Irrational, Outdated, and Dangerous: American Foreign Policy Needs Independent Rethinking

Created: 14 November, 2017
Updated: 17 October, 2022
5 min read

Vietnam. Iraq. Maybe North Korea next. Why does the United States keep doing this? Why are we so often at war?

American foreign and defense policy no longer makes sense. They are suited to the Cold War, but the Cold War has been over for 27 years. We are long overdue for a re-evaluation of our nation’s strategic place in the world. And for far less war making.

America’s Cold War strategy was a thoughtful and rational response to the post-World War II global environment. War had left most of the world’s democracies in shambles. The Soviet Union, politically oppressive, militarily powerful, and globally aggressive, fundamentally threatened the interests and values of the free world. The United States was right to step into the breach.

This is not to assert that American foreign policy was always wise during the Cold War. Vietnam stands out as one of the greatest catastrophes in our history. In other cases during the period, the United States may have been too quick to send in the Marines, or blundered in other ways.

But imperfect implementation does not necessarily equate to bad strategy. Overall, America’s leadership in the Cold War was necessary, and the strategy of containing communism until it collapsed under its own weight, was successful.

In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. The free world celebrated. But America’s foreign and defense policies changed very little, even as the world changed a lot.

The United States stayed committed to defending dozens of nations in every corner of the planet. Our armies remained on the ground in Europe, Japan, and South Korea as if the Cold War were still ongoing. Moreover, we added to the list of countries we must defend by moving NATO all the way to Russia’s borders.

Meanwhile, great economic powers rose from the ashes of World War II: Japan; all of the European nations which eventually formed the EU; numerous smaller Asian countries, like South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia; India; South America is stronger today; Russia has reasserted itself; and especially China, the new Goliath.

Some are friends, and some are adversaries, but most are capable of defending themselves, and those that are not should be able to form mutual defense pacts with regional allies. Given the size of their economies, none of them should need the United States to provide for their defense.

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Being the policeman of the world is no longer in America's interests. It puts a bull’s eye on our back and forces us to spend lives and treasure defending nations capable of defending themselves.

Even when it comes to Islamist radicalism, America’s possession of a large and mobile army has only caused disaster. How much better it would have been if we had not had the capability of changing the regime in Iraq, where ISIS has been unleashed and Iran has stepped into the power vacuum.

It’s high time for a formal and complete re-evaluation of American foreign and defense policies. The two must be considered together, since our foreign policy will largely define the size and potential missions of American military forces.

The American military is indeed stretched thin today, but only because of the mismatch between our diplomatic commitments and military capabilities. It is a potentially dangerous situation because it encourages friends and potential foes to miscalculate in ways that might lead to big mistakes.

The United States needs to slowly and responsibly begin the process of disentangling itself from its system of global alliances and /or redefine its military role in alliances that are deemed vital.

America must not leave its current allies in the lurch, so any new strategy should be carefully rolled out over time.

The United States does not need a large land army for its own defense. Salaried personnel are almost always any organization’s biggest expense. Radically reducing the number of US land forces is the best way to cut the US Defense budget.

Up until recently, it was doctrine that the US should be able to fight and prevail in two land wars around the world simultaneously. Two should be reduced to a fraction of one.

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Instead the United States, surrounded by two oceans with no threats to the north and south, should commit itself to maintaining absolute dominance at sea, in the air, in outer space, and cyber space. Let our allies, those that we choose to keep, be the boots on the ground in their own defense.

American foreign policy will always be based on some mix of values and interests. Determining the proper balance between the two is not easy. The issues involved are infinitely complex.

The first problem is that the United States remains locked in a Cold War foreign and military posture. A bureaucracy cannot reform itself. It requires political leadership.

Our President, Donald Trump, is in Asia, still playing the great global game of the Twentieth Century. It is a very dangerous game. Trump carries a stick inadequate to the size of his bombast. Teddy Roosevelt would not be pleased.

Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, publicly declares that the Chinese are laughing at our President. One might ask which side Pelosi is on, as if we did not already know: her own.

The United States has been to war many times since the last Declaration of War by Congress, as required under the Constitution, at the beginning of World II. The last war that toppled the government in Libya was undertaken without even as much as a congressional resolution.

Does President Trump believe he can do the same now with North Korea? Who knows?

The dysfunction in American politics effects government decision-making in every area imaginable, but in foreign policy the mistakes can be catastrophic. As with everything else, systemic political dysfunction is the rot at the heart of the problem.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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