The Top 5 Things the Next President Needs to Know About Foreign Policy

Why the presidential candidates need to start proving that they have geopolitical savvy, they can detect political bullshit, and they'll be able to play hard to get with U.S. allies.

MILWAUKEE, WI - NOVEMBER 10:  Presidential candidates Ohio Governor John Kasich (L-R), speaks while Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz (R-TX) take part in the Republican Presidential Debate sponsored by Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal at the Milwaukee Theatre November 10, 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The fourth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top eight candidates, and another for four other candidates lower in the current polls.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - NOVEMBER 10: Presidential candidates Ohio Governor John Kasich (L-R), speaks while Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz (R-TX) take part in the Republican Presidential Debate sponsored by Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal at the Milwaukee Theatre November 10, 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The fourth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top eight candidates, and another for four other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Given the number of rank amateurs in this year’s presidential sweepstakes, I’ve been thinking about what someone ought to know before they become commander in chief of the most powerful nation on earth. To be candid, thus far none of the candidates has shown a grasp of foreign policy that fills me with confidence. That’s obviously true of a bombastic egomaniac like Donald Trump or a clueless naif like Ben Carson, but even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s track record is not exactly reassuring.

And managing foreign and defense policy is not just a matter of “finding really great people,” as the Donald seems to think. You can’t pick great people if you don’t have a clear sense of what you want them to do and if you don’t know enough to separate the “really great” from the “dangerously crazy.” Pick the wrong people, and the next thing you know you’re marching into a quagmire because your advisors told you it was necessary and that the whole adventure would be quick and cheap.

So what should the next president know about international politics and foreign policy? They don’t have to know the names of every foreign leader (a favorite “gotcha” question for lazy journalists), they don’t need to understand every international treaty the United States has ratified, and they don’t need to be able to explain the Heckscher-Ohlin model of international trade (though that would be nice). I suggest a more modest criterion: The next president should have a good intuitive grasp of a few simple features of contemporary world politics and the foreign-policy process. These qualities will help them make sense of unexpected events, sift good advice from bad, and develop strategies that have a decent chance of succeeding over the long term.

In that spirit (and in addition to these earlier lessons), here are the top five things I believe the next president needs to know about foreign policy.

No. 1: Geopolitics 101

You can’t run a successful foreign policy if you don’t have a basic grasp of geopolitics. Conducting foreign policy with unsound ideas about the key forces in international politics is like designing an airplane without taking gravity into account: Frequent crashes are to be expected. So be wary of anyone who thinks international politics is a simple fable of Good vs. Evil, an inevitable “clash of civilizations,” or the gradual unveiling of Old Testament prophecy.

To be specific: The president needs to know that other states are as self-interested as we are and that they rarely act for altruistic or noble reasons. Security is a paramount concern for most states, and major powers are invariably sensitive about their own territory and concerned about anything happening near their borders. If top U.S. and EU diplomats had understood this principle, they wouldn’t have been so surprised by Russia’s heavy-handed behavior toward Ukraine, Georgia, or even Syria. After all, Putin was just doing what America had done repeatedly in its own “backyard.”

A president who understands geopolitics would also grasp the true nature of American exceptionalism. What is exceptional about America is not its Constitution, its culture, or its melting-pot society; what is truly exceptional is the degree of free security that America’s geographic isolation provides. With no powerful enemies anywhere nearby, the United States can tell other states what to do, interfere all over the world, and indulge in idealistic crusades of various sorts. When these adventures go wrong, the consequences are mostly visited upon others. A president needs to understand that other states have to deal with dangers that Americans can mostly ignore. Other states’ desire for U.S. protection is often a source of leverage for Washington, but many of these states also have to worry that U.S. leaders might do things that end up hurting them, whether they intended to or not.

So even if the next president is convinced he or she is acting from the purest and most benevolent of motives, he or she needs to realize that other countries won’t always see it that way. No matter how many times U.S. officials tell their Russian counterparts that NATO is not a threat, Moscow won’t believe them (and neither would we if the situation were reversed). No matter how many times American leaders proclaim that the U.S. military presence in Asia is not directed at China, China’s leaders will take a rather different view. A president that doesn’t understand this basic reality is more likely to blame other states’ suspicions on domestic politics, paranoid leaders, or innate anti-Americanism, instead of seeing it as an inevitable consequence of the inherently competitive nature of international politics itself.

It follows that the more the United States throws its weight around, the more other states will look for ways to counter and constrain it. Adversaries will try to balance Washington by cooperating with each other, pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and supporting extremist organizations of various sorts. And if the United States gets really energetic, even close U.S. allies will worry about the adverse consequences of whatever the United States chooses to do. To take one obvious example, former French President Jacques Chirac was correct to oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq, because he understood the invasion might unleash a chain of events that could eventually harm France, as indeed it did on Nov. 13.

Finally, a geopolitically savvy president would also not be surprised when other states free ride on Uncle Sucker. States are inherently self-interested, and if the United States is foolish enough to take on lots of extra burdens, its longtime friends would be stupid not to take advantage. If the next president wants to elicit greater contributions from America’s many allies, he or she will have to be willing to play hard to get and do a bit less, instead of reveling in the glory of “leadership” and trying to do it all.

No. 2: The need for and limits of military power

Even Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders recognize that military power remains essential in today’s world. But it is equally important (and much rarer) for a president to understand what military force cannot accomplish and the inherent dangers associated with its use. If you’ve watched too many movies like Zero Dark Thirty or Top Gun, or if you’ve read too many Tom Clancy novels, you might think the U.S. military has magical powers and can perform extraordinary feats of heroism and technological wizardry. And you’d be partly right, insofar as modern military forces can do some extraordinary things.

But military power remains a blunt instrument whose ultimate effects are nearly impossible to predict. Accidents, mistakes, surprises, and the “fog of war” invariably undermine even the best-laid plans, and using force invariably produces some results that no one anticipated. To go to war is to open Pandora’s box, unleashing whatever demons lie within.

Moreover, military power can destroy, but it cannot create. It cannot conjure up effective governing institutions in foreign lands — and especially after U.S. troops dismantle an existing regime and leave chaos in their wake. Toppling a regime removes the main mechanisms of order and creates winners and losers, and the latter will not accept their fate happily. Powerful conquerors rarely understand the societies they find themselves trying to govern, are prone to underestimating the resentment their presence generates, and often fail to realize that resorting to their primary advantage — more force — just triggers more resistance.

A president who does not understand these facts of life is more likely to ask the armed forces to accomplish tasks for which they are not suited, thereby inviting failure and sometimes making things worse. Not every problem is a nail, and America’s mighty hammer is not the right tool for every job. Let’s hope somebody explains this clearly to whoever wins next November.

No. 3: Even your best people won’t always tell you the truth. 

Despite partisan differences, people in the executive branch are supposed to be on the same team. After all, they all want the United States to be more secure and more prosperous. So a new president might be forgiven for thinking that their subordinates will do their best to give them accurate information, unbiased analysis, and candid advice, so that they can make the right decisions.

But as scholars have long argued (and as insiders have long known), Washington doesn’t really work that way. Government officials may all be loyal Americans, but they also represent entrenched bureaucracies and have their own reputations to protect. Generals may exaggerate the prospects for victory, intelligence agencies may deny that they are up to no good, and everybody will be pin the blame for failure on somebody else. When internal debates erupt, advocates of different options will skew their analysis in order to nudge the Oval Office in the direction they favor. And because these vast bureaucracies have ultimate control over the information flowing into the White House, presidents are always in danger of being “managed from below.”

To be effective, therefore, the next president will need to be ruthlessly skeptical about just about everything his or her subordinates say and quick to oust anyone who exhibits a fast-and-loose relationship with the truth. And it would be a good idea for any president to occasionally meet with outsiders who are known to disagree with existing policy, merely to get a fresh view on things. Such vigilance won’t prevent every error, of course, but it might make it easier to recognize and correct them.

No. 4: There’s a big difference between the urgent and the important. 

A central challenge for U.S. foreign policy is its sheer ambition: No other country tries to shape events in every corner of the world and on a multitude of issues. The result is that the U.S. foreign-policy agenda is perennially overcrowded and any priorities the administration tries to set are easily overtaken by “events, dear boy, events.” George W. Bush took office vowing to eschew nation-building and focus on relations with the other major powers, only to be blindsided by 9/11 and led into long and costly campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack Obama took office determined to get out of the greater Middle East, pivot to Asia, reset with Russia, and get serious agreements on nuclear security and climate change. He made progress on some of these goals, but we still aren’t out of Afghanistan and enormous strategic attention is still riveted on the Middle East.

Compounding this problem is the irresponsible behavior of major media organizations, which never saw an unfortunate international event they could not blow out of all proportion. And for one simple reason: to keep eyeballs glued to the screen. Viewers were treated to an endless orgy of alarmist coverage and speculative punditry after 130 violent deaths in Paris — a media spectacle that just gives the Islamic State more free advertising — but we are rarely reminded of the 500 million people who were unaffected by the attacks or the far greater numbers who died from more prosaic causes.

No president can avoid the pressure of events, but a smart president needs to find ways to keep his or her agenda moving despite the inevitable surprises that occur. And that means not trying to do too much, because every administration needs to leave time and capacity to respond to events that arrive without warning.

No. 5: Beware the fatal combination of fear and hubris

The U.S. president sits atop a vast national security bureaucracy. A big part of his or her job is imagining all the bad things that someone might do to the country. The president does this particular job well — in fact, too well — which is why Americans are constantly worrying about minor dangers and spending billions of dollars trying to turn the incredibly unlikely into the nearly impossible. This same president also commands an array of powerful foreign-policy tools, ranging from diplomacy to sanctions to threats of force to special operations forces to ground invasions and all the way up to the vast U.S. arsenal of powerful nuclear weapons.

What happens when these two things come together: our sense of looming danger and our overwhelming capacity for action? The answer is: nothing good. Indeed, if one looks at the past 20 years, it is clear that the greatest wounds suffered by the United States were self-inflicted. What al Qaeda did to the United States on 9/11 was very bad, but the decision to topple Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq cost far, far more. And this blunder occurred because a president became convinced that 1) Iraq was a large, imminent, and growing danger and 2) toppling Saddam Hussein would be easy and yield far-reaching positive consequences. Bush & Co. were simultaneously scared and overconfident: a dangerous combination.

This fateful marriage of fear and hubris often leads states into foolish wars, because even dictators rarely go to war on a whim and no one chooses war if they anticipate it will be long, bloody, and expensive. More than anything else, the next president needs a mental alarm bell that will go off whenever his advisors, domestic interest groups, foreign allies, or rival politicians start talking about some vast and growing danger — one that supposedly threatens all we hold dear — while simultaneously insisting that this awesomely powerful menace can be removed without getting our hair mussed. If the problem is really that big, it won’t be easy to solve, which is why all presidents need a bullshit detector to protect them from those who promise them a great reward for little or no effort.

Will these five pillars of wisdom guarantee foreign-policy success? Hardly. The good news, if you are American, is that the fate of the nation does not, for the moment, depend on a high degree of foreign-policy effectiveness, simply because the United States is a lot stronger and a lot more secure than any of the other major powers. And as I look at the list of people currently vying to be president, that thought is a source of considerable comfort.

Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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

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