Hoover Daily Report

Changing the Conventional Wisdom on Foreign Policy

Monday, February 21, 2000

One difficult task a new administration in Washington faces is changing the conventional wisdom in our foreign affairs. The collapse of the Soviet Union has spawned the notion that dangers abroad have come to an end, that U.S. foreign policy exists simply to settle other people’s old disputes with American diplomacy and largesse, and that when U.S. power is projected internationally it can only be for selfless, humanitarian purposes.

Altering the received wisdom is never easy, especially after an eight-year period when improvisation substituted for a road map. For example, globalization—a sporadically promoted trend—alone falls short of a strategic agenda based on our interests.

One assumption, which has gained credence during the past decade of peace among major powers, is that a full-time foreign policy is unneeded, that we attend to international events only when a house is afire. Fire insurance, in the form of a next-generation military force, and fire prevention, in the form of strategic frameworks, particularly in Asia, are left undone.

Without a strategic blueprint, our cold war–structured armed forces have been spread checkerboard fashion across the globe, with nation-building duties in "failed" states that have become our wards.

Another supposition is that civil strife in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Timor amount to major crises, the favorable outcome of which contributes to forming an interest-based foreign policy. These humanitarian tragedies attracted media attention, but their temporary resolution constitutes no grand design. Our top priority, rather, should be to secure our long-term interests, which include our continued economic well-being, the safety of our citizens, and the security of our allies.

Still another presumption of many citizens is that our nation is protected from ballistic missile assault. Nothing is further from the truth. We need a national missile defense system. Our approach to arms control and strategic defense is mired in the past, when two superpowers signed agreements guaranteeing mutual destruction. These arrangements are incompatible with the new reality of a fragmented world order.

The United States is connected internationally as never before in history. Although this facilitates our prosperity, it also stirs envy among the less fortunate or less powerful, who resent our ascendancy. The post–Berlin Wall landscape has seen the proliferation of deadly weapons to rogue states and terrorists. That same landscape is also less predictable with the geopolitical fluidity occasioned by Russia’s decline and China’s emergence.

Our next president must seize the advantage of U.S. power, prestige, and prosperity. By developing an international comity of nations, a new administration can advance American goals and values as it works to ensure peace and cooperation among major states. This entails reconstructing multifaceted relationships, particularly with China and Russia and, for insurance, forging cooperation with their neighbors. When bilateral and multilateral formulas break down, we must resort to deterrence. Against threatening rogue regimes, we must wield resolute power or eventually suffer the consequences of our neglect. Blessed with the present opportunity, it behooves us to dispense with an ill-considered conventional view.