The 2012 election season is over, but, unfortunately, the country is none the wiser for having endured it. We live at a time when consultants and pollsters all but forbid their principals from saying anything that might smack of intelligent speech. Those aspirants to high political office who ignored this counsel this time around, Ambassador Jon Huntsman, for example, got nowhere fast.
Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney seriously addressed questions of strategy during the campaign. We can infer from the past four years something about the Obama Administration’s approach to such matters. Most of what the Administration did, and is likely to do over the next four years, can be encapsulated in four simple statements:
(1) foreign and national security policy is less important than domestic policy, so the main emphasis should be to end inherited shooting wars, to avoid news ones in which we take the lead, and, insofar as it is possible, to avoid all intense or protracted crises that distract and detract from the domestic agenda;
(2) the Administration’s default drive in all non-presidential-level judgments is a form of liberal internationalism that credits the legitimacy of international law and institutions, and sees them as benign limiting influences on American unilateralism;
(3) the President’s inclination on those matters that reach his desk remains para-realist in the sense that, despite the sobering experience of the first term’s early “engagement” emphasis, he believes a deal is available with all interlocutors, democratic and non-democratic alike, if only the United States and/or its allies are willing to make the necessary concessions; and
(4) because of financial constraints and the so-far intellectually unsupported shift of military emphasis away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia, the United States is moving de facto away from its post-World War II forward-presence grand strategy to one of offshore balancing, as epitomized by the new Air-Sea Battle doctrine.
But what about the Republicans? What sort of basic orientation would a Romney Administration have adopted? What sort of basic strategic viewpoint will the GOP display in another four years of opposition? No one really knows. Romney dropped hints but never got specific, and the hints reflected the diverse views of his principal advisers. As for the Republican Party looking ahead, it has no single view either. Some rhetoric suggests a new isolationism, some a painful Cold War hangover that sees Russia as still the main bogeyman, and some neo-neo-conservatives remain fixated on jihadi terrorism. No senior Republican figure has addressed the issue of national strategy directly.
This is unfortunate. If the Democratic orientation to strategy (if one can call it that) is deficient, then it behooves the Republicans to articulate something better. You can’t beat something with nothing, as the Republicans should have learned from their recent experience in domestic politics. Just as taking the obstacular “just-say-no” approach to domestic policy backfired, so a negative approach to strategy is liable to backfire as well. So what should that Republican strategic framework be?
Not that anyone asked me, and not that I am or have ever been a registered Republican, but here, in less an a thousand words, is what I, of a philosophically conservative temperament, wish the Republicans would adopt as a strategic vision.
Three Basic Principles
A U.S. foreign policy strategy that seeks to build and maintain a world order consonant with U.S. interests and principles can be summarized as consisting of three parts.
American liberty as the measure of all things: First, the constellation of global power must not compel us to alter the basic principles of our free society, as described in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. This means that any external threat or combination of threats that tempts us to forsake our way of life, even well short of a literal threat to the American homeland, is intolerable.
International security through strengthened sovereignty: Second, U.S. policy should strengthen the concept and the reality of effective state sovereignty, so that no habitable area on earth is exploited by violent sub-state actors. Sovereignty is also the irreducible basis on which increasingly necessary international cooperation to deal with transnational issues must be built, for sovereignty is the only mechanism available that can ensure democratic accountability both within and among nations.
Live and let live: Third, U.S. policy should respect and encourage the dignity of difference. It should practice genuine global multiculturalism, which means accepting that the American understanding of Enlightenment universalism is not readily exportable to other cultures. Efforts to evangelize American political values, which arise from parochial Western and American experiences and are not in fact of universal validity, are often seen abroad—especially in the Muslim world—as a form of religious proselytizing. Such American efforts almost invariably, if inadvertently, affront the dignity and threaten the corporate identity of other peoples, exacerbating tensions with them. With Asian cultures rising on the world stage, the wisdom of restraining America’s innocent cultural chauvinism could hardly be clearer.
Four Basic Insights
These principles of order do not imply a bias toward stasis or any absence of optimism about world politics. They are consistent with aspirations for world peace and progress, and with American global leadership. But they rule out a strategy of “forcing the end”—of pushing history faster than it is capable of moving.
Of all people, conservatives should know that slow and steady wins the race. Liberal internationalists suffer not from the worthiness of their objectives but from their impatience, and from their hubris over the efficacy of institutional solutions to dissolve culturally engrained differences. A temperamental conservative knows that perfection in social relations is not possible, but that progress is possible if one grasps four basic insights of historical wisdom:
(1) It is much harder to create than to destroy something fine.
(2) Not all values that are good in themselves are either commensurate with each other or lead in the same direction (consider: freedom/order, liberty/equality, pragmatism/justice, diversity/social cohesion, power/friendship, investment/consumption, creativity/diligence, innovation/continuity, tradition/experimentation.) Those who fail to grasp this elemental point are subject to the derangements of the utopian temptation.
(3) The road to hell is paved by the same contractor who paves all the other roads: Consequences matter more than intentions.
(4) National and ethnic cultures do change, but not easily or readily without risk to identity and stability.
Taken together, these principles and insights imply that the only reliable way to spread Western social and political values is by example. Only when asked by others for assistance in such tasks should we step forward, and then only with patience and humility. U.S. policy with respect to aiding economic development, alleviating poverty and encouraging liberal institutions abroad should be focused on the goal of strengthening state capabilities and state sovereignty, not on spreading democracy as such. Artificially and prematurely imposed democratic forms can weaken states, ethnically heterogeneous ones in particular, undermining both international security and the long-term prospect for the sustainable growth of liberal institutions.
Seven Tests of Policy Prudence
Having established via three principles that conservatives can be optimistic gradualists rather than reactionary nihilists, and that history yields four key insights for thinking about strategy and policy, it remains only to subject any major policy proposal to the conservative test for realism. That test, which both recent Republican and Democratic Administrations have manifestly failed to apply in recent years, consists of seven parts.
First, ask what’s the downside? What “unanticipated consequences” can actually be anticipated, if we try hard enough?
Second, can it be done? Have capabilities been realistically matched against intentions?
Third, is the payoff worth the risks? Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Fourth, what’s the weakest link in the plan, and why? Specifically, what other actors have to support, or at least not oppose, the plan for it to work—and will they?
Fifth, have costs to third parties, and their likely reactions, been realistically estimated? In the longer run, and sometimes the shorter run too, they often matter.
Sixth, where is plan B, just in case? In other words, what do we do if our plan doesn’t work—for at that point we will not be where we started, but someplace else for having exerted ourselves?
Seventh, if anyone says, “we have nothing to lose” or “things cannot get worse”, escort that person from the room: He or she has no business being anywhere near a consequential policy decision.
If Republicans adopt this basic view as a counterpoint to that of the second Obama Administration, it would be good for the country. It makes sense on its own terms and it would encourage a more serious approach to a subject we have lately tended to sleepwalk through. Can Republicans come together around this vision? Please, I hope so.