Americans are debating foreign policy as the train wreck of the current administration’s foreign policies continues to unfold across the world from the Ukraine to the Asia-Pacific. This is a good thing, but the debate is often stagnated between doing “something,” and the president’s predilection for doing nothing. What seems to be lost in this debate is any real attempt to grapple with the idea of what America’s core interests are and what strategy will achieve those interests.
Prestige is an elusive national interest, but President Obama’s squandering of American credibility has catapulted prestige considerations to a heightened level of importance. Unfortunately, prestige is far more difficult to get than to lose. It takes decades of competent, trusted leadership and prudent actions to build credibility in the eyes of the rest of the world, friend and foe alike, but only a short span of fecklessness to erase that goodwill. Unlike other national interests, prestige isn’t an end, but a means to help us achieve other ends more easily.
Security concerns are the typical primary objective of foreign policy. In this regard, U.S. grand strategy is neither grand nor strategic. American force is carelessly promised to uphold the territorial integrity of the Ukraine and elsewhere our soldiers are deployed under ineffective politically correct rules of engagement. American policy should have a vital goal with a clear, reasonable chance of obtaining that goal and should deploy sufficient force to accomplish the mission.
Economic concerns are the other main primary objective of foreign policy. Safe access to important resources and foreign markets through open sea lanes has been an objective secured with military force since the young republic sent its new navy to battle pirates in the Mediterranean. Today, a significant portion of America’s economy depends on imported natural resources, finished goods and components used in the manufacture of finished goods. Any significant disruption of international trade could have dire consequences for America’s economy leaving our nation poorer and, consequently, less able to defend itself.
What do these admittedly general principles mean for today’s hotspots?
Ukraine has become an issue of national prestige because we foolishly choose to make it so. Direct military intervention is impracticable, but for the sake of our past promise in the Budapest Memorandum and the president’s strong words we should commit to full military aid to prop up the pro-European Ukrainian faction. However, we should learn from this situation and be wary of future entanglements. Ukraine is an insignificant nation from the perspective of U.S. economic or security concerns. We must not insert ourselves into situations where we stand to gain nothing if things go our way, but lose something, if only national prestige, if things go poorly.
Iraq is another area of national prestige because of its recent history as a U.S. client state and because of the vast sums of blood and treasure invested in its success. All options should be on the table, including the reintroduction of American ground forces to vindicate the massive investment America has made. This will be highly unpopular, but in the world’s eyes America is being defeated and humiliated with impunity. Our task ahead will be made much harder if we allow Iraq to fall into the hands of Iran or, worse yet, the Islamic imperialists who have overrun a large chunk of the country. Additionally, Iraq’s neighbors risk becoming unstable and unleashing even more chaos the longer Iraq is allowed to remain in a state of war. America’s security interests in the region will also suffer if Iran is allowed to increase its power by winning in Iraq and if the ongoing Iraqi conflict trains a new generation of terrorists who return to the West to practice their deadly arts.
The Asia-Pacific area is home to two of America’s best allies, S. Korea and Japan, and is a highly important crossroads for sea trade. It is also home of an important American ally and client state, Taiwan. Thus, in this region America’s economic and security interests have a great deal of overlap. Maintaining open sea routes is vital for the projection of American power in the region to protect America’s commercial interests and America’s commercial interests are critical to generate the wealth needed to support America’s global military presence. Our alliance with regional powers should be strengthened in ways that are mutually reinforcing. A good idea could be the joint development of a sixth generation jet fighter by Japan and the United States.
Finally, although more could be said, America has prestige and security interests much closer to home. The southern border with Mexico must be closed, both to prevent criminal and terrorist threats from accessing the vulnerable American interior and because a functioning border is a basic component of any serious, competent state, let alone the world’s superpower.