Stephen M. Walt

The New Foreign Policy Sobriety

The New Foreign Policy Sobriety

FP colleague Dan Drezner has a good post up on the recent Council on Foreign Relations/Pew poll of U.S. attitudes toward foreign policy, which shows a wholly unsurprising decline in American enthusiasm for a really active international role. No, Virginia, this isn’t a sign of growing "isolationism," because Americans clearly still believe in engaging the rest of the world and aren’t advocating a retreat to "Fortress America." But it is a sign of diminished interest in trying to "pay any price and bear any burden," and it marks a (possibly temporary) convergence in elite and public attitudes on this question. After all, this is a year when the president of the highly internationalist CFR published a book calling for the United States to focus more attention at home.

As Dan notes, this shift is the entirely predictable result of the past couple of decades of American global activism, especially the setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan and the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. If all that activity had achieved consistently positive results or if the results had been mixed but the cost had been low, then most Americans wouldn’t have noticed or cared, and the neoconservative/liberal internationalist alliance of Ambitious Policy Wonks could have continued to run around the world pursuing their various pet projects. But by 2013, it has been clear that the costs weren’t low and the results weren’t great, with the impact on public attitudes that we now see.

One hates to keep dumping on George W. Bush’s administration, but facts are facts and it’s hard not to see them as mostly responsible for this shift. Bill Clinton had an ambitious global agenda, but he was extremely leery of open-ended overseas commitments and especially wary of sending U.S. ground troops to overthrow or occupy other countries. When he did intervene, he did it with multilateral support and handed the task off to others as quickly as he could. Barack Obama has been pretty reluctant to make big military commitments too. He agonized over the Afghanistan surge (and put a strict time limit on it), refused pressure to attack Iran, and took a back-seat role in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. Instead of big, costly invasions, he has used drones and special operations forces in a lot of places, just as Clinton used cruise missiles and air power. And like Clinton, he has placed more emphasis on genuine diplomacy, which may still yield decent results on a least a few issues.

By contrast, Bush made the fateful decisions to invade Afghanistan and then Iraq and ended up in costly quagmires in both countries. He did this partly in a panicked reaction to the 9/11 attacks, partly because he bought the neoconservatives’ goofy program for using the U.S. military to spread liberty throughout the Middle East, and partly because the initial success against the Taliban convinced him that the United States now had the recipe for regime change "on the cheap." Unfortunately, removing a regime you don’t like doesn’t necessarily make things better, and it often creates as many problems as it solves. And his administration was never very enthusiastic about diplomacy, especially during his first term, and for the most part was never very good at it either.

The CFR/Pew poll suggests that both elites and the mass public have learned an important lesson. The United States is very good at deterring large-scale conventional aggression and very good at reversing it when it occurs (as when Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait in 1990). It’s also still quite good at "commanding the commons" (e.g., oceans and airspace), which is a valuable global public good. But the U.S. government is not good at running other countries, especially when these states are fragile, internally divided, generally opposed to foreign interference, and very different in culture and history from the United States. Nor is the United States likely to get better at it with practice. The American people have little objection to the United States continuing to perform the former set of tasks, and they have little interest in trying to do the latter. If a similar realization encourages ambitious foreign-policy elites to shelve some of their own interventionist instincts, so much the better.