Bringing Our Foreign Policy Home: What Should Guide U.S. Foreign Policy?

U.S. Marine Chris Verderosa walks into a tent decorated with the American flag at Combat Outpost Shir Ghazay in Helmand province, Afghanistan

Twenty-first century international relations will be dominated by dozens of states exercising military, economic, diplomatic and cultural power. This is not your father’s world, dominated by the U.S., Europe and Japan. Nor is it a world dominated by two superpowers, as it was during the Cold War, or by one, as it was for a moment in the 1990s. Power will be found in many hands in many places — diffuse, diverse, not concentrated, power.

The primary threat to peace and prosperity in this new era is not a push for dominance by any great power. Today’s great powers are not all that great. Russia still has a mostly one-dimensional economy heavily dependent on oil, gas and minerals and is hobbled by corruption and a shrinking population. China is constrained by its enormous and aging population, large social needs and a top-heavy political system that is far less dynamic than the economy. India, too, is burdened by its numbers and poverty, along with inadequate infrastructure and often sclerotic government. Europe punches far below its weight, given its parochialism, its culture and the unresolved tensions between the pull of nationalism and the commitment to building a collective union. Japan is constrained by an aging society, an anachronistic political process and the burden of its history. Brazil and several other countries are on the verge of becoming a global force but are not quite there. (See if Obama lacks a foreign policy vision.)

The world’s most powerful countries may not always agree with the U.S., but rarely do they see it as implacably hostile or an impediment to their core objectives. U.S. relations with the principal powers of this era are for the most part good or at least good enough. As a result, the biggest external threats confronting the U.S. are the spread of nuclear materials and weapons, the possibility of pandemic disease, climate change, a breakdown in the functioning of the world’s financial and trade systems — in short, the dark side of globalization. Also of concern are medium-size hostile states (Iran and North Korea) that have access to weapons of mass destruction, and weak states (e.g., Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen) that are unable or unwilling to police their territory to ensure it is not used by terrorists, drug cartels or pirates.

So what should guide U.S. foreign policy? Democracy promotion, humanitarianism and counterterrorism all come up short. Democracy promotion can be difficult: it is one thing to oust authoritarian regimes; it’s very different and more difficult to replace them with something demonstrably and enduringly better. Iraq and Afghanistan are both cautionary tales, given the great costs of occupation and nation building. Humanitarianism suffers from its potentially enormous call on American resources at a time that U.S. economic and military means are strained. Counterterrorism is also too narrow in scope and provides no guidance for dealing with many of today’s global challenges. (See TIME’s cover story on the U.S. Constitution.)

The best idea out there is integration, which aims to develop rules and institutions to govern international relations and persuade other major powers to see that these rules are followed. But world-trade talks are stalled, and global-climate-change talks are in even worse shape. Agreement on how to denuclearize North Korea, prevent Iran’s nuclearization and address global economic challenges (despite the G-20) is sharply limited. Integration is a good idea whose time is yet to come.

In principle, one could live with having no foreign policy doctrine, and no framework can provide guidance for every foreign policy choice. Nevertheless, a doctrine can help establish priorities and steer the allocation of resources. And a doctrine can send useful signals to allies, adversaries, the public and Congress.

The good news is that there is doctrine that fits the U.S.’s circumstances. It is one that judges the world to be relatively nonthreatening and makes the most of this situation. The goal would be to rebalance the resources devoted to domestic challenges, as opposed to international ones, in favor of the former. Doing so would not only address critical domestic needs but also rebuild the foundation of this country’s strength so it would be in a better position to stave off potential strategic challengers or be better prepared should they emerge all the same.

My term for such a doctrine is restoration: a U.S. foreign policy based on restoring this country’s strength and replenishing its resources — economic, human and physical.

Restoration is not isolationism. Isolationism is the willful turning away from the world even when a rigorous assessment of U.S. interests argues for acting. Isolationism makes no sense in a world in which the U.S. cannot wall itself off from terrorism, proliferation, protectionism, pandemic disease, climate change or a loss of access to financial, energy and mineral resources. An embrace of isolationism would accelerate the emergence of a more disorderly and dangerous and less prosperous and free world. (See why Obama’s mideast speech was for domestic consumption.)

Restoration is very different. The U.S. would continue to carry out an active foreign policy — to create international arrangements to manage the challenges inherent in globalization, to invigorate alliances and partnerships, to deal with the threats posed by an aggressive North Korea, a nuclear-armed Iran and a failing Pakistan.

But under a doctrine of restoration, there would be fewer wars of choice — armed interventions when either the interests at stake are less than vital or when there are alternative policies that appear viable. Recent wars of choice include Vietnam, the second Iraq war and the current Libyan intervention. There would, however, continue to be wars of necessity, which involve vital interests when no alternatives to using military force exist. Modern wars of necessity include the first Iraq war and Afghanistan after 9/11. Interestingly, Afghanistan evolved into a costly war of choice early in 2009 when the Obama Administration sharply increased force levels and elected to target the Taliban and not just al-Qaeda. (See scenes from the battle for Libya.)

The adoption of a doctrine of restoration would lead to the rapid drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. U.S. interests do not warrant an investment of $2 billion a week even if efforts succeed, which is unlikely given the weakness of Afghanistan’s central government and the existence of a Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan. The goal should be to reduce U.S. spending on the order of $75 billion to $100 billion a year, something that could be achieved by reducing troop levels to below 25,000 over the next year and by ending combat operations against the Taliban. U.S. policy instead would focus on counterterrorism operations, training and advising.

Under a doctrine of restoration, the U.S. would limit what it does in Libya and avoid any new humanitarian intervention except when the threat is large and not in doubt, the potential victims have requested help, there is substantial international participation in the mission, there is a high likelihood of success at a limited cost and other policies are judged inadequate. Libya failed to meet several of these tests.

In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, the U.S. would use or support the use of armed force only if it determined that a military strike could destroy much of Iran’s relevant capacity, that doing so would not reduce the chances of meaningful political change inside Iran, that the costs of likely retaliation by Iran were sustainable, that a nuclear Iran could not be confidently deterred and that the proliferation aspirations of others could not be managed.

President Obama appeared to cast his support for a doctrine of restoration in his June 22 remarks announcing the beginning of troop reductions in Afghanistan. “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” he famously said. But the glacial pace of the drawdown from Afghanistan, along with the decision to intervene militarily in Libya, is inconsistent with a doctrine of restoration, which would limit foreign policy to what matters most. (See why Obama’s focus shifted from nation building to army building.)

Restoration is not just about acting more discriminating abroad; it is even more about doing the right things at home. The principal focus would be on restoring the fiscal foundations of American power. The current situation is unsustainable, leaving the U.S. vulnerable either to market forces that could impose higher interest rates and draconian spending cuts or to the pressures of one or more central banks motivated by economic or conceivably political concerns.

Reducing discretionary domestic spending would constitute one piece of any fiscal plan. But cuts need to be smart: domestic spending is desirable when it is an investment in the U.S.’s human and physical future and competitiveness. This includes targeted spending on public education, including at the community-college and university levels; modernizing transportation and energy infrastructures; and increasing energy efficiency while decreasing dependence on Middle East oil. Spending cuts should focus on entitlements and defense. Further deficit reductions can be achieved by reducing so-called tax expenditures such as health care plans and mortgage deductions. The goal should be to reduce the deficit by some $300 billion per year until the budget is balanced but for interest payments on the debt. (See TIME’s video: “A New Season of Fighting in Afghanistan.”)

Adopting a doctrine of restoration for several years would help the U.S. shore up the economic foundations of its power. It would also put the U.S. back in a position to lead by example; one of the most important foreign policy strengths this country possesses is the demonstrated success of its economy and political system. Both are now tarnished, a reality that makes other countries much less likely to adopt open economic and political models and instead opt for more statist systems.

Restoration takes into account this era’s domestic and international realities. That said, there would still be elements of democracy promotion, counterterrorism and humanitarianism as either opportunities or exigencies arose. Indeed, one of the many virtues of a doctrine of restoration is that it improves prospects for one day implementing a doctrine of integration, the approach that continues to make the most sense for a world dominated by global challenges. But the U.S. will arrive at the point of being able to lead the world only if it first puts its own house in order.

Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations

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