The Secret to America’s Foreign-Policy Success (and Failure)

Is there a reason why U.S. policies worked with Cuba and Iran, but didn’t in Iraq or with Russia? Yes. And, as it turns out, it’s not that complicated.

Members of the "The Iraq Campaign 2008" hold a large replica of  "Mission Accomplished" banner on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in Washington, DC May 1, 2008, marking the fifth anniversary of President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech after landing on board a US aircraft carrier, proclaiming the end of major combat operations in Iraq.  AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the "The Iraq Campaign 2008" hold a large replica of "Mission Accomplished" banner on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in Washington, DC May 1, 2008, marking the fifth anniversary of President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech after landing on board a US aircraft carrier, proclaiming the end of major combat operations in Iraq. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

If you have been watching hopes for a benevolent “new world order” crash and burn over the past two decades, you might have concluded that the United States isn’t very good at foreign policy.

Just consider where the United States was when the Cold War ended, and consider where it is today. In 1993, the Soviet Union was gone, and the United States faced no serious geopolitical rivals. (Can you say “unipolar moment”?) Saddam Hussein still ruled Iraq, but his military power was in tatters and his programs for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were being dismantled. The Oslo Accords made Middle East peace seem tantalizingly close; al Qaeda was not yet a major force; and Iran possessed exactly zero nuclear centrifuges. A “third wave” of democratic expansion was underway, and sophisticated observers from Thomas Friedman to Francis Fukuyama thought humankind had no choice but to embrace market-based democracy, individual freedom, the rule of law, and other familiar liberal values.

We’ve seen a parade of bipartisan foreign-policy debacles ever since, including the folly of “dual containment,” the emergence of al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, the catastrophic war in Iraq, and years of incompetent U.S. stewardship of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Russia and the United States are now at odds over Ukraine, and Moscow keeps moving closer to an increasingly powerful and assertive China. The Arab world is in turmoil, and Libya, Syria, and Yemen are convulsed by civil wars for which the United States is at least partly responsible. A new extremist movement — the Islamic State — has filled the power vacuum created by the failed U.S. occupation of Iraq. Victory seems less and less likely after 14 years of war in Afghanistan; confidence in democratic institutions has declined at home and abroad; and authoritarian regimes turned out to be surprisingly resilient in some pretty important places.

In short, if you’re looking for foreign-policy failures, you’d don’t have to squint very hard.

Yet no country as powerful and as engaged as the United States fails at everything, and the past two-plus decades also contain a number of obvious “success stories.” The United States did managed to broker a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, and it took the lead in ending the Bosnian War. The innovative Nunn-Lugar program helped keep loose nukes from leaving the former Soviet Union, and the Proliferation Security Initiative of President George W. Bush’s administration created an effective coalition to halt the spread of sensitive WMD technologies. Washington managed the 1994 Mexican peso crisis skillfully and played a central role in creating NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. The PEPFAR program helped slow the growth of AIDS in Africa, and the United States also conducted effective humanitarian relief efforts in Indonesia, Haiti, and Pakistan, among others. I’d even argue that Washington has handled relations with Beijing reasonably well, despite the friction that is inevitable when new great powers emerge. There are also plenty of other bad things that might have happened but didn’t, and U.S. leaders deserve at least some of the credit whenever dangerous dogs don’t bark.

But wait, there’s more! After a disappointing first term dealing with the messes inherited from his predecessor, U.S. President Barack Obama regained his foreign-policy mojo and now stands on the brink of a respectable foreign-policy legacy. Some readers may recall my doubts about Obama’s ability to accomplish much in his second term, but we’ve now signed a solid nuclear agreement with Iran, a reopened embassy in Havana marks the end of a bankrupt Cuba policy, and Obama may even get big trade deals with Asia and Europe across the finish line as well. The administration has also made progress assembling a multinational coalition to isolate and contain the Islamic State — and without having to send a big, new U.S. expeditionary force back into the Iraqi quagmire. Assuming the Republican-controlled Congress doesn’t screw these things up in the next few months, this record ain’t half-bad.

In short, America’s recent track record contains both failures and successes (though the former have been more numerous and more consequential), and that mixed record provides an opportunity for reflection. If we compare the two categories, what does it reveal, and what lessons should we draw?

Let’s start with the failures. What do most of them have in common?

First, a lot of recent U.S. missteps arose from an unwarranted faith in various liberal theories of international relations and a related reluctance to acknowledge the enduring importance of realism. To be specific, both liberal interventionists and neoconservatives believed that spreading democracy and markets as far as possible would produce peace and prosperity, keep dangerous autocrats off balance, and eventually consign most if not all dictatorships to the dustbin of history. So the United States decided to accelerate the process, beginning with open-ended NATO expansion and using a variety of tools — including military force — to conduct regime change in a number of other places.

The results, to put it mildly, have been disappointing. Not only did the United States mostly fail to create stable democracies outside Europe, but this ambitious project inevitably provoked a harsh backlash from states that saw it as a direct threat to their own interests and stability. The taproot of Russia’s obstreperous behavior in Ukraine was its fear that the United States was gradually trying to pull Ukraine into the Western orbit, as well as the related fear that the United States’ long-term goal was regime change in Moscow itself. Maybe these fears are utterly misplaced, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Russian leaders might be a teensy bit sensitive about the political and security arrangements on their borders. Unfortunately, European and American elites believed their own rhetoric about the benevolent effects of liberal expansion and ignored the lessons of realism; they failed to anticipate that Moscow might see things differently and move aggressively to thwart Western aims.

A related source of failure was a tendency to exaggerate U.S. power, especially the effectiveness of military power. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and several other places, U.S. leaders failed to realize that there were limits to what U.S. power could accomplish and that military force is a crude instrument that inevitably produces unintended consequences. Defeating third-rate armies and toppling foreign leaders was easy, but conventional military superiority did not enable Washington to govern foreign societies wisely or defeat stubborn local insurgencies.

Nor did U.S. leaders realize that it’s a lot easier to get into trouble than it is to get out of it. President Bill Clinton told us that U.S. troops would be in Bosnia for 12 months; they ended up staying for years. Bush and his advisors thought Afghanistan and Iraq would be cakewalks and that U.S. forces would go in fast and get out quickly; instead, the United States ended up in costly quagmires with little hope of victory. Targeted operations with drones and special operations forces have reduced the U.S. footprint in places like Yemen, but these tools don’t produce swift victories either and may even make the terrorism problem worse.

Moreover, this same sense of American omnipotence led U.S. leaders to believe that they had the leverage to force opponents into meeting America’s demands, thereby obviating the need for any real give-and-take. For years, U.S. officials insisted that Iran had to give up its entire enrichment capability, piously declared “Assad must go,” and demanded that Russia give back Crimea and return to the status quo ante in Ukraine. These are all nice things to wish for, but none were realistic, and insisting on them foreclosed more fruitful diplomatic possibilities. To be sure, Washington could sometimes browbeat very weak states like Serbia, but neither Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Mahmoud Abbas, nor the Islamic Republic of Iran ever caved into all of America’s demands. Diplomacy is the art of compromise, and overconfidence in American power led Washington to forget that fact on more than one occasion. And, of course, it doesn’t help that any hint of compromise invites harsh denunciations from the other party and the rabble-rousing jingoists at Fox News.

Third, U.S. foreign-policy initiatives were especially prone to fail when they involved large-scale social engineering in other countries, especially when these states were far away, vastly different from the United States, and riven by serious internal divisions. These failures should not surprise, as past efforts at “nation-building” usually failed to produce stable democracies, especially when the countries involved were poor and divided along ethnic, national, or sectarian lines. It took several centuries for stable democracies to establish themselves in Europe and North America, and that process was a contentious and violent one. U.S. officials were simply deluded to think they could invade other countries, topple corrupt dictatorships, write a constitution, and quickly set up functioning democracies. A lot of smart people in Washington succumbed to this fantasy more than once, and I suspect it isn’t dead even now.

What about the successes?

In nearly all of these successful cases, the United States recognized the limits to U.S. leverage and adjusted its original goals in order to win international support and eventually reach mutually beneficial agreements. An obvious case in point is the recent nuclear deal between the P5+1 countries and Iran. As long as the United States insisted that Iran give up its entire program and refused to talk to Tehran directly, it made no headway whatsoever, and the Islamic Republic just kept building more and more capacity and enriching more and more uranium. Once the United States came to its senses and began to negotiate in earnest, however, it was able to assemble a more effective international coalition and eventually reach a deal that will prevent Iran from moving closer to a bomb for at least a decade. It didn’t hurt that Iran’s citizens elected a more reasonable government, of course, but it took flexibility on America’s part to take advantage of that opportunity.

Success also involved a willingness to work with authoritarian regimes whose values and governing principles differed from America’s, instead of imposing a lot of onerous preconditions before getting down to serious talks. The United States didn’t demand that states become democracies before joining the Proliferation Security Initiative or receiving Nunn-Lugar funds, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently being finalized includes friendly democracies such as Australia and also one-party regimes such as Vietnam (and the sultanate of Brunei, too). I like democracy as much as anyone, but making it a precondition for deal-making is bad diplomacy and bad for business too.

Last but not least, these achievements all involved situations in which the participants had ample incentive to reach solutions that would leave them all better off. Iran has good reasons to want to get out of the “penalty box” that it has been in for the past 20-plus years, and the P5+1 countries (and other nearby states) will be better off with Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon blocked. Similarly, reopening relations with Cuba will yield tangible economic benefits for Cuba’s struggling economy, but will also do more to accelerate an end to dictatorship there than the failed policies of the past 50 years. Trade deals with Asia and Europe will also have positive economic and strategic effects, even though U.S. negotiators are hardly going to get everything they might have wanted.

The bottom line: When U.S. foreign-policy officials have pursued realistic goals in a flexible and nonjudgmental way, they have mostly succeeded. When they have tried to do the impossible, have relied too heavily on military force and overt coercion, and have expected other states to ignore their own interests and just do as they’re told, these U.S. officials have mostly failed.

As the 2016 presidential race heats up, ask yourself which general approach the different candidates intend to follow once elected. It ought to be pretty easy to tell, and thus easy to predict which ones are destined to fail once in office.

Image credit: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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