Why a big-name D.C.-based think tank’s report on U.S. foreign policy is unimaginative, predictably U.S.-centric, and a recipe for failure.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Question: If a well-established set of policies is visibly failing, public skepticism is growing, and promising alternative approaches are beginning to gain a bit of traction in public discourse, what should dedicated defenders of the status quo do? Specifically, given that the grand strategy of liberal hegemony has produced an array of costly failures over the past 20-plus years, how can its proponents head off calls for a smarter foreign policy and persuade the American people to keep trying to run the world?
Answer: Take your Official Beltway Policy Cookbook off the shelf and prepare the following recipe:
Step 1: Assemble a bipartisan group of experienced former officials, carefully chosen for their commitment to the familiar nostrums of “American leadership.”
Step 2: Invite them to a few meetings, dinners, or study sessions, where they can hear testimony from other like-minded experts. Do not prepare original research or listen to anyone who might offer a sharply critical, “outside-the-box” perspective.
Step 3: Hire an able wordsmith who knows how to dress up the same old conclusions with new and inspiring rhetoric. Produce a report that is long enough to appear substantial, but short enough that some people will actually read it.
Step 4: Slap a patriotic cover on the final report — the American flag is always a winner — and disseminate it widely via social media.
Step 5: Repeat as needed.
The Center for a New American Security’s new report, Extending American Power, is a textbook illustration of what this recipe produces. Indeed, it is the latest in a series of similar documents that mainstream foreign-policy institutions have produced over the past decade or more, such as the lengthy Princeton Project in National Security (2006) or the Project for a United and Strong America’s more recent Setting Priorities for American Leadership: A New National Strategy for the United States (2013). These and other reports are essentially interchangeable, insofar as they all portray the United States as the “indispensable” linchpin of the present world order, they warn that any alteration of America’s role in the world would have catastrophic consequences, and offer up a lengthy “to-do” list of projects that Washington must undertake in far-flung corners of the globe.
The composition and conduct of this latest CNAS study are precisely what one expects, as are its conclusions. The co-chairs were former Clinton-era State Department official James Rubin and the ubiquitous neoconservative pundit Robert Kagan. The team members included boldface foreign-policy names such as Michele Flournoy, Robert Zoellick, Kurt Campbell, Stephen Hadley, James Steinberg, Eric Edelman, and a number of others. The witnesses invited to testify at the group’s working dinners were equally unsurprising: Stephen Sestanovich, Elliot Abrams, Dennis Ross, Victoria Nuland, Martin Indyk, and a few more familiar faces. The only potentially contrarian witnesses were Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group and Vali Nasr of John Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, but even they are hardly outside the mainstream.
Needless to say, this is neither a group nor a process likely to produce a deep or rigorous evaluation of recent U.S. foreign policy. After all, the report’s signatories helped create many of the problems they now seek to fix, so you’d hardly expect them to cast a critical eye on their own handiwork. As a result, the CNAS report is the last place to look for an evenhanded assessment of past successes and failures, much less new ideas about how America should approach today’s world.
Instead, what one reads is a rather tired defense of American liberal hegemony. It begins by lauding the “liberal world order” that has “produced immense benefits” for humankind, and declares “to preserve and strengthen this order will require a renewal of American leadership in the international system.” Never mind that the report neither spells out what that “order” is nor identifies the connection between this supposed order and the policies needed to preserve it. Never mind that much of the planet was not part of that order or that recent U.S. efforts to expand its sway have produced costly quagmires, rising chaos, and deteriorating relations with other major powers. Nor does it ask if there are elements of the existing order that should be rethought. Instead, the report simply posits that a liberal world order exists and that it cannot survive without the energetic use of American power in many places.
To maintain America’s “leadership role,” the report calls for significant increases in national security spending and recommends the United States expand its military activities in three major areas: Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. It leaves open the possibility that the United States might have to do more in other places too, so its real agenda may be even more ambitious than the authors admit.
In Europe, Washington must “stabilize Ukraine and anchor it in Europe” (ignoring the U.S. role in causing the present crisis), “establish a more robust U.S. presence in Central and Eastern European countries,” and “restore capacity for European strategic leadership.” The contradiction here is hard to miss: Why should we expect Europe to develop a renewed capacity for “strategic leadership” when the United States reserves that role for itself and Europe’s leaders can still rely on Uncle Sam to ride to the rescue whenever things look worrisome?
In Asia, the United States should counter a rising China by continuing the Obama administration’s “pivot,” implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and strengthening its defense capabilities. Washington may also have to “impose regional costs” on China for its actions in the South China Sea and inflict “commensurate economic penalties to slow Chinese dominance.” Yet Washington should also “facilitate China’s continued integration so as to blunt its historical fears of ‘containment.’” Huh? We’re going to assemble all the ingredients and policies needed to contain China — and maybe even slow its rise — but somehow Beijing won’t notice or care or respond. This is wishful thinking, not strategy.
In the Middle East, the CNAS group wants to “scale up” the effort against the Islamic State, with the United States in the leading role. It also calls for a no-fly zone in Syria, and if that’s not enough, Washington “must adopt as a matter of policy, the goal of defeating Iran’s determined effort to dominate the Middle East.” The report does not explain how Persian Iran will manage to “dominate” the Arab Middle East with a defense budget that is less than 5 percent of ours, and in the face of potential opposition from Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and several other states. In fact, the only way Iran will dominate the Middle East in the near future is if the United States keeps toppling its rivals, as it did when it foolishly invaded Iraq in 2003 (a step most of the signatories of this report supported).
The U.S. commitment to Israel must be “unshakable” (of course), but the authors do not bother to explain how unconditional U.S. support for Israel makes the United States richer, more influential, or more secure (hint: it doesn’t). Washington should “assist” Israel and the Palestinians in moving toward a two-state solution but “only when both sides are ready … to negotiate in good faith.” Given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s steadfast opposition to anything remotely resembling a viable Palestinian state and the rightward march of Israeli domestic politics, this prescription actually means doing nothing, while continuing to subsidize Israel’s occupation in perpetuity. The result will not be two states but a de facto one state — or Greater Israel — thus threatening Israel’s long-term future and making Washington look both hypocritical and ineffectual.
In short, this report calls on the United States to maintain every one of its current international commitments, double down on policies that have repeatedly failed, and take on expensive, risky, and uncertain projects in several regions at once. Some of its recommendations make sense — for example, I’d endorse some of their prescriptions regarding Asia — but the overall package is the same boundless vision of U.S. “leadership” that has guided U.S. foreign policy since the Soviet Union broke apart. And in case you haven’t noticed, that strategy has done little to make the world or the United States safer, stronger, or richer.
How can a group of smart and experienced people produce such an unimaginative document? Part of the reason is the process employed: You can’t expect any group of people — no matter how savvy — to come up with something rigorous, imaginative, and compelling in the course of few dinner meetings. Creative strategizing is even less likely to occur when the purpose of the exercise is to defend a predetermined bottom line. And that’s what is really on offer here.
For starters, Extending American Power never defines U.S. strategic interests or explains why those interests are important to our security and well-being. It says hardly anything about America’s geographic position, resource endowments, demographic characteristics, underlying economic interests, or core strategic requirements. It does not try to rank vital interests, assess the potential threats to those interests, or consider different ways potential threats might be addressed. Rather, the report simply assumes the United States has vital interests everywhere, that a liberal world order will preserve them, and that maintaining that order requires deploying and using American power in distant corners of the world.
Perhaps they’re right, but the report makes no attempt to explain why a no-fly zone in Syria would make Americans safer or more prosperous. Nor does it explain why U.S. security demands it take the leading role against the Islamic State, confront Iran, or stabilize Ukraine. Most revealing of all, the report does not tell readers why the United States must continue to underwrite the security of Europe, a continent that is far wealthier and more populous than its declining Russian neighbor, and whose member states spend at least four times more on defense than Russia does each and every year.
Second, the authors cannot decide if the United States is supremely powerful or seriously vulnerable. The report suggests increased defense spending is easily affordable, because “the American economy has proven to be the most dynamic and most resilient in the face of setbacks.” But if this is true, then perhaps the U.S. economy is not that sensitive to events elsewhere in the world, and the turmoil that the signatories now decry does not threaten U.S. prosperity as much as they suggest. And if that is indeed the case, then why must the United States do the heavy lifting in three distant regions?
By contrast, if U.S. prosperity is critically dependent on events in distant corners of the planet, then perhaps America is not as omnipotent as they maintain and trying to manage local politics in three distinct regions will be harder than they think. As the report admits, the United States couldn’t even persuade its closest allies to stay out of China’s Asian Infrastructure Bank, yet it assumes Washington can still control the politics and security environment in three very different regions simultaneously.
Third, like the neoconservatives who promised the invasion of Iraq would be quick and cheap and yield manifold benefits, the report assumes the recommended “extensions” of American power carry no real risks. If America just asserts itself in all these places, the report assumes adversaries will be cowed and behave pretty much as we want. The past 25 years might have taught the signatories that 1) other states have vital interests too; 2) the enemy gets a vote; 3) even close allies don’t always follow the U.S. lead; and 4) military force is a crude instrument that typically produces lots of unintended consequences, and sometimes fails completely — as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Yet the possibility that their various prescriptions will not work as intended does not seem to have occurred to them. As soon as one of their ambitious projects goes badly, America’s ability to pursue the others will perforce decline.
Fourth, and following from the last point, the report’s authors do not recognize that even a global power like the United States needs to set priorities and make choices. There is no recognition that doing more in the Middle East might impinge on the U.S. ability to balance China in Asia, or that the strategy they recommend might drive China, Russia, and Iran closer together. There is no awareness that confronting Russia in its own backyard might undermine efforts to cooperate with Moscow over the conflict in Syria, China’s rising power, Iran’s nuclear program, or nuclear security more broadly. Nor do they admit that their strategy inevitably means higher taxes or bigger deficits (or both) and less money to devote to strengthening the long-term foundations of U.S. power: infrastructure, education, and R&D. For these reasons, as Daniel Davis warns in his own critique of the report, their prescriptions are more likely to jeopardize U.S. primacy than prolong it.
That possibility is even more likely if China’s leaders are smart enough to avoid costly conflicts and focuses primarily on building a world-class economy. Remember: The United States joined the ranks of the great powers by staying out of distant battles and building power at home, and the European powers’ penchant for fighting ruinous wars helped accelerate America’s rise. Beijing appears to have learned that lesson well, while Washington repeatedly forgets it.
Fifth, what is perhaps most revealing about this unqualified defense of liberal hegemony is how insensitive it is to the actual state of the world. It doesn’t matter where the United States is located, what its internal condition is, where principal dangers might lie, what the balance of power is in different parts of the world, or whether the main challenge we face is a large and well-armed peer competitor like the Soviet Union or a shadowy terrorist network like al Qaeda. No matter what the question is, the answer is always the same: The United States is the “indispensable power,” it must take the lead in solving every global issue, and it must actively interfere in other countries in order to keep the current world order intact.
Extending American Power ends by warning that “the task of preserving a world order is both difficult and never-ending.” The authors undoubtedly hope this admonition will persuade readers to suck it up and bear the necessary burdens of running the world. What this statement actually reveals, however, is that they recognize the liberal order the United States has labored for decades to create is about as durable as cotton candy.
This depressing realization suggests America’s foreign-policy experts need to rethink their basic approach to dealing with the rest of the world, instead of simply devising new rationales for a failing strategy. But as this report (and others like it) demonstrate, that much-needed reassessment is not likely to emerge from the same people and institutions that helped bring us to where we are today.
Photo credit: CRAIG Z. RODARTE/U.S. Navy/Flickr