The Case for a More Restrained Foreign Policy

Shawn McFall

Since the fall of the USSR in 1991, the foreign policy establishment has called upon the United States to lead from the front. Foreign policy experts preached that the United States could not take its ball and go home like it did after the First World War. The international community needed a leader. This train of thought in foreign policy has been predominate for the last 20 years. As a result, the U.S. has become the world’s policeman, acting on moral indignation instead of the best interest of the U.S.

The events of the Iraq War, the resulting rise of ISIS, the ongoing Afghanistan War, and the failure to deter Russian, Chinese, and North Korean aggression have led some to question this normative-interventionist policy. This is a good thing. For the U.S. to be successful in the upcoming decades the U.S. must reject the urge to be the world’s police and it should pull back from ongoing endless conflicts.

This does not mean that the U.S. needs to isolate itself from the world or even shrink from the forefront of foreign policy. Instead, a restrained policy would create a stronger United States and leave it better prepared for the future. Historically, the U.S.has proven it can be the world leader that the international community needs without dictating the actions of other countries through military coercion.

As the USSR crumbled in the middle of 1990, the U.S. began the transition to becoming the world’s premier superpower. The first test of this new order was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the prospect of them invading Saudi Arabia. What followed was a clear and concise strategy by George H.W. Bush; the United States went on to liberate the people of Kuwait and protect the free flow of oil. Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm were successful in accomplishing both goals.

President George H. W. Bush’s commitment to a limited war made these operations successful. Colin Powell-then Joint Chiefs of Staff- rightly praised President Bush’s decision to not invade Baghdad and to “only right a wrong.”

Today, if the United States should find itself in a situation when military force is needed, the first Gulf War serve as a template. A limitation of military force to strategic goals, and one that does not focus on moral platitudes, including, but not limiting to, spreading democracy, human rights violation, and terror, would prevent the United States military from overextending itself.

While often confined to physics, Newton’s 3rd law can also be applied to US foreign policy decisions after the Cold War. The United States’ decision to ostracize Russia and enlarge NATO in 1997 continues to have an equal reaction on modern day US-Russian relations. Eight years prior to the expansion of NATO the United States and Russia had been allies in capturing and destroying loose nuclear weapons, captured in an agreement known as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction.

Contrast Bush’s foreign policy to that of his successor, President Bill Clinton. Instead of continuing a policy of diplomacy and engagement, Clinton opted for a policy of future deterrence, the policy of deterring a threat not currently present but might one day become a threat. Future deterrence  is counter-intuitive and invites future conflict. In fact, Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, William Perry, was adamantly opposed to this decision. In his memoir, Perry wrote that the expansion of NATO guaranteed that the United States and Russia would never become allies and that it would create future tensions between the two countries. History has proven Perry to be right.

A more restrained foreign policy would not regulate that the United States cede to Russian interests. Instead it would promote an atmosphere ripe for cooperation between the two countries.

Contrast the success of a restrained foreign policy to the failures of interventionism. A recollection of the past highlights how the former can maintain the U.S.’s role as a world power, while the latter leads to failure.

Rooted in the belief that democracies do not go to war, known as democratic peace theory, the U.S. has implemented the policy of democracy by gunpoint. The U.S. has used force not to accomplish a strategic goal, but to forcibly remove leaders in Iraq, Libya, and Syria in the hope of creating democracies.

These attempts to force democracy are comparable to trying to build a house with a wrecking ball. Destroying a house using a wrecking ball is a simple task, but trying to build a house with one is nearly impossible. This is because democracy cannot be built from the top down, but instead needs a strong foundation that then grows from the bottom up.

Christopher Coyne, author of the book After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy, explains that democracy is created at the micro level with daily interactions between the people that grow into stable institutions, which then become the foundations for a newly formed society.

An unrestrained foreign policy will continue to insist on the need to overthrow dictators and morally repugnant leaders, and thereby replace them with a democratic system. However, the tools of the military are not capable of accomplishing this task.

An advantage of a restrained foreign policy would not only allow the U.S. to avoid another Iraq blunder, but might encourage the organic spread of democracy. Resisting the urge to use military coercion would force U.S. policy makers to rely upon other foreign policy tools, specifically economic tools.

Current economic tools are used primarily as an alternative to military coercion. But they also aim to accomplish the same goal of coercing a foreign state to acquiesce to the United States demands. The lack of using positive economic tools to build allies and encourage policy shifts was highlighted in the recent book, War by Other Means, written by Robert Blackwill and Jennifer Harris. Blackwill and Harris highlight how China, not the US, has taken advantage of their economic situation and has begun to use economic policies to accomplish geopolitical goals.

A restrained foreign policy would allow for the United States to transition toward a model similar to Chinese, thus permitting the U.S. to use its leadership as the world’s number one economy to bring about change. A certain change that the U.S. could foster is the spread of democracy through promoting and growing a strong middle class. The organic growth of a middle class can overcome the fatal flaw of military intervention, as mentioned earlier, and create a strong voice that demands political freedom. Only through limiting coercion and allowing for the full use of the U.S. economic system will the United States be able to accomplish lofty goals such as democracy and promoting human rights.

Restricting and restraining US foreign policy would not lead to a decline in the liberal world order or threaten the United States’ importance on the world stage. Instead it will allow the United States to narrow its strategic policy goals and begin the process of transitioning to a policy based on soft power. The United States would not isolate itself from the world but instead foster the creation of linkages that would decrease its chance of having to use its military to settle a conflict in the future. Furthermore, restraining from coercion would allow for countries to domestically experiment with a system of governance that works best for the people while promoting U.S.-based interests. The United States no longer has to be the world’s policemen in order for it to be the world’s leader.      

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