Why Is the United States So Bad at Foreign Policy?

It’s not just Trump. Washington hasn’t had a coherent strategy for decades.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office of the White House on May 10, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office of the White House on May 10, 2017. Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images

In my last column, I described the “brain-dead” qualities of the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East and especially Iran. In particular, I stressed that the administration had no real strategy—if by that term one means a set of clear objectives, combined with a coherent plan of action to achieve them that takes the anticipated reactions of others into account.

What we have instead is brute force coercion, divorced from clear objectives and implemented by an ignorant president with poor impulse control. After nearly three years in office, President Donald Trump has managed to increase the risk of war, push Iran to gradually restart its nuclear program, provoke Iraq into asking the United States to prepare to leave, raise serious doubts about U.S. judgment and reliability, alarm allies in Europe, and make Russia and China look like fonts of wisdom and order. The Trump administration has made it clear that it thinks assassinating foreign officials is a legitimate tool of foreign policy and that war criminals should be lionized, a move that nasty governments are likely to welcome and imitate.

Unfortunately, this strategic myopia goes well beyond the Middle East.

Take, for example, the far more important issue of China. To its credit, the Trump administration recognizes that China is the only possible peer competitor that the United States is likely to face for many decades. This realization is no great feat of genius, however. Reasonable people can disagree about the magnitude of the China challenge, but only a blind person could miss the worrisome implications of China’s rise.

If you thought strategically, you’d start looking for ways to limit Chinese influence at the least cost and risk to the United States itself. You’d understand that the United States cannot halt or reverse Chinese economic growth (and certainly not without hurting itself), but you’d work hard to keep as many countries as possible on its side on the issues that matter, including advanced technology. In fact, you’d get serious about trying to prevent China from achieving a dominant position in potentially game-changing technologies like quantum computing and artificial intelligence. You’d be focused laserlike on maintaining a solid diplomatic position in Asia, and over time, you’d be looking for ways to drive a wedge between China and Russia, too. And you’d try hard not to get distracted by secondary issues and waste time, attention, political capital, or resources on them.

What has the United States done instead?

For starters, Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a slap in the face to the 11 Asia-Pacific countries that had worked hard to reach an agreement that would have provided some modest economic benefits and kept them more closely linked to the U.S. economy. Then Trump launched his own trade war with China. But instead of lining up other key economic powers, he threatened or waged trade wars with most of them, too. Instead of presenting China with a united front, the United States has been facing China more or less alone, with substantially reduced leverage. The predictable result: a face-saving trade compromise that rolls back the clock and no progress on the real bones of contention with Beijing.

Next, Trump began his reality show approach to North Korea: at first threatening “fire and fury” and then getting bamboozled by Kim Jong Un’s empty promises at their initial meeting. The result: no breakthrough in U.S. relations with North Korea, no halt to its nuclear program, and, across Asia, diminished confidence in U.S. judgment.

Meanwhile, Trump has spent most of the past three years gratuitously insulting key U.S. allies in Europe and threatening to pull the country out of NATO. Surprise, surprise: When U.S. officials then tried to convince America’s allies not to buy Chinese technology—and especially Huawei 5G digital equipment—they got the brushoff from governments that were now in no mood to do Trump any favors. Chinese diplomats seeking to preserve Huawei’s position have been quick to take advantage of Trump’s repeated blunders, telling European officials that they are more committed to multilateralism and technological openness than the United States is and highlighting their support for the Paris climate agreement (another deal that Trump foolishly abandoned). According to Julianne Smith of the German Marshall Fund of the United States: “The Chinese have started brazenly claiming that it is China, not the United States, that shares more values with Europe. [They] also frequently remind European audiences that unlike the United States, China believes in climate change and multilateralism, a message that is especially powerful in a place like Germany.”

Now consider this: At a moment when the U.S. State Department is in free fall, China is upping its game. China now has more embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic posts than the United States does and in an era where the future alignment of a number of important countries could be up for grabs. According to former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns: “We’ve entered an era in which diplomacy matters more than ever, on an intensely competitive international landscape. … China realizes that and is rapidly expanding its diplomatic capacity. The U.S., by contrast, seems intent on unilateral diplomatic disarmament.” As I’ve noted before, any hope of balancing China in Asia requires the United States to preserve solid ties to an unwieldy coalition of Asian states, and that will require knowledgeable, sophisticated, patient, and dedicated diplomacy as least as much as credible military forces.

Lastly, instead of conducting a measured and gradual disengagement from the Middle East, and returning to the balance-of-power approach that the United States employed successfully from World War II to the end of the Cold War, Trump has allowed local client states, wealthy donors, and hawkish advisors to drag him back into a pointless confrontation with Iran. One can only imagine the knowing smiles of foreign-policy mavens in Beijing as they watch the United States stumble toward yet another quagmire of its own making.

In short, despite recognizing that the China challenge was the most important item on America’s foreign-policy agenda—with the possible exception of climate change itself—Trump and company have pursued a series of policies that almost seem tailor-made to give China as many advantages as possible.

But that’s not the bad news. Though the Trump administration may have taken the “no strategy” approach to a new level, this problem has been apparent for some time. Bill Clinton thought the United States could expand NATO eastward, contain Iraq and Iran simultaneously, bring China into the World Trade Organization prematurely, and promote hyperglobalization with abandon yet never face serious negative consequences. George W. Bush believed ending tyranny and evil forever should be the central goal of U.S. foreign policy and thought the U.S. military could quickly transform the Middle East into a sea of pro-American democracies. Clinton was luckier than Bush, insofar as the negative consequences of his actions did not emerge until after he had left office, but neither president’s actions left the United States in a stronger global position.

Barack Obama had a more realistic view of U.S. power and placed more weight on diplomacy, but he did little to reduce America’s military involvement overseas and fully backed the energetic use of U.S. military power. Obama sent more troops to Afghanistan in 2009, supported regime change in Libya and Syria, and expanded targeted killings of suspected terrorists with drones or special operations forces. His administration failed to anticipate Russia’s reaction to Western efforts to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union and NATO, and he proved unable to unite the country behind his approach to climate change or Iran. Nor should we forget that in his last year in office, the U.S. military dropped more than 26,000 bombs in seven different countries.

What’s going on here? When did the United States get so bad at strategy? Foreign policy is a challenging enterprise where uncertainties are rife and mistakes are sometimes inevitable. But an inability to think strategically isn’t hard-wired into American DNA. The Truman administration faced enormous challenges in the aftermath of World War II, but it came up with containment, the Marshall Plan, NATO, a set of bilateral alliances in Asia, and a set of economic institutions that served the United States and its allies well for decades. Similarly, the first Bush administration (1989-1993) managed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the peaceful reunification of Germany, and the first Gulf War with considerable subtlety, expertise, and restraint. Neither administration was perfect, but their handling of complex and novel circumstances showed a sure grasp of what was most important and the ability to elicit the responses they wanted from both allies and adversaries. In other words, they were good at strategy.

Paradoxically, part of the problem today is the remarkable position of primacy that the United States has enjoyed ever since the Cold War ended. Because the United States is so powerful, wealthy, and secure, it is mostly insulated from the consequences of its own actions. When it makes mistakes, most of the costs are borne by others, and it hasn’t faced a peer competitor that might be quick to take advantage of mistakes. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars may ultimately cost more than $6 trillion and thousands of soldiers’ lives, but the lack of a draft limits public concerns about casualties, and the United States is paying for all of these wars by borrowing the money abroad, running up bigger deficits, and sticking future generations with the bill.

This situation helps explain why few Americans are interested in what is happening overseas or what the U.S. government is doing about it. According to Diane Hessen, who has been conducting in-depth interviews with a panel of 500 Americans since 2016, “most voters don’t care much [about foreign policy], and that’s a problem.” Other recent surveys have asked Americans to list their top priorities, and foreign policy doesn’t even make the top 10. When most Americans can’t tell the difference between success and failure—at least in terms of immediate, tangible consequences—then policymakers will be under less pressure to come up with strategies that actually work and posturing will take precedence over actual performance.

And then there’s hubris. Americans have always seen themselves as a model for others, and victory in the Cold War reinforced the belief that the United States had the magic formula for success in the modern world. Moreover, they also believed that almost everyone else around the world realized this and couldn’t wait to follow their lead, join a U.S.-led world order, and gradually become just like them. Convinced the tides of history were flowing their way, U.S. leaders believed they were pushing on an open door. Who needs a coherent, sophisticated, and carefully designed strategy when powerful global trends were already pushing the world in the direction they wanted?

Moreover, as Paul Pillar explains in his important book Why America Misunderstands the World, the United States’ unusual historical experience, geographic isolation, large domestic market, and general ignorance has weakened its ability to fashion viable foreign-policy strategies. Devising an effective foreign-policy strategy requires anticipating how others are likely to react, but government officials—let alone the public at large—frequently know very little about the countries whose actions they are trying to influence. In addition, the enduring myth of the “melting pot”—which portrays immigrants to the United States as readily embracing a new American identity and merging seamlessly into the fabric of U.S. society—leads the country to discount the power of nationalism, ethnicity, and other enduring sources of local identity, which in turn leads it to underestimating the difficulty of state- or nation-building in diverse societies. Certain of its own rectitude and noble intentions, the United States is equally slow to recognize that other societies might have valid reasons to question its motives or to see it as dangerous. Taken together, these blind spots are a serious obstacle to the development of effective foreign-policy strategy, especially toward parts of the world whose historical experiences and cultural elements are dramatically different from its own.

Key features of the U.S. democratic system also make it harder to devise and implement a coherent foreign and national security policy, especially when there is no clear and present danger to focus the mind and impose discipline on foreign-policy debates. When most of the public is indifferent, the policy process is more easily captured by domestic and foreign lobbies, especially in an era when money plays such a central role in politics. Instead of a genuine marketplace of ideas where competing policy prescriptions are carefully and honestly debated, foreign policy becomes an arena dominated by the loudest and best-funded voices or the preferences of a small set of wealthy donors. And as I’ve noted before, the United States is probably more vulnerable to foreign influence than any great power in modern history. If a bunch of these special interest groups get at least some of what they want (e.g., a bigger defense budget, more attention to human rights, rejection of climate change agreements, unconditional support for certain client states, etc.), the ability to develop an overall strategy to benefit the nation as a whole will erode. At best, the United States ends up overcommitted; at worst, it ends up pursuing policies that are mutually contradictory and therefore self-defeating.

Ideally, the institutions responsible for devising and conducting foreign policy would also learn from experience over time. But as I’ve explored at length elsewhere, there is little accountability in today’s foreign-policy establishment. Bad ideas survive no matter how often they are disproved, and people who get things wrong repeatedly routinely fail upward, while those who get things right are often marginalized. Consider that the individuals and/or groups that conceived, sold, and bungled the Iraq War remain respected figures today, and some are considered eligible for future service. Consider that the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post actually increased the number of regular columnists who supported that war yet still do not feature anyone who correctly anticipated that it would be a disaster. If those who devise bad strategies pay no price and those who propose better alternatives go unrecognized, why should anyone expect the country to do better?

One is tempted to see these various failures as an inevitable consequence of America’s gradual transformation from a republic into a global empire, a powerful country that cannot stop interfering all over the world. The Founding Fathers warned that a republic could not engage in more or less constant warfare without becoming corrupted, and they were right. Five-star general and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood it, too. To wage war constantly requires powerful national security institutions, ever greater government secrecy, and the gradual expansion of executive power. Checks and balances erode, violations of domestic and international law are winked at, the media becomes partly co-opted and complicit, dissidents are silenced or marginalized, and presidents and their minions find it easier and easier to lie to retain popularity or win support for the policies they favor. Once public discourse is debased and unmoored from the real world, coming up with strategies that will actually work in that world becomes nearly impossible.

As I said in my previous column, we have reached a point where foreign and national security policy in the United States is more like performance art. The results of U.S. actions don’t really matter—save to the soldiers, sailors, aircrews, and diplomats it tasks with carrying them out. The only thing U.S. leaders care about is how it plays on TV, on Twitter, or among an electorate more interested in being entertained than enlightened or ably led. Because the United States is still so powerful and secure, it can probably go on this way for quite some time. Probably. But it can’t do so forever, and it will continue to miss opportunities to make itself safer, more prosperous, and to build a society that lives up to its nobler ideals.

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