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Speaking ten years after the conclusion of the calamitous Crimean War, Conservative Prime Minister Lord Derby cautioned that foreign policy should avoid “quixotic action – inimical to the welfare of the country.” Six years later, in 1872, Conservative Party leader of the opposition and former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli spoke, “though so momentous are the consequences of the mismanagement of our foreign relations, no one thinks of them till the mischief occurs, and then it is found how the most vital consequences have been occasioned by the mere inadvertence.” With these statements in mind, one might question whether President Obama may have been channeling conservatives when he allegedly uttered his rule of foreign policy, “Don’t do stupid [expletive].”
Traditionally, conservatism has not valued bellicose talk nor attempted to find the next “Munich” behind every negotiation. All conflict was not seen as equal – and all agreements were not as tough as some may suggest. Instead, conservatives tried to see the bigger picture. Conservative foreign policy acknowledges power is precious and ephemeral and, thus, best applied sparingly, primarily to protect the nation’s sovereignty. Righteous, courageous, humanitarian, or moral crusades might have merit, but outlay must always adhere to dominion.
Prior to the 20th century, American foreign policy was by and large a bipartisan affair centered on nationalism, placing American interests first. It was one of realism; i.e., the belief that all states desire power and expansion for self-preservation. The United States foreign policy focused on preserving itself as it negotiated, intrigued, and fought its way westward. Teddy Roosevelt promoted the idea that national security is enhanced when power is distributed or balanced, and believed America must be a world power to ensure security. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson took a different approach advocating morals are universally valid and democracies quell the instinct for power (war), therefore the promotion of democracy and international conventions were the best tonics for peace. Conservatives looked askance at Wilson’s internationalist approach, claiming it would threaten American sovereignty and interests with entanglement. Realism, not internationalism, was their view.
After WWII, a devastated world and Soviet power compelled conservatives to accept defense treaties to balance economic and military power, a strategy based on the the projection off force around the world to stop small conflicts before they could later become threats to vital American interests. Again, this was mostly bipartisan. Liberals remained committed to global accords and joined the UN, World Bank, IMF, WTO, etc. to establish norms (universally valid morals), most of which favored American values and self-preservation. To protect against the existential threat posed by the west, the Soviets developed a nuclear arsenal to match America’s. Thus, the framework for the Cold War was established. America worked diligently to contain Soviet accretion of power. Showdowns, interventions, and regional wars — sometimes with multilateral sanction — occurred. Slowly, the definition of what is a vital interest grew to include defending expectations for the UN or international conventions.
For conservatives, the fall of the Soviet Union affirmed American exceptionalism. In contrast, liberals saw this as a multilateral triumph. Neo-conservatives came to believe that, as a unipolar superpower, America had a duty to balance regional power and promote democratic values; a hybrid of realist and liberal ideas. After 9/11, conservatives and liberals began to gel around intervention to enforce multilateral sanctions and replace Saddam Hussein with a democratic government. Pre-emption was the justification. Though it was not clear at the time, these ideas were grinding to a halt when, early in the Iraq War, General Petraeus asked the president to “Tell me how this ends.” There really was no good answer for how pre-emptive American intervention would end – and this became painfully apparently when no threat to vital America interests in the form of WMD’s was uncovered … if they ever were a threat.
Thus, we arrive at the Obama administration. It speaks in lofty tones of human rights and preserving peace through multilateralism. It even nods to the notion of the “right to protect” doctrine which allows for states to interfere with the sovereignty of a UN member state if it is judged to be vital to protecting human rights. This is a bold argument for Wilsonian liberal idealism and the pursuit of a perfect world.
Yet since arriving in office, the administration has downsized the expectations of America and her allies, established new criteria for military action and pulled back to assume a more subdued role of leadership. Success for this administration is not solely defined as defeating America’s enemies by force. Success is any day American forces are not fighting, wounded, mourned, stressed … and allies are not recoiling, and taxpayer dollars not hurting, maiming, and killing civilians. Where America has led, it has reached out to ‘reset’ relations with adversaries, mostly ignoring provocative behavior in places like Abkhazia, Crimea, Ukraine, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the South China Sea, Northeast Asia, Cuba, and Iran. America’s has chosen studied obliviousness, feigned protest, or hollow demands to keep the “resets” on course even when they do not bear fruit. Adversaries have learned that careful, low intensity aggressions using espionage, proxy rebels, stealth, standoffs, cyber war, disguised aid, and troops in unmarked uniforms will not trigger American military response. Many feel something must be done in response.
In fact, American response has been mild. We have withdrawn troops, threatened action, not backed up tough talk, provided limited standoff air and drone attacks, and criticized or pushed our allies to negotiate. We have often reversed course and sought a lower profile. We assiduously avoid boots on the ground or a hint at entanglement. The threshold for what must be defended as a vital American interest has been redefined and raised. Why?
Looking at a map, there is little we can do in most of the trouble spots, unless we commit vast force. Such a commitment would create space elsewhere to be exploited by other adversaries. This is due to our treaty partners and many of our friends being weak and unsure. Europe, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea have no interest in bold American action and even less in their own. Those who seek bold American action are threatened countries living at the margin of conflict, such as Egypt, Jordan, Philippines, Vietnam, and Poland. Hesitant to act militarily on its own, US is left with unilateral or multilateral economic sanctions which are hard to establish, harder to hold together and often weak when finally implemented.
The liberal suasion of Wilsonian reason, when it comes to universal morals, is proving not to be as compelling as once thought. And America’s values are no longer dominating the world stage. Authoritarian ideas of free markets and autocratic government are on the rise in China, Russia, and in the third-world. Global conventions are being gradually subsumed by this different view. Realist nations are back, seeking power and expansion for self-preservation.
Yet, to yield begrudgingly in some of the aforementioned places might be a useful strategy if one seeks to preserve American sovereignty and national interest. The reasons are three fold:
The Need to Restore the Balance of Power in the Middle East
Fracking and tar sands have ended the days when America relied on Middle Eastern oil. The Middle East is now the Middle East’s, Europe’s and Asia’s problem. We can help, but what vital American interest is at risk in the Middle East?
We destroyed the balance of power in the Middle East when we removed Saddam. We could not make the Shiites in Iraq accept us. Shiite Iran moved to fill the vacuum. Iran is ascendant at the moment, but not without challengers. The Middle East outside of Iran, Iraq and Syria is actually quite powerful, tentative but powerful. Israel (and soon Iran) has nuclear weapons and multifaceted delivery systems – including submersible launched missiles. It can be a nuclear umbrella for Sunni nations and possibly give it leverage to resolve border issues. This is Israel’s problem because while we will help Israel in every way, not one American soldier will die protecting Israel. Pakistan, a Southwest Asian nation, will likely facilitate a Saudi nuclear arsenal for a huge price and this will help reset the balance of power. Russian presence will be tolerated, if it helps remove ISIL. But, it is not welcome except by Assad – not even by the Syrians and only as a means to an end by the Iranians and Hezbollah.
Iran, like most authoritarian regimes, sees nuclear weapons as an existential necessity. Coercion has never removed a nuclear regime. They will get nuclear weapons. How and when is all that we can influence, unless we want to strike Iran and thereby permanently forge them as a ravenous enemy forever? If we strike, an invasion to prevent any nuclear program from arising again would be required and then what? If truth be known before we ever negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran, the question of whether Iran would get a nuclear weapon was pretty much decided. And while they chant, “Death to America,” they may find others to hate in order to reassure an insecure regime, especially once America downsizes its presence. As for using nuclear weapons, a regime that is 35 years old does not have a death wish. Israel and the U.S. can respond in kind – mutual assured destruction meets assured complete reprisal. Also, nuclear weapons like the ones Iran will develop will be blunt instruments that may kill many Arabs even when targeted on Israel.
Terrorists will propagate and metastasize in the Middle East and Africa. We are sharing intelligence, military aid, and training in return for intelligence, special operations posts and the right to base standoff air and drone weapons to keep terrorism in check. We have many options. But, we are not tying ourselves to blindly support weak regimes or those who may not be able to defend themselves. And we are not confusing humanitarian obligations with an American civilian or military presence in a part of the world where the sides shift suddenly.
Russian Vulnerability Will Lead to Margin Expansionism
Russia, an economy the size of Italy, sees opportunity in Eastern Europe to gain protection by extending its territory. There is little we can do short of a major military deployment and little beyond mild sanctions that Europe will consider. Even a military defense of the Baltic NATO members seems somewhat impractical given the geography, the native Russian population, the weakness of our European allies, and the susceptibility of the Baltic states to a Russian instigated ‘soft war’ consisting of an insurrection/cyber war/green men strategy like was used in the Crimea and Ukraine.
The question here for the United States is, what are we willing to wager to keep small countries which are part of a larger but loose defense treaty like NATO secure. NATO has become so large, so amorphous, that few countries feel compelled to comply with much force. NATO is an instrument of the Cold War where massive retaliation had to be swift and sure. When NATO conducts low intensity or counter-insurgency operations, it becomes more voluntary.
In the Middle East, Russia seeks to gain leverage to raise oil prices and insulate itself from terrorism. Oil accounts for 15% of GDP and 50% of Russian government revenue. As mighty as Russia may appear, their military is not first class, their weapons incapable of defeating a strong foe and their logistics are problematic. A foothold in the Middle East to establish a puppet government in Syria aligns them with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah – neither is ideologically committed to Assad or Russia. Russians will be killing Arabs, ISIL, al Qaeda, and Arab civilians with collateral consequences. Sunnis in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States may engage Russia as they seek to establish a new balance of power with Iran. Europe and the outside world may see Russia’s role as restoring order by securing a dictator or two, if you count Putin. Putin cares nothing about ideology. He only cares about making Russia more powerful. How powerful will Russia be when it takes sides in the Middle East – befriending some, cowering some, and alienating others? Will Russia’s actions make America a more desired ally, augmenting our influence?
China Is a Geopolitical Opportunity
The only serious threat to America’s vital interests which might evolve into an existential threat is the potential for close cooperation and alliance between China and Russia. The Chinese believe they will be strong, despite internal political, environmental, resource, and demographic issues. For this reason, the Chinese see themselves as dominating any Sino-Russo alliance. Russia, while selling enormous quantities of energy to the Chinese, fears this as well. This is why the administration has made China the focus of our diplomatic, economic and military power. We are attempting to keep China and Russia apart to prevent the rise of a more powerful Sino-Russo alliance which could seriously alter the global balance of power and give either country more incentive to expand.
Our military pivot to Asia, which is rather modest, seems to represent a strategy to conserve power, move away from the Middle East, and gain leverage and a voice with China as we try influence their instincts to expand. All of this appears to be intended to position America so it can engage China and strike mutual agreement; a means to bring America and China closer while making Russia less important. Therefore, we may prod the Chinese on the subject of North Korea or human rights, but we probably will not alienate them. We will protest against Chinese island building, Air Defense Zone extensions, and territorial claims. Yet, we are not likely to propose economic sanctions. Instead, we are quietly reminding them (and they are quietly pushing back) that we hold many cards and can make life easier in terms of trade, global capital flows, and military cooperation provided they work with us. Ultimately, China is very aware we alone have the ability to silently disrupt the flow of energy and resources through the narrow sea channels of South Asia. This is the focus the Obama Administration is taking with the Xi Jinping government. It is diplomatic jostling with a purpose to gain access to and leverage with the Chinese, while disadvantaging Russia.
Russia can play all they want along the edge of Eastern Europe, enter the fray in the Middle East, and China can even build airstrips on manmade islands. These are not threats to American vital interests. And they drain precious Russian resource and preoccupy Chinese attention. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Assad can fight ISIL, al Qaeda, and every other splinter group that splinters into another splinter group. They may even penetrate some Sunni countries. But, it is unlikely they will have much to show for it. Jihadist gangs will replace themselves. The Middle East oil states are no longer needy proxies to be easily herded as they once were in the Cold War. They sit atop enormous sovereign wealth and have constructed pervasive, sophisticated, means to preserve and protect their regimes.
While there is temptation to jump into every conflict and stand up to the multitude of carefully calibrated aggressions by Russia, Iran, China and the dozens of terrorist groups across the globe, the overriding goal of the Obama administration seems to be to prevent a Sino-Russo power alliance from emerging. For this reason, the administration is not preoccupied with stopping the Chinese from drilling for oil in the South China Sea or pushing for action on North Korea. The United states may even be hinting a pathway exists for a gradual, peaceful reintegration of Taiwan, the final confirmation of China’s legitimacy. The Obama Policy is betting that China’s internal problems will gradually preoccupy the nation while relations along the shared border with Russia will remain friendly, but coolly professional. It is not completely unhappy to see Russia caught up in the Middle East – as this may discredit Russia in the eyes of China. It sees Chinese acceptance of America as a competitor, a trading partner, and an important weight to tilt the balance of power in China’s favor from time to time. With this policy, the administration seems to accept that China will be realistic and desire power and expansion for its own self-preservation until it arrives at a point where the cost and benefit balances. This is the reason the administration believes the Chinese need to a mutual, strategic balance of power with the United States.
President Obama has awkwardly extracted — or is in the process of extracting — America from places where our interests have waned in Iraq or Afghanistan. The administration grasps the world is more tightly knit, interdependent, and digitally connected. The president is mindful of how this changes our nation’s and our competitors’ economic and military power. Added to this is the reality that we face deficits and an aging population, a critical factor affecting American power. In addition, modern defense may be less about deployment, kinetics, or attrition. Leverage comes from stealth, precision and disruption of digital infrastructure … more shock, less awe. And finally, defending the Straits of Hormuz, Malacca, or Formosa may no longer represent the kind of vital interests they once did when America was fighting the Cold War with a strategy to contain Communism by defending allies while we gradually imported increasing amounts of Middle Eastern oil.
A foreign policy based upon realism, geopolitical balance and conserving the nation’s resources while building up economic strength may be just what conservatives in mid-19th century Britain or America would recognize as essential to protect a nation’s sovereignty and place its interests first. For these reasons, it could be argued the Obama foreign policy avoids the “quixotic action – inimical to the welfare of the nation,” the “mischief” which arises from “mere inadvertence,” as all good conservative foreign policy should. It acknowledges power to be precious, ephemeral, and to be used sparingly. Following a template that many conservatives might recognize, it seems the President has noted the changes to the diplomatic, economic and military power that have taken shape since the end of the Cold War and 9/11. In response he has recalibrated the nation’s foreign policy to focus on what is emerging as the future vital national interests. We can disagree, but it might be hard to say a conservative foreign policy would not seek the same broad purpose.
Image Credit: By White House (Photo by Chuck Kennedy) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsPublished in