By Dahr Jamail
To develop a rational foreign policy, we have to start by looking at our foreign objectives and analyzing whether those objectives are being met, and whether we should even be trying to meet those objectives. The existing foreign policy objectives can be broken down into roughly three goals based on order of importance:
1. Global stability
2. International trade
3. American interests
American interests always come in last. They have consistently come in last under every administration since Taft. Foreign policy wonks would say that these three goals are actually the same goal. That global stability promotes international trade, which serves American interests.
This reverse logic has been used by every administration to deprioritize American interests. It’s similar to “What’s good for GM is good for America”. American corporations used foreign policy as a tool to open up new markets and promote international trade. But as the corporations outsourced more labor overseas, their interests were less and less American. They became multinationals. Corporations with offices around the world, plants in China and Mexico, branches in Tokyo, Dubai and Paris. They were no longer local businesses trying to move American goods overseas, but international conglomerates looking to make sure that everyone in the international community was getting along with everyone else.
Pax Americana might have started out as a cross between the muscular nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt and the woolly liberalism of Woodrow Wilson, crossed with the internationalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Realpolitik of Eisenhower became a classically imperial way to keep a stable international marketplace on as much of the globe as we could. The moralizing of Theodore and Woodrow gave way to the cynicism of Franklin and Ike. Capitalism was our best weapon against Communism, but more importantly it paid the bills. Even when they weren’t our bills anymore.
When the Cold War ended, Pax Americana lost its existential reason for being. Under Bush and Clinton, Pax Americana was turned to the service of global stability. Governments were overthrown to make way for more stable or more ideal governments. It was no longer about Communism, but some grand global theory of a perfect order. We had no other enemy but chaos.
The international deployments no longer made sense. We went on doing them, because it was expected of us. We had become an empire without a clue. Upholding a global order that depended on us and resented us. America had become the armed forces of the UN and an emerging European consensus. Our goal was to uphold the poorly defined notion of global stability at all costs. We told ourselves that we were intervening to stop atrocities, but in most cases we were picking and choosing between two sides that were just as bad. In Kuwait and Yugoslavia, we told ourselves that we were acting to stop tyranny and human rights violations. The problem is that the people we were fighting for, were tyrants who violated human rights. Even by our own neo-liberal standards what we were doing made no sense.
The post Cold War global economic order we were defending was a ridiculously fragile thing. By the late 90’s it was already becoming clear that something would have to take the place of the Soviet Union. The only player with global ambitions was Islam. Muslims had the demographics and the resources to capture large amounts of territory, without having to formally invade them. And more importantly they were the beneficiaries of our ‘international trade’ and ‘global stability’ policies. The Saudis already owned our foreign policy. The fall of the Soviet Union opened up huge Muslim republics to expand into. Falling European birth rates meant those countries with their newly liberal immigration policies could be swarmed by new immigrants. America was a tougher nut to crack, but they were still determined to crack us.
2001 did not begin a war, it only made it obvious. From the Muslim perspective the war had never ended. Their war began with Mohammed, it raged on in Byzantium and Spain and at the Gates of Vienna. But Muslims were not unique in that regard. Most of the world had a history far older than 1776. The American attempt to maintain a global order ran against the currents of ancient hatreds. Japan and China. Russia and the Tartars. Sunni and Shiite. African and Arab. While in Brussels a new age of man was being proclaimed, outside the darkness and the scimitar were falling. American foreign policy claimed to serve that new age of man, but instead it had come to be in service to the darkness and the blood-stained sword.
This summarizes the flaws of our foreign policy until now.
To begin constructing a rational foreign policy, we need to begin at the center. A policy serves someone’s interests. Whose interest does our present foreign policy serve? A rational foreign policy serves the interests of its nation. It’s hard to argue that our foreign policy does that. Successive administrations have said that our foreign policy is America because it is moral, or that it is America because it is what makes us a great nation, or similar rhetorical boilerplate with no real meaning. What rhetoric like that translates to is that internationalism is what makes America great.
So let’s begin back at the beginning. What foreign policy is in our interests? To answer that question, let’s assemble a list of what our interests might actually be in order of importance.
2. National economic success
3. Alliances with like-minded partners
This list would have been non-controversial a century ago. But today foreign policy experts claim that all three are rolled into the umbrella of global stability. Except they aren’t.
1. Self-defense is the obvious priority in foreign affairs. That doesn’t mean that we constantly need to interfere in the foreign affairs of other countries. It doesn’t mean that we have to decide who should be running Haiti or whether Country A should be independent of Country B or not. Self-defense only applies to real or emerging threats to us. We needed to stop Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, we don’t need to stop Haiti. The problem is that in the nuclear age, the bar for what can constitute a threat is lower than ever. It’s possible to foresee a world a generation from now in which most of the world has its own collection of nukes. And what then do we do about that?
There are two available extremes. Either we go around to make sure that no country is ever hostile to us, or we rely on MAD again to destroy any country and its patron that launches a nuclear attack on us. Neither is really complete in and of itself. And there are middle ground alternatives, including the development of missile defense systems. But it’s clear that we do need to be prepared to defend ourselves. That may mean fighting a war, but it may also mean fighting an economic war, political subversion or other non-violent tactics. So long as we do so in response to a real threat to us, rather than because a country offends our sensibilities or our ambitions or the consensus of the global order. A real threat being the rise to power of forces or factions determined to make war on us. Proponents of blowback theory argue that making war causes war. History however suggests that war is a function of ambition and greed, and happens irregardless of how pacifist we are willing to be.
2. National economic success means that we are interested in free trade only as long as it profits us. There is no reason for us to hold to NAFTA, if it does not benefit us. Every economic treaty and organization from the WTO on down should be analyzed from that perspective. And only from that perspective.
Our perception of national interests has long ago gone down the rabbit hole of internationalism that we confuse global stability with our own bottom line. The only question that should be asked is, does this treaty, does this agreement, does this organization, bring jobs and wealth to us, or does it ship jobs and wealth elsewhere. If the balance sheet is negative, then so is its impact. No sane country abides by agreements that leech away its wealth and its productivity.
3. Alliances with like-minded allies are in our interest so long as we have common goals and common enemies with them. Such alliances should not be cemented by foreign aid, but by common objectives. A good alliance allows us to maintain our influence and deter potential enemies without putting boots on the ground. Ideal alliances would have a moral and cultural overlay. Others would be alliances of convenience. Either way no alliance should prevent us from defending ourselves.
Alliances should be evaluated based on their net benefits. A temporary alliance with a future enemy is a dangerous thing. An alliance with a weak ally against a common enemy should either lead to us strengthening that ally or abandoning it if we cannot. Walking a cynical balance as we do with Taiwan is dishonorable and sends mixed messages to both our allies and our enemies. Alliances should not lead us directly into wars, rather they should enable us to have others fight our wars for us. Building up strong allies to counter rising enemies who would threaten us anyway allows us to keep wars from our own doorstep. But this should be done carefully. 20th century American wars often began with soldiers being drawn in to protect an ally whose own armies could not fight its own battles.
Do these three goals comprise a rational foreign policy? I would argue that they represent the traditional foreign policy, not only of America, but of most nations. They are rational because they are self-interested. They don’t depend on lofty ideals, but on practical realities. We may choose to move beyond them in a call of moral urgency, but we should be wary of moving too far beyond them. More evils are born out of misplaced idealism, than out of naked pragmatism. And pragmatism testifies that we should be wary of committing to any world order. It is not the world that we need to protect, but ourselves.