Getting Our Priorities in Order
“the world generally” agrees that national sovereignty, pluralism, respect for individual rights are also “good for the world generally.”
This is absolutely a fair point, though I think this list should also include internal security and stability (and I suspect Roque would agree).
But this is also a point that poses major problems for creating appropriate foreign policy, and really in international relations more generally. The first problem, which I’m not going to address at length here, is that it is quite apparent that Western conceptions of things like “individual rights” are very different from other such conceptions. If, as I do (and as Roque presumably does as well), you think the Western conceptions of those things are fundamentally correct, then really there’s no agreement here at all – at best, non-Western countries are paying lip service to Western values and at worst we’re talking about fundamentally different concepts. If you take the view that no conception is clearly correct, then the agreement is merely on semantics and we’re still talking about fundamentally different concepts.
But the second problem is the one that is relevant to the question of formulating good rules for American interventionism. That problem is that these values (national sovereignty, pluralism, individual rights, security, and stability) are often at conflict with each other when it comes to formulating foreign policy. These conflicts were much less apparent during the Cold War, when there was a general consensus in both the public and the foreign policy community that the goal of American foreign policy was to contain the Soviet Union. The threat of the Soviet Union was quite literally existential, and if collateral damage was done to one of the other values in the process of containing the Soviets, then almost everyone would agree it was an acceptable loss (we tend to forget that it took years before the Vietnam War began to become unpopular). Even now, to the extent that our Cold War actions have contributed to current problems, I think it’s hard to argue that the world would have been better off had we not made every effort to win the Cold War….even if some of those specific efforts were less successful than others or in retrospect were clearly unwise. Moreover, because the threat of the Soviet Union was literally existential, it was easier to accept a narrative in which some actions that would otherwise be undemocratic and contrary to normal principles of Western small “l” liberalism were necessary to preserve Western liberalism writ large.
But once the Cold War was over, and the US left as the sole remaining superpower, what value was to guide US foreign policy? The First Gulf War was justified (and appropriately so, I think) on grounds of respecting national sovereignty. Bosnia and Kosovo? Individual rights and/or pluralism. Haiti and Somalia? Regional stability (more or less). Afghanistan was obviously justified on grounds of national security. And then the Iraq invasion came along, partly being justified on grounds of national security, but also on grounds of preserving national sovereignty (in the sense that preventing Iraq from attacking neighbors was the purpose of the UN resolutions that formed the formal casus belli), protecting individual rights, and the spread of pluralism more generally.
And that just covers the military interventions of the last 20 years.
There is certainly an argument to be made that intervention of some sort (whether economic, diplomatic, or military) ought to be justifiable on any of these grounds at all times. The trouble is that these goals, which almost all of us share as being desirable outcomes, quite frequently conflict with each other, and we don’t have a reliable rule for deciding which goal will trump at any given time. This failure to have a clear consensus priority undermines American credibility because it leaves our foreign policy open to credible charges of hypocrisy. In the process, it also partially undermines our ability to achieve any of our foreign policy goals whatsoever by providing enemies with a persuasive-sounding excuse for refusing to listen to legitimate attempts at diplomacy. And that says nothing about the fact that because the pursuit of any one goal is often at odds with the pursuit of other goals, the pursuit of all goals at once must necessarily undermine the ability to achieve any one of those goals.
And worst of all is the situation where we seek to achieve all goals at once in one particular intervention that also happens to take on a military nature. What makes this so particularly problematic is that it results in a situation where it is impossible to create a clear definition of success, resulting in the near-unachievable task of trying to build a new nation in our own image by force, a task that conservatives of the 1990s strongly (and, IMHO, justifiably) criticized. The Iraq War provides a pretty clear example of this problem: if the objective was merely to ensure that Saddam Hussein was incapable of producing WMDs, then a full-scale invasion was unnecessary; if the objective was to create a bastion of democracy in the Middle East, then Iraq, with its then virtually non-existent civil society, was a poor candidate for doing so; ditto if the objective was to combat Islamic extremism and terrorism more generally.
One way out of this trap has been to emphasize the role of terrorism and to almost provide it with a status similar to that once held by the Soviet Union. And in the aftermath of 9/11, this view was able to achieve something approaching a consensus. But for many of us, including many people like myself who were directly affected by 9/11, a few years of reflection led to the realization that terrorism was not the existential threat to the US that it is for Israel. And so a willingness to unite under a foreign policy that emphasized ending terrorism at all costs (in terms of costs to civil liberties, various American values, and American international reputation) rapidly faded away. This is not to say that ending terrorism ceased to be an important goal for this rather large group; only that it was not important enough to justify all sorts of actions that perhaps we would have overlooked during WWII or the Cold War.
So what remains? Scott would seem to prefer a foreign policy geared towards humanitarian interventionism, if anything. Freddie would seem to prefer something approaching a general non-interventionism that effectively provides primacy to the sovereignty of other nations. E.D. on the other hand takes a more realpolitik view based on direct implication of national or strategic interests. And the plurality (but by no means a consensus majority) of Americans would still likely place absolute, unassailable primacy on fighting terrorism.
As a libertarian, I am most ideologically sympathetic with the non-interventionist worldview, which I view as providing primacy to moral behavior by our own nation above all else. But I can’t come to fully accept it, either. Existential threats do exist, if not for the US, then for other nations and groups of people. And it would be foolish to deny that the US faces threats that, while short of existential, certainly demand close attention.
So where does that leave me, assuming that a semi-permanent consensus on foreign policy aims is unachievable in the near future? Well, at a minimum, before any kind of significant intervention, I would insist that our primary objective be exceedingly clear and measurable such that once the objective was achieved, we’d all be able to agree to put an end to the intervention – call it an “exit strategy,” if you will. I’d ask that we choose the most narrowly targeted manner of achieving that goal possible, so as to minimize collateral damage on other foreign policy goals (not to mention the human cost of such collateral damage). And I’d absolutely object to any notion of nation-building, which is not properly the job of the military. Finally, I’d put an end to the concept of economic or diplomatic sanctions as a meaningful manner of achieving most diplomatic ends (the exception being targeted sanctions solely intended to prevent hostile regimes from obtaining specific materials capable of being used for aggressive purposes). Such sanctions would appear to have an absolutely terrible track record, and I’m fully persuaded that they ultimately just entrench the very people at whom the sanctions are aimed.