The foreign policy community, united for a common error

A brief reflection on 14 years of continuous US misadventures in the Middle East North Africa region and the mainstream foreign policy community’s exclusion of alternative perspectives.

In its cross-partisan drive for a new style of foreign policy after the Cold War, the DC crowd seems to have converged upon the worst-of-all-possible-worlds solution to the world’s problems.

From the left, the military-internationalists without a balancing dose of any hardheaded, restraining realism. From the right, the neocons and literal “crusaders,” whose force-based adventurism is sure to end about as dismally as their medieval forerunners.

Both believe unlimited force applied everywhere can remake the world in their vision, yet the vision is as clouded by legacy alliances and enmities as any prior world power’s vision has been. They cannot even plausibly claim to have transcended the obvious immorality of the frequent pacts-with-devils made by Cold War realpolitik advocates.

Witness the negligible self-reflection on ill-conceived partnerships with Saudi Arabia’s regional wrecking-ball (or other similarly damaging alliances). Witness the beliefs in “good guys” and “bad guys” and meaningful change through isolation, bombardment, and speeches.

It is a foreign policy worldview as averse to compromises for the sake of reality as the members of Congress. Yet it already so pre-compromised and impure as to render the ideals behind it a hollow joke.

Notes for a better American foreign policy doctrine

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.

AFD 56 – Internationalism and Localism

Latest Episode:
“AFD 56 – Internationalism and Localism”
Posted: Tues, 10 September 2013

Bill and Persephone discuss Russia’s assertion that the UK is irrelevant to world affairs, then we examine the most successful global treaty of all time (and efforts to improve it), and we conclude by asking how individual cities and towns are possibly able to pass abortion bans on their own because that is crazy.

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