The Closet Moderate: Foreign Policy: Inflammatory Language Edition

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Foreign Policy: Inflammatory Language Edition

When foreign policy makes its way into the popular consciousness, it tends to do so in the form of imperatives and inflammatory rhetoric. On the one hand, that's totally understandable. Americans are generally less concerned with the politics among nations than they are about tax rates, and other issues of domestic policy. In that environment, the natural way to get media coverage is to exaggerate the severity of the threat. However, that strategy has unfortunate downstream consequences, as we become habituated to dealing with foreign policy issues solely through the lens of crisis. We're required to face down the latest "existential" threat to the United States or we "must" counter another state's regional ambitions. The reality tends to be less urgent, more nuanced and much harder to predict.


The military predominance of the United States relative to other states is unprecedented in history. That has a lot of implications, but the most obvious is that we won't need to confront an existential threat from a single foreign actor anytime soon. And yet we continue to hyperventilate about Iran's nuclear ambitions and Taliban soldierrs plotting the fall of the Great Satan around a campfire in Afghanistan. I don't mean to imply that these aren't threats, but rather that the way they are presented deprives them of all context. Without context, we can't evaluate or formulate reasonable policy. If we allow a narrative of crisis to take hold, we've already restricted the available policy space we can operate in. We either back down or saber-rattle for all we're worth, and if the other party calls our bluff, well, we have to unsheathe ol' slashy and go to town because our credibility is on the line.


At any given time, there are thousands of threats to the United States. You'll never hear about most of them because they're neutralized by our national security apparatus. Also, there's no political percentage in playing up threats to our unsexy vulnerabilities like information security, so the theft of the joint strike fighter plans don't capture media attention. Our health infrastructure is siloed (meaning that health departments don't share information that well) and we lack the surge capacity to deal with a true pandemic. Addressing these issues would produce beneficial ripple effects, but they seem destined to play second fiddle to less-likely-but-sexier threats.

I also want to talk about the difficulty of predicting outcomes in the international sphere. Today, we're going to use Domino Theory as our whipping boy. At the most basic level, Domino Theory advocated for fighting communists everywhere because if we didn't, the Reds would figure out that we're secretly a bunch of sissies and go on the march everywhere from Cambodia to France. The problem is, that's not at all how people make decisions. If we had let Vietnam fall without a fight, it doesn't follow that the Reds would infer that we wouldn't defend Europe. Europe was much richer and much closer to the US in terms of both distance and culture than Vietnam. In short, it had a level of strategic importance that Vietnam lacked, and both the USSR and the USA were aware of that fact. Anyway, after we lost in Vietnam, do you know what the Vietnamese did? They fought a war with China. Hardly the pinko lovefest we were worried about.

There are huge uncertainties inherent in any international endeavor. It would be nice if the world were broken up into good states and bad states, but that's not the case. There are often "bad" states that we need to work with, and "good" states that obstruct our plans. These situations can occur because of a state's domestic politics, the lens through which they understand their strategic interests, or any number of cultural, economic or political peculiarities. When we recognize and respect these idiosyncratic differences, we're not selling out America. These are sovereign states, and sometimes a little diplomacy is required to get what we want from them.

Edit: See Fancy Blogger/Professor Stephen Walt for more on this.

Edit 2: Man, there's a lot of overlap between our posts. Embarrassing.

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