Whether realist or idealist, there are a great number of hidden ways that values and value judgments can steer a strategic thinker astray. This proceeds under the rubric of “national interest.” Strategy, at its best, connects means and ends, and those ends are supposed to be our “national interests.” But the appraisal of the latter permits a great deal of dubious and unrigorous thinking and, in some cases, outright fraud.
While the realist adheres to a rather shorter and more measurable list of items of such an interest, such as control over sea lanes, parity in missiles and bombers, and the like, nonetheless, this pre-strategic question lends itself to a lot of confusion. National interests are harder-to-measure, taken often for granted by neoconservatives and Republican hawks, such as whether it is in our interest to “protect Taiwan,” “prevent Russian hegemony,” or “preserve our hard-fought gains in Iraq.” The answers to these questions does a lot to channel strategic thinkers and policymakers into bad policy based on faulty, untested, and often unstated assumptions about “national interest.” Further, these particulars, conceal assumptions about the desirability of “democracy” or “stability” or “maintaining credibility” that forestalls concrete thinking on the question of interests.
At one extreme lay the idealists, who purport to be concerned not merely for national interests, but for the good of humanity as a whole. In this view, we must promote democracy, protect human rights, stop genocide in Rwanda, and much else. The idealists sometimes make pro forma claims that all of these things are in our national interests, but, in the process, reduce the concept to an irrelevant one. For them, our national interest and the “right thing” broadly understood are always the same, and thus, it’s fairly easy to draw a line from any particular injustice to the necessity of US involvement. This is the basic thinking of Barack Obama’s adviser Samantha Power. And it leads to lunatic and counterpoductive US actions, such as our decapitation of Kaddafi in the name of democracy only to usher in lawlessness and al Qaeda militias decapitating Christian by the score on the shores of the Mediterranean.
So-called realists, however, have a similar problem. They embrace, more often than not, a meta-view that the US is and should remain the “sole superpower” and ensure “stability” by maintaining “credibility.” Thus, the rise of any rival, however inevitable, however unthreatening at the moment, however peripheral from our more tangible interests, and however costly it may be to dissuade them, is the chief goal of policy. For the realists, we must stop China in the South China Sea and stop Russia in the Black Sea, while we also spread democracy and give MREs to starving Somalis, take on ISIS, aid the Columbian regime in combating drug smuggling, defend South Korea’s border with even more resources than the South Koreans themselves devote to the project, stop the Syrian regime and its enemies at the same time, and much else. Each of these projects individually has a certain resonance. After all, we have treaty commitments in some cases, and clearly our own freedom of action may be undone somewhat by the greater power of China or Russia. That said, collectively, these pronouncements based on the “sole superpower” goal provide little guidance on prioritizing goals, force the expenditure of tremendous resources to combat low probability events, and often involve the most convoluted connections to the ordinary lives of Americans.
Theory in the area of strategy provides only limited guidance in discerning national interest. After all, one’s views on the purpose of government more generally play a part, as does one’s view of the meaning of the American nation. In the case of the “right liberal” realists and “left liberal” idealists, the “creedal nation” concept prevails and reduces the tangible and identifiable interests of actual existing Americans to a minor concern, to the extent it is measured at all. The lack of concreteness and the inability to prioritize when and where our forces or diplomats should intervene is lacking from both the idealists and realists. The confusion flows in both cases from their utopian notion that the US can combat all evil or remain the only relevant military power in an anarchic world of competing nations and scarce resources.
In this area, I am not beholden to ideology, but rather pragmatism and particularism, focusing on the lives of ordinary Americans, who are not much affected by whether China takes Taiwan, how Libya picks its leaders, or whether Liberia is a corrupt dump (which it will always be).
A true concept of national interests in the international arena should start with the most basic, measurable, and uncontroversial aspects of our national flourishing and deem much of the rest of it as controversial at best or undeniably contrary to our actual interests in most cases.
For starters, we have a national interest in maintaining our borders, preventing the invasion of the US by foreign armies or foreigners more generally. This is the most basic accouterment of sovereignty from time immemorial and, whether in preventing our enslavement by invaders or our displacement by colonists, the connection to the actual interests of existing American citizens is obvious, or at least it should be. In this particular, our policy is woefully inadequate. Massive illegal immigration continues apace, and hostile foreign elements, particularly from the Islamic world, continue to threaten our way of life and have forced massive internal changes to our traditional, free, less expensive, and open way of life. It’s true, we do not face a traditional foreign invasion at the moment, but we have lost several thousand citizens to Islamic extremists, who could be turned back with truly minor changes to our immigration laws, visa policies, border control policies, and the like. We benefit, as in the days of George Washington, from two enormous oceans on either side of us, a pacific and friendly northern neighbor, and a weak and military irrelevant southern one. Nonetheless, through a combination of poor attention, business lobbying against the public good, and distraction by far more distant and attenuated threats, this component of policy is sorely neglected.
Second, we have an interest in access to the global commons, including open sea lanes, a prevention of piracy, respect for our merchant ships abroad, and the like. We are a trading nation, and there are well established rules of the road regarding the ability of any nation to harass, tax, or steal our shipping in its transport to other shores. Here, we have largely been successful with regard to other states, but quite a bit less successful with nonstate threats, as in the instance of our borders. Somali pirates routinely harass and seize shipping, and our response has been lackluster and weak. While I’m proud of our SEALs for wasting the Somali pirates who captured Captain Phillips, a collective punishment along the lines of weeks-long carpet bombing would have been a more appropriate punitive measure with ample historical precedent stretching back to the US punitive operation against the Barbary Pirates. We are hamstrung here by a combination of misplaced idealism which prioritizes the weak tool of “international law,” our domestic multiculturalist virus at home, and the military’s own relative desire not to deal with these murky, hard-to-fully control nonstate threats not only to the US, but to the international order as a whole.
Three, we have a definite interest in reducing the expense of our national defense apparatus and the web of treaty and non-treaty obligations that make other nations’ problems our own, even when they have no interest and ability in reciprocating. (Sidebar, which nation sent troops to help us in Vietnam: Israel or South Korea?). The benefit of keeping its costs to a reasonable level are obvious in the form of lower taxes, a reduced debt, and a reduced burden of financing the mini-welfare-state that is the VA burecracy. I favor cutting the costs of defense–though perhaps not our modestly sized military–because most of what it should do should be done at home, without the enormous expense of a huge number of foreign bases and foreign military obligations, which are necessary not for defending our small number of vital national interests, but rather only for pursuing the bloated, quasi-empire that we have maintained since WWII. Indeed, unlike the empires of old, our empire does not involve channeling foreign resources to ourselves, but rather sending huge amounts of treasure abroad with relatively little to show for it.
We do need global power projection ability, because modern air travel–and the threat of ballistic missiles–means that people and nations anywhere on the earth could do us harm. But we do not need to provocatively and expensively garrison our military over the entire surface of the globe to vouchsafe the limited goals outlined above. And, we do not need to take on the obligations of others, such as the NATO nations in trying to counter-balance Russia, or Japan in trying to counterbalance China, when the chief harm of such unbalance is not to us but to those whom we are subsidizing at great expense. Any alliance should be informal, tied to a particular threat, with the US remaining in a position to consider whether military intervention in a particular case is warranted. By way of practical example, the US was right to avoid Great Britain’s Falklands’ adventure, even as we cooperated with them throughout on European security.
That’s about it. I am dubious of the usual blank check of “maintaining US credibility” or “stopping the rise of China, Russia, or whomever.” Stopping ISIS or al Qaeda makes sense for obvious reason that these groups have shown they have the means, motive, and will to kill Americans at home and abroad. That the said, my policy would work here even better than the current one. The threat would almost certainly be less if we (a) followed a sensible immigration regime and (b) did not follow the idealistic and anti-realist alliance with Israel that only inflames people that sell us essential resources, namely, oil. I have no illusions about how much Saudi Arabia or any other Arab nation may be our “friend.” But at least they have something we really need. More important, we would have more resources to address this actual and current threat without so many troops and resources devoted to hypothetical ones such as Russia in Europe or China in East Asia.
I am also dubious of all foreign policy in the pursuit of abstract goals like human rights and democracy. It is true, we obviously have more peaceful and productive relations with countries that act like us, whether it’s Japan or England or Poland. That said, we can do business with a wide variety of regimes and have long done so. It is more important that they understand that we ask for little–no attacks, no support of our enemies, no molestation of our merchant vessels and attempts to restrict the open seas–and, in exchange, we will not attack or decapitate your regime. That is, the classic Teddy Roosevelt notion of “walk softly and carry a big stick.”
Unlike the so-called realists, I think multipolarity is both inevitable and only minimally damaging to our identifiable national interests. Even if Saddam Hussein had conquered Kuwait and kept it in 1990, he would still have needed to sell the oil, and it’s not like Kuwait is a modern-day Denmark. Likewise, whether kleptocratic Ukrainian nationalists or post-Soviet nostalgic Russophones run Eastern Ukraine, it is of little concern to the US. Further, it is natural that these nations want to influence their neighbors and to some extent steer them in a friendly direction, just as the US has long done with Canada and Mexico. In other words, proximity matters both to ourselves and our interests, just as it matters to others.
These far flung provinces only matter to the US through the distorting prism of ideology which says the world can and should remain unipolar with the US at the top. Far from granting us security, this position is expensive, imposes great constraints because of our allies’ own competing interests (as in our schizophrenic Middle East policy), and it an invitation to challenge, resentment, and the creation of hostility by unavoidable rising powers such as China, India, and Russia.
Restraint is a conservative principle both in domestic and foreign affairs. It counsels a realistic appraisal of what is possible, the costs of any particular action, and the fact that other nations also have interests, pride, perceived interests, including a desire not to have a US veto over their individual and collective destinies. The US took a detour from its historical isolationism in World War I, in what I would argue was a huge mistake in the support of the perennial and amoral balance of power politics of Europe. In World War II and the Cold War, the messianic notions of unipolarity by Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and, after them, the Soviet Union, mandated a muscular and global role by the US as a matter of fundamental self defense. While militant Islam has this same design and it calls for a response, unlike those nations, it lacks the means to impose its will, other than through the unilateral disarmament by western nations in the form of their suicidal immigration policies. The inability of militant Islamic nations and groups to harness modern technology, modern structures of government, and, at the most basic level, global power projection ability, renders them easily cordoned off from the civilized world. Truly this type of approach–limited, achievable, and realistic in its appraisal of the threat–would yield fruit in contrast to the messianic “turn the Middle East into a bunch of democracies at gunpoint” strategy of both Bush and Obama. Equally important, in the case of the unexpected–that is to say the inevitable that can be expected–such a policy allows forces and treasure in reserve, unlike the current system of perpetual war to secure perpetual peace in the name of “stability.”