Five Not-So-Easy Pieces: The Debates on American Foreign Policy

American foreign policy discussion today is not so much a single debate as debates. At least five principal debates are taking place—or at least should be. How they are resolved will go a long way toward determining both what takes the place of containment as a means of organizing international relations and what the role of the United States in the post-Cold War world will be.

The five essential sets of questions involve the proper priorities for foreign policy; the extent to which the United States should enlist others in pursuing these priorities; how the instruments of foreign policy should be used; what resources will be required and how they should be distributed; and how policy itself should be made.

The range of American foreign policy priorities is considerable. Potential emphases include encouraging democracy and markets; alleviating humanitarian distress; promoting U.S. exports; maintaining American primacy; encouraging restraint in inter-state relations; and avoiding foreign policy entanglements. Although a foreign policy can reflect more than one of these directions, priorities must be established, because trade-offs and opportunity costs are often unavoidable.

At its core the second question is how much the United States should try to do largely or entirely on its own—unilaterally—and how much in cooperation with others. The choice is a great deal more complicated than that, however, as the multilateral option in fact subsumes multiple approaches, including using the United Nations and other international institutions, alliances and other regional organizations, and coalitions of those able and willing to act.

The third set of questions involves the instruments of foreign policy, which include public and private diplomacy, military force, sanctions, incentives, and covert action. In every instance, questions arise about whether and how to use particular tools. Policymakers must constantly assess whether acting with a particular instrument in a particular fashion makes more sense than using others in other ways—or than doing nothing at all.

The fourth debate is over resources. Elsewhere in these pages Michael O’Hanlon highlights the choices facing the United States in the realm of defense. Similar assessments could be written about the dollars devoted to intelligence, foreign assistance, and diplomacy. In every case, it is necessary to address not simply how much should be spent but how it is spent.

The fifth and last debate involves how foreign policy is made. Are procedures and institutions that for the most part developed in a very different context—a world divided by Cold War and fundamentally less global than our own—still adequate for the challenges facing the United States today? If not, what changes should be made by the executive branch, Congress, or both?

All five debates are important. At the same time, they are often obscured by specific foreign policy issues. “Unpack” the debate over China policy and you will see that at the core is the question of foreign policy priorities. Much the same can be said of debates surrounding Kosovo and other humanitarian interventions. Likewise, controversy surrounding the use of economic sanctions reflects disagreements over both the wisdom of unilateral action and the relative value of particular tools.

Of the five sets of questions, the most important are the first two, which reflect the purposes of the United States and its basic approach to the world. The latter three debates—matters more of instrumentality, implementation, and process—while critical to the success of policy, are less fundamental. For that reason this essay will emphasize the debates over priorities and approaches.

To What End?

The question of priorities is another way of asking what the United States should do with its primacy. Although a world of democratic, market-oriented states would obviously be desirable, bringing it about is likely beyond our capacity. Moreover, other issues—stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, avoiding the outbreak of war, protecting core economic stakes—are simply more important. Interests need to take precedence over concerns. Much the same holds for a humanitarian emphasis. However important, it too can be a luxury that can impair the ability to protect necessities.

A foreign policy based on promoting exports also has major shortcomings. Because trade and investment flows require stability, an export-based policy can all too easily be overwhelmed by political and military instability. Just as important, a focus on exports is likely to lead to policies that make little economic sense—because an export-based policy tends to increase the role of governments in trade—and can imperil the rest of relationships as trade frictions overwhelm all else.

Nor is a policy that seeks to maintain American primacy as an end in itself likely to succeed. The United States cannot dictate the course of other societies, preventing them in the process from becoming more powerful and assertive. What is more, changes taking place within American society are likely to make consensus as to the ideal means and ends of policy more difficult to achieve. This, too, is likely to weaken the position of the United States relative to others over time.

What might be described as the opposite alternative—minimalism or neo-isolationism—is arguably more doable but less desirable. Although doing less abroad would be less costly in the near term, over time it could prove terribly expensive. The United States cannot insulate itself in a world that is ever more global. Missiles, people, germs, terrorists, ideas, drugs, funds, and goods all show little respect for state boundaries. Moreover, an absence of American activism will create vacuums that will be filled by forces that in some cases will be hostile to ourselves, creating the likelihood of conflict down the road.

A final alternative, one that often comes under the banner of realism, emphasizes order among rather than within states. While rightly focusing on the greatest threats to peace and prosperity, realism has little to offer when it comes to dealing with internal sources of instability or to human problems. Indeed, its very narrowness makes it unattractive to many Americans who will only support a foreign policy with a purpose that transcends balancing power and maintaining peace devoid of justice.

Which orientation makes the most sense? Realism should be at the core, and toward that end the United States should work to bring about a world where military force is used only sparingly to resolve disputes between nations, where stocks of weapons of mass destruction are reduced, and where trade is conducted according to rules rather than results. These are the areas where the most important U.S. interests are engaged and where it is possible to design and implement policies to protect them. At the same time, the United States should promote democracy and markets to the extent feasible and do what it can to alleviate humanitarian suffering when it is truly awful, when it is possible to do some good at a reasonable cost and without jeopardizing vital interests, and when others are willing to share the burden.

Getting From Here to There

Beyond the question of the ends is the problem of approach. What is the best way to realize the preferred aims of American foreign policy?

One option would be to go it alone. Unilateralism has the advantage of minimizing the need for compromise and maximizing speed and ease of acting. But it is also expensive (in both dollars and people) and impractical. Few undertakings can be carried out by the United States alone. Major military operations require overflight rights, access to bases, and contributions of troops and equipment. Unilateral sanctions can easily be circumvented. A world trading system by definition requires the cooperation of others. Supplier clubs designed to curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction require near universal membership.

A second approach would lean heavily on international institutions. This notion is attractive in principle, as effective global organizations could help bring about a more prosperous, stable world at less cost to the United States. But institutions require a strong consensus to operate effectively, and in most arenas of international life such consensus is missing. In particular, major powers today do not agree on the rules of world trade, the status of Taiwan, what to do about Saddam Hussein, the desirable level of missile defenses, or the legality of intervening with military force when a government is unable or unwilling to protect its own people. This is not an argument against building organizations where and when agreement emerges—a WTO that is inclusive in membership and comprehensive in what it regulates is surely to be desired—only a call for modesty in the absence of convergence.

A third approach to American foreign policy is one that is multilateral but less formal or universal. Alliances, such as NATO, are one manifestation, although such groupings are rare and likely to become even less common in a world of few fixed adversaries. Much more common are informal coalitions of parties able and willing to work together on behalf of a common purpose—be it to rescue the Mexican economy, contain Saddam Hussein, or enter East Timor. Such groupings are not ideal—they are invariably ad hoc and reactive and lack the legitimacy of more formal regional or UN undertakings—but they are consistent with a world where the willingness of governments to cooperate varies from crisis to crisis and situation to situation, where great power consensus is unreliable, and where U.S. resources, however great, are still limited.

Making Foreign Policy Work

What this all adds up to is an American foreign policy that emphasizes relations between states more than conditions within them (on the grounds that one can have order without justice but not vice versa) and informal coalitions to promote multilateral action. In most instances, such coalitions should be headed by the United States, if only because it alone possesses adequate military, economic, and political power.

But power is not to be confused with influence. It is not simply that the United States lacks the resources to carry out a unilateral foreign policy, it lacks the capacity to compel others to follow its lead. Any attempt to do so—to assert hegemony—is bound to fail as it will stimulate resistance, something that will make the costs of acting in the world greater and the benefits smaller.

In short, leadership requires followership. Abroad, this means that the United States must be willing to consult with others as to the shape of post-Cold War international society. If negotiations were the hallmark of Cold War diplomacy, consultations are likely to characterize U.S. foreign policy in this era.

Leadership overseas also requires leadership at home. The ability of the United States to be effective requires that the American people and Congress be willing to recognize the national interest over special interests, to make the necessary resources available, and to allow them to be used. Right now, a decade after the end of the Cold War, the absence of consensus abroad as to what should constitute international order is matched by an absence of consensus at home as to what should constitute American foreign policy. Asking the candidates to articulate their vision of both seems only right given all that is at stake.