Lax Americana

Why a United States that’s trying to do a little less is good for the world – and good for America.

A man arranges a US flag ahead of a joint press conference between US President Barack Obama and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak at Seri Perdana in Malaysia's administrative capital in Putrajaya on April 27, 2014. Obama arrived in Malaysia for a visit aimed at energising relations with the predominantly Muslim nation and re-focusing an Asian tour repeatedly distracted by foreign-policy crises elsewhere. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN        (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A man arranges a US flag ahead of a joint press conference between US President Barack Obama and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak at Seri Perdana in Malaysia's administrative capital in Putrajaya on April 27, 2014. Obama arrived in Malaysia for a visit aimed at energising relations with the predominantly Muslim nation and re-focusing an Asian tour repeatedly distracted by foreign-policy crises elsewhere. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)

What’s the biggest challenge facing American statecraft today? Reaching a meaningful global agreement on climate change? Countering a rising China? Containing the Islamic State? Convincing Vladimir Putin to cool his jets (both literally and figuratively)? Making sure Iran fulfills the nuclear deal and doesn’t make more mischief in the Middle East?

These are all vexing problems, but the broader challenge to American statecraft is figuring out how to liquidate the unsound strategic positions the United States took on following its Cold War victory — and especially after 9/11 — without inviting allies and adversaries to assume the United States is no longer a force to be reckoned with in places that actually matter.

Today, many people seem to think the United States is “in retreat” and believe a reluctance to use American power is encouraging hostile powers to take advantage of supposed American weakness. This concern seems to be an article of faith among Republican presidential candidates and unrepentant neoconservatives, but a fair number of pundits, U.S. allies, and even Democrats like Hillary Clinton think Barack Obama’s desire to avoid “stupid stuff” has gone too far.

At one level, the idea that Obama is running a toothless foreign policy is silly, and the fact that people believe it shows the extent to which our foreign policy establishment now sees constant military adventures as the norm rather than the exception. As Daniel Larison reminded us last week, this is the same president who escalated the U.S. role in Afghanistan, expanded the use of drones and targeted assassinations in more than half a dozen countries, conducted an ill-fated regime change in Libya, deployed cyber-weapons against Iran, and is moving steadily to counter Chinese power in Asia.

At another level, concerns about U.S. restraint rest on the familiar claim that the active use of American power is essential to maintaining peace and some semblance of world order. U.S. engagement has been a positive force in a number of places and on a number of issues, but this vision of a golden age of Pax Americana (presumably beginning roughly at the end of World War II and ending with Obama’s election) rests on a certain amount of misty-eyed nostalgia. U.S. “global leadership” did not prevent the Korean War (approximately 3 million dead) and or prevent recurring wars in the Middle East in 1956, 1967, 1969-70, or 1973. The United States fought a major war in Vietnam for nearly a decade and nearly two million people died in that conflict, many as a direct result of U.S. actions. The Iran-Iraq war consumed more than a million lives between 1980 and 1988, but Washington did nothing to stop it, and subtly backed Saddam Hussein despite knowing he had used chemical weapons. American primacy and “leadership” didn’t stop the Rwandan genocide or the larger Central African War of which it was a part, and, of course, we started the most recent round of fighting in the Middle East when we invaded Iraq in 2003. The less said about U.S. intervention in Central and Latin America the better.

In short, the history of the past few decades throws considerable cold water on the claim that the active use of American power is always a dependable source of peace and tranquility. Ask Iraqis, Libyans, or Yemenis about this issue, and you might get a different assessment of American power than you typically hear around Dupont Circle.

Lastly, the claim that Obama has sounded the retreat and undermined the existing world order assumes the United States and the world would be better off if he had continued the foolish policies he inherited from his predecessor. What critics call “retreat” is more accurately seen as a sensible effort to bring U.S. commitments back in line with U.S. interests and resources. Instead of squandering money and lives on idealistic fantasies, a more sensible foreign policy concentrates on securing vital interests first and avoiding unnecessary burdens.

Walter Lippmann and James Chace termed this idea “solvency,” and they saw it as an essential ingredient in a successful foreign policy. In most cases, ending a costly and foolish commitment improves a nation’s strategic position and ultimately enhances its credibility, because it leaves more resources available to protect the interests that matter. Remember that the United States lost the Vietnam War, but it was the Soviet Union, not America, that collapsed some fourteen years later.

As I noted last week, Obama was correct in seeking to liquidate the unsound positions he inherited from George W. Bush; his error was pretending that delaying withdrawal was going to yield significantly better outcomes. Contrary to contemporary GOP mythology, the “surge” did not work in Iraq, because it never achieved genuine political reconciliation among Iraq’s competing groups. Contrary to the Obama administration’s own upbeat portrayal, the 2009 surge in Afghanistan didn’t work either. Obama’s announcement that the United States will keep thousands of troops there until he is no longer president is thus both an admission of past failure and a transparent effort to ensure the day of reckoning occurs on someone else’s watch.

Those who now criticize alleged U.S. passivity also assume the rest of the world would obediently fall into line if Washington just showed some spine, dropped a few bombs, and armed a few rebels. But there is no reason to think going big into Syria in 2011 would have convinced Putin to leave Ukraine alone or end his support for Assad. Ukraine is a vital interest for Russia — but not for us — and its geographic proximity gives Moscow escalatory options that we lack. If the United States were more deeply engaged in Syria (or worse yet, stuck in another quagmire), Russia would have had an even freer hand to deal with problems on its borders.

In short, given where the United States was in 2008, and given that it faces hardly any large and/or imminent threats, a period of strategic adjustment was to be expected. But as Obama has discovered, implementing this sort of adjustment is a tricky process. Once a great power is overcommitted, how does it extricate itself from costly entanglements without being seen as timid, irresolute, or irrelevant?

First and foremost, intelligent disengagement requires a clear understanding of vital interests and an effective campaign to explain those interests to others. Scholarly studies of reputation and credibility show that other states do not judge the credibility of commitments by looking at a country’s past behavior or its actions in other contexts; rather, they ask whether it is in a particular country’s interest to fulfill a given commitment today. If the United States declines to act in an area of marginal value, this tells other states essentially nothing about how it will respond in places of greater strategic importance. To take an obvious example, the decision not to intervene in Ukraine or Syria hardly implies the United States would not respond to a direct attack on the U.S. homeland, or to an attack on a long-standing ally in a vital geographic region.

Accordingly, an administration seeking to liquidate a foolish commitment needs to explain why that commitment is not in fact vital and why U.S. security will in fact be enhanced by ending it and moving on. And you can’t just make this point in a single speech or press conference and move on; you have to explain it over and over and make the underlying rationale clear, consistent and compelling. Obama and his team failed to perform this essential step: Instead of explaining why Afghanistan was not a vital U.S. interest and why staying there longer would distract us from other problems and undermine America’s long-term power position, Obama bought into the “safe haven myth” and used it to justify the 2009 surge. Once he had done that, it became nearly impossible to leave unless the Taliban were defeated. And that’s why Obama is still stuck there today.

Similarly, while Obama has emphasized the pitfalls involved in military intervention in Syria — it would aid jihadi elements, create another failed state, etc. — he has not done a good job of explaining the limited nature of U.S. interests there, the awful human cost of that conflict notwithstanding. He also let a brutal act of political theater (the Islamic State’s beheading of two U.S. journalists) drag him into an ill-conceived campaign to “degrade and destroy” IS, even though it is not a major threat to the United States and should dealt with primarily by local actors with much more at stake.

Managing strategic adjustment also requires a hard-nosed approach toward allies and client states, including the possibility that letting an unreliable ally fall could have salutary effects on the rest. Of course, U.S. clients will worry whenever the United States adjusts its global posture, and issuing dire warnings about declining U.S. credibility is a time-honored way to get Uncle Sucker to pony up more support. But remember: Credibility is not a serious issue when America’s interest in defending an ally is obvious (as defending Western Europe was during the Cold War). Doubts arise only when it is not entirely clear why a given commitment is worth honoring, and the American obsession with credibility is itself a sign that it has promised to protect a lot of states whose strategic value is modest at best.

From a selfish U.S. perspective, in fact, abandoning unnecessary commitments and jettisoning unreliable, ungrateful, and ineffective allies can be a good way to inspire the others. Had the United States abandoned former Afghan president Hamid Karzai back in 2009, for example, it would have sent a clear message to other U.S. clients that the United States was not going to prop up corrupt, incompetent, and ungrateful foreign leaders forever. It would have reminded other states that Washington was not running a charity operation, that its support was neither unconditional nor open-ended, and that above all it prefers to back winners. Instead of prompting a wave of allied defections (to whom?), this policy would have encouraged our remaining dependents to do more to keep us happy.

The central purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to make Americans safer and richer, and to preserve our political values here at home. Where possible, and with appropriate humility, we can also encourage others to embrace some of those values themselves. Given the nature of the contemporary world, these goals call for a degree of American engagement and the preservation of American military and economic capabilities. On rare occasions, it may also require decisive military action. But these goals do not require the United States to pay any price and bear any burden, and certainly do not behoove us to pour additional resources into conflicts that don’t matter and that we are unlikely to win. You’d think all this would be obvious, but neither Republicans nor Democrats seem able to contemplate a world where the U.S. role might be a bit smaller, but also a lot more successful.


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

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