WARped: Refocusing American foreign policy after neo-conservatism

    Photo of Robert Gates by eschipul on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

    Dear Secretary of Defense Robert Gates:

    U.S. foreign policy during the Bush administration was disastrous. It was not just the two wars or the complete dismissal of international law and norms. Neither was it just the unwillingness to negotiate, to complete the Doha round, to come to an international environmental accord nor the backing of the ABC policy. Nor was it just the dogmatism and militarism that seemed to pervade every foreign project. It was blending an aggressive security policy with a moralistic quest to spread freedom and American values around the world that made our foreign policy arrogant, confused and ineffectual.

    There is a place for values and a place for aggression in foreign affairs; mashing the two together is toxic. As an experienced and level-headed foreign policy wonk within the Obama administration, you cannot allow the next four years to become infected with the same strategic contradictions of the last eight.

    The key to success for your security team will be its ability to distinguish between what is necessary and what is good. Kennedy famously stated in his only inaugural that the United States should choose foreign policies that are “right.” Carter and Clinton’s respective promotion of human rights and international legal norms pursued this same moral aim. Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and the first Bush tended to justify their policies as more necessary than good. Foreign policy, for them, was not something of which we should be proud as much as something that should react to geopolitical circumstances and serve our interests.

    Each of these administrations faced choices and designed policies that were uniquely inflected by the geopolitical circumstances of their time. The overweening tone of Cold War political discourse favored foreign policy that was necessary rather than good. Our context-dependent foreign policy was designed to contain an irremediably evil enemy, which meant that extreme and untoward measures were justified in order to fight Communism. Kennedy’s and Carter’s failures originated with their respective attempts to mix what they considered “good” with what was necessary for American security.

    In the post-Cold War geopolitical environment, the tone changed from one of security to one of cooperation. Clinton’s foreign policy strategy stressed collegiality and growth. With less urgent circumstances, American foreign policy could look to spread what it considers good: human rights, democracy and the like.

    The level of urgency increased once again on 9/11. The problem with Bush’s response was not necessarily its aggression, but that the administration took advantage of a security crisis to promote what it considered moral.

    Many have criticized the Bush foreign policy team for refusing to entertain alternative foreign policy opinions, but it was the influence of moralistic militarism on an otherwise realist policy framework that led to foreign policy disaster. The Bush team was largely culled from the Project for a New American Century, a think-tank designed to germinate neo-conservative foreign policy ideas. Neo-conservatism — more so than realism, the classic Republican foreign policy framework that prioritizes security over values — sought to spread American values across the globe. Unafraid of intervention, neo-conservatives advocate for the expansion of America’s military power in order to “challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values” and promote freedom.

    The circumstances directly following the explosion of international terrorism demanded a shift in foreign policy focus from what is good toward what is necessary. The values-based neo-conservatism of Bush’s 2002 foundational remarks on foreign policy as a presidential candidate, Obama discussed America’s leadership and reputation. While the speech set forth global leadership, collegiality and withdrawal from Iraq as chief foreign policy goals, his talk of promoting “dignity” sounded eerily similar to Bush’s pledge to “champion aspirations for human dignity.”

    I do not believe that promoting human dignity is unimportant. In fact, I think that humanitarianism should play an increasingly substantial role in how America chooses to interact with the rest of the world. However, we need to be wise in deciding when to be humanitarian and when to be strategic. For Obama, it will be important to implement a defense policy that secures strategic interests and protects America against foreign threats without overextending itself. I propose five rules to guide your administration’s foreign policy in avoiding the contradictions that plagued your predecessors.

    1. Let’s not plan on using the military to do anything that we consider “good.” Of course, we must commit to hold our military to strict standards of conduct that protect international rights standards and the laws of war. However, we must accept that military projects will often reside in the realm of “ugly but necessary.”
    2. Actively pursue diplomacy through multilateral institutions without a missionary agenda. Our goal is not to develop military alliances on behalf of democracy; it is to secure stability and prevent future conflict. President Bush aspired to “a just peace — a peace that favors liberty.” In most cases, we should favor only a stable peace in which basic rights are protected.
    3. Separate military activities from humanitarian ones. It may be necessary to secure aid convoys with military personnel. However, the military should not distribute aid. It sends the wrong signal. The military represents intrusiveness and oppression. The purpose of aid is to expose the war-torn or unfortunate to the benevolence of America. Humanitarian missions are meant to support American values, not apologize for American invasions. While I wholeheartedly support Obama’s initial pledge to double U.S. foreign aid, I would also support a commitment to increase grants to private activist projects and NGOs working in the most vulnerable parts of the world.
    4. Promote values through educational and cultural exchanges. If we hope to support American values abroad, we should facilitate interaction between people rather than states. This means increased support for global service opportunities, public diplomacy and university outposts in foreign countries. Instead of shoving our values around at the state level, we should let our fellow citizens — through NGOs, charitable programs and other interactions — project them at the individual and household levels in all corners of the globe.
    5. Recognize our limits. With innumerable problems cropping up domestically, it will be increasingly difficult to manage intense military and diplomatic efforts in every region on every issue. In short, not every islandic war in the Atlantic requires a detailed diplomatic response. If we limit our substantial involvement in foreign conflicts to those with significant geopolitical or humanitarian consequences, we will avoid the contradictions that often arise from trying to do too much. We can let private American activists focus on human dignity. The state will do what is necessary and, when it does not jeopardize the necessary, support the good.
    6. Very truly yours,
      Ben Armstrong


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