Contrary to conventional wisdom and widely embraced foreign policy dogma, strategic defense of national interests is not possible without adoption of certain core principles. Saying that “United States doesn’t have allies, it has interests” really misses the mark with regards to carrying out the tasks that secures those interests , which include the safety of our borders, our cyber domain, our troops, and strategically important sites, such as bases and embassies, abroad. Our interests, beyond security objectives, may include regional stability, preservation and growth of important relationships and alliances, resolution of trade deficit, and various internal economic goals. Those are interests, which are not to be confused with strategy, or a set of long-term steps in securing particular objectives with regards to those interests. If our interest, for instance, is border protection, the securing that interest would be lowering the number of known actionable threats in sensitive border areas from X to Y.
A strategic objective towards that end would include identifying those threads, recognizing those threats as they come in, and developing standard operating procedures towards eliminating them, which may include working closely with allies on surveillance of the areas, toughening border patrol or immigration procedures, building security fences in areas known to be vulnerable in order to slow down the path of the would-be interlopers, and creating additional electronic surveillance and means of interception. The tactical steps would be the procedures towards the identification, recognition, interception, and elimination of those threats including developing of better situational awareness, purchase of more sensitive technology, and funding for the construction of fences, border patrol watch towers, and creating a successful communications and messaging system that allows for better interaction among border patrol areas.
None of these steps, however, are possible without core values that guide us in the process. For instance, we have to abide by Constitutional restraints on our side of the border, whatever those restraints happen to be and however applicable they are in any given situation. We can debate the limits of those restraints, and specific factual scenarios in which they do or do not apply, but no one will argue against the understanding that our Constitution provides a guiding set of considerations with respect to the way we can implement certain internal security procedures. The balance of individual security and freedoms from government intervention are examples of such principles. And because of our vigorous checks-and-balance systems, despite various disagreements over how the system is applied, we overall enjoy relative internal stability, and few would argue that such principles are of little value in insuring the kind of environment that is overall beneficial.
Furthermore, the aims of most domestic policy initiatives are clear, even if the execution frequently falls short of the promise. With foreign policy, however, we seem to have lost our way, despite the general sense of where it is that we wish to end up with. And that sense comes more by way of generic slogans: “Greatness, respect by other countries, security, stability, economic victories, and peace”, than through specific visions compatible with current realities, reasonable timelines, and offsetting past mistakes. There has been no shortage of recent criticism of seeming lack of strategy in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. Our inability to develop a serious response to Russia in Syria is rivaled only by our circuitous meanderings over 16 years of failed and stagnated policies in Afghanistan. I won’t go into the missed opportunities with regards to TPP/trade with a number of Latin American countries, which since then, joined in to make China great again or our failure of imagination with regards to the 54 vastly different African countries, an entire continent we have dismissed but with one naval base, partially controlled by the French, and a few perfunctory visits in recent years, while other countries, such as China, are engaging in aggressive neo-colonialist policies, defensive and business buildups (such as Saudis and Turkey, building all along the Gulf of Horn, and investing in Somalia), or strengthening relationships through joint ventures, green energy investments, and personal attention, such as what Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu has been doing in a series of highly successful diplomatic overtures and a barnstorming tour.
There is more to our anemic foreign policy than Obama’s legacy of failure, takeover of the agencies by career officials in strong disagreement with President Trump’s paradigm and aiming to derail his success, or even the tunnel vision obsession with eliminating ISIS at the expense of every other threat and concern by the generals in charge of our military policy. Sure, those are all important and challenging factors, but our history of poor strategic decisionmaking dates back to the Cold War, when, through the decades of perceiving the Communist threat as our main ideological adversary, we focused on its containment (mistake # 1) to the exclusion of everything else (mistake # 2) and yet once the Soviet Union fell did not finish off the remnants of these ideological proclivities at home and abroad (mistake # 3). Despite Reaganesque rhetoric of freedom, it wasn’t the freedom or long-term security of our society that was the driving force behind our action, but rather fear of a seemingly existential threat to our own way of life on a very limited immediate level. Had it been motivated by freedom, containment would not have sufficed, and all other ideologies that could be an obstacle to freedom due to their anti-individualist worldviews would have been likewise seen as threats. Our actions were entirely reactive; and though the successful Star Wars response, the first time we finally decided to act from a position of strength, finally doomed the Soviet Union’s economic paper tiger, that was merely a successful conclusion of one battle, and a defensive rather than affirmative and forward-looking one at that.
In essence, the idea that any country can subsists on interests alone, without developing strong long-term relationships based in shared values and shared visions of the future, is pure nonsense. Furthermore, any country’s basic interests – internal and external security, strong economy, its citizens’ ability to travel and do business, is heavily interdependent with the analagous interests of other states, and to some extent, every country has identical interests. Where they differ is how they interpret those interests, and what actions they are willing to take in defense of these concepts, as well as in furtherance of their vision of their own country’s prosperity, regional and global role, and cultural contributions to the outside world. Just as Rules of Engagement drive our military approach out of concern for the lives of civilians, as well as reciprocity in the treatment of our troops, certain basic principles of civilized behavior drive (or ought to drive) foreign policy, and when some country fails to abide by such norms, conflicts and mayhem may ensue. US is no different from others in that respect. Arguing over semantics whether “friends” or “allies” are one and the same or largely different brings us no closer to understanding how it is that we have gotten ourselves into such a confusing mess in so many places simultaneously. We have had a number of very stable, largely dependable long-term relationships with the countries that share the most with us in terms of common vision, goals for regional and global roles, and dedication to pursuit of prosperity through peaceful means; our relationships with countries which have had less in common have shifted from time to time or focused on the limited number of common approaches and issues.
Nevertheless, each relationship has focused on the observation of certain norm. If our partner in that relationship violates those norms to the extent that it impedes on our own interests in a significant way, we are forced to revaluate our relationship and set appropriate boundaries. And to the extent our partners have taken care to maintain good relationship, be responsive to our needs, and show utility and interest in forging stronger bond, over time, we respond in kind, to the extent it is helpful in addressing our own needs and other interests. Seems simple and straight-forward enough, but over time we seem to have lost track of these very basic driving factors in policymaking, and rather, have reverted to reactionary approaches predicated on attempting to utilize relational variables to resolve complex geopolitical situations. Instead, we get our further and further flummoxed by competing demands and pressures from various actors, making it difficult to decide how to react to various parties tugging us in different directions, without alienating vital partnerships or blowing up delicate sand castles of assorted relational contingencies. This confusion is driven not just by the fact that there are too many factors to be considered but by the fact that we forget that a paradigm of basic expected behavior should be our driving force, not simple reaction to what others believe that behavior ought to be.
Let’s take a hypothetical and abstract scenario of a military operation, in the course of which we are involved in a coalition with partners from UK, and a number of countries from EU. Let’s suppose that as the operation is winding down, with the task appearing largely accomplished, several UK troops are captured by the enemy. What would we do in such a situation? Common sense would surely bring us to try to free the hostages to the extent we are able to do so. And most likely, other coalition partners would do the same, despite the acrimony between UK and EU over Brexit. Let’s take it a step further, and imagine that it is not UK, but Spain that is the coalition partner, whose soldiers are captured, and those soldiers happen to be Catalan. They have supported the recent independence move, but have remained committed to finishing off the operation. What do you suppose would happen? The prediction is not too difficult here: Spain, the US, and everybody else would do whatever is practicable to free the hostages, and deal with the political differences at some other point in time and away from the field. The underlying principle driving this understanding is that first, you have certain obligations to your partners, both in terms of existing defense treaties, and in terms of basic ethical considerations that makes it worth everyone’s while to fight together, and second, in the future, you want to know that someone has your back if in this instance you’ve had his. That’s a basic guarantee of mutual survival and the long term survival of your societies. And even if you happen to have some political differences at the moment, they are presumably of lesser importance that whatever task united you to fight together.
But let’s say, you are fighting with a new partner you’ve never worked with before, and an inherently untrustworthy one at that, liable to switch side on you at any given moment. You are in that situation because that partner knows local condition better than anyone else, and frankly, the risk is worth it, considering that the enemy is quite formidable and your options are limited. What do you do? You watch your back, exercise caution, keep your options open, do your due diligence in terms of keeping yourself informed about your partner’s current and potential actions, and otherwise do exactly what you would have done with a long-standing ally. If nothing goes wrong, and your task is complete, you can choose to try to build trust and additional ties with that partner, or just peacefully part your ways. And if the partner betrays you during the course of the operation, you can always start treating it as an adversary. None of that seems terribly complicated, but we have failed on several fronts:
- Keeping ourselves sufficiently informed about the intents and nature of our friends and enemies
- Separating various actors into enemies, friends, short-term partners, and other temporary categories that make sense according to the situation.
- Distinguishing potential and current long-term partners who have proven trustworthy from those partners, where the relationships are not yet at that level, where the visions of the future are not shared, approach to developing interests do not coincide, and where, in fact, there is potential for friction and conflict.
- Treating each category according to what makes sense for that level of partnership in that situation if you take propaganda, social pressures, and past habits out of the equation.
How could we have made such basic errors in judgments? Because we have confused terms – we have mixed goals, strategic objectives, strategy in pursuit of those objectives, tactics, and underlying principles of engagement into an incoherent mishmash of incoherent concepts that merely obfuscate the situation. Somehow, using the terms “morality” and “foreign policy” in the same sentence has become taboo, even laughable. And yet it is morality that has allowed humans to survive, because at the end of the day, morality is based in pragmatic evolutionary considerations, that has kept everyone from eliminating everyone else to the point of extinction at the very outset of our sentience. I would posit that contemporary theories of international relations – idealism and realism – have failed where policies based in some underlying and focused principles likely would have helped us remain focus and develop coherent paradigms appropriate for the long-time pursuit of strategies in defense of our interests. Realism has been based in short-term reactionism, which of course, caused us to ignore long-term implications of unwise decisions. Idealism forces us to ignore realities on the ground and to try to force facts to feet our vision of what should be. It’s bound to fail, and it has failed us, again and again. We have exercised various combinations of these competing extremes to some degree for many decades, resulting in further problems, repetition of the same approach, and a self-perpetuating cycle of overlooking threats and underutilizing valuable tools and relationships.
We are doing so yet again, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Southeast Asia. Leaving aside emotionally loaded terms such as “friends” and “allies” to describe our joint actions in some of these places, we have clearly forgotten that we need to do what makes sense for us, rather than what makes sense to assorted other parties pushing their demands on us. The largely theoretical construction that if we let Baghdad do what they will in Kurdistan, along with our clearly designated adversary, Iran, they will eventually go along with our vision of stability in the Middle East, is ludicrous. No country will place US interests above its own vision; it’s up to US to enforce what it has in mind through effective negotiations and utilizing partnerships to achieve specific results in the mutually beneficial directions. US is not benefiting from the instant scenario; on the contrary, we are losing respect, losing money, losing other potential partners, losing resources, wasting time, and seeing undesirable strategies of our adversaries successfully unfold before eyes.
There is no practical reason why we should not be treating our Peshmerga partners captured by adversarial Iran-backed militias the same way we would have treated our British or French or German partners under similar circumstances – if possible in the field, conducting operations to release them. Theoretical constructs about what Baghdad would possibly do if we did that are irrelevant if we abide by basic principles – we want our goals to be respected, and therefore we cannot allow the partners that have proven trustworthy be captured with no response. If our other partners are unwilling to assist in the matter, we have to act on our own, and if they interfere – well, that makes it clear where their loyalties are, doens’t it? Our partners should be able to settle political differences among themselves, but if we want our own interests to meet with success, we need to ensure that the principles that make our strategies successful prevail. If we lose one partner to another, we have actually lost both. And then we are on our own against an enemy. And we have lost one partner to the enemy, and our partner is siding with that enemy, we have two enemies instead of one, and it makes sense to strengthen our relationship with our one existing partner for our own sake. It’s in our self-interest to be in a position of strength in any given conflict to the extent possible. That’s a basic principle, just as it’s a basic principle to protect those partners that are helpful in a particular scenario and that can be just as helpful in the future.
We cannot have a strategy if we do not have basic guides by which we operate.
The reason why the world seems messy and confusing is because we ourselves choose to view it as such and because we act in a haphazard way, instead of utilizing a specific lens that would help us guide us to where we actually want to be – in a position when we can make a positive impact towards clearly identified desirable results, and in a relationship with partners, who, by nature of sharing similar objectives, are bound to stick with the same principles and strategies, rather than switch back and forth among various sides depending on which way the wind blows. No, we want to have a system. The system works like a compass and guides us safely through whatever storms come our way, because if you know the direction you’re going in, even if you have to adjust for various obstacles along the way, you are bound to get where you need to be sooner or later. And conversely, if you are wondering from place to place with no direction and no plan to find direction and no tools to help with finding direction, you are very likely to spend your time perpetually lost. The only way to have a successful journey is to have a system for determining your location and adjusting accordingly until you get back on track to where you need to be.
The only way to have a successful foreign policy is to have a principled one, firmly based in foundations that will give you a system for formulating coherent responses, no matter what the circumstances or changes in circumstances appear to be, flexible in adjusting to reality, but strong enough to move you past all obstacle in the direction where you, and not the wind, or the sunset, or other people who likely have no idea where they are going, are trying to get you to go.