From America’s founding through the 1990s, U.S. foreign policy (or major foreign decisions, at least) was almost always contested, but it was rarely adrift; policy alternatives were clear albeit contentious. What distinguishes one major aspect of American foreign policy in the contemporary era—policy toward failed, failing, and malevolent states—is that the policy alternatives are themselves unclear.
For much of U.S. history, a variant of isolationism guided the foreign policy of the United States. American political leaders from Washington through McKinley wanted to avoid entangling alliances, exclude foreign powers from the Western Hemisphere (although the Monroe Doctrine depended more on Britain than the United States until the end of the 19th century), and dominate the North American continent, something they accomplished through both war and the acquisition of new territory. Where the American military did venture overseas before the Spanish-American War—fighting the Barbary pirates, sending the great white fleet to Japan, participating in the colonial exploitation of China—it did so because of direct security or economic interests. Values mattered deeply to many Americans, but the spread of liberty—a free market economy and democratic polity—was to be accomplished more by making America a shining example on the hill rather than through an activist foreign policy.
This isolationist consensus weakened at the end of the 19th century with the rise of American power. By one measure, offered by the Correlates of War data set, the United States achieved the number one ranking in the world by the 1890s. More power offered more opportunities. The United States became more ambitious both ideologically and materially. It was not a coincidence that the Spanish-American War occurred at the same time that the United States became the most powerful country in the world. Nevertheless, the isolationist impulse remained strong.
In the first half of the 20th century the United States was never adrift, but the two most important foreign policy decisions—entry into the first and second world wars—were strongly contested. Wilson brought the United States into World War I only after Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, including attacks on American vessels, and tried to enlist Mexico as an ally. Wilson’s efforts to spread democracy, protect minority rights (of course, not for blacks in the United States), and have the United States become a maker of the world system, articulated in his Fourteen Points speech of January 1918 and embodied in his hopes for American leadership in the League of Nations, failed utterly. Roosevelt was more successful. Although he recognized the threat posed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan by the late 1930s, he had to obfuscate his support for Britain through measures such as Lend-Lease (neither really lending nor leasing) and was only able to bring the United States into World War II after Pearl Harbor.
Consensus on foreign policy in the United States was only achieved several years after the end of World War II, when it became apparent that the Soviet Union would be a rival rather than a partner of the United States. Containment was a potent grand strategy that had a well-articulated, basically Manichean, view of the world; it had a heuristic power that informed or provided a rationale for a very wide range of policies, including the Marshall and Truman plans, domestic education and infrastructure development, foreign aid, the Korean and Vietnamese wars, and Star Wars; that provided guidance for organizing the U.S. government, including the creation of the Department of Defense, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Council, NASA, and USAID. Containment was backed by every President from Truman to George H.W. Bush and had bipartisan support in Congress.
For the first time in more than a century, the foreign policy of the United States is now adrift, not just contested. It is not just that there is disagreement, which is hardly unusual, but that there are no clear lines of debate, no analogue, for instance, to the differences between isolationists and internationalists before World War II. This drift is not the result of some exceptional failing of the Obama Administration, but rather is a reflection of the difficulty of addressing one of the two major foreign policy issues confronting the United States: failing or malevolent states and weapons of mass destruction. Obama’s approach to the other major challenge for American foreign policy, the rise of China, is coherent and consistent with positions taken by his predecessors. From Nixon’s visit forward, the United States has tried to engage China, integrate it into the existing, American-created international order, and hedge against the threat that China might try to turn East Asia into its own sphere of influence. The “pivot” is only the most recent manifestation of this strategy.
The Obama Administration is adrift with regard to failing, failed, and malevolent states for two reasons: First, American policymakers (and not just those in the Obama Administration) have been unable to specify an achievable goal, and second, it is impossible to know how serious a threat these states pose to American national security.
Following 9/11, the Bush Administration, confronted with the same challenge, did develop a coherent grand strategy, which was articulated in the 2002 National Security Strategy. Its basic premise was that transnational terrorism posed an existential security threat to American security. Transnational terrorism could only be addressed by confronting its root causes. The most important root cause was political repression. The way to end political repression was to spread democracy. This Wilsonian view, as the label suggests, was hardly unique to the Bush Administration.
The Bush Administration’s democratization project failed. (I was a member of the Bush Administration, and I do not want to suggest that my views in 2002, 2005, or 2006 were identical with my understanding now. I, like many others, was hopeful, perhaps too hopeful.) Achieving a consolidated democratic regime is extremely hard. For almost all of human history, in almost every part of the world, states have been organized to serve the interests of rent-seeking elites who are intent on staying in power and furthering their own material interests. These elites might sometimes adopt policies that incidentally have wider benefits for society as a whole, but they will not willingly embrace initiatives that, as far as they can foresee, will undermine their own base of political support. Bribery, state enterprises, restrictions on international trade, domestic oligopolies, state control of natural resources, state marketing boards for crops, and other restrictions on free enterprise are an inherent, inescapable aspect of exclusive or limited access orders because they are necessary for generating the resources that political leaders need to pay off their key supporters, as well as for feathering their own nests. There may be no law, or rule by law, but not rule of law, because leaders will not be willing to subject themselves to decisions by a truly independent judicial system. The right to create political, economic, and social organizations will be restricted because such organizations may threaten or challenge the regime’s ability to suppress dissent or generate rents. The OECD world, and not even all members of the OECD, is the exception, not the rule, for human societies not only in the past, but in the present as well.
The first reason, then, that American foreign policy appears to be adrift is that Americans have no alternative to consolidated democracy, or at least a path to consolidated democracy, that might realistically be achieved in failed and failing states. Most Americans believe that democracy, or at least a path to democracy, is possible everywhere, which is not the case, and they have no alternative objective toward which policy might be oriented. Most Americans are committed to individual liberty and economic openness and assume, even when they are acutely aware of American limitations, that what has been accomplished in the United States can be achieved relatively easily in the rest of the world. But it turns out that if one heavy hand of repression is lifted, another, rather than consolidated democracy, is likely to take its place.
It is possible to imagine alternatives to consolidated democracy, but the path to accomplishing them is not brightly lit, and they would be hard to sell to the American public. One possibility would be “good enough” governance, in which the state maintained order, put in place policies that facilitated economic growth, and respected basic integrity rights, but this “good enough” governance is far from a regime with free and fair elections, minimal corruption, and equal rights. Another alternative, most obviously for Afghanistan, would have been a decentralized warlord regime with American forces acting as a balance of power. Another would be a confederal system, already de facto evident in Iraq, with its quasi-independent Kurdistan. A confederal Ukraine in which Crimea would have had considerable autonomy over both its foreign and domestic policy would have been a more attractive solution than Russian annexation. Justifying the use of troops to the American public to accomplish any one of these goals would be challenging for any President.
The second reason that American policy toward failed, failing, and malevolent states is adrift is because it is not clear how much of a threat these states pose to American national security. Possible attacks from weak and malevolent states present one of the most difficult policy challenges. They are black swans: low probability events that are highly consequential and impossible to predict.
The availability of nuclear and biological weapons has broken the connection between underlying resources and the ability to do harm. North Korea could kill millions of people in China, Russia, Japan, and, perhaps in the not too distant future, the United States. Pakistan has a large number of nuclear weapons, active jihadi militants, an incentive to decentralize weapons’ control to avoid a decapitation strike from India, and government agencies with weak control over activities within and across the country’s borders. It takes no imagination at all to tell a story about how nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of a transnational terrorist group. Biological weapons are even more readily available. The threat they pose is hardly limited to weak and failing states. Disgruntled individuals or small groups in almost any part of the world might be able to kill thousands of people with an agent like anthrax or set off a worldwide smallpox pandemic.
The most successful outcome is that a black swan does not appear, an outcome that brings no political reward. A WMD attack on a major city in the United States, or any other country in the world emanating from a weak or failing state, could not only kill tens of thousands of people but would utterly change the nature of the international system. The rules of conventional Westphalian sovereignty would be out the window. The norm of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states would be passé. The costs of national security policy would skyrocket. The United States has tried to prevent this black swan from appearing in many ways, including establishing the Department of Homeland Security, beefing up security at airports, and collecting data and meta-data about individual communications. But there is no consensus among the electorate or political elite about appropriate policies.
American policies toward the security threats posed by weak and failing states is adrift because the policy options that could be imagined are politically unpalatable and because black swans pose a challenge that cannot be systematically addressed. If the Obama Administration is stumped by this problem, it is not alone.