Issues 2008: Foreign Policy

In this post I’ll address three major foreign policy topics and a handful of hot-button issues as tersely as I can to fit the medium of a blog post and constrained to what will fit within a single post. As I see it the three critical questions we should be considering in foreign policy are:

  • What general direction should U. S. foreign policy take?
  • How do we construct a new grand strategy in the War on Terror?
  • What should we be doing about our three most important bilateral relationships?

Given the foreign policy position papers by both of the major party presidential candidates, it appears that whomever is elected president U. S. foreign policy will continue to be more interventionist than I’m entirely comfortable with.

I believe we should capitalize on our strengths and avoid exaggerating our deficits. Over the period of the last thirty years the U. S. has had considerable success in liberalizing trade worldwide and in promoting economic growth overseas. Over the same period even as the spectre of major power conflict receded, we’ve increased the militarizatiion of our foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. As a general rule I think we need to view our relations with our nations more as one of ongoing engagement, less as one of episodic intervention.

This is particularly true in pursuing a new strategy in the War on Terror. That we need a strategy is apparent. Over the last seven years we’ve spent trillions on increased security and on military interventions aimed at pursuing our old strategy in the War on Terror. That strategy can reasonably now be concluded to have failed or at least to have failed within the timeframe necessary for its success.

The old strategy, as I understand it, was that successful liberal democracy in the Middle East would have a viral effect. Although Iraq is more liberal and more democratic than it was under Saddam I don’t believe that its experience is sufficiently durable that we should have confidence in it or sufficiently positive that others will wish to emulate it.

As noted above my preferred approach would be one of ongoing engagement. That runs deeply against the grain of American predispositions but it’s a different world and we need to adapt to it. American businesses need to be encouraged to do more business in Middle Eastern countries. American diplomacy should be targeted at liberalizing trade and finance in the region.

The final major issue in our objective in our foreign policy is managing our critical bilateral relationships. I would deem the most signficant and problematic of these relationships as Russia, China, and Mexico. We have missed a historic opportunity with Russia, largely, I believe, by being in a hurry and now it will be more difficult. We are in great need of cultivating a more productive relationship with Russia and I’ll acknowledge they haven’t been a great deal of help. Not only will Russia continue to be an important regional power but between our two nations we possess 95% or more of the world’s nuclear weapons. Those reasons alone mean that Russia deserves more attention.

China is our fastest-growing trading partner and needs attention, too. We need to abandon the notion that we can influence China in any substantial way with incentives. It’s just too big. We can, however, influence our own behavior and we need to do that if only in self-preservation. China needs to cultivate a larger domestic market for its good and we need China to do that. We should encourage China in that direction and to that end I believe that we should move towards a policy of reciprocity with respect to China.

The interrelationship between Mexico and the United States is unique. We are the only country in the world that shares a large land border with a country whose per capita GDP is a quarter of our own. Mexico is our second or third largest trading partner depending on the month, is a major source of our oil, and is our primary resource for inexpensive labor. Because of the unique situation expecting the relationship between the U. S. and Mexico to resemble that of, say, Germany and Poland is, frankly, stupid.

Mexico’s current economic course, dependent on petrodollars and remittances, is unsustainable, its society is under stress, and its political situation is fragile. The costs to us of Mexico’s becoming a failed state would be high. It’s something we should not allow to happen and the failure of successive American administrations in establishing a more constructive relationship with Mexico is another missed opportunity.


I believe that President Obama will withdraw troops from Iraq while maintaining a sizeable military commitment to the country and call it “ending the war” while President McCain will withdraw troops from Iraq while maintaining a sizeable military commitment to the country and call it“winning the war”. We’re going to maintain a sizeable military commitment to Iraq for the foreseeable future because our presence there is one factor that keeps the country from falling into chaos, the costs of Iraq’s falling into chaos would be high, and doing otherwise would be foolhardy. I believe the security situation in Iraq will continue to improve and as it does we need to encourage American businesses to be involved in Iraq.


We can’t achieve any victory worthy of the name in Afghanistan as long as the federally-administered tribal areas of Pakistan are a safe haven for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Pakistan can’t prevent that from happening without coming apart at the seams, and a failed state of Pakistan would be a disaster for the entire region. Conducting raids into the country is an error. More troops in Afghanistan won’t change any of the foregoing. We need to start thinking of the situation in Afghanistan as a long-term military and economic commitment rather than a short-term expedition.


I believe that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons but that trying to prevent them from doing so using military force would be simultaneously ineffective and counterproductive. If we can’t get cooperation from the permanent members of the UN Security Council for an embargo on arms and gasoline shipped into Iran (and we can’t) and we aren’t willing to take the backlash from blockading Iran (and we aren’t), we need to negotiate an agreeable settlement with Iran. That means giving them things we don’t want to give them and they want, notably security guarantees. We’ll also need to get used to the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran. That means a re-vitalization of our deterrence doctrine. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that either presidential candidate understands or believes in our deterrence doctrine.


Ongoing expansion of NATO is now a dead letter. If Germany, France, and the United Kingdom are decreasingly willing to fund their military at a sufficient level to enable them to project force beyond their own borders and are unlikely to go to war in defense of the new NATO members to their east, I see no reason for NATO to exist. If there is ongoing value to NATO, we need to find ways of reasserting its nature as a mutual defense treaty rather than as the United States defending Europe.

I’m only scratching the surface here and there are dozens of foreign policy issues large and small including WTO trade policy, the ICC, our relationships with the countries of South America, our relationships with the countries of Africa, and innumerable others.

Others participating

Alex Knapp at Heretical Ideas has contributed a solid and dispassionate comparison of the foreign policies of the two candidates including their ideas about trade, Russia, nuclear proliferation, and other issues. I believe that he’s reached much the same conclusion as I have: they differ mostly in detail.

fester at Newhoggers posts on the new constraints in U. S. foreign policy, something with which he notes the candidates have yet to come to terms.

16 comments… add one
  • zach Link


    regarding Iran, I’m interested in your opinions on this Washington Monthly article calling for a “grand bargain” with Iran:

    Also, how much do you think Bush, either through dissatisfaction with US actions in Iraq or just plain old BDS, has influenced NATO willingness to project power? In other words, would a currently toothless NATO be revitalized simply through a changing of the guard? Or do you think the problems are more fundamental?

  • The NATO question is the easier one to answer so I’ll answer it now: Bush is a minor distraction in our relationship with Europe. Most of the problems with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are due to domestic politics in those countries. Any given leader in the U. S. might be used as a pretext for those but he or she would never be the reason.

  • superdestroyer Link

    Senator Obama probably wants as little to do with foreign policy as possible. He is a street level politicians and does not see the benefit of helping people outside the U.S. As was shown in the Bush Admnistraiton, events outside the U.S. cannot be controlled or spun the same way that events inside the u.S. can be.

  • After having read the proposal linked above, zach, I’m generally favorably disposed to it. I agree that the points the authors note form the outlines of a “grand agreement”. Their stated assumptions are extremely strong and, frankly, I doubt that such an agreement can be reached with the current regime in Teheran if for no other reason that it’s not centralized enough to arrive at such an agreement or enforce it if arrived at.

    I’m also suspicious of master strokes, generally. From a practical standpoint I think that saying that the only agreement that can be arrived at is a grand agreement is another way of saying that no agreement can be reached.

    We’ll just need to muddle through with an incrementalist approach, reaching agreements on an ad hoc, issue by issue basis.

  • I agree with you, superdestroyer. Nearly all American presidents come to office mostly uninterested in foreign policy. Unfortunately for them it’s the nature of the world and the nature of the office that foreign policy is thrust upon them.

    George H. W. Bush was a notable exception to that rule; were Sen. McCain to be elected, a contingency I think is decreasingly likely, he probably would be, too.

    I’ve said it pretty often here: the president is not the 51st governor. The office’s enumerated powers are nearly a statement of the obvious and the president’s influence on things like education, health care policy, and housing are blessedly limited. To the extent that they’re the province of the federal government at all these powers are bestowed on the legislature.

  • superdestroyer Link


    I think what happens after the first year of being president is that the President finds out that foreign policy is easier since it does not involve Congress that much.

    Domestic Policy involves Congress and a large part of the bureauracy. Trying to get senior charimen in the House and Senate and the lobbyist to go along is a hard job.

    However, I doubt that Senator Obama really wants to double down in Afghanistan and will try to find a way to get out. Maybe he can blame the financial crisis and the lack of support form Europe.

  • Fundamentally, we have to decide if we want to be conquering interventionists (the logical end point of Wilsonian thought patterns) or non-expansionist nationalists (the logical end point of Jacksonian thought patterns). I think mercantilism was rejected overwhelmingly in the late 1800s, and despite the bailout’s indications of our policy elite’s viewpoint, it isn’t coming back as long as public support is required. We’ve never had a tendency towards petty tyranny (though Clinton could have pulled it off, I think), fortunately, and armed neutrality’s last go, during the first 8 months of President Bush’s administration, wasn’t seen very favorably by the public.

    So it’s just one question, not three, because all of the three you ask are instances of “what kind of country do we want to be in foreign relations.” From there, the other issues shake out reasonably easily, in terms of the consensus core position. (Obviously, there would be dickering around the edges, as with Cold War’s “containment” and “contain and bankrupt” policies, but also as with those policies, the fundamentals would be agreed between all important parties.)

    Frankly, I don’t think that we have the intellectual capacity among our current leadership to maintain any consistent policy. We could not muster the consistent, ruthless dedication to national interest of the British Foreign Office during the 1700s and 1800s. We can apparently no longer agree on American exceptionalism, which means that our immigration and international aid policies will remain quixotic lurches from one policy to another, mostly rhetorical lurches without any real underlying action. We do not have the expertise to understand, never mind formulate, overarching grand strategy. (I thought Bush had it in him, but he was apparently captured by the bureaucracy, or hobbled by overreach, or some combination of the two. Regardless, he has lost the apparent will to carry out his stated principles, even where he has the ability to do so. McCain might have it in him, if he gets the chance, but he’s so in love with the idea of government as a moral force that no strategy he formulates will be carried out effectively.) We do not even apparently have the ability to agree on the facts at hand any longer (as opposed to the interpretation of the meaning of the facts), which means that we are effectively going to take our domestic policy political wrangling and internationalize it, with rather predictably horrible effects.

    In other words, no matter who wins, we are not going to get far. I think McCain would be better on handling the war against the jihadis and tamping down threats like the Iranian nuclear threat. I think Obama would be better at getting the Europeans to agree to do nothing and, if he has the will, expanding free trade agreements. I think that either would be hobbled by Congress and the bureaucracy from doing anything really substantive.

    Basically, I feel as if 9/11 was October, 1929: the end of an easy decade following a long crisis. Like then, we acted immediately and reasonably properly. And like then, after a couple of years, we may well have decided to get tired of slow progress and throw it all out the window for a roll of the dice, hoping we’d get a painless return to easy living. And like then, I think that the real crisis is still ahead of us.

    This is one reason that every time you say we have to learn to live with a nuclear Iran, it pains me. You’re a pretty smart guy, and I can’t figure out how you see that ending well. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, or gets really close, the two most probable events are Israel attacking Iran with nuclear weapons to prevent Iran from doing the same to Israel, and Iran attacking Israel with nuclear weapons. Either of those would be catastrophic. Only slightly less so is the third most likely possibility: Iran funneling nuclear technology and material to jihadis while using its own nuclear weapons as a shield behind which it can expand radical Shi’a Islamism through the Middle East and maybe even Europe. The far distant fourth possibility is that maybe things will work out OK. So how do we learn to live with that?

    In any case, I think that the US is looking at either an economic collapse or near-collapse, or a major world war, some time in the next decade or so. And I don’t think our political class is ready to face that, educationally or temperamentally.

  • I’m not particularly happy about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran but I’m a pragmatist. If you’re not willing to stop something or even discourage it, the path to mental health is adjusting yourself to it.

    BTW, Jeff, I’m not terribly convinced that Israel will take the military steps necessary to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program or even to slow it. Israel is not Likud.

  • Ah, I’m willing to stop it. Therein lies the difference. And though Israel is not Likud (thank all the gods), it’s also true that Israel is remarkably consistent about reacting when it feels its existence is endangered. I really do think that Israel would act to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and I think that their only realistic option is a nuclear first strike; they don’t have the air force to get the program otherwise.

  • I don’t think the American people or the Israeli people for that matter are willing to take the steps necessary to end the Iranians’ nuclear weapons development program in the absence of more substantial evidence than now exists that the Iranians have a nuclear weapons program. As I’ve written before it would take a decapitating strike, that would require a simultaneous strike on multiple cities, probably nuclear.

    They or we might undertake that responsively or possibly preemptively but not preventively and that’s where things stand.

  • Preemptively, yes. Preventatively? Not a nuclear strike. We have the capability to preventatively strike Iran with conventional weaponry and kick the can down the road a few years. That may mean that we would have to do the same all over again in a few years. I think that the risks and costs are worth it, given that it may deter other countries that would otherwise be encouraged to start up nuclear programs of their own, and that the alternative might well be accepting an Israeli nuclear strike. Now? No, not yet, but certainly before it is absolutely clear that Iran is going to succeed, both because at that point it is too late, and because our intelligence system is so pathetically unreliable.

  • But Iran aside, I’m curious your opinion on my idea of this as the equivalent of the interregnum between 1929 and 1932, rewritten with a modern font.

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