America Has a Commitment Problem
Eight reasons that Washington has repeatedly made the mistake of making promises around the world it can’t keep.
Do Americans agree about anything anymore? Well, yes. Apart from a handful of unrepentant neoconservatives and reflexive warmongers (including, alas, the present national security advisor), I think there’s a growing consensus that the United States is overextended. We’re still fighting at least two wars (while conducting a whole bunch of more-or-less clandestine operations against various extremists in various places), and we are formally committed by treaty to defending more countries than at any time in U.S. history. There is little or no consensus on how to deal with this situation, but even those who think U.S. global leadership is the only thing preserving the world from barbarism might concede the need for a bit of readjustment these days.
Which raises an interesting question: How did this happen? How do states get overextended? If the world is highly competitive and it’s important to set priorities and focus on the big challenges, then why would any country take on commitments that were of secondary importance or beyond its means? And if it did, why would it hang onto them after it was clear that the costs far outweighed the benefits?
Let me count the ways.
Perhaps the most common source of overextension is overweening power. When a state is much stronger than others, it will be tempted to take on ambitious new burdens and to extend its influence into more distant regions. When the United States was enjoying its unipolar moment, for example, it embraced new missions such as dual containment (of both Iran and Iraq) and started extending security guarantees to various protectorates even when they were hard to defend and contributed little to U.S. security (e.g., the Baltic states). It also convinced itself that it was both necessary and possible to spread U.S. values to a lot of foreign societies, including some places that had never been democratic, did not much like the United States, and that Washington didn’t understand at all.
Really powerful states also tend to assume that their favorable position is solely the product of their own virtues and wise decisions (as opposed to favorable geography, the mistakes made by others, or sheer dumb luck). They are therefore prone to believe that they possess a magic formula that will permit them to succeed at anything they try. In short, powerful states (and especially a unipolar power) are vulnerable to hubris. And with hubris comes a recurring tendency to do dumb things.
Second, states become overcommitted when competing interest groups in society favor different foreign-policy projects and agree to support each other’s particular schemes. As Jack Snyder shows in his book Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition, “cartelized” political systems are prone to logrolling. Instead of setting priorities in a rational fashion, based on a conception of the national interest and a careful weighing of threats, opportunities, and resources, cartelized systems rely on deals struck between competing factions in society, where each gets some of what it wants. If each group gets too much of its own program, however, the country ends up trying to do too many things at once. Thus, Wilhelmine Germany tried to build a navy to rival Britain’s and maintain the continent’s most powerful army, and Imperial Japan tried to dominate China, expand into Southeast Asia, and take on the far more powerful United States because the army and navy could not agree among which goals (if any) were necessary for Japan’s security.
Third, political systems that are easily penetrated by foreign interests are more likely to end up doing what their clients want, even if it is not in their own interest. In the 1950s, the notorious China lobby helped convince the United States to back Taiwan; today, foreign governments hire lobbyists and give money to think tanks and other political groups in order to win greater U.S. support. Given the openness of the U.S. political system, where all 535 members of Congress are potential targets who can advance a foreign nation’s interests, it might be more vulnerable to this source of overcommitment than any other country on Earth.
Fourth, the more weight a country places on credibility, the more likely it is to find itself overcommitted, because it will be tempted to act in places that do not matter in order to convince others that it will act in places that do. Such tendencies will be even more pronounced when a country is convinced that a reputation for strength and resolution is essential to deterring hostile attacks, including those with weapons of mass destruction. Even when leaders recognize that an existing commitment is no longer worth the cost, they may shy away from liquidating it for fear that this will embolden adversaries and invite new challenges.
Fifth, there’s the classic problem of sunk costs. This pathology may not explain why states take on ill-advised commitments, but it does help us understand why they have trouble cutting losses and getting out. As soon as anyone points out that an existing commitment is no longer worth keeping or says it is time to withdraw from a losing war, someone is bound to invoke the expense and lives that have already been sacrificed and claim that these sacrifices will be for naught if one does not “stay the course.”
My favorite example of this sort of reasoning is the 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. Written during World War I, it is an eloquent plea to honor the dead by continuing on to victory. McCrae writes:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
(Doesn’t sound that belligerent up to here, does it? But check out the last verse.)
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
During the war, millions of copies of this poem were printed and distributed in England to bolster public support for the war. And the sunk cost fallacy can contribute to overcommitment because if you can’t liquidate a losing effort and new problems arise, you end up having to address the new challenges while still being burdened by the old ones.
Sixth, states infused with a crusading, universalist ideology are especially prone to overcommitment because they believe their political principles are valid everywhere and will inevitably be tempted to spread them abroad. This tendency was evident revolutionary France, Bolshevik Russia, and the two great liberal powers, Great Britain and the United States. Pan-Arabism, Khomeinism, and Russia-based pan-Slavism are more limited variations on the same theme: States that are convinced they have a special mission beyond their borders are more likely to take on distant burdens and to convince themselves that these missions can succeed at low cost. After all, if you are convinced your own ideology is universally valid and historically inevitable, you’ll probably also believe that others will welcome your efforts and greet you as liberators. Danger: Quagmires ahead!
Seventh, overcommitment is more likely when the people who are pushing new missions do not have to pay for them and even more so when they might benefit directly from the effort. The U.S. military is not especially bellicose, in my view; indeed, it is usually less inclined to start wars than civilian leaders are. But the Pentagon and the defense industry benefit directly from an overly ambitious foreign policy, and they certainly don’t like to admit defeat. It is therefore predictable that the more hawkish think tanks often get a lot of financial support from defense interests and that they work overtime to convince Americans that their security depends on running the world. And because the United States now fights these wars with an all-volunteer force and borrows the money to pay for them (instead of raising taxes), the costs associated with extending and prolonging distant commitments are largely hidden from view. Needless to say, the armchair warriors who repeatedly argue in favor of far-flung wars and commitments that leave the United States overextended face few personal or professional consequences when their crusades go awry, as the Teflon-like careers of John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, Max Boot, and countless others demonstrate beyond doubt.
Finally, overcommitment is more likely when states face a “turbulent frontier” and conclude that they must continue to expand in order to pacify it. There’s a slippery slope waiting in such scenarios, however, because each new step forward simply shifts the boundary further away and requires another move later. In Vietnam, for example, the United States first sent advisors, then troops, then started bombing the North, then bombing Laos and Cambodia, and eventually sent troops into the latter. Today, the global war on terrorism keeps expanding and spreading to new countries; no sooner do we pacify one than a new set of extremists pops up somewhere else. Once convinced that major threats can arise from anywhere, the urge to police the entire world becomes nearly impossible to resist.
Needless to say, the United States has been particularly vulnerable to overextension and overcommitment since the end of the Cold War. One might think the combination of great wealth, nuclear weapons, and geographic distance would make it easy for the United States to choose commitments more carefully—as it did throughout most of its history—but those factors are now dwarfed by 1) the legacy of the Cold War, 2) America’s position as (still) the world’s strongest power, 3) its vulnerability to foreign-policy snake oil sold by domestic and foreign lobbies and charlatans like the Iraq War provocateur Ahmed Chalabi, and 4) its universalistic ideology, which encourages Americans to preach the gospel of liberty and to assume that other societies just can’t wait to embrace it. Given all that, we should hardly be surprised that America now finds itself bearing a disproportionate share of global burdens and that it is finding it difficult to lighten the load by even a modest amount. For the United States, in short, overcommitment is likely to be a recurring problem, at least for the foreseeable future.
I wish the world were a simple place and that overcommitment were the only pitfall into which unwise states might plunge. Alas, although states can get into serious trouble by trying to do too much, they can also find themselves in jeopardy if they do too little. In my next column, I’ll consider why and how some states end up undercommitted and discuss the problems that can arise from an overly detached foreign policy.