With memories of the San Bernardino and Paris massacres still fresh, Republican presidential candidates have been lambasting the White House for what they deem as the administration’s foreign policy failures. They criticize President Barack Obama for weakening the United States, undermining its leadership and credibility, and allowing its adversaries — from the Islamic State (IS), to Russia, to China — to become more menacing.
To restore America’s strength, alliances, global standing, and leadership, the candidates have all, by and large (with the exception of Sen. Rand Paul), advocated greater use of force against IS, and an increased U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria. More broadly, almost all have called for a major priming of the Pentagon pump with billions of additional dollars to restore what they describe as our sapped military strength.
Politically, you can’t blame them for these public broadsides — Americans seem to be on their side. Recent polling shows that national security and terrorism concerns have become the most important election issue in the mind of the American public, rising from 21 percent in April to 40 percent in December, replacing jobs and the economy (which declined from 29 percent to 23 percent). According to a December 2015 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the public disapproves of Obama’s foreign policy by a ratio of 57 to 37 percent. Even before Paris and San Bernadino, Americans saw the GOP as more able to “protect the country from international terrorism and military threats,” by an advantage of 52 to 36 percent.
Internationally, the world’s problems seem to reinforce the Republican solution: toughness, bluster, and force. The globe seems messier and scarier today than it was in 2008, after all. Order in the Middle East has given way to chaos and conflict, as the region has devolved into a petri dish for breeding global jihadists. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its aggressive behavior in eastern Ukraine pose a threat to the norms underpinning global order. China is increasingly assertive in challenging U.S. interests. The Ghani government in Afghanistan is hanging on by a thread. A two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is on life-support. And refugees fleeing the misery of the Middle East and North Africa are placing a crushing burden on Europe.
These problems, magnified in graphic detail through the 24/7 news cycle, would appear to present a golden opportunity for Republican hawks to offer what they describe as a bolder foreign policy, backed by superior American military power. Caveat emptor. This prescription is dangerous snake oil. Policies and public expenditures in pursuit of this muscular mantra would not only fail, but would also systematically weaken U.S. leadership and influence. The Republican jeremiads are wildly off base, reflecting an atavistic attachment to the world of the 1990s, when we emerged from the Cold War as the last superpower left standing. And they are grounded in several misconceptions about the nature of the world and the sources and limits of American power, resulting in magical thinking about the capacity, will, and means at our disposal to bend an increasingly unruly world to our preferences.
Preserving the unipolar moment
Republican rhetoric is replete with calls to restore the leadership of the United States, as the most powerful, indispensable, and exceptional nation.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) captures this view well, though he is not alone. For Rubio, the United States is the natural, inevitable, and indispensable leader. “America plays a part on the world stage for which there is no understudy. When we fail to lead with strength and principle, no other country, friend or foe, is willing or able to take our place. And the result is chaos,” Rubio says on his campaign website. “While America did not intend to become the world’s indispensable power, that is exactly what our economic and political freedoms have made us. The free nations of the world still look to America to champion our shared ideals,” he adds. For Sen. Ted Cruz, this standing gives the United States a dominant position. “It is dangerous to dictators like [Vladimir] Putin when Americans remember their exceptionalism,” Cruz wrote in an opinion piece for CNN. “The unique combination of power and principle that has made the United States the greatest force for good on the planet has historically posed a grave threat to repressive bullies.”
The call to restore American leadership and its dominant international role is a consistent theme for Republican presidential candidates. It is a dangerous one, because the world has changed in a fundamental way. The United States is simply no longer a global goliath bestriding a unipolar world. Turkey no longer jumps when America says frog. Putin is unmoved by U.S. demands. China is clearly expanding its own role, creating international economic organizations that include most of its closest allies but not the United States. The raw measures of military and economic power that are typically invoked to rebut the relative change in global power are not easily converted into the currency of diplomatic leverage.
In contrast to the Republican message, in today’s world, power is often “situational,” assembled by coalitions of like-minded countries with the capacity, resolve, and resources, to take effective action to advance shared interests. American leadership looks different in this world; it is most effective when the United States helps mobilizes these multilateral partnerships, and allows others to take ownership of the solution.
Insisting that the United States take the lead in international events, crises, and conflicts, would be counter-productive. An elusive quest to restore a unipolar world order run from Washington leads to behavior at odds with the requirements of effective diplomacy in a rebalanced, multipolar world.
Moreover, asserting U.S. control, as the GOP field suggests, vastly overstates the degree to which we are responsible for or could change global realities and problems. To recognize this reality is not declinism or abandoning the field, as Rubio suggests — it is realism. His view, in addition, is inconsistent with popular opinion: while Americans support a strong military, they are reluctant to incur the risks and costs of being a global cop. Indeed, according to opinion surveys, the public prefers disengagement from or avoidance of arenas of military conflict. And it overlooks the extent to which overreaction and hegemonic overreach over the past 15 years — the invasion of Iraq, CIA renditions to other countries for interrogation, expanded NSA global surveillance, to name but a few — has undermined the willingness of other countries to welcome U.S. leadership.
Military power is not the answer
The key ingredient of Republican national security policy is the “restoration” of U.S. military power, and its more vigorous assertion abroad.
In a March 2015 column he authored with Sen. Tom Cotton, Rubio linked force reductions directly to diminished U.S. leadership. “Our force reductions have been felt throughout the world — by our friends and our enemies. They have presented not just a crisis of readiness for America, but also a perilous strategic weakness. Our adversaries have been emboldened by what they perceive as our diminished military presence.”
Similarly, Jeb Bush has argued that any sound plan to defeat IS and other threats hinges on our military strength. “Let that slip away, and what would America be in world affairs, except one more well-intentioned voice at the United Nations? In any effort of ours to overcome violence and secure peace, a winning strategy depends on maintaining unequaled strength, and we can never take it for granted.” Chris Christie offers an argument of pre-emption: “A strong military doesn’t just help us to deal with the threats we face. It helps eliminate them before we even see them.”
The argument that U.S. military power has declined and that its revival is the key to restoring our global leadership is false. This is because this idea deliberately understates current U.S. military capabilities. The Republicans conveniently avoid the reality that U.S. defense spending is greater than the combined defense budgets of the next eight countries with the highest levels of defense spending. Today, U.S. defense budgets are $150 billion higher than the Cold War average (in constant dollars).
This spending buys an impressive, incomparable military. Unlike any other country, the United States maintains a network of globe-girdling alliances and more than 800 military facilities overseas. The United States is the only country in the world that can deploy troops, fly aircraft, and sail naval ships around the world, supported by a truly global network of communications, logistics, transportation, and intelligence agencies. No other country has such a capability.
The Republican argument is also misleading. It substitutes measures of military capability and the assertive use of military force for sound foreign policy judgment. U.S. military power is useful and necessary for many good things: it can help maintain a favorable balance of global power, support freedom of navigation, deter aggression against allies and friends, demonstrate the credibility of U.S. security commitments, respond to humanitarian disasters, provide critical support for American diplomacy, and, embedded in a broader policy context, contribute to the struggle with terrorist organizations.
In reality, however, most of the foreign policy and national security challenges and opportunities confronting us today — ranging from global warming to defeating IS to countering the growing assertiveness of Russia — do not lend themselves to U.S. military power. Rather, progress requires honing effective political and diplomatic strategies and making greater use of our woefully under-resourced non-military tools of statecraft, such as timely support for governance in weak states, economic assistance, refugee and humanitarian support, and, above all, skilled diplomacy. These are not things the Republican candidates have called for.
While globally dominant and important, the history of U.S. military operations over the past 70 years is not entirely encouraging: One clear victory in Iraq in 1991 and coalition success in the Balkans, a record marred by draws or losses in Korea, Vietnam, the second Iraq war, and Afghanistan. The only other success stories were against Lilliputian adversaries like Grenada and Panama. Moreover, in this rebalanced world, the assertion of U.S. military force and its deployment on a global basis is viewed warily by many and works as an actual recruitment poster for some adversaries.
We cannot solve everything
Chest-thumping over American leadership, decline, and military power makes for good Republican primary politics. Doing so preserves the illusion that the United States is omnipotent and can fix everything. But it will make terrible policy, frustrating international success and breeding international mistrust and wariness — the opposite of what we need to play an appropriate leadership role.
This “magical thinking” has been at the root of many of America’s foreign policy blunders over the last 20 years. It has made us overconfident of our ability to rebuild broken countries and to end nasty civil wars abroad. It has been a hardy perennial of our politics and our national narrative about our foreign policy for decades. It is a form of “strategic escapism,” offering a deceptively simple alternative to critical thinking about the dilemmas and the Hobbesian choices that often confront U.S. foreign policy — ones that require a new form of diplomatic engagement that sits uneasily alongside the grandiose aspirations of the Republican candidates to restore the “lost world” of American dominance.
No Republican candidate is running clearly against this rhetorical tide (and even the leading Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton embraces many of the flawed assumptions underlying the GOP foreign policy doctrine described here). Rand Paul appeared to try, but his message is being drowned out, as his polling numbers reveal. Bernie Sanders has a different message, but it is likely to fail. The real debate about how the United States should engage with the world will probably have to wait for the general election, and even then, a full debate is not certain. In the meantime, prepare for a tidal wave of empty, dangerous bluster and belligerent rhetoric instead of thoughtful proposals for how we should engage in the restructured world of global relations.