It was not difficult to define American geopolitical strategy over the seven decades following World War II — at least until 2009. It was largely bipartisan advocacy, most ambitiously, for nations to have the freedom of adopting constitutional governments that respected human rights, favored free markets, and abided by the rule of law. And at the least, we sought a world in which states could have any odious ideology they wished as long as they kept it within their own borders. There were several general strategic goals as we calculated our specific aims, both utopian and realistic.
(1) The strategic cornerstone was the protection of a small group of allies that, as we did, embraced consensual government and free markets, and were more likely to avoid human-rights abuses. That eventually meant partnerships with Western and later parts of Eastern Europe, Great Britain, and much of its former Empire, such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. In Asia, the American focus was on Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. The U.S. military essentially guaranteed the security of these Asian nations, and they developed safely, shielded from Soviet or Chinese Communist aggression, and more recently from Russian or Chinese provocations.
(2) The U.S. also sought a stable, globalized world, predicated on free commerce, communications, and travel. This commitment on occasion involved ostracism of, or outright military action against, rogue regimes of the sort run by thugs like Moammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Manuel Noriega, or the Taliban. There was no predictable rule about what offenses would earn U.S. intervention, and there was plenty of argument domestically over what should properly prompt such action. Perhaps a general observation was that rogue dictatorships that began killing Americans or lots of their own people, or that invaded their neighbors or threatened U.S. interests were most likely to be targeted.
(3) The U.S. tried to combat terrorism, whether, as in the past, Communist-inspired or, more recently, prompted by radical Islam. In the latter regard, the U.S. sought to make the world unsafe for al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and various terrorist groups funded by Iran and, more stealthily, by opulent Persian Gulf autocracies and rogue Middle East regimes like that of the Assads in Syria. Without the American war on terror, the world would have been an even more dangerous place.
(4) America sought not to invade but to isolate and ostracize a few radical regimes that threatened our friends or the general postwar order. Applying that rule to today’s world, that would mean policies designed not to go to war against Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela, but to prevent them from harming their neighbors or U.S. interests.
(5) There was special consideration given to isolated and vulnerable democracies or evolving democracies that might well not have existed if it were not for help and support, the exact nature of which remained implicit rather than codified by formal treaties. In this regard, attackers that aimed at destroying Israel or Taiwan outright were assumed in some way to earn the enmity of the United States. Any attack would prompt help to the attacked.
(6) Americans were outraged, albeit selectively, over genocide, particularly if it involved Westerners or occurred in Europe. For example, the U.S. intervened against Serbia, but not against the far more lethal mass murderers in Cambodia, the Congo, or Rwanda.
(7) The U.S. accepted that large nuclear nations such as China, Russia, and Pakistan were largely immune from American pressures. Consequently, we sought various formulas of coercion and incentives, alienation and enticement, to ensure that these powerful, aggressive nations did not bully our friends or destroy the existing postwar order.
For all the policy blunders and moral hypocrisies of the last 70 years, American strategy mostly worked and thus created the present globalized world. American foreign policy ensures its continuance. At times, isolationists unduly prevented U.S. police action; at other moments, nation-builders naïvely thought they could remake the Third World into the image of the West. Sometimes interventions worked, at other times not so well; there would be no Hyundai or Samsung without the Korean War, even as Vietnam was lost to Communism. Iraq was finally freed from a genocidal monster who turned oil money into death for his own people and his neighbors; but it was not firmly set on the path of constitutional government after the abrupt American pullout.
Over the last five years, those long-held strategic principles have largely been ignored or rejected by the Obama administration. There is real doubt today that the U.S. would risk coming to the aid of South Korea, Japan, or Taiwan. If Putin tomorrow sent a division into Estonia to deliberately provoke an Article V NATO response, he might well not get one — and therefore may well try. If Iran tested a bomb next year, the U.S., for all its now-trite “unacceptable” and “outrageous” talk, would likely shrug and assume that a nuclear Iran was analogous to a nuclear Pakistan or Israel and thus no big deal. Our allies assume that since 2009 American friendship is mostly rhetorical or ceremonial, but no longer exists in the sense of any serious guarantees.
The U.S. might intervene again against a dictator, but only if it could do so by leading from behind, with other powers in the front line, and only if the target were weak and clearly tottering. So, for example, we followed France and the United Kingdom into Libya, once it was evident that Qaddafi’s days were numbered, while steering clear of unilaterally punishing Syria for WMD use, although thousands more had been killed in Syria than in Libya, by an Assad who had much more fight in him than did Qaddafi. We certainly have had little interest in the Mogadishu-like landscapes into which these two Mediterranean countries have descended. American intervention is currently predicated not on the nature or threat of the rogue regime, but on two criteria: Would removing a rogue killer entail casualties? And: Would other countries lead the intervention?