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The Biggest Problem With American Foreign Policy

(To ring in the New Year, the Small Wars Journal editors put up a survey with a few questions for Small War-riors to answer. This post can be considered my thoughts (Michael C) on questions 1 and 3.)
To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

On an interview with The Daily Show a while back, Condoleeza Rice said, “It turns out authoritarianism is unstable...Every man, woman, and child should live in freedom.”

Though I don’t think she intended it, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, in two sentences, summed up the liberal position on foreign relations. In short, that stance is: democracies are the preferred form of government, and democratic countries tend not to fight each other. (By liberal we mean “liberalism in international relations” as defined broadly by this Wikipedia article. And yes, to make this post readable, we are simplifying broad swaths of this complex theory, and leaving out some key components. We’re Gladwellian popularizers after all.)

Condoleeza Rice wasn’t talking about why the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein; she meant the Arab Spring sweeping across north Africa and the falls of Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Moammar Qaddafi. Later in the interview, she held up Iraq as a model for democracies around the Middle East, linking that war with the current unrest. In one fell rhetorical swoop, she connected her administration’s actions to the spread of democracy around the globe, basically saying, “See, we were right!”

If only the Bush administration had acted so forthrightly to advocate the spread of democracy around the world. And I’ll add, if only President Obama hadn’t continued the same policies as President Bush.

Usually when some blogger bemoans the gap between American ideals and American foreign policy, they go down a crazy liberal/libertarian conspiracy theory rabbit hole to say that America is dominated by elites who craft our foreign policy simply to entrench moneyed interests. Or something about American elites spreading empire around the globe or something. My thesis is much more simple: presidents--be they liberal, conservative, Democrat or Republican--care about one thing and one thing alone: getting reelected. As a result, our foreign policy tends to favor short terms gains over accomplishing long term goals.

(And this would, roughly, be described as the “realist” school of international relations.)

This is the fundamental principle of American international relations: do whatever you can to prevent a foreign affairs disaster from harming your reelection chances, even if it hurts America in the long run. The Cold War defined this practice. From Egypt to Vietnam to Chile, America supported and funded anti-Communist governments, be they democratic or autocratic. It even overthrew regimes which it didn’t like, like Iran. (This SWJ post pretty much describes how the failure of Iran is one of constant short term priorities replacing a long term goal mindset. ) America fought the Cold War as if it would never end. When it did, plenty of people around the world didn’t like America, or at least they felt America might be a hypocrite.

Then 9/11 happened. Had it happened on President Clinton’s watch, our response might have been subtly nuanced with post-Cold War thinking. Since it was President Bush’s team of all former Cold War-riors, the response was straight out of the “stop the USSR” playbook. First, the CIA found all its old autocratic friends in north Africa like Egypt, Algeria and Yemen who could hold terrorism suspects indefinitely, while possibly torturing them, and letting the CIA listen in. Then we launched two wars, one of which made sense, the second of which did not, to stop “state sponsored” terrorism. Then the Department of Defense started launching attacks into other countries where we could not put troops, like Pakistan and Yemen.

With the Arab Spring overthrowing some stalwart American terrorism fighting allies--Egypt and Tunisia--and threatening others--Qatar and Saudi Arabia--many Muslims across the Middle East have a choice: what type of government do I want? It turns out, they want democracies, and not American-style democracy. Those democracies will probably not be friendly to U.S. interests, either, because in their minds, America is linked to supporting military regimes like Pakistan, Egypt or Qatar, which had just been preventing those people from living in freedom.

In other words, our short term goals--fighting the Cold War or capturing terrorists--and our responses to those threats--overthrowing unfriendly regimes, torture, extraordinary renditions and supporting dictators--have hurt what should be America’s long term foreign policy goal: spreading democracy (and free markets) around the globe. It isn’t very hard for Islamic political parties to discredit so-called “universal” American values when they only apply to Americans in America, an un-universal caveat.

As we said last week, we believe the world is getting better. We believe democracy is spreading, and the world is getting less violent (in part because of democracy, and the spread of international institutions). If President Obama aligned our foreign policy more with our long terms goals, and worried less about preventing another terrorist attack, then democracy and peace would spread even faster.

That position is idealistic, but so are we.

seven comments

My inner Zach de la Rocha is happy :).


Rage Against the Machine is actually one of OnViolence’s favorite bands. I find them hilarious in an Army context. They are far and away one of the more popular “pump up” music selections (along with other metal bands) except that their songs can only be described as anti-war.

I need to write up a personal experience article about that actually.

And Mike F your link you sent worked perfectly for this (the Iran article) because it definitely captures a short term versus long term mindset.

Good, but also remember that I give you space at SWJ for the critique that you will receive particularly from guys like CSM Ken White.

Just to clarify, cause there was some debate on Twitter over our definition of “realism”.

Our line: “As a result, our foreign policy tends to favor short terms gains over accomplishing long term goals.” Doesn’t actually describe realism. But the paragraphs before and after do describe the realist school. We’re describing a FP dedicated to stopping an enemy, not larger moral, ethical goals. Realism favors self-interested foreign policy. America’s foreign policy seeks to help itself, not larger ideals.

As defined by wikipedia: “Realism is the view that world politics is driven by competitive self-interest.”

But more importantly, the words of George Kennan, who helped form the realist school of FP. He hated the concept of “human rights” He re-quoted Adams that America should “not go searching for monsters to destroy”.

That’s what we’re getting at. We can pretend like America loves democracy, but its foreign policy serves its own self-interest.

I wish I could upload that pic I have of Tom Morello and I in Modena somewhere.

Its great reading that quote from Condoleezza Rice and than reading this:


Yeah, its shocking we haven’t written about Rage yet. They’re one of our favorite bands.