How to fix U.S. foreign policy

Suggestions for a former hegemon

The tempest-in-a-teapot over Biden’s airstrike on a militia in Syria suggest that U.S. public attention is shifting back to foreign policy. During Trump’s term, the U.S. dropped explodey things on the Middle East as a matter of course — remember the time we bombed some neighborhood in Mosul and killed 278 civilians in March 2017? — and it seemed to barely register on the public consciousness, consumed as we were by the domestic conflicts Trump exacerbated. Perhaps because a reasonable human being is in the White House, lots of people expect domestic policy to take care of itself (Ha!), so we’re turning our attention outward again. Or perhaps people really believed that Biden would implement a general policy of non-intervention in the Middle East, despite him never having endorsed or promised anything of the sort, and now feel betrayed. Or perhaps it’s mostly just a case of leftists trying to gin up factional anger toward the Democratic Establishment, combined with tankies gearing up to take the anti-American side in Cold War 2.

But whatever it is, I thought this would be an opportune moment to offer my thoughts on how the U.S. can improve its foreign policy. Most of this will focus on military stuff and geopolitical competition, as opposed to climate change, development aid, etc. Basically I see three things the U.S. needs to do:

  1. Pivot to Asia, for real this time

  2. Help defend allies instead of trying to maintain hegemony

  3. Stop trying to shun countries into changing

Pivot to Asia, for real this time

The U.S. keeps saying it’s going to de-emphasize the Middle East and focus more on Asia. Biden is just the latest President to say he wants to do this. But despite modest progress, we still remain too tied up in Middle Eastern conflicts, especially in Iraq and Syria — as this latest airstrike shows. The U.S. will never be able to ignore the Middle East entirely, but we can remove ourselves much more than we’ve done. There are several reasons we should do this.

Reason 1: The Middle East does not like us. Here’s a Pew poll from January 2020 (before COVID). You can see that most countries had a favorable impression of the U.S., but of the four Middle Eastern/North African countries surveyed, three — our ally Turkey, democratic Tunisia, and Western-oriented Lebanon — all had strongly negative opinions:

Other surveys have found similar results.

The fact that the Middle East generally dislikes the U.S. means that our actions there will tend to be perceived through a negative lens, no matter their effect. Not only does withdrawing from the Middle East mean respecting local people’s wishes, it also means less risk of blowback.

Reason 2: We increasingly no longer have core interests in the Middle East. The Middle East was geopolitically important for two main reasons: Oil, and the threat of Islamist terror. Oil was always the biggie; it was the essential fuel that the modern economy ran on. While that’s still true, two things have changed. First, electric vehicles and other green solutions for transportation are expected to reduce oil’s importance massively in the decades to come; according to some estimates, global oil demand has already peaked, with a 50% drop expected over the next two decades.

This energy transition will be mentally hard to process, since oil has been so utterly crucial for 100 years. But it’s real.

The second thing that has changed is fracking; if America or our allies absolutely need to get some petroleum, we can pull it out of the ground right here in America, even if it means paying a few extra dollars per barrel extracted. OPEC’s power to cut off the taps has been neutralized.

As for terrorism, I’m sure that even a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East means that we’ll continue to cooperate with local countries in hunting down al Qaeda and ISIS — as we cooperate with countries in Asia, Africa, etc. But overall, the War on Terror has basically been won, with these organizations mostly defeated and discredited and deprived of financing. The U.S. does not need a significant Middle Eastern military presence to go after the few remaining threats, and in fact our presence there seems more likely to generate new threats via blowback.

Reason 3: The region is now being contested by several regional powers. At this point I’ll just quote from my earlier post:

In recent years, the Sunni-Shia conflicts of the Middle East seem to have largely given away to a series of proxy wars between at least 4 regional great powers — Turkey, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. I wrote a Twitter thread about this in October 2020. To recap:

  • The Syrian Civil War is/was pretty much a proxy war between Turkey and Russia/Iran.

  • The Libyan Civil War is a proxy war between Turkey and Syria on one side, and Egypt, UAE, Sudan, and Russia on the other side.

  • The Yemeni Civil War is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with a bunch of other random countries declaring their support for one side or another.

  • The Armenia-Azerbaijan War had Turkey backing Azerbaijan, with Russia ultimately jumping in to stop the conflict.

These conflicts seem likely to do three things:

  1. They will absorb the attention of Middle Easterners who want to fight for some cause.

  2. They will shift the locus of anger and passion in the Middle East away from religious issues and toward political/national issues.

But most importantly:

  1. They will de-emphasize the role of America in Middle Eastern conflicts and allow/encourage the U.S. to disengage from the region.

Because of this shift, getting involved in Middle Eastern conflicts now means interposing ourselves between conflicting regional powers — between Russia and Turkey, or between Saudi Arabia and Iran, etc. This is a dangerous thing to do.

So to sum up, we have few national interests in the Middle East anymore, they don’t want us there, there’s nothing we can really accomplish there, and to be there just runs the risk of a conflict with regional powers. It’s all risk, no reward.

Contrast this with Asia. Every single one of the points I just made with regards to the Middle East is the opposite for Asia.

Among Asian countries, as the above graph shows, our image is overwhelmingly positive, even in places we haven’t sworn to defend. Countries simply want a strong U.S. presence in the region:

But U.S. involvement in Asia isn’t purely altruistic. We have huge economic interests in the region, which is now the global hub for manufacturing and technology as well as a huge export market; the total GDP of the entire Middle East and North Africa is smaller than that of Japan, which isn’t even close to being Asia’s biggest economy anymore. More than half the world’s population lives in a small circle encompassing East, South, and Southeast Asia.

Finally, the power dynamics are very different in Asia. Instead of the region being defined by a competing concert of regional powers, it’s basically one overwhelmingly powerful regional power (China) versus nearly everyone else. China has territorial disputes with almost every other country in the region, and is viewed quite negatively there. The reason Asian countries want a stronger U.S. security presence in their region is not because they think our aircraft carriers look spiffy or our Marines are nice fellows; it’s because they’re afraid of China.

All this means that we need to draw down engagement in the Middle East, and increase engagement in Asia. We should pull all troops out of Iraq and Syria, except perhaps for a few special forces to hunt down the remnants of ISIS. We should remove all support for the Saudis in the Yemen war, as Biden has promised to do. (We can provide financial and diplomatic help and weapons to the Kurds, who were our loyal ally against ISIS and whom we owe a debt of gratitude.) And we should restart the nuclear deal with Iran, and ratchet down tensions with that country to whatever degree possible.

Meanwhile, while increasing our security presence in Asia, we should adopt the role not of a hegemon, but of an offshore balancer that puts alliances first.

Put defense first, put allies first

If you look at the U.S.’ successful foreign military interventions over the past century, they have pretty much all been to defend countries against invasion. This includes WW2, the Korean War, and the Gulf War (I guess you could also say WW1 was successful). Contrast this with the U.S.’ failed imperial adventures and disastrous attempts to intervene in civil wars: the Philippines, Vietnam, and Iraq (Afghanistan counts here too, though really it was more of a punitive expedition). All of our attempts to remake countries by force have been failures, while we have generally been successful at helping beat back the aggression of other powers.

Note that this isn’t just because we’re better at defense than at imperialism. Our conquest of the Philippines was actually militarily successful; we were never expelled until Japan kicked us out in WW2. And though it makes a lot of people mad to hear this fact stated, we won the Iraq War — we got rid of Saddam, established what was effectively a pseudo-democratic client state that would let our troops stay there indefinitely, and defeated ISIS, and there were no WMDs there to begin with. The thing was that neither of these victories was actually a net plus for the U.S. — both drained our coffers, created ill will among others, reduced our moral standing, resulted in mass death and shameful war crimes, and failed to get us any real benefits.

The reason America stinks at imperialism is that we’re not actually an empire; we don’t actually want to colonize or conquer other countries (as we did prior to the 20th century). Thus when we get into wars of imperial conquest, we don’t have any real objective, so we end up suffering the costs and not reaping any benefits even when we prevail on the battlefield. (Of course, this is true of most countries in the world at this point; since economies are no longer mainly based on land or natural resources, conquest is generally a losing proposition. But not everyone has figured this out yet.)

What we are good at is helping other countries defend themselves. If we’re being cynical and “realist” and self-interested about it, this is called offshore balancing — assisting small countries to resist the encroachment of bigger neighbors as a way of preventing those bigger neighbors from becoming rivals. A more idealistic interpretation would be that we’re defending the norm of fixed borders and non-aggression, thus creating a more peaceful world. Either way, though, this seems like it should be our general approach toward foreign conflict.

Some American foreign policy experts shun the grubby-sounding business of offshore balancing, and embrace some form of liberal internationalism, which is basically a combination of A) creating a global rule-based order through institutions like the UN, and B) intervening militarily for humanitarian goals or to advance liberal democracy. The problem is (B), of course; as George W. Bush showed, it’s pretty easy to be imperialist under the pretense of promoting democracy and human rights. That not only cheapens and discredits liberalism and democracy, it gets us into disastrous quagmires — a pure loss for America.

We can be liberal without being interventionist. We can maintain and promote multilateral institutions like the UN without sending our bombers and our troops to force countries to be the way we want them to be. Helping defend other countries against invasion is a more modest goal, but it’s one we can actually accomplish, and it raises our moral standing in the world instead of lowering it.

Call it defensive liberalism, instead of liberal hegemony.

And defensive liberalism needs to put U.S. allies first. Instead of viewing them as servants or auxiliaries to American power — as we did with the UK in the Iraq War — we need to focus on defending and supporting allies. That means we have to choose allies whose mere existence, independence, and influence furthers our geopolitical goals, but in the case of Asia that’s easy — any country that doesn’t want to be dominated by China is a good candidate.

We should help and support these allies in the face of aggression, but we should also work to boost their economies and to create multilateral institutions that both benefit them and bind them together. We should open our markets to allies’ products whenever possible, and embrace regional organizations like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Quad that allow our allies to support and strengthen each other.

Because frankly, the U.S. has just lost the ability to be a global hegemon. One big reason for this is the growth of China (and to a lesser degree, the economic recovery of Russia). In the year 2000 our GDP was seven times that of the other two superpowers combined; now that ratio is down to 1.33, and it’s going below 1 very soon.

Also, U.S. military spending as a percent of GDP is high compared to China; we probably don’t have much political room to boost defense spending, while they have plenty. If they decide to outspend us we won’t be able to keep up without diverting resources from our productive economy, as the USSR did when it committed itself to an arms race it couldn’t win.

U.S. leaders already recognize this shift. The old Cold War era doctrine of being able to fight two major wars in two different regions of the world at the same time has been officially ditched in favor of a more humble one-war doctrine.

Pax Americana is dying, and that is a scary thing for the world, but there’s nothing to be done for it; we have to salvage what we can of the liberal international order, and that means boosting allies instead of throwing our weight around. Perhaps someday China will liberalize, and we can cooperate with them to rebuild a new liberal internationalism. But as things stand, that’s not a possibility. Instead we have to use our waning but still considerable might to help other countries check the rise of authoritarian illiberal power.

Stop the shunning

That brings me to my last big idea: We need to ditch our strategy of trying to shun other countries into improving their human rights. This strategy never really worked, and in an age of Chinese and Russian power it is increasingly counterproductive.

Standard U.S. policy is to try to isolate countries that do authoritarian, illiberal things. The chief weapon is economic sanctions. But while economic sanctions are effective at harming other countries’ economies and well-being, they are notoriously ineffective at producing the actual change we demand. Three glaring examples of this ineffectuality are Iran, North Korea, and Cuba — three countries we have been doggedly shunning for decades, but which haven’t reformed themselves, and instead have simply become our inveterate enemies. Thus, sanctions generally cause human suffering instead of relieving it.

In the age of Chinese and Russian power, however, shunning is even less effective, because it just drives the shunned countries into the arms of the rival power bloc. It was easy to talk about “rogue states” and “isolation from the international community” in 1999 when America was the supreme military hegemon and the center of the global economy. But now, with military parity fast approaching and China becoming an alternative center of the global economy, America doesn’t get to define who is in the “international community” and who is out of it. If we try to “isolate” regimes we don’t like, they won’t be isolated rogues; they’ll be Chinese and Russian allies. This is why we should stop shunning Iran and Cuba (though North Korea may simply shun us regardless of what we do), and deal with both in a constructive manner, with an eye toward improvement of relations.

But how can we tolerate countries that abuse human rights? How could we want evil regimes in our own camp?

Well, first of all, it would be good if we didn’t engage in too much hypocrisy about this; some of the regimes we now revile for their human rights abuses are not too much worse than the U.S. in the early 20th century (Jim Crow, lynchings, racial segregation of Asians and Hispanics, destruction of Native American culture, Japanese internment, etc.). We improved without overthrowing our own regime, and perhaps so can they, if the incentives are right.

In fact, there are some precedents for American allies undergoing democratization and vast human rights improvements. South Korea and Taiwan were both fairly brutal dictatorships when the U.S. took them under its wing during the early days of the Cold War. But after about 30 years, both became beacons of liberalism and democracy, thanks to vigorous activist movements. Whether being a U.S. ally contributed to this process is not clear; it could be that the activists modeled their idea of the ideal society on the U.S., or that knowledge of U.S. protection gave the regimes the confidence that giving in to activist demands wouldn’t weaken them against external threats, or even that behind-the-scenes U.S. pressure was instrumental in pushing the regimes to relent. Or it could be that both would have managed democratization fine without U.S. help.

But the precedents of South Korea and Taiwan argue for not letting, for example, Vietnam’s poor recent human rights record be a deal-breaker when seeking an alliance with that country. That doesn’t mean we should refuse to criticize Vietnam’s abuses; we have to stand up for human rights and liberalism. But because shunning is not an effective tactic for getting other countries to change, we might as well try the Korea/Taiwan strategy for persuading Vietnam to change.

And of course, we should expect our allies to criticize our human rights record as well; there are certainly things we could improve.

Hegemon no longer

In essence, all of these changes are ways of dealing with one inescapable fact: The U.S.’ days as global hegemon are over. We don’t have the money and size to keep doing the job, and the Iraq War and the Trump Administration forfeited much of our international cred as a beacon of human rights. But we’re still a much more liberal country than China or Russia, and domination by those countries — especially domination of Asia by China — would be a huge loss to the world. Defensive liberalism is an acknowledgement that our world has entered a dark time — it’s a retrenchment from the heady days of the 1990s to a more pragmatic posture, a preparation for a tough struggle against a foe that is currently riding high. But it doesn’t mean retreat or surrender. Liberalism must win, and the U.S. must fight for liberalism. It’s just going to be a tougher fight than we thought.