Embrace the Chaos

U.S. foreign policy is a mess -- a big, aimless mess. But the only way to build a grand strategy is to accept both global disarray and American decline.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There are shellackings, and then there are shellackings -- and this one was a doozy. White House loyalists may tell us that the 2014 midterm election results weren't a repudiation of U.S. President Barack Obama's leadership, but the voting public knows better. So does Hillary Clinton, and so do Republican strategists. And though foreign policy is rarely decisive in and of itself, bipartisan frustration with the president's seemingly rudderless foreign policy surely helped drag down the Democratic Party's electoral fortunes this time around.

There are shellackings, and then there are shellackings — and this one was a doozy. White House loyalists may tell us that the 2014 midterm election results weren’t a repudiation of U.S. President Barack Obama’s leadership, but the voting public knows better. So does Hillary Clinton, and so do Republican strategists. And though foreign policy is rarely decisive in and of itself, bipartisan frustration with the president’s seemingly rudderless foreign policy surely helped drag down the Democratic Party’s electoral fortunes this time around.

So: What is to be done?

My Foreign Policy colleague David Rothkopf doubts that anything can be done in the next two years, and he’s probably right, at least when it comes to the White House. The president and his inner circle haven’t shown much capacity for self-reflection, and in any case, Obama’s domestic weakness and lack of international credibility make substantial foreign-policy change unlikely.

But if the next two years are likely to be lost years anyway, why not use them to engage in the kind of long-term thinking that’s usually displaced by the crisis du jour? “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” wrote Shakespeare. “Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.” The midterm election results offered plenty of ugliness and venom, but they also invite us to take a big step back and think hard about U.S. strategy.

This year, while trying to defend himself after his ill-advised “we don’t have a strategy” comment, Obama insisted that, “the world has always been messy.” His subtext was clear: It’s easy and fun to throw stones, but you try fixing the world — you’ll find out soon enough that many messes are stubbornly resistant to fixing, particularly by the United States.

Fair enough. He was surely right to remind us that today’s tragic messes are hardly messier or more tragic than the past’s tragic messes. (Those who prefer their glasses half-full can take comfort in reflecting that the Ebola epidemic has nothing on the Black Death, for instance, while the Syrian conflict pales beside the Thirty Years’ War). But the world’s ongoing messiness is no excuse for a foreign policy that oscillates randomly between extreme passivity and frantic but ineffectual action.

On the contrary: The world’s messiness is precisely what makes it essential for the United States to develop a coherent, forward-looking global strategy. With apologies to Tolstoy, each era of world messiness is messy in its own way — and each era of world messiness requires its own strategic approach. In fact, paradoxical though it may seem, perhaps the world’s current messiness — its dangers and its uncertainties — can help point us toward a more consistent, sustainable, and wise approach to U.S. global strategy.

So, in these first decades of the 21st century, what would constitute an appropriate grand strategy for the United States?

Let’s start by reviewing the character of the world’s current grand messiness. From there, let’s evaluate the position of the United States within that grand mess. At that point, perhaps we can come up with some core tenets of an appropriately revamped U.S. grand strategy. (Or just plain “strategy” if you prefer — at this point, even a little strategy is better than no strategy at all.)

Brace yourself. This is going to take a while.

I. The Character of the Mess

Defining the character of the current mess is the easy part. Briefly:

  • The last century’s technological revolutions have made our world more globally interconnected than ever.
  • Power (along with access to power) has become more democratized and diffuse in some ways, but more concentrated in other ways.
  • For most individuals around the globe, day-to-day life is far less dangerous and brutal than in previous eras; for the species as a whole, however, the risk of future global catastrophe has increased.
  • The continuously accelerating rate of technological and social change makes it increasingly difficult to predict the geopolitical future.

Nothing is particularly original about these observations; they’re repeated in some fashion in every major national strategic document produced over the last decade. They probably teach this stuff to kindergarteners now. Indeed, we’ve heard it all so often that it’s tempting to dismiss such claims as meaningless platitudes: Been there; theorized that. Can we get please get back to foreign-policy business as usual?

No, we can’t. Not if we want our children and grandchildren to live decent lives. If we care about the future at all, we need to do more than prattle on at cocktail parties about globalization, interconnectedness, complexity, danger, and uncertainty. We need to feel these seismic changes in our bones.

So bear with me. Let’s try to breathe some life into the clichés.

I’ve written about these issues before (here and here), and at risk of being both a narcissist and a broken record, I’ll quote myself:

The world has grown more complex. Believe it. The world now contains more people living in more states than ever before, and we’re all more interconnected. A hundred years ago, the world population was about 1.8 billion, there were roughly 60 sovereign states in the world, the automobile was still a rarity, and there were no commercial passenger flights and no transcontinental telephone service. Fifty years ago, global population had climbed to more than 3 billion and there were 115 U.N. member states, but air travel was still for the wealthy and the personal computer still lay two decades in the future.

Today? We’ve got 7 billion people living in 192 U.N. member states and a handful of other territories. These 7 billion people take 93,000 commercial flights a day from 9,000 airports, drive 1 billion cars, and carry 7 billion mobile phones around with them.

In numerous ways, life has gotten substantially better in this more crowded and interconnected era. Seventy years ago, global war killed scores of millions, but interstate conflict has declined sharply since the end of World War II, and the creation of the United Nations ushered in a far more egalitarian and democratic form of international governance than existed in any previous era. Today, militarily powerful states are far less free than in the pre-U.N. era to use overt force to accomplish their aims, and the world now has numerous transnational courts and dispute-resolution bodies that collectively offer states a viable alternative to the use of force. The modern international order is no global utopia, but it sure beats colonial domination and world wars.

In the 50 years that followed World War II, medical and agricultural advances brought unprecedented health and prosperity to most parts of the globe. More recently, the communications revolution has enabled exciting new forms of nongovernmental cross-border alliances to emerge, empowering, for instance, global human rights and environmental movements. In just the last two decades, the near-universal penetration of mobile phones has had a powerful leveling effect: All over the globe, people at every age and income level can use these tiny but powerful computers to learn foreign languages, solve complex mathematical problems, create and share videos, watch the news, move money around, or communicate with far-flung friends.

All this has had a dark side, of course. As access to knowledge has been democratized, so too has access to the tools of violence and destruction, and greater global interconnectedness enables disease, pollution, and conflict to spread quickly and easily beyond borders. A hundred years ago, no single individual or nonstate actor could do more than cause localized mayhem; today, we have to worry about massive bioengineered threats created by tiny terrorist cells and globally devastating cyberattacks devised by malevolent teen hackers.

Even as many forms of power have grown more democratized and diffuse, other forms of power have grown more concentrated. A very small number of states control and consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, and a very small number of individuals control most of the world’s wealth. (According to a 2014 Oxfam report, the 85 richest individuals on Earth are worth more than the globe’s 3.5 billion poorest people).

Indeed, from a species-survival perspective, the world has grown vastly more dangerous over the last century. Individual humans live longer than ever before, but a small number of states now possess the unprecedented ability to destroy large chunks of the human race and possibly the Earth itself — all in a matter of days or even hours. What’s more, though the near-term threat of interstate nuclear conflict has greatly diminished since the end of the Cold War, nuclear material and know-how are now both less controlled and less controllable.

Amid all these changes, our world has also grown far more uncertain. We possess more information than ever before and vastly greater processing power, but the accelerating pace of global change has far exceeded our collective ability to understand it, much less manage it. This makes it increasingly difficult to make predictions or calculate risks. As I’ve written previously:

We literally have no points of comparison for understanding the scale and scope of the risks faced by humanity today. Compared to the long, slow sweep of human history, the events of the last century have taken place in the blink of an eye. This should … give us pause when we’re tempted to conclude that today’s trends are likely to continue. Rising life expectancy? That’s great, but if climate change has consequences as nasty as some predict, a century of rising life expectancy could turn out to be a mere blip on the charts. A steep decline in interstate conflicts? Fantastic, but less than 70 years of human history isn’t much to go on….

That’s why one can’t dismiss the risk of catastrophic events [such as disastrous climate change or nuclear conflict] as “high consequence, low probability.” How do we compute the probability of catastrophic events of a type that has never happened? Does 70 years without nuclear annihilation tell us that there’s a low probability of nuclear catastrophe — or just tell us that we haven’t had a nuclear catastrophe yet?…

Lack of catastrophic change might signify a system in stable equilibrium, but sometimes — as with earthquakes — pressure may be building up over time, undetected….

Most analysts assumed the Soviet Union was stable — until it collapsed. Analysts predicted that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak would retain his firm grip on power — until he was ousted. How much of what we currently file under “Stable” should be recategorized under “Hasn’t Collapsed Yet”?

This, then, is the character of world messiness in this first quarter of the 21st century. So on to the next question: Where, in all this messiness, does the United States find itself?

II. The United States in the Mess: Goodbye, Lake Wobegon?

For Americans, the good news is that the United States remains an extraordinarily powerful nation. The United States has “the most powerful military in history,” Obama declared in a recent speech. Measured by sheer destructive capacity, he is surely right. The United States spends more on its military than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and India combined. The U.S. military can get to more places, faster, with more lethal and effective weapons, than any military on Earth.

The United States also manages to gobble up a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth and resources. By the year 2000, wrote Betsy Taylor and Dave Tilford, the United States, with “less than 5 percent of the world’s population,” was using “one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper.” In 2010, Americans possessed 39 percent of the planet’s wealth.

The bad news for Americans? U.S. power and global influence have been declining. In part, this is because various once-weak states have been growing stronger, and in part, it’s because no state can be as autonomous today as it might have been in the past. The United States’ geographical position long helped protect it from external interference, while its strong military and economy enabled it to dominate or control numerous less powerful states. But globalization has reduced every state’s autonomy, creating collective challenges — from climate change to the regulation of capital — that no state can fully address on its own.

U.S. power and global influence have also declined in absolute terms, as America’s own political and economic health has been called into question. The United States now has greater income inequality than almost every other state in the developed world — and most states in the developing world. American life expectancy ranks well below that of other industrialized democracies, and the same is true for infant mortality and elementary school enrollment. Meanwhile, the United States has the world’s highest per capita incarceration rate, and on international health and quality-of-life metrics, the United States has been losing ground for several decades. This domestic decline jeopardizes the country’s continued ability to innovate and prosper; it also makes American values and the American political and economic systems less appealing to others.

Worse, the political system that Americans rely on for reform and repair seems itself to be broken; the federal government shutdown in 2013 offered the world a striking illustration of U.S. political dysfunction. Add to this the divisive national security policies of George W. Bush’s administration — many of which were continued or expanded by the Obama administration — and it’s no surprise that the United States has recently become less admired and less emulated around the globe, reducing American “soft power.”

No matter how you slice it, it comes to the same thing: Compared with 30 years ago, the United States today has a greatly reduced ability to control its own destiny or the destiny of other states. The United States still has unprecedented power to destroy (Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden both discovered this, to their detriment). But the country’s capacity for destruction is not equaled by its capacity to shape the behavior of other states or their populations, and the United States has less and less ability to insulate itself from the world’s woes.

Unfortunately, American political leaders share a bipartisan inclination to deny these realities. Mostly, they succumb to the Lake Wobegon effect: “Declinism” and “declinist” have entered the American political vocabulary, but only as purely pejorative terms.

This is both stupid and dangerous. How can we adapt our global strategy to compensate for the ways in which U.S. power has been declining if we refuse to admit that decline?

Continued U.S. decline is certainly not inevitable, and some argue that the United States is in fact poised for an economic and political resurgence. There is no way to know for sure — but it’s worth recalling that, historically, every significant empire has eventually declined. Are we prepared to bet that the United States will prove an exception?

There is also no way to know for sure what form continued or eventual U.S. decline will take. We don’t know whether it will be fast or slow; we don’t know whether the American Empire is in for a hard landing or a soft one. Will the United States crash, like the former Soviet Union? Or will a slow decline in power leave the country an intact and influential nation, like the United Kingdom? Will America’s future be more like Canada’s present, or more like Brazil’s?

III. Behind the Veil of Ignorance: Uncertainty as Lodestone

We don’t know what America’s future will look like, and we can make fewer and fewer geopolitical predictions with confidence. The world has changed too much and too fast for us to accurately assess the probabilities of many types of future events. Perhaps this is why it’s so tempting for Americans to stay in Lake Wobegon, with eyes closed and fingers crossed. Uncertainty is frightening.

But paradoxically, this very uncertainty should be a lodestone, pointing realists and idealists alike toward a sensible, forward-looking global strategy. In fact, radical uncertainty can be a powerful tool for strategic planning.

That may seem oxymoronic, but consider one of the 20th century’s most influential thought experiments: In his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, philosopher John Rawls famously sought to use a hypothetical situation involving extreme uncertainty to derive optimal principles of justice.

Imagine, said Rawls, rational, free, and equal humans seeking to devise a set of principles to undergird the structure of human society. Imagine further that they must reason from behind what Rawls dubbed a “veil of ignorance,” which hides from them their own future status or attributes. Behind the veil of ignorance, wrote Rawls, people still possess general knowledge of economics, science, and so forth, and they can draw on this knowledge to assist them in designing a future society. Their ignorance is limited to their own future role in the society they are designing: “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like.”

If we were collectively designing social structures and rules, but could not know our own individual future positions in that social structure, what structures and rules would we come up with? Applying a version of decision theory, Rawls concluded that in the face of such radical uncertainty, rational, free, and equal beings behind the veil of ignorance would be drawn toward a “maximin” (or “minimax“) rule of decision, in which they would seek to minimize their losses in a worst-case scenario. Since those behind the veil of ignorance don’t know whether they’ll be among the haves or among the have-nots in the society they are designing, they should seek to build a society in which they each will be least badly off — even the luck of the draw leads them to start with the fewest advantages.

Rawls posited that such a rule of decision should lead those behind the veil of ignorance to support two core principles: the first relating to liberty (“each person [should] have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others”), and the second relating to social and economic goods. (Social goods should be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution would serve the common good and be “to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged,” while “offices and positions [should remain] open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”)

This is in some ways intuitive: On a national level, it is the reason Americans across the political spectrum continue to express substantial support for the maintenance of unemployment benefits, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and so on. Any one of us might someday face a job loss or illness; nearly all of us will eventually face old age. We know we might someday need those benefits ourselves. In the face of uncertainty about the future, we all recognize the value of insurance, savings, and at least some minimal social safety net.

In the international arena, the same is true.

This has obvious implications for global strategy. Empires, like individuals, can sink into poverty, illness, or simple old age — and in an era of uncertainty, empires, like individuals, would do well to hedge against the possibility of future misfortune.

Indeed, two decades after the publication of A Theory of Justice, Rawls sought to apply a form of this thought experiment to derive the core principles that he believed would characterize a just global order. His arguments are complex, and I can’t do justice to them here — but fortunately, unlike Rawls, I am not interested in coming up with abstract principles of global justice. My less lofty agenda is limited to arguing that a crude version of Rawls’s thought experiment can help us delineate the contours of a sensible U.S. global strategy — a “maximin” strategy that is well-suited to protecting the interests of the United States and its people, both in today’s messy world and in a wide range of future messes.

Here’s my thought experiment.

Imagine a crude version of Rawls’s veil of ignorance, with only the United States behind it. This veil of ignorance doesn’t require us to disavow what we know of history (America’s or the world’s), nor does it require us to disavow what we know of recent trends, present global realities, U.S. values, or our current conception of the good. It only hides our future from us: Behind this veil of ignorance, we don’t know whether energy, food, water, and other vital resources will be scarcer or more plentiful in the decades to come; we don’t know whether global power will be more or less centralized; we don’t know whether new technologies and new forms of social organization will make existing technologies and institutions obsolete.

Most of all, we don’t know whether, in the decades to come, the United States will be rich or poor, weak or strong, respected or hated. For that matter, we don’t know whether the United States — or even the form of political organization we call the nation-state — will exist at all a century or two from now. In the face of such radical uncertainty, what kind of grand strategy should a rational United States adopt?

Of course, this shouldn’t really be called a “thought experiment” at all: The United States already operates behind a veil of ignorance, if we could only bring ourselves to admit it. We know the past; we have a reasonable understanding of recent trends; we know that the world is messy and dangerous; we know that the potential for rapid and potentially catastrophic change is real; and we know that our ability to predict future changes and quantify various risks is profoundly limited.

This knowledge is profoundly unsettling. Thus, we try our best to know and not know, at the same time: We speak glibly of complexity, accelerating change, danger, and uncertainty, but then fall back into the comfortable assumption that continued U.S. global dominance is a given and that catastrophic change is unlikely to occur. As long as we remain willfully ignorant of the veil of ignorance that hangs over us, we can avoid asking hard questions and making harder choices.

But this is shortsighted and dangerous. Empires that refuse to accept reality tend to rapidly decline. A clear-eyed acceptance of uncertainty and risk is the surest route to a more secure future. Instead of blinding us or paralyzing us, the uncertainty of our future should motivate us to engage in more responsible strategic planning.

If the United States can manage to be as rational as Rawls’s hypothetical decision-makers, it should adopt a similar maximin rule of decision: It should prefer international rules and institutions that will maximize America’s odds of thriving, even in a worst-case future scenario. In fact, we should wish for international rules and institutions that will be kindest to the individuals living in what is now the United States and their descendants, even if the United States should someday cease to exist entirely.

Could happen, folks. Look around you. Do you see the Roman Empire, or the Aztec Empire, or the Ottoman Empire?

IV. From Messiness to Strategy: A Preliminary Sketch

This has urgent implications for U.S. strategic planning. Precisely because U.S. global power may very well continue to decline, the United States should use the very considerable military, political, cultural, and economic power it still has to foster the international order most likely to benefit the country if it someday loses that power.

The ultimate objective of U.S. grand strategy should be the creation of an equitable and peaceful international order with an effective system of global governance — one that is built upon respect for human dignity, human rights, and the rule of law, with robust mechanisms for resolving thorny collective problems.

We should seek this not because it’s the “morally right” thing for the United States to do, but because a maximin decision rule should lead us to conclude that this will offer the United States and its population the best chance of continuing to thrive, even in the event of a radical future decline in U.S. wealth and power.

But, one might argue, the United States already tries to promote such a global order — right?

Sure it does — but only inconsistently, and generally as something of an afterthought. We pour money into our military and intelligence communities, but starve our diplomats and development agencies. We fixate on the threat du jour, often exaggerating it and allowing it to distort our foreign policy in self-destructive ways (cf. Iraq War), while viewing matters such as United Nations reform or reform of global economic institutions or environmental protection rules as tedious and of low priority. If we take seriously the many potential dangers lurking in the unknowable future, however, fostering a stronger, fairer, and more effective system of international governance would become a matter of urgent national self-interest and our highest strategic priority — something that should be reflected both in our policies and in our budgetary decisions.

An effective global governance system would need to be built upon the recognition that states remain the primary mode of political and social organization in the international sphere, but also upon the recognition that new forms of social organization continue to evolve and may ultimately displace at least some states. An effective and dynamic international system will need to develop innovative ways to bring such new actors and organizations within the ambit of international law and institutions, both as responsible creators of law and institutions and as responsible subjects.

Equitable sharing of wealth and resources:

A truly farsighted U.S. global strategy — one that takes uncertainty seriously — would also seek to foster more equitable sharing of global wealth through more generous provision of financial support to international institutions by wealthy states (and — why not? — by other wealthy actors, from individuals to corporations), a greater willingness to eliminate the debt of poorer states, more foreign aid designed to help the world’s neediest people, and the elimination of protectionist policies such as U.S. agricultural subsidies, among other things.

Similarly, the United States should champion genuinely equitable and responsible access to “the global commons” — the Earth’s natural resources, the sea, the air, and even space — with access to resources depending less on raw power or accidents of history than on principles of equity and need. (This, too, will require strong transnational institutions capable of resolving disputes relating to resource access in a transparent, predictable, and fair manner.)

Play by the same rules we want others to respect:

From behind the veil of ignorance, a foreign-policy version of Kant’s categorical imperative makes a good deal of sense: With the United States as the globe’s sole remaining superpower, its actions can still powerfully shore up, erode, or establish precedents, and we should therefore act with great care, working hard to avoid hypocrisy.

When it comes to global norms, it’s difficult to credibly condemn Russian military intervention in Ukraine, for instance, while simultaneously defending the 2003 invasion of Iraq. More generally, it’s difficult to foster a global order in which states use force only in a lawful, transparent, and accountable manner when we continue to engage in targeted killings of terrorists inside other sovereign states, without even acknowledging our role in their deaths.

When we believe that the rules of the international order are wrong or outmoded — as they often and inevitably are — we should work collaboratively with other states to develop a thoughtful and fair process through which to develop new rules.

Importantly, while this implies that the United States should generally eschew unilateralism except in the direst of emergencies, it does not require national self-abnegation. On the contrary, there is still ample room for a benign form of American exceptionalism. Decline or no decline, the United States still has outsized power and influence and should not hesitate to use both — carefully and responsibly — to advance these strategic ends.

Nation-building at home to preserve power and influence abroad:

Our ability to continue to innovate depends on our domestic vitality — and credible U.S. influence depends significantly on the degree to which others around the world perceive the United States as internally strong, equitable, and just. Addressing the glaring economic inequities that have reduced social mobility and left millions of Americans one lost job or illness away from poverty should be seen as vital to achieving U.S. foreign-policy objectives — along with fixing our broken education and health-care systems and rebuilding our tattered infrastructure.

We also need to focus on reforming our own political culture and political processes, which currently lend themselves to partisan paralysis or bipartisan panic, with little in between. But neither paralysis nor panic will serve us well in the face of current and emerging threats. The world’s messiness will require us to be creative, patient, and resilient in the face of rapidly changing challenges and threats we won’t always be able to deter.

Universal engagement:

A renewed focus on what Obama has described as “nation-building at home” should be coupled with a proactive policy of international engagement. This, in turn, not only requires us to collaboratively promote the creation of strong and just international institutions — it also requires us to deepen and broaden our citizens’ interactions with those who live beyond our borders.

We can do this in part through providing generous and thoughtful development and humanitarian assistance and in part through an enhanced emphasis on cultural, economic, scientific, and educational collaborations and exchanges, particularly in areas of the globe where the U.S. government currently has the least influence.

In the long term, developing more people-to-people ties around the globe will be as important to our security as maintaining an effective military. Investing in such ties helps the United States foster international goodwill and develop the strong networks of friends and information sources that will stand us in good stead when harder times come — as they most likely will.

The U.S. government should also do more to leverage the incredible diversity of the American public. Consider the impressive and varied linguistic and cultural expertise that resides within our population, as well as the robust links of family and friendship that bind so many recent U.S. immigrants to citizens of other states. This has enormous potential to transform American culture, making it more cosmopolitan. It also has enormous potential value from the perspective of building relationships and increasing U.S. situational awareness.

Selective (and rare) intervention:

In a world of finite resources, there will always be trade-offs — and if we refuse to consider those trade-offs thoughtfully, we risk strategic insolvency. We should focus our foreign-policy resources on building the long-term global architecture that is likely to best protect U.S. interests in an uncertain future, one in which we may be far less rich and powerful. But if we increase the energy we put into building an equitable and peaceful international order with fair and effective global governance structures, where should we reduce our efforts?

Here, I’m generally in sympathy with Michael Mazarr, Barry Posen, FP columnist Steve Walt, and other thoughtful advocates of selective engagement, offshore balancing, restraint, and discriminate power. The United States should not be the world’s cop of first resort. As Obama has rightly pointed out, the United States can’t solve every problem — as noted, we have less and less ability to influence others and control outcomes, and direct U.S. action can cause backlash. We should step in directly as problem-solvers only after careful thought.

As a general rule, we should intervene militarily to clean up short-term global messes only when doing so is essential to protecting our core interests. When our core interests are not at stake, we should intervene only when we can afford to do so without damage to our important longer-term priorities.

This will require U.S. political leaders to be far more disciplined about avoiding threat inflation and ignoring short-term political pressures, both domestic and international. (With clearly articulated criteria for intervention and strong, consistent political leadership, this should not be impossible. The public appetite for military intervention is heavily influenced by the messages sent by political elites.) We should also be more disciplined about recognizing the gulf between what we’d like to do and what we actually have the ability to do. We may well have “the most powerful military in history,” but our strategic nuclear arsenal won’t reverse climate change or end the Ebola epidemic, and U.S. drone strikes can’t prop up the imploding Iraqi government, end the Syrian civil war, or prevent violent extremist organizations from metastasizing.

When it comes to our current perception of situations where we think the United States needs to “do something,” we should be asking tougher questions. Take, for example, the threat posed by the self-styled Islamic State, particularly in Syria. The Islamic State is brutal, and the beheadings of American journalists and other noncombatants evoke justifiable horror. But is the Islamic State truly a threat to core U.S. interests, or is our perception of crisis driven by a visceral response to the brutality of their methods?

Finally, do we in fact have the ability to significantly degrade or destroy the Islamic State inside Syria, without excessive cost to our other priorities? Will standoff strikes against the Islamic State or other terrorist groups lead to enduring gains in U.S. security — or will they just temporarily disperse the group or, worse, raise its profile and aid its recruitment efforts? Even if strikes against the Islamic State will permanently destroy it, how much money will such strikes cost us — and what will we have to do without if we spend that much energy and money countering the Islamic State?

Similar questions could be asked about U.S. counterterrorism policy more generally. Unless transnational terrorist organizations manage to obtain weapons of mass destruction (something we should continue to work aggressively to prevent), they are unlikely to ever pose an existential threat to the United States or most other states. Despite this, a disproportionate share of U.S. military, intelligence, and foreign-policy resources currently go into counterterrorism efforts — even though little evidence shows that our highly militarized approach to counterterrorism is working. Transnational terrorist organizations are unlikely to respond to traditional forms of military deterrence, and their decentralized and self-replicating nature makes them difficult to destroy. A decade into the war on terror, is it time to conclude that unilateral, secretive, and unaccountable U.S. approaches to counterterrorism (indefinite detentions, targeted killings, etc.) are only making things worse: alienating allies, fueling terrorist recruitment, and undermining the very international norms and institutions we should be trying to strengthen.

V. Adversity and the Art of the Possible

A strategy premised on uncertainty doesn’t lend itself to jingoistic chest thumping, and some might argue that regardless of whether the approach I have offered is intellectually sound, it is unlikely to be embraced by voters. The conventional wisdom is that voters have no tolerance for complexity or uncertainty — they like things black and white, and preferably with a sugary coating.

Pundits are already doing their best to read recent polls and the midterm election results in the most simplistic terms: Americans consider Obama too cautious and want decisive action (more bombs)! No, they consider him too interventionist and want isolationism (fewer bombs)! And so on.

I think the conventional wisdom is wrong. Far from refusing to accept ambiguity, ordinary Americans seem a good deal more willing than politicians from either party to acknowledge many of our world’s complex realities, such as the recent decline of U.S. global power and influence. When read with care, the more detailed and thoughtful polls, such as those by the Pew Research Center, suggest that Americans are keenly aware of just how complex and uncertain our world has become and understand full well that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the world’s problems. They aren’t looking for simplistic slogans and promises of easy answers, but they don’t want paralysis or arbitrary action either. Instead, they want their leaders to articulate and consistently follow coherent, sensible principles for deciding when we should act and when we should refrain from acting, when we should lead and when we should step back.

If we can extract one precious jewel from the ugliness and venom of the midterm election results, it should be this: Americans are sick of being patronized.

Otto von Bismarck called politics “the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best,” and Americans are fully capable of grasping this. A global strategy premised on taking uncertainty seriously will never satisfy those who like simple slogans. But in this messy world, it’s probably the best we can hope for.

Note: The veil of ignorance shrouds us all, and any serious effort to develop a U.S. global strategy needs to be advanced with humility and be subject to constant re-evaluation. This is a preliminary sketch, and it’s already much too long for any self-respecting column. Much remains to be filled in and teased out. Please send comments and suggestions to me here: rosa.brooks.fp@gmail.com.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

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