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Revisionism and Restraint in US foreign policy

August 12, 2010

Continuing off the bent I took in my previous post on postmodern conflict and the absence of conflict, and aware of my relative emphasis on the role of the current hegemonic distribution of power in sustaining economic interdependence, relative peace, and other factors that could be mistaken for the teleological outcomes of rational human behavior, its worth clarifying what kind of policy implications this actually has for the US.

While the geopolitical fundamentals of this current international order are fleeting, as all orders are, I do not mean to imply they are at all weak. While the preservation of his order is not inevitable, neither is its destruction imminent. The rise of China and the increased potential for conflict in Eurasia are dangers, of course, but they are manageable ones. The problems the US faces in upholding this state of affairs are an excess of zeal in promoting its ideological principles, rather than its material and geopolitical fundamentals.

Take the norm against conquest – Fazal argues that 2003 invasion of Iraq sends a troubling signal about the durability of the norm against conquest, and fears the actions of its most important proponent could well undermine it in the future. Iraq was not a novelty, though – consider how the US intervention in Kosovo in 1999 indirectly strengthened the case of the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. The inherent tensions of democracy, the right to ethnic self-determination, and respect for territorial sovereignty are at least as old as Wilson’s time, even before the Treaty of Versailles, Wilson supported Latin American interventions to teach those people “how to elect good men.” However, the United States has also undertaken missions that have had vital roles in deterring threats to the liberal order – guaranteeing South Korean independence, the NATO and bilateral East Asian alliances, the 1991 Persian Gulf War – but at a certain extent, the crusading actions of the former category serve to undermine the vital tasks of the latter.

This is not to imply hypocrisy is an intolerable element of foreign policy. The US is not “just another country” in the international system, and will not be for some time. But neither should we overplay the “moral obligation” of the US to lead and the rest of the world to follow. The interests and ideological preferences of other countries will always be at some degree of variance with those of the US, and the material capability for these states to assert these interests and preferences in their foreign policy is growing. The US is, in fact, a status quo power. The reality is that for all the autocracy, extremism, instability, and poverty in the world, it has never been more free, more cosmopolitan, more peaceful, or more wealthy. But the US, for both ideological reasons and misunderstandings of geopolitics, has made itself a revisionist power, never satisfied with the success it has, and susceptible to interventionist fervor and overstretch.

The 1990s and the push for NATO expansion, pushing the rhetorical and ideological borders far beyond the geographic interests of its members, resulted in strategic ambiguity in the former Soviet Union that still haunts us today. The 2000s, with their squandering of US political leverage, military strength, and economic resources on an equally illusive vision of defeating terrorism, Islamic extremism, and spreading democracy, sought the moral clarity of an existential war without the strategic clarity to acknowledge or scale down the open-ended conflicts which followed. As a result, the US has imperiled its political and material capabilities to play the balancing, deterring role that would best protect the liberal order.

There is a lot of room for ruin in the international system. There is also a hierarchy of interests when it comes to ensuring stability. A conflict between North and South Korea is much more dangerous to the success of the liberal order and international stability than a conflict between North and South Sudan. The reality is that the US will never have the resources and political willpower to manage every threat. The damage done to US deterrent credibility and custodianship is far greater when the US fails to uphold the norm in a crisis of primarily strategic importance than when it fails to uphold it in a crisis of primarily moral importance. The counterfactual world in which the US chose not to defend Kuwait is likely a far more dangerous one than that in which the US chose not to defend Kosovo.

I may have overstated the role the US plays in upholding norms against conquest, but I am hardly implying that a foreign policy retrenchment would usher in an era of global chaos. Europe would not plunge into Napoleonic anarchy if America were to reduce its ground troops on the continent. The aging, economically preoccupied and demilitarized European states are not going to revert to militarism anytime soon – but the concerted efforts of US & NATO deterrence and reassurance played a significant role in giving Europe the political space to make those sorts of choices. That is the proper role of the US in its custodianship of the liberal order – to create the conditions for the liberal experiment’s success and international stability; it is not to ram liberalism down anyone’s throat or presume a threat or problem anywhere on the globe affects international stability everywhere. With prudence, the US can prolong the existence of the liberal moment. A strategy which returns restraint and an emphasis on the calculations of interest in foreign policy is the best way to prolong the present success – and if it still ends in tears anyway, ensures we can confront a “return to history” without fear of national exhaustion.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2010 11:09 am

    Nice post. I don’t agree w/ 100 percent of it, but I like some of the formulations, e.g. the US as a status quo power which acts like a revisionist one. Don’t think I’ve seen it put exactly like that before (though no doubt someone has said it somewhere, since it’s almost impossible to say anything entirely original in this area).

  2. August 17, 2010 9:27 am

    Thanks for the comment – and yeah, I’m sure someone somewhere has put it out there…

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