. There’s an obvious conflict here. We despise people like Mr. Assad, but as a practical matter an Assad government is probably preferable to the likely alternatives. We didn’t like Qaddafi and no one mourns his passing, but we probably have worse now. And then there’s Saddam Hussein.

    This all places a great burden on an American president. He/she should logically pursue stability, but he must cloak every move in the myth of American morality. We can’t tell the American people the truth lest we offend their moral certainties. Thus we can’t speak honestly to the larger world which makes us look like sanctimonious hypocrites. We can’t carry out diplomacy in secret because there are no secrets anymore. We can’t deploy force if there’s any chance of losing men or killing innocents. But if we fail to use force we’re blamed for the consequences of inaction and the political opposition start braying about weakness, which of course has the effect of actually making us weaker.

    It’s a nearly impossible tangle. The core problem is the American people. They’re naive, deeply ignorant, swayed by random emotional appeals, devoid of historical context, subject to sudden enthusiasms followed by bi-polar depressions and indifference. The American people don’t know what they want. If they did then the elites would fall in line. Right now the people want to rescue Nigerian girls but without losing a man or spending a dollar or risking an innocent casualty. In other words, they want the impossible. In situation after situation, it’s the people who won’t come to grips with reality.

    So, contra James, I don’t think the American people bring much wisdom to foreign policy. On the contrary, they tend to be stupid, ignorant, emotional and generally wrong. The world was saved because FDR lied to the American people for years. The people were champing at the bit to get into WW1 and obsessed with staying out of WW2 – wrong on both counts. It took the American people until the summer of 1968 before a bare majority agreed that getting into Vietnam was a mistake. It took another 5 years before that number rose to 60%.

    The American people are idiots, therefore our elites are idiots, not the other way around.

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  7. Rafer Janders says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Policies that work toward that long term goal, even if they show no immediate local benefit, can be justified on that basis — if your population isn’t too self-absorbed.

    Damnit, we’re screwed.

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  8. anjin-san says:

    The American people are ignoramuses.

    It goes even beyond this. To a large degree, they are willfully ignorant and proud of it.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: Most Realists agree that democracy, free trade, and so forth are in our long term interests. I’m really talking about the issue of intervention in civil wars and military adventurism generally.

    @michael reynolds: The public writ large is likely right more often on interventionism than the elites. I don’t think the public were clamoring to get into Vietnam. Told by their leaders that we’d been attacked at the Gulf of Tonkin–a lie–and that the fight was necessary to contain global Communism, the public went along. And the leaders kept it up long after they realized it was a bad idea because they didn’t want to admit to the people that they’d screwed up.

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  10. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m really talking about the issue of intervention in civil wars and military adventurism generally.

    And I’m pointing out that you have to balance the short-term against the long-term, because they can and do conflict. It was in our short-term Realist interests to participate in the Mossadegh assassination in Iran, and put in Pahlavi. In the long term, it not only led to a loss in worldwide Liberalism, but also hurt US interests.

    And that’s if I grant your point. I can think of a number of realists who think it’s better to control other countries than to let them self-determine. Even if you think that really is in our long-term best interests, it’s clearly anti-Liberalist.

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  11. anjin-san says:

    I don’t think the public were clamoring to get into Vietnam.

    Perhaps not, but they had essentially given the government a blank check when it came to “fighting communism”, which made disasters like the Vietnam war possible/probable.

    How many people think, to this day, that Iraq had something to do with 9.11, and that the Iraq war somehow helped us balance the books?

    The masses may not be clamoring for war, but they tend to go happily in the direction they are driven.

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  12. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think we have a foreign policy in the sense that you’re suggesting and we never have had. That’s different from, say, France or Great Britain.

    Our foreign policy is an emergent phenomenon, the product of the combined decisions and actions of millions of Americans. Every time we shop at Walmart or fill up our gas tanks we’re making a foreign policy decision.

    Consequently, the very notion of “strategic thinking” when used in the context of the United States is a meaningless noise. The George Kennans are the exception rather than the rule. We have been very, very fortunate for a century. Maybe the world will continue to go our way. I don’t think that’s a certainty.

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  13. Dave Schuler says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The people were champing at the bit to get into WW1

    That is simply untrue, Michael. Three-quarters of the American people opposed our entry into the war, as shown by the earliest opinion polls on the subject available. Additional confirmation: the drubbing that the president’s party took in the 1920 elections.

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  14. Moosebreath says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    ” Three-quarters of the American people opposed our entry into the war, as shown by the earliest opinion polls on the subject available. Additional confirmation: the drubbing that the president’s party took in the 1920 elections.”

    And that Wilson’s slogan in running for re-election in 1916 was “He kept us out of war”.

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  15. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Earliestpolls being the critical factor. By the time the Germans unleashed unrestricted submarine warfare, the public was raring to go.

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  16. michael reynolds says:

    Actually, I should have said when they restarted unrestricted submarine warfare. There was a brief early phase, the Germans backed off, then later cranked it up again. Of course Entente propaganda had by then done a very good job of turning the Germans into monsters.

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  17. Grewgills says:

    @James Joyner:

    The public writ large is likely right more often on interventionism than the elites.

    Not because of knowledge or wisdom, rather because of a reflexive no in the face of American casualties.

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  18. MBunge says:

    @DrDaveT: Policies that work toward that long term goal, even if they show no immediate local benefit, can be justified on that basis — if your population isn’t too self-absorbed.

    I believe Bush/Cheney and company have made darn near that same long term argument when it comes to Iraq. If the only way you can justify a policy is by claiming it will lead to something good at some unspecified point in the future, there’s nothing self-absorbed about failing to find that persuasive.

    Mike

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  19. bill says:

    @anjin-san: i know- was listening to npr the other day and the topic was something like “is obama weak”?. one guy said the inaction in the mid-east/syria led to the crimea stuff as well as north korea and china both stoking flames. another guy countered that he was wrong as we just sent marines to chad to find missing girls……i just had to laugh at that analogy. i mean really, who wrote his stuff for him?!

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  20. Just 'nutha' says:

    @James Joyner: It may bet that the public is correct on interventionism more often than the elites, but if the correctness is based on lack of knowledge, which it appears to me that it is, then that correctness is no more accurate than any other random walk phenomenon. The dartboard at the WSJ consistently proves more accurate than the stock researchers, but it’s not because the darts are more prescient.

    In defense on the elites (something that I rarely am interested in), note what Lippmann and company decided was automatically (if you will) included in “defending the nation’s interests”–any event in North or South America, Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. Had they been insightful enough to predict anti-colonialism, I’m sure they would have included Africa, too.

    Where are we not to intervene based on these criteria?

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  21. anjin-san says:

    @ bill

    is obama weak

    I know this won’t make any sense to you, but liberals, in general, don’t have to prove their manhood by sending other men off to fight and die.

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  22. James Joyner says:

    @Just ‘nutha’:

    note what Lippmann and company decided was automatically (if you will) included in “defending the nation’s interests”–any event in North or South America, Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. Had they been insightful enough to predict anti-colonialism, I’m sure they would have included Africa, too.

    Where are we not to intervene based on these criteria?

    Lippmann said we had interests in those areas, not that everything in those areas was our interest.

    -prevent an enemy power from establishing a beachhead in the Americas So, virtually nothing in Latin America qualifies for intervention. But perhaps a Russian or Chinese attempt to establish a military base would.

    -no enemy power should be allowed to dominate Europe Would the current Ukraine situation qualify? I don’t think so. We didn’t see East and Central Europe as crucial even in the context of the Cold War.

    -no enemy power should shut the United States out of East Asia So, the area access, area denial threat from China that is at the focus of the Pentagon’s “pivot” to Asia would absolutely qualify.

    -no adversary should block America’s access to Middle Eastern oil So, Syria’s civil war is a nuisance. You could argue Iran’s nuclear program either way. An Iranian threat to close the Straits of Hormuz? Absolutely.

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  23. gVOR08 says:

    There’s a lot to take exception to in this post and thread, starting with the idea that the electorate, i.e. Joe Sixpack, should, could, or does have any insight into foreign policy. But I’ll confine myself to this:

    But I don’t think we make decisions to go to war based on pressure from industry.

    We seem to have invaded Iraq for the oil industry.

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  24. anjin-san says:

    We seem to have invaded Iraq for the oil industry.

    Well, that and opportunities for Cheney’s pals to make billions off war profiteering.

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  25. bill says:

    @anjin-san: it was an npr topic, not mine. the analogy of sending marines to some weak african country vs. standing up to russia/china/norkor was the gist of it. although the world does think obama is weak, and sending marines to chad (hey, one could die just by accident) furthers that notion.
    the latest twist on the missing girls is that nigeria knows whee they are…..but don’t want to risk harming them to free them- they could just ask israel to do it!

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  26. bill says:

    @anjin-san: yet gas is at historically high levels, is obama paying off his oil buddies too!?

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  27. grumpy realist says:

    @James Joyner: It’s probably the reason we get into a tizzy and DO THINGS even if they’re ineffectual 50% of the time. If we do it, and it doesn’t work, we can always say “at least we tried” (and our political opponent can’t use it against us). But if we don’t do something and the situation gets really bad, we’ve just handed a big fat stick to our political enemies.

    Plus, the costs of carrying out the activity aren’t carried by me alone, but are spread out among the populace.

    Which means that, unless a great uproar/complaint arises from the hoi polloi to NOT go in, it’s always better for me personally to carry out the foreign mission….

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  28. DrDaveT says:

    @MBunge:

    I believe Bush/Cheney and company have made darn near that same long term argument when it comes to Iraq.

    Yes, they told a lot of Big Lies when it came to Iraq. Anyone who thought US intervention in Iraq was going to produce a Liberal Democracy in that country, without 40 years of intervening US occupation, is an idiot.

    There is a substantial literature on what actually works to promote democracy, secularism, peace, etc. It does not include deposing the sadistic tyrant of a country with not one but two persecuted religious/ethnic minorities and a recently belligerent neighbor, then leaving them all to sort things out for themselves.

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