Small Wars Journal

foreign policy

Pulling the Plug

Foreign policy in the Trump era is a tug-of-war, a test of wills between national pragmatists and global utopians. Binary equations might be simplistic, but if it has done nothing else, the Trump agenda has exposed the venal politics and pratfalls of “social” democracies, here and in Europe. The contest is a struggle, as irony would have it, between voices arguing for change and the “business as usual” crowd.

About the Author(s)

In Case of Emergency - Don’t Panic, Plan

If we want to increase the chances of our missions succeeding, we must first understand the complexity of what we are dealing with and plan accordingly. Moreover, we need to treat planning not as a one-time activity but as an ongoing, iterative affair that is responsive to the continual and multifaceted changes characteristic of complex crises.

About the Author(s)

Exemplar, Not Crusader

Many of you have already seen this, but for those who haven't, I discussed warfare, foreign policy, and America's way ahead in a changing world with Time's Mark Thompson the other day


No matter what portion of the ideological spectrum Americans come at world problems from, their views are shaped in a way by the idea of the “end of history.” We think that political development has a single endpoint, that being liberal democracy.

I'm not arguing that there's a better endpoint. Instead, I’m arguing that America cannot get the world to that endpoint in the near term. America needs to be more humble in its foreign policies, more realistic than its current expectation of instant modernization without any instability, and more cognizant of the significant challenges it faces in getting its own house in order.

In a phrase, I argue that America should focus more on being an exemplar than a crusader.

First, the world is undergoing a massive wave of change, bringing rapid development and modernization to more people than ever before. I show that this change is intensely destabilizing. It took the West centuries to progress from the corrupt rule of warlords to liberal democracy.

There is no reason to believe that America can remake the world—or even a corner of it—in its image in the course of a few years. We are going to face a period of intensifying instability in the developing world and we need to understand that some things just cannot be neatly managed, much less controlled. We can’t bring on the end of history by using war to spread democracy and the welfare state (used in the academic, not pejorative sense).

Second, and perhaps more importantly because it affects us domestically and internationally, the welfare state is facing a crisis in the world’s leading democracies. This defies the notion that history is teleological—marching toward a determined end point. It would be no surprise, however, to the ancients who saw all governments as fallible and saw history as more of a cyclical thing.

You can read the rest here.

Special Ops and the Future of American Foreign Policy

In this Center for National Policy video, SWJ friends Dave Maxwell, Fernando Lujan, Sean Naylor, and Ryan Evans talk special ops and foreign policy.

From the toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, special operations have taken on a new prominence in American foreign policy in the 21st Century. It appears that America's reliance on special operations forces will only increase in the coming decade. Major Fernando Lujan, Colonel David Maxwell (ret.), Sean Naylor and moderator CNP Research Fellow Ryan Evans discussed the political and strategic implications.

The President’s Not-So-Stunning Moment of Candor

About three months ago, the 24-hour news cycle and the blogosphere were aflame with news of President Obama’s comments to Russian President Medvedev regarding European missile defense, picked up on an open microphone and heard by a platoon of reporters.  The President noted:  “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but its important for [Putin] to give me space…This is my last election.  After my election I have more flexibility.”[1]  Stated more plainly, the President, in a private conversation unknowingly made public through a technical oversight, admitted that domestic politics and international affairs are inextricably interlinked, and that candidates standing election sometimes must have different positions than candidates unburdened by concerns about politics.  Well, knock me over with a feather.  Who knew that domestic politics and foreign affairs were linked?

Honestly, this writer cannot quite get his head around what it is everyone cannot get their head around.  Did anyone honestly labor under the delusion that domestic politics do not affect the conduct of foreign affairs, and vice-versa?  Do the American people really expect that the President’s posture on missile defense would not change depending on his position in the election cycle?  That such a dynamic does not have enormous historical precedent in American politics?  As recently as the administration of the 43rd President, decisions on the Iraq invasion and hesitance to increase the force footprint in Iraq likely were driven by the November, 2004 election.  Decisions on military escalation in Vietnam were driven by the 1964 and 1968 general elections, and Nixon’s Vietnamization campaign was born partially out of political calculus as he looked toward the 1976 race.  Woodrow Wilson adopted a noninterventionist agenda based principally on domestic politics until World War I became inevitable, and Lincoln’s choice to remove McClellan as his army commander in 1862 likely were made with one eye on victory and the other focused on 1864.  Even unparalleled wartime leader FDR factored electoral politics into his decisions to stay out of WWII after the 1939 invasion of Poland and the 1940 rollup of the low countries and France, prioritizing continued, fragile domestic economic recovery as a political consideration until the day which lives in infamy.

Moreover, it is not sufficient to understand this dynamic merely as an unfortunate instance “of that’s just how it is.”  In fact, it is that way by design, and it is part of the grand bargain the electorate makes with a President each time he is elected or re-elected:  we know tacitly that priorities will change, and the electorate makes calculated guesses based on our collective estimate of how far one way or the other he will sway once safe from being cashiered.  Presidents are political actors, by definition.  Each president is also the chief economist, strategic leader, a noteworthy social icon, super-Attorney General and head law enforcement officer, and chief diplomat for the nation.  The President is required to balance all of these roles, and to prioritize each at different points in the historical cycle of a presidency.  In fact, whether we want to admit or not, we expect a President to be a political actor and to prioritize politics at times:  who wants to follow a loser who accepts political defeat as a fait accompli?  Domestic politics is merely a reflection of national priorities, even if there is not always a 100% match, as one subsystem lags or leads the other.

The real issue that national security professionals, the diplomatic community, and the electorate should register and monitor is the insertion of politics as the principal motivator of a president’s strategic, economic, and administrative decisions.  We should understand and even tacitly encourage the president to be a competitive politician with the will and desire to win.  Our national communities of interest have a responsibility to help the president shape his priorities through the delivery of sound, prudent, well-reasoned advice and advocacy which has but one agenda:  the economic and social health, well-being, security, and prosperity of the nation.  That is the standard against which we should judge a president’s performance, taking into account his or her entire body of work, not individual data points hyperbolized into something greater than they really are.

As the electoral frenzy waxes toward November, we can expect the administration to engage in additional political calculation as it shapes national security decisions this year.  We should expect it as a natural byproduct of the electoral process.  Political leaders have to be responsive to the will and priorities of the people, expressed through a number of mediums – polls, online, broadcast and print media, the political actions and statements of allies and rivals, and national economic performance, among other cues.  As this President makes decisions on weighty national security issues such as Syrian intervention, counterterrorism policy, cybersecurity, missile defense, U.S. policy on Iran, China, North Korea, and Mexico, the South Asian security dilemma, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the polity should expect political considerations to factor into the administration’s decisionmaking calculus as a vehicle for continuing his national security agenda into the next term.  The clamor from some quarters for a national security decisionmaking process free of domestic political constraints is not only naïve, it is unwise in terms of its abstraction from the national will.

[1] David Nakamura and Debbi Wilgoren, Obama seeks more time on missile defense, Washington Post, Mar. 26, 2012.