Principle and Prudence: A Foreign Policy of Prudent American Realism

President Obama’s foreign policy has been a disaster. The failures are legion: the Russian “reset” that has enabled Vladimir Putin to strut about as a latter-day czar; the reintroduction of Russia into the Middle East; the betrayal of allies, especially in Central Europe, not to mention Israel; snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq by failing to achieve a status of forces agreement (SOFA) that would have helped to keep Iraq out of the Iranian orbit and have prevented the rise of ISIS; the muddled approach to Afghanistan; our feckless policy—or lack of policy—regarding Iranian nuclear weapons, not to mention Libya and Syria.

President Obama has said that he was elected to end wars, not to start them, as if wars are fought for their own purpose. Ending wars is no virtue if the chance for success has been thrown away, as it was in Iraq. We can say of Obama’s approach to foreign policy what Winston Churchill said in 1936 about Stanley Baldwin’s policy as Hitler gained strength on the Continent: it was, said Churchill, “decided only to be undecided, resolved to irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”

To criticize the Obama approach to foreign policy should not be seen as an endorsement of the Bush approach. While there was certainly a justification for action against not only the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda after 9/11, but also against Saddam Hussein for his serial violations of UN Security Council resolutions, the Bush administration overreached, seeking to transform Afghanistan and Iraq into something like a western-style liberal democracy. What was missing here was prudence, the virtue that Aristotle called most characteristic of the statesman. Prudence requires the statesman to always maintain a clear vision of what needs to be achieved—the ends of policy—while maintaining flexibility regarding the means.

Today’s foreign policy debate is only the latest version of one that dates from the very beginning of the Republic. In a speech to the federal convention in Philadelphia delivered on June 25, 1787, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina declared that the purpose of the American Republic under the Constitution was to make Americans “happy at home” rather than to make them “respectable abroad.” Republican institutions were not intended, he continued, to enable conquest or to achieve “superiority among other powers…If they are sufficiently active and energetic to rescue us from contempt & preserve our domestic happiness and security, it is all we can expect from them…”

Four days later on June 29, Alexander Hamilton replied to Pinckney. “It has been said that respectability in the eyes of foreign nations was not the object at which we aimed; that the proper object of Republican government was domestic tranquility & happiness. This was an ideal distinction. No government could give us tranquility & happiness at home, which did not possess sufficient stability and strength to make us respectable abroad,” not in the sense that the United States seeks the favorable opinion of our enemies, but in the sense that the Republic will vindicate its interests in a hostile world.

The debate between Hamilton and Pinckney has echoed across the years. Is America to be inward- or outward-looking? Is republican foreign policy to be expansionist or isolationist? Offensive or strictly defensive? Designed to support freedom of navigation and global strategic flexibility or limited to protecting its position in the Western hemisphere ?

The Hamilton-Pinckney dispute played out again in the late 19th century during the debate over the annexation of Hawaii, and after the Spanish American War, the annexation of the Philippines and Cuba. It emerged again during the interwar period of the first half of the 20th century and after World War II. It now roils the Republican Party as Americans consider the costs of nearly two decades of war. Are we to pull back and leave the various regions of the world to their own devices or are we going to try to “shape” these regions in a way that helps to underwrite security, stability, and prosperity abroad not in the interest of others but in the interest of the citizens of the United States.

The Purpose of American Power: Ends 

The sole purposes of American power are—or should be—to secure the American Republic, protect its liberty, and to facilitate the prosperity of the American people. It is not—or should not be—to create the “global good,” a corporatist globalism divorced from patriotism or national greatness. The United States does not have a “moral entitlement” to superior power for the global good. The United States must work constantly at maintaining it. Part of that work is persuading our sovereigns—American citizens—that it is good and right and in their interest to maintain that power. A healthy regard for the safety and happiness of American citizens requires that U.S. power remain supreme. To reiterate, the purpose of American power is not to act in the interest of others, the “international community,” international institutions, or the like but in the nation’s interest.

The Use of American Power: Means

From the end of World War II until the presidency of Barack Obama, the United States has pursued a bipartisan grand strategy of “primacy,” the purpose of which has been to underwrite a liberal world order based on freedom of navigation and commerce, , an arrangement very much in the interest of the United States as well as its friends and allies. This grand strategy has included alliances and support for international institutions including the United Nations and the Bretton Woods economic system. This approach was justified by the belief that war and depression can best be avoided in a world where the interests of states are not always at odds but can be coordinated by diplomacy, trade, commerce, and global finance. The trade wars of the 1930s generated by mercantilist policies and economic nationalism that fueled global depression helped to plunge the world into a real and devastating war in 1939.

The grand strategy of primacy is based on what Robert Gilpin calls the theory of “hegemonic stability,” which holds that a “liberal world order” does not arise spontaneously as the result of some global “invisible hand.” Instead, such a system requires a “hegemonic power, a state willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods of economic stability and international security.” For 100 years, from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the beginning of World War I, Great Britain provided this service. The United States has done so since 1945. In both cases, the hegemonic power assumed the role not out of altruism but because it was in its national interest to do so President Obama abandoned this longstanding bipartisan approach.

Prudent American Realism: Principle and Prudence

The United States has been most successful when it has followed a foreign policy of what might be called “prudent American realism,” which links American principles with Aristotelian prudence. This approach is based on the recognition that American realism differs from the realism taught as part of academic international relations courses.  American realism has always fused the features of traditional realism—power and security—with prosperity and the preservation of American principles. George Washington articulated this unique American realism in his Farewell Address:

If we remain one People, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel.”

Prudent American realism, as opposed to the realism taught in traditional courses on international relations, recognizes that the internal character of regimes matters and that our foreign policy must reflect the fundamental principles of democratic republicanism. And unlike liberal internationalism, which holds that international law and institutions alone are sufficient to achieve peace, prudent American realism understands that there are certain problems which can be addressed only through the prudent exercise of power.

When the United States was weak, prudence required America to consolidate power in North America while navigating the vagaries of European great power politics. The policy that the United States pursued during the early years of the Republic has often been described as “isolationist” but this was not the case, especially after the debacle of the War of 1812, which revealed the weakness of the Pinkney approach. Thereafter, as John Lewis Gaddis has pointed out, U.S. policy was based on hegemony, the principle that the United States would not share power in the Western hemisphere; unilateralism, which accepted the need for international cooperation but rejected formal treaties as an unnecessary limit on American action; and preemption, action taken early to prevent a worse outcome later.

As American power grew, prudence dictated that the United States could, as Washington wrote, “choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel.” By the middle of the 20th century prudence dictated that the United States should pursue primacy. Today, primacy should represent the default position of prudent American realism.

Of course primacy can be caricatured as a “go-it-alone” approach in which the United States intimidates both friends and allies, wields power unilaterally, and ignores international institutions. But prudent American realism is a “benevolent” primacy, an approach in keeping with the liberal political tradition of the United States but which recognizes the world as a dangerous place in which a just peace is maintained only by the strong.

As noted before, the form of primacy embodied in prudent American realism is based on the idea that U.S. power is good primarily for the United States but it is also good for the rest of the world in the sense that it helps to underwrite a more peaceful and prosperous world than the one that would exist in the absence of American power. The desired outcome is not motivated by altruism but by the recognition that the freedom, security, and prosperity of the United States is best secured in a world where other states are also secure, free, and prosperous.

But the mere existence of liberal institutions is not sufficient. A liberal world order is possible only if the United States is willing and able to maintain it. In the words of the late Sam Huntington,

the maintenance of U.S. primacy matters for the world as well as for the United States….”

A world without U.S. primacy would be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.

According to the theory of hegemonic stability, the alternative to U.S. power is a more disorderly, less peaceful world. The precedent for the United States is the decay of Pax Britannica, which, many believe, created the necessary, if not sufficient conditions for the two world wars of the 20th century. As British hegemony declined, smaller states that previously had incentives to cooperate with Britain “defected” to other powers, causing the international system to fragment. The outcome was depression and war. The decline of American power could lead to a similar outcome. Today’s security environment suggests that such a fragmentation is already underway.

In addition to fusing principle and power, a foreign policy of prudent American realism must recognize certain operational principles. First, it needs to distinguish between friends and allies, on the one hand, and enemies and adversaries, on the other. For the last seven years, the Obama Administration has failed to make this distinction, causing our allies to lose faith in the United States, while emboldening our enemies.

Militarily and diplomatically, U.S. foreign policy should stress forward defense, forward presence, and freedom of navigation, maintaining a maritime alliance along what Nicholas Spykman called the “rimlands” of Eurasia, designed to keep a potential Eurasian hegemon contained. NATO and our bilateral treaties with Japan, Korea, and—potentially—India are critical to this enterprise.

Second, while the internal character of regimes matter for prudent American realism, we need to limit our aspirations when it comes to “spreading democracy” abroad. Again, “prudence” is the operative term here. For one thing, “democracy” is not always liberal democracy. For another, our resources are finite, and good strategy requires the United States to prioritize among the goals it wishes to accomplish. Finally, the character of a people does not always make them a good candidate for democracy.

Third, the United States must return to the more classical connection between force and diplomacy. For too long, American policy makers, motivated by the assumptions of liberal internationalism, have acted as if diplomacy alone is sufficient to achieve our foreign policy goals. But as Frederick the Great once observed, “Diplomacy without force is like music without instruments.” Prudent American realism recognizes that diplomacy and force are two sides of the same coin.

Finally, the United States should not hesitate to use its economic power as an instrument of foreign policy. The changing geopolitics of energy provides an opportunity for the United States to counter the likes of Putin, and others in the world who have wielded the energy weapon against America in the past.

In both the short and long term, a foreign policy of prudent American realism is the best hope for assuring the freedom, security, and prosperity of the United States. Only this approach can stanch the loss of American power, influence, and credibility. As Huntington made clear, it matters who the hegemonic power is. For those who desire freedom and prosperity, there is no alternative to the United States.

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