Micah Zenko

The Pretenders

When people say the U.S. needs to control events abroad better, this is what they really mean.


On Sunday, while discussing the latest horrific state violence unleashed upon unarmed civilian protestors in Egypt, David Gregory wondered aloud on Meet the Press: "One of the things that’s striking as I talk to people is this question why can’t the U.S. do more, why can’t we have greater influence here?" Beyond the current events in Egypt, Gregory’s question is one that U.S. officials, policymakers, and pundits consistently apply to any country or region that defies U.S. foreign policy objectives.

The illusory belief of America’s ability to shape, leverage, influence, sway, direct, or control foreign events is widespread within Washington’s foreign policy community. Its direct implication is that whenever or wherever things go wrong elsewhere on earth, it must be America’s fault. To maintain this underlying presumption, it is required that you pretend 10 things:

  • Pretend that the United States had vastly greater influence over foreign affairs in the past. When in doubt, compare current events with the Cold War, now routinely misremembered as a five-decade era when all foreign leaders took their direct orders from Washington or Moscow. Forget all of the vast disconfirming evidence from the Cold War that contradicts this thesis. Starting from this false standard of perfect compliance with U.S. commands, American "influence" abroad is always diminishing.
  • Pretend that when other countries do not act as Washington wishes, their misbehavior stems from U.S. foreign policy shortcomings elsewhere. The existence of a U.S. foreign policy problem anywhere is contagious, and, if allowed to spread, will be the direct cause of foreign policy problems everywhere else.
  • Pretend that foreign leaders do not make decisions based on their parochial self-interest, or their states’ national interests, but rather by conducting a daily calculation of U.S. credibility. Whenever the decision of a foreign leader contrasts with what Washington demands, U.S. global credibility is "waning" and in need of being "restored."
  • Pretend that quiet diplomacy and public condemnation is meaningless and that only a bold event or policy change — i.e., sources of "leverage" — will correct the mistakes of a wayward country. Those foreign policy activities that cannot be seen or measured — or those lacking an immediate and demonstrable impact — must be deemed worthless.
  • Pretend that neighboring and nearby states neither exist, nor have their own competing interests inside of the misbehaving country. Or, should those states possess their own interests that undercut U.S. objectives, pretend that they are temporary and can be turned around with sufficient presidential leadership and "tough" talk.
  • Pretend that foreign leaders and their citizens have forgotten the history of U.S. involvement in their country, or the role such involvement played in leading to the current situation. If they mention previous U.S. diplomatic or military interventions in their country or region they are "stuck in the past," and are ignoring the deliberation and thoughtfulness that led to the current U.S. policy.
  • Pretend that these foreign leaders and their citizens also desperately want to be shaped and led by Washington. They are constrained by their own ancient grievances and ideological and/or sectarian feuds, and subsequently crave Uncle Sam’s role as broker and enforcer of a new political era. This is as much for them as us. As Secretary of State John Kerry often proclaims: "Global leadership is a strategic imperative for America, not a favor we do for other countries."
  • Pretend, when this fails, that the defiant foreign leader simply lacks the leadership skills or acuity to comprehend what is in his country’s best interests, which incidentally coincides with what Washington currently wants. Pretend that their replacement will get the picture and fall in line.
  • Pretend that prior, failed efforts to correct disobedient leaders in other countries contain no lessons that can be applied to the current situation. This requires being unaware of comparable historical examples and believing that the political and social dynamics in the insubordinate country are wholly unique.
  • Pretend that whenever a suboptimal situation happens elsewhere it is ultimately America’s responsibility to rectify through doing "more" of something. Never ask why it is America’s obligation and burden to do more, and certainly not why you have come to believe this or what more could plausibly be achieved.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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