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World Managers
Describing a coherent American foreign policy

By Michael Talent

            What is America’s role in the world? Should America be a global police force? Should America act only in behalf of its own vital interests? Currently, there is no coherent, overarching American foreign policy “mission statement.” Yet, an examination of the actions of the past three administrations shows a common, underlying belief: that to effectively protect its own security, America needs to manage the progress of the world order towards peace and freedom by anticipating and then preventing or minimizing threats to that progress. The failure of previous administrations to set this explicitly as a strategic goal has resulted in confusion, both at home and abroad, about America’s role in the world; this confusion has led to the atrophy of American power. By openly acknowledging that America’s role in the world is to manage the world’s progress toward freedom, and explaining and justifying that role to the American people, the US can prepare the tools necessary for achieving this goal.

            The idea of America as a managerial power is not new. For a hundred years prior to World War I, European powers, including Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany, managed and maintained an international stability that prevented a major war. With all its faults, the British empire attempted to spread around a sense of freedom and rule of law. However, World War I, which the British could have prevented had they possessed the type of power the US has today, destroyed the ability and desire of the Europeans to continue managing the world climate. The resulting power vacuum allowed for the rise of the Axis Powers and a second world war. The devastation caused by two World Wars and the threat of an aggressive, nuclear USSR had a profound impact on American leaders. Under the circumstances, the United States stepped up to fill the role that the Europeans were no longer able to play—managing the world to prevent or contain threats to freedom and security without resorting to another general war. For most of the post-war era, the focus of this policy was containing Soviet totalitarianism, but it was never limited just to that. For example, the US was instrumental in creating and promoting democracy in Japan after World War II.

            Today, America does not face a single, global threat like communism. Instead, the threats range from aggressive authoritarian regimes in Russia and China to rogue governments that possess nuclear weapons, to Al Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations, to drug cartels that threaten the stability of Mexico and Colombia. There are also potential threats, such as a nuclear Iran and a culturally collapsing, further Islamizing Europe, which the US faces. In addition, the United States needs to continue stabilizing both Iraq and Afghanistan while fighting the war on terrorism.

However, why should America take on a foreign policy that would necessitate intervention in many areas of the world? First, as a general rule, promoting democracy promotes American security. The logic is simple: a democratic, free, capitalist society has more in common with America than it would with a totalitarian police state, making it a natural ally—or at least an unlikely enemy—of the United States. One such commonality is a free market economy. Because of the capitalist policies of democracies, they tend to share a common desire to promote free trade. However, free trade only happens within the context of international stability. Thus, free nations are likely to work together to ensure an environment where trade can flourish.

Another reason that democracies tend to work together is a social convention. According to Yale professor Bruce Russett, the unification of democracies against totalitarian and autocratic regimes in World War I and World War II, followed by the Soviet threat to world freedom, created an understanding among democracies that they are to function as allies. The basis of this cooperation is the Anglo-American relationship. Created after the end of the War of 1812, there are many examples of cooperation between America and Britain that predate their alliance in World War I. For example, the two nations ended a debate about the northern boundary of the US through diplomacy in 1846. This relationship established a social norm that democracies need to work together—a social norm that was strengthened through the 20th century military alliances of democratic nations against totalitarian aggression.

Second, serious aggression has a great potential for spinning out of control unless it is actively managed and contained. The proliferation of WMD’s is an example. America can provide, through its nuclear arsenal and missile defense system, an umbrella for its global allies. However, if the United States appears unprepared to confront rogue regimes who have, or are seeking, weapons of mass destruction, then nations who currently depend on America would have an incentive for creating their own WMD arsenal in response. The resulting proliferation increases the chances of terrorists gaining access to these weapons as well as the chance of a nuclear exchange somewhere in the world. Both of these scenarios are significant threats to US security. For example, allowing Iran to produce nuclear weapons would threaten the balance of power in the Middle East. This would encourage states like Saudi Arabia or Jordan to build their own nuclear arsenals. In a region with an active anti-American terrorist presence and people and governments who have openly supported these factions, the likelihood of a terrorist group gaining nuclear weapons increases exponentially with each new nuclear regime. However, the US can thwart this, and similar threats, if it actively manages nations aggressively seeking WMDs.

Stating such an explicit “managerial” mission would highlight the common foundation of foreign policy in the last three administrations. For example, both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton acted to contain aggression and genocide in Gulf War I and Kosovo. In both of these cases, the US intervened, contained, and eliminated a threat to the security of that particular region. In addition, President George W. Bush rationalized the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan by arguing that both nations represented exigent threats to world stability. The Obama administration has been no less firm about the need for American global leadership. While the tactics and the rhetoric that each administration has used to first enact and then justify their policies have been different, they all have used American influence and power to manage the international order to promote freedom. President Obama is in a position to openly acknowledge and legitimize America’s historical role in world affairs. This would move the discussion to the capabilities necessary for America to achieve this goal.

What should these capabilities be? There are many other tools necessary for an effective foreign policy: such as diplomacy, aid, and trade. However, the most foundational is a strong military. This power is necessary if diplomacy and aid are to be effective and trade is to occur. For example, if the US is to use diplomatic tools like sanctions, then it must have a strong military to enforce those penalties on a country. Of all the tools that America has in its arsenal, its military power has declined the most in the post-Cold War years. For the US to function as a managerial power in the coming years, it must revitalize it armed forces and be prepared to use it.

In order to have a strong military, the United States needs to increase the size of its armed forces and step up its investment in military technology. During the 1990’s, the size of the military was halved and the current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched US military resources thin. The fact that the Reserves and the National Guard have been used so much in Iraq and Afghanistan testifies to the inadequate size of the army. In addition, the Air Force is approximately half the size it was in 1991 and the average age of its planes is 24 years old, compared to just 9 years in 1973. The Navy can only maintain about ninety ships at sea at any given time compared to almost 190 in the late 1980s. In addition, the Navy only has ten aircraft carriers, compared to eleven in 2003 and fifteen in 1991. Current US military strategy takes into account the possibility of fighting two regional wars, such as continuing to prosecute the current conflicts in the Middle East while repelling a North Korean invasion of South Korea. However, considering the size of the current US armed forces, such an ability is currently a pipe dream.

The second ingredient for a strong military is technological superiority. During the Cold War, American technological superiority was an integral part of ensuring victory. President Reagan’s military buildup, particularly the development of weapons systems and concepts decades ahead of what the Soviet Union was capable of, forced the Soviets to reform their economy in an attempt to catch up, helping to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the US still maintains this technological edge, the gap is rapidly closing. For example, China, a nation whose own imperialistic ambitions are well know, is rapidly buying and recapitalizing its air force with the next generation of fighter aircraft. In January of this year, Russia test flew their next-generation fighter, the T-50, which incorporates the latest stealth technology and weapons system. However, Congress has stopped funding America’s own next generation fighter, the F/A-22. By ending funding for the F/A-22, Congress has jeopardized the US’s ability to achieve and maintain air superiority. The result of the decreasing technological gap between the United States and her rivals will be increased American casualties in conflicts and a decrease in American influence abroad.

In addition to strengthening its armed forces, the United States should seek to establish military alliances like NATO with democratic nations like India and Japan. Such alliances will increase the combined military strength of the United States and her allies through the pooling of resources and intelligence. However, this increase in strength can only happen if, first, the United States leads the alliance. What would happen if, for example, India substantially increased its military strength outside of an American led organization? Pakistan would see this as a potential threat and might respond, leading to a dangerous, possibly uncontrollable, confrontation between the two nations. But if India becomes stronger in an alliance under the leadership of the US, then the threat that India poses to Pakistan is tempered by the controlling aspect of American leadership. Secondly, these alliances require a clear purpose, and member states dedicated to that purpose. Clarity prevents confusion about the goal of the alliance. Without clear goals, each state will try to impose their interest on the tactical decisions made by the group. In addition, the member states of such alliances must commit themselves, through military and economic means, to providing the strength necessary for the alliance to accomplish its goals. This is in direct contrast to a body like the UN Security Council, whose lack of a clear purpose has led to internal strife among the competing interests represented in the body and an inability to act anywhere with any sort of mission. In addition, the lack of commitment by the member states has resulted in failure to preserve world peace.

America needs to do something to reverse the current negative trends in its foreign policy. Iran has ignored repeated warnings to halt its nuclear weapons program, the Chinese military has increased exponentially, and Russia’s imperialist ambitions have not been met with any real resistance, particularly when it invaded and occupied Georgia. Meanwhile, Washington has cut funding of the new high-tech military systems and sacrificed its missile defense system to placate the Russians. The cumulative effect of these developments is that the US looks uncommitted to protecting its global interests and allies. Without confidence in American leadership, other nations will begin to fall under the influence of aggressive powers and concomitantly become more hostile to US interests. By promoting new alliances, the US would show real commitment to maintaining the independence and freedom of its allied nations. For example, establishing a military alliance with the free nations surrounding China, like India, South Korea, and Japan, would confirm America’s commitment to prevent Chinese aggression and provide means to act in the region more freely when it is necessary. In addition, a United States that has committed itself, through alliances and a military buildup, to protecting the international order from aggressive nations would encourage more countries to ally themselves with America, because it would show the benefits such an allegiance would promote.

Finally, these alliances would reinforce America’s role as a managerial rather than imperial power, an important distinction in the modern world. The US should work with other nations in preserving the world’s movement toward liberty. Establishing new alliances would show the world the true intentions of America power—that it is not a dominating or conquering force, but rather a protective and liberalizing influence.

            For too long, the objective of America’s foreign policy has been far too ambiguous. This resulted in a US that has appeared weak and wavering in its global commitments. President Obama has the opportunity to reaffirm America’s global commitments by explicitly stating that the United State’s role in the world is to anticipate and manage threats to the prospect of progress within the world order towards liberty. This declaration would provide clear policy guidelines for how America might best reach this goal. Time is short; the enemies of freedom are continually gaining strength. Yet there is still hope if the United States effectively makes its presence felt in the world once again.