Compass setting a direction on an antique map.

Course Correction

October 16, 2016
Dimitri K. Simes, Pratik Chougule and Paul J. Saunders

This article originally appeared in The National Interest with the subheading: "America needs a foreign policy that abandons triumphalist clichés, flawed assumptions and predetermined conclusions in favor of facts and serious analysis."

Whoever wins the presidential race in November will face an uncertain world. With a serious and purposeful strategy, the United States can bolster its global leadership role and advance its national-security interests. Continued weakness and recklessness, however, could worsen trouble in critical regions, from Europe to the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific. The United States may experience more devastating terrorist attacks and an accelerated geopolitical realignment against its interests. A nuclear calamity, widely considered unthinkable since the late 1980s, could again become a real possibility.

The next administration will need to start with a sober evaluation of the world as it is, rather than as the president and top officials wish it to be. U.S. leaders will need to define vital national interests, with a realistic hierarchy of international priorities. They will need to review the extent to which current policies, including alliances, serve U.S. interests. And they will need to establish clear objectives in relations with rival major powers China and Russia. Then, and only then, will the next president be able to design policies that further both immediate needs and enduring strategic objectives.

So far, the two presidential candidates have demonstrated contrasting foreign-policy approaches. Hillary Clinton has showcased her experience, but has shown little willingness to question the conventional wisdom. Donald Trump has offered bold approaches, but has not explained how his administration would implement them, or how they might fit into a coherent strategy.

Nevertheless, Trump’s shortcomings as a messenger do nothing to ameliorate the need for a reappraisal of U.S. foreign policy that abandons triumphalist clichés, flawed assumptions and predetermined conclusions in favor of facts and serious analysis.

An honest appraisal of the world as it is, and of U.S. interests, capabilities and options, starts with accepting that U.S. actions have exacerbated some of today’s most ominous threats. This doesn’t mean blaming America first; terrorists conduct terrorist attacks, China is asserting its power in East Asia, and Russia annexed Crimea. Yet in each case, U.S. actions have tended to turn troublesome possibilities into dangerous realities.

The United States is hardly to blame for the Arab world’s woes—corruption and stagnation provided a fertile ground for Islamic extremism—and for similar problems in South Asia and elsewhere. But U.S. interventions have contributed to the menace of radicalism. Indeed, Al Qaeda’s origins in Afghanistan are inseparable from U.S. support for radical Islamist fighters resisting the Soviet invasion and U.S. decisions about post-Soviet Afghanistan. Toward the end of the war, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet government proposed negotiations to establish a coalition government in Kabul. Sensing Moscow’s weak position, the usually pragmatic George H. W. Bush administration did not want to deprive the mujahideen of total victory by granting a role to the Soviet Union’s Afghan clients. Once Boris Yeltsin’s post-Soviet Russia ceased military support for the Kabul regime, Washington got its wish. Yet the incoming Clinton administration did little to fill the vacuum and allowed the Taliban to assume power and harbor Al Qaeda. As late as 1999, during a period of strained U.S.-Russia relations following NATO airstrikes in Serbia, Vladimir Putin proposed U.S.-Russia cooperation against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It took until after 9/11, well after Islamist extremism had metastasized throughout the Greater Middle East, for the George W. Bush administration to agree to work in concert with Moscow in Afghanistan.

Likewise, U.S. policy in Iraq has contributed to new and unnecessary threats. Saddam Hussein was a genocidal dictator, but had no ties to anti-American terrorist groups that could justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq, particularly in the absence of weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, if it was a mistake to go into Iraq in the first place, it was no less a mistake to abandon a weak government with limited control of its own territory and a recent history of violent internal conflict.

Outside Iraq, as instability spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Syria and Libya, the Obama administration called for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad’s secular authoritarian regime in Damascus. U.S. officials were trying to promote stability on one side of the Iraq-Syria border and regime change on the other—without investing much in either. That ISIS or a group like it would emerge from this was entirely predictable.

The same can be said of other U.S. choices in the Middle East, as in Libya, where the administration decapitated a repressive regime that had made peace with the United States without planning—or even intending—to assist in establishing order and security on the ground. Why were U.S. and NATO officials surprised that Libya became simultaneously safe for terrorists and unsafe for many of its citizens, who then fled to Europe?

American policy in Europe has similarly failed. Washington is not responsible for either Russia’s assertive authoritarian government or its weak, and often corrupt, neighbors. In this environment, it was predictable that Russia would seek to recapture its past great-power status and an important regional role. Yet Moscow’s specific policy choices in Georgia, and later in Ukraine, were not inevitable; they were, in part, the result of deep divisions over pro-Western orientations and territorial integrity in these two countries. Russian leaders also considered Russia’s overall relationship with the United States and its allies and their own perception that Moscow’s preferences had not been adequately taken into account.

Few policies have alarmed Moscow as much as NATO’s expansion. Just as George F. Kennan predicted in a letter to the National Interest in 1998, NATO’s relentless expansion along Russia’s borders fed a nationalist and militaristic mood across the country’s political spectrum. A bold move as this almost literally moved NATO to the suburbs of St. Petersburg, incorporating Estonia and Latvia into NATO was especially difficult for Moscow to stomach. Although today more than 25 percent of Estonia and Latvia’s populations are ethnically Russian, this figure was significantly higher at the time of the Soviet collapse. After the Cold War, each state chose to disenfranchise the vast majority of its Russian-speaking population as well as other minority groups. Because post-independence Estonia and Latvia were continuations of states that existed between the First and Second World Wars, they asserted, only the descendants of those citizens could become citizens of the new states. Even many third-generation residents—meaning both they and their parents were born in Estonia or Latvia—were given second-class status, denied many jobs and deprived of participation in national politics.

Demographics produced political reality in the form of nationalist and anti-Russian governments. Granting those governments NATO membership confirmed Moscow’s suspicions that NATO remained what it was during the Cold War: an anti-Russian alliance. Worse for the United States, Washington and its allies extended their security umbrella to these states without assessing how to defend them short of war with a major nuclear power. Even if U.S. policy was guided by a genuine desire to ensure independence for these long-suffering nations, it was unreasonable to think that Washington could expand NATO—not to mention, promise Georgia and Ukraine eventual membership—without provoking Moscow’s countermove.

Few recall that Vladimir Putin originally sought to make Russia a major part of a united Europe. Instead, NATO expansion predictably fueled an us-versus-them mentality in Moscow, encouraging worst-case thinking about U.S. intentions. Russian leaders now see rearmament and the search for new allies as appropriate responses to a U.S. policy that is clearer in its denunciations of Russia than in its contributions to American national security.

Indeed, how can the United States benefit from new dividing lines in Europe reminiscent of the Cold War? For that matter, how can Latvia or Estonia become more secure as frontline states in a confrontation with an adversarial Russia?

The recent collapse of U.S.-Russia diplomacy in Syria has only worsened this problem. Moscow had essentially accepted U.S. and Western sanctions as a fact of life following its annexation of Crimea and, for two years, sought to demonstrate that Russia remained open for business on key international issues. However, this posture—an essential ingredient in Russia’s support for the Iran nuclear deal—appears to be evaporating and its principal advocate, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, now says that so long as the sanctions remain in effect, Russia will no longer work with the United States where it is to America’s advantage.

America-Russia tensions are particularly troubling given how maladroitly Washington has approached its other major rival. In contrast to Russia, China is a full-scale superpower with a robust economy and an impressive culture of innovation. Given its underlying strengths, U.S. policy could not realistically have prevented China’s emergence as a leading power in the Asia-Pacific region. Still, this does not excuse Washington’s ongoing failure to develop a thoughtful long-term approach to the Chinese challenge.

As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton bears at least some responsibility for the deterioration in bilateral relations. After promising not to hector the Chinese about their domestic practices, Secretary Clinton could not resist the temptation to do just that. The point is not that the United States should neglect raising human-rights issues with Beijing. Rather, it is that Clinton’s approach, which sounded more like political posturing than an effort to produce tangible changes in Chinese conduct, was counterproductive. Her efforts accomplished little, other than fueling Beijing’s dark suspicions.

President Obama’s “pivot”—now known as “rebalance”—to Asia lent further credence to Chinese concerns over a hostile U.S. containment and regime-change policy. In addition to widely publicized military deployments and open discussion of U.S. capabilities to penetrate China’s anti-access/area denial systems, the “pivot” has also included the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a major regional trade agreement. The problem is not TPP itself, which could benefit the United States and its allies. Rather, it is that the Obama administration explicitly championed a defining U.S. initiative as a means to outmaneuver China in Asia’s economic architecture. “If we don’t write the rules,” the president declared, “China will write the rules out in that region.”

This pattern of needlessly provoking China has become the norm. Consider one of countless examples: the Obama administration’s decision to encourage the Philippines’ legal challenge to Chinese claims in the South China Sea under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the U.S. Senate has refused to ratify. Why would the Obama administration believe that China would abide by the court’s decision when Beijing declared, at the outset, that it would not accept the legitimacy of the arbitration process? As Harvard’s Graham T. Allison has observed, “None of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council have ever accepted any international court’s ruling when (in their view) it infringed their sovereignty or national security interests.” The greatest practical consequence of this episode, it seems, is that others may be emboldened to press claims against Beijing that neither they nor the United States have the will to enforce. Picking fights it is not determined to win undermines America’s position.

Repeatedly provoking other great powers without being prepared to force their compliance with U.S. preferences may have dramatic global consequences. America’s well-intentioned desire to stand by its allies has catalyzed a geopolitical realignment to the detriment of American interests. China and Russia are now pursuing a rapprochement explicitly designed to check American power.

If terrorism is the most immediate threat to American security, a Beijing-Moscow partnership represents the greatest long-term danger to American global leadership. There are serious differences between China and Russia, and both have compelling stakes in avoiding serious confrontation with America and its allies. For all their differences, however, Chinese and Russian leaders share the perception that U.S. policy—including Washington’s support for their neighbors—amounts to a containment regime designed to keep them down. This perception is not insignificant. Beijing and Moscow can profoundly complicate the conduct of U.S. security and foreign policy without a formal alliance or overt hostility to America. Consider today’s realities, including China-Russia diplomatic coordination in the UN Security Council, a more permissive Russian attitude toward the transfer of advanced weapons systems to China, and increasingly large and complex joint military maneuvers. And this may only be the beginning.

Unfavorable dynamics in Europe and Asia point to a more fundamental flaw in U.S. strategy: an unwillingness to look critically at alliance commitments in relation to American interests and the current international environment. Broadly speaking, strong alliances are a key foundation of U.S. international leadership and a major contributor to national security. Yet alliances are human institutions, not religious relics, and deserve regular and thoughtful scrutiny to ensure that they serve their intended aims.

NATO, established after World War II to address the existential threat of Soviet imperialism, has in some cases committed the United States to unconditional security guarantees that were appropriate at the time, but are now of dubious wisdom in a different world. However ominous Russian policy toward its neighbors may be, it is difficult to see how most Eurasian conflicts impact vital U.S. interests. Russia’s heavy-handed conduct in the former Soviet Union, though troubling, is not an existential threat to the United States—not unless nuclear weapons become a factor. Sensible policies articulated from a position of strength can avert that outcome and make U.S. allies safer.

Meanwhile, countries that are routinely described as close American friends have done a great deal to endanger the sovereignty and security of the United States. Mexico has paid virtually no price for its failure to cooperate in limiting illegal immigration, which has profound consequences for the economy, security and society—and, over time, could even change the American electorate, without its consent. Supermajorities in Congress have held Saudi Arabia partly responsible for the 9/11 attacks, yet the U.S.-Saudi relationship has only expanded since the days when the Soviet threat and the high price of oil first drew the two countries together.

A bottom-up review of current alliances to assess their contributions to U.S. security, prosperity, values and leadership would be a sensible first step for the next administration. Relationships that contribute more trouble than security to America should be retooled or curtailed, using a scalpel rather than an axe. After all, collapsing the flawed structures and bad habits of the triumphalist post–Cold War years could prove worse than the status quo. Moreover, Washington must make clear how any changes will strengthen U.S. security and leadership and avoid adding to Obama-era international impressions of U.S. retreat and retrenchment.

One way to accomplish this is by setting clear expectations within alliance relationships. The NATO treaty’s well-known Article Five, which commits alliance members to consider an attack on one as an attack on all, requires America to “assist” its allies, but only through “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” U.S. officials should explain to NATO allies that while America is committed to defending them in the event of an unprovoked attack, Article Five is not a license to engage in reckless or provocative conduct. Indeed, America’s defense commitment to Taiwan already incorporates this notion. Washington could also encourage leaders in especially vulnerable states like Estonia and Latvia to reflect more deliberately on the fact that U.S. efforts to defend or liberate their territory could lead to their utter devastation, even without escalation to tactical nuclear strikes by Moscow or Washington. They could also reflect on the ways in which their own words and deeds could make such a conflict more—or less—likely.

The West’s complex and contradictory relations with Russia and China are likely to retain adversarial elements for years to come. For this reason, American power remains a cornerstone of international security and U.S. alliances remain key tools. Nevertheless, new thinking on when and how to exercise power is long overdue. Too often, U.S. leaders have expended American resources on causes incidental to vital interests.

This is not a call to avoid using force or a banal statement that force should be but a last resort. On the contrary, in some circumstances, force may be the most appropriate instrument and thus a first resort. At the same time, military preponderance is a key tool in ensuring successful diplomacy on U.S. terms; its value is in the leverage it provides in securing fundamental American interests, not its regular employment to achieve peripheral aims. In the same spirit, Washington should acknowledge that the liberal use of economic sanctions has surely contributed its fair share to human misery and is not inherently less costly to America or less threatening to its targets than armed conflict. In considering whether to employ military power, economic coercion or other tools, Washington should assess costs, benefits and risks—including unintended consequences—much more systematically and frankly.

If the next president pursues a new strategy, he or she should expect resistance from America’s entrenched foreign-policy establishment. Recent fiascos from Iraq to Libya have been bipartisan affairs, and many will seek to defend their records. Similarly, foreign-policy elites in both parties have internalized the notion that “American exceptionalism” is a license to intervene in other countries and that “universal aspirations” guarantee American success.

Despite the presence of many individuals of common sense and integrity in government, U.S. leaders have too often forgotten that jumping off a cliff is easier than climbing back to safety. Notwithstanding the election of some well-informed and thoughtful individuals to the Senate and House of Representatives, the Congress has largely abdicated its responsibility to foster serious debate on foreign policy and has failed to fulfill its constitutional role as a check on executive power. The mainstream media has become an echo chamber for a misbegotten and misguided consensus.

But Americans can no longer afford to accept bad policies in the hopes that things will somehow work out. Today’s world is too complex and too dangerous, with more major powers, less discipline among international blocs and factions, and greater power for nonstate actors. In the past, geography and American power allowed Washington to make serious mistakes at relatively low cost. In the future, the United States will not be able to count on this luxury. With determined leadership, the same executive power that has been used so irresponsibly over the past two decades can put the country back on a sustainable path, with periodic course corrections from an active Congress and a discerning media. The next president cannot single-handedly fix the Congress or the media, but he or she can and should take a hard look at the executive branch, particularly the bloated National Security Council. Of course, any significant change in U.S. foreign policy will also require the new president to select top officials based on their alignment with his or her objectives and style rather than political correctness or perfect résumés. To do otherwise would be to sabotage any efforts at change from the start.

America’s challenges are real, but hardly insurmountable. Fortunately, if the 2016 presidential campaign has demonstrated anything, it is that the American people are frustrated with post–Cold War foreign policy—so a determined and skillful president will have an important opportunity for a new beginning.


Dimitri K. Simes

Dimitri K. Simes publishes The National Interest and is the president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest.


Pratik Chougule

Pratik Chougule is managing editor of The National Interest.


Paul J. Saunders

Photo credit: Pixabay photo by schaeffler shared under a Creative Commons (CC0 Public Domain) license.