Small Wars Journal

The Biggest Problem with American Foreign Policy

The Biggest Problem with American Foreign Policy

by Michael Cummings

On Violence

This is the fundamental principle of American international relations: do whatever you can to prevent a foreign affairs disaster from harming your reelection chances, even if it hurts America in the long run. The Cold War defined this practice. From Egypt to Vietnam to Chile, America supported and funded anti-Communist governments, be they democratic or autocratic. It even overthrew regimes which it didn’t like, like Iran. (This SWJ post pretty much describes how the failure of Iran is one of constant short term priorities replacing a long term goal mindset. ) America fought the Cold War as if it would never end. When it did, plenty of people around the world didn’t like America, or at least they felt America might be a hypocrite.

Then 9/11 happened. Had it happened on President Clinton’s watch, our response might have been subtly nuanced with post-Cold War thinking. Since it was President Bush’s team of all former Cold War-riors, the response was straight out of the “stop the USSR” playbook. First, the CIA found all its old autocratic friends in north Africa like Egypt, Algeria and Yemen who could hold terrorism suspects indefinitely, while possibly torturing them, and letting the CIA listen in. Then we launched two wars, one of which made sense, the second of which did not, to stop “state sponsored” terrorism. Then the Department of Defense started launching attacks into other countries where we could not put troops, like Pakistan and Yemen.

With the Arab Spring overthrowing some stalwart American terrorism fighting allies--Egypt and Tunisia--and threatening others--Qatar and Saudi Arabia--many Muslims across the Middle East have a choice: what type of government do I want? It turns out, they want democracies, and not American-style democracy. Those democracies will probably not be friendly to U.S. interests, either, because in their minds, America is linked to supporting military regimes like Pakistan, Egypt or Qatar, which had just been preventing those people from living in freedom.

In other words, our short term goals--fighting the Cold War or capturing terrorists--and our responses to those threats--overthrowing unfriendly regimes, torture, extraordinary renditions and supporting dictators--have hurt what should be America’s long term foreign policy goal: spreading democracy (and free markets) around the globe. It isn’t very hard for Islamic political parties to discredit so-called “universal” American values when they only apply to Americans in America, an un-universal caveat.

As we said last week, we believe the world is getting better. We believe democracy is spreading, and the world is getting less violent (in part because of democracy, and the spread of international institutions). If President Obama aligned our foreign policy more with our long terms goals, and worried less about preventing another terrorist attack, then democracy and peace would spread even faster.

That position is idealistic, but so are we.

Comments

Bill C.

Tue, 01/10/2012 - 11:44am

In order to achieve America's long-term foreign policy goal -- of best providing for the national security of the United States via the spreading of and security for free markets around the world -- one has to deal with the primary obstacles thereto.

a. Herein, the United States believed that, first and foremost, it had to address the problems (contrary orientation) presented by its great power adversaries (pre-capitalist China and the former USSR).

b. Next, the United States determined that it must, to further facilitate the spreading of and security for free markets around the world, likewise "transform" the lesser and remaining differently-oriented states and societies.

In both instances, "democracy," as a tool in this endeavor, was seen then, and must still today be seen, as being a plus or a minus on a case-by-case basis; depending upon whether it (democracy), in each particular instance, (1) tends to help get the job done (helps to overcome the obstacles to, facilitate the spread of and enhance the security for global commerce and trade) or (2) tends to detract from such job accomplishment.

This position may be more realistic, but so must we be.

Ken White

Mon, 01/09/2012 - 5:58pm

Interesting polemic with perhaps a few flaws in perception...<blockquote>"Had it happened on President Clinton’s watch, our response might have been subtly nuanced with post-Cold War thinking."</blockquote>Like El Shifa? You're speaking of a guy who launched unprovoked attacks against four nations and fibbed about why and other specifics...<blockquote>Then we launched two wars, one of which made sense, the second of which did not..."</blockquote>That it did not is an opinion (as is the issue of the first making sense). That it was not well executed is a fact. Important not to conflate those two assessments.<blockquote>"... Then the Department of Defense started launching attacks into other countries where we could not put troops, like Pakistan and Yemen.</blockquote>Umm, was that DoD or another Agency -- and, either way was that launching done by that organization or by the 'whole of government?' Secondly, "could not" or elected not to for political, not military reasons. Did those reasons make sense? Did the nations involved acquiesce in the US Attacks? If so, why?

This:<blockquote>"Those democracies will probably not be friendly to U.S. interests, either, because in their minds, America is linked to supporting military regimes like Pakistan..."</blockquote>is almost certainly not a major concern (though it will be talked about as if it were) to others. OTOH this:<blockquote>"...It isn't very hard for ... parties to discredit so-called “universal” American values when they only apply to Americans in America, an un-universal caveat."</blockquote> and our relative size and wealth are major issues to most of the world. Not much we can do about that, voluntary relinquishment would be tantamount to national suicide. As Don Bacon writes below, the US has always promoted the fortunes of other governments who were hospitable to US interests. My, my, isn't that unusual...

The biggest problem with American Foreign policy is the electoral cycle...

Don Bacon

Mon, 01/09/2012 - 5:27pm

The U.S has always promoted the fortunes of other governments who were hospitable to U.S. corporations and U.S. political friendship, rather than democracy. Egypt, Philippines, Nicaragua, Chile, Greece, Bahrain -- the evidence is boundless.