American foreign policy would be significantly improved by adopting the medical ethics principle of “First, Do No Harm.”
In fact, this seems like a really obvious core principle to include:
1. It’s realistic, but not cynically “realist.”
2. It’s values-positive, while remaining within the country’s means and without overstretching capacity.
3. It’s not isolationist or irresponsibly disengaged, even if it’s not enthusiastically internationalist.
If we can’t be everywhere making everything better (and we can’t), we should at least not make things worse.
On the implementation side: I’d start by halting arms sales to governments that will use them destructively, and by generally rethinking many of our “strategic” alliances that don’t get us much but do give us a black eye or harm local populations.
And if we ourselves intervene militarily in places, we should be prepared to see it through fully, including meaningful reconstruction and with a full awareness for the risks of insurgency. If we don’t intervene directly, we should employ diplomatic channels to try to resolve the situation by other means, and we should ensure that whatever active policy is applied (such as relations with opposition groups or indirect paramilitary activities and support) remains in sync with our nominal values and overall strategic aims.
While I appreciate the need to take each situation as unique to some extent — to avoid sweeping generalizations and misapplication of past lessons — we should also try to be somewhat uniform in how we approach crises, rather than creating ad hoc responses that do not fit into any bigger picture and have no cross-situational logic to them. That’s expensive, confusing, and damaging.
If we can’t fix all the things in the world that are broken, let’s not break them further, and let’s try to have a clear set of rules and benchmarks for when we do step in. First, do no harm. Everything else, after.