4. The use of armed force is almost always a bad idea and reflects, not the intractability of certain situations to other forms of conflict-resolution, but a failure of imagination and will on the part of U.S. policymakers. Moreover, if a combination of pressures compels the occasional use of force, the prime strategic imperative is to devise an exit strategy that will end the use of force at the earliest possible moment. The notion of American forces permanently garrisoning certain strategically crucial locations, or maintaining freedom of the seas, is hopelessly antiquated and a likely cause of avoidable conflicts. If America eschewed the use of armed force save in extremis, others would do the same.
5. The present state system should be replaced by some form of international governance, in which multilateral and international bodies play the leading role. Rather than being guarantors of freedom and cultural continuity, nation-states, with their inherent aggressiveness, are a large part of the world’s problems. Whittling away the prerogatives of nation-states, to the point where the idea of state sovereignty eventually disappears, ought to be the long-term goal of U.S. foreign policy. In the meantime, every opportunity to seek multilateral solutions to immediate problems should be seized, and “unilateralism,” which simply reinforces the bad habits of the past, should be avoided at virtually all costs.
6. The primary responsibility of U.S. policymakers is to advance the construction of a multilaterally organized and run international order, not to defend and advance the interests of the United States. “National interest” is a morally dubious and strategically clumsy category for dealing with the world we live in. Identifying the interests of the United States and its fellow democracies with the good of the world (and the possible good of others) is even worse: an act of hubris that inevitably brings grief. The sooner American policymakers learn to “think globally,” the better the world will be. A happy by-product of this global-think will be a diminution of anti-Americanism around the world, which is primarily caused by our clumsiness and aggressiveness.
7. With the Cold War (which was in no small part Harry Truman’s fault) now over, there is no power, group of powers, or ideology that poses any grave threat to the United States. China’s ambitions are in its own neighborhood, as are those of Putin’s Russia, and neither country poses any serious threat to the world, or to a more equitable, peaceful world order. Jihadism, while problematic at this moment, will recede when an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty brings a two-state solution along pre-1967 boundary lines to the Middle East; meanwhile, jihadism is best addressed through a combination of airport body-scanners and American assurances of respect for Islam, a felt lack of which is at the root of a great deal of jihadist anger.
8. We are not the indispensable nation. There is nothing morally or politically distinctive, much less special, about the American democratic experiment in ordered liberty. So there is no distinctively American approach to world politics, and the United States ought not seek any distinctive role in 21st-century world affairs. However electorally inept it may have been at the time, George McGovern’s 1972 call — “Come home, America” — was essentially correct. America does best for the world by scaling back its self-understanding, lowering its expectations, and thinking of itself as simply another country. Doing so will gain us respect, lower tensions, and make conflict less likely.
These are the ideas that, in one form or another, lurk just beneath the surface of the thinking of virtually the entire Democratic foreign-policy establishment. They shape the minds of the people who form the talent pool from which Democratic administrations draw their senior foreign-policy officials. No Democrat who strongly challenges these ideas has a chance of being the Democratic presidential nominee. Moreover, the people who hold these ideas are firmly convinced that they are true.
That, and not some psychological tic of President Obama’s, is why U.S. policy has been what it has been since a Tunisian fruit vendor immolated himself and set North Africa and the Middle East ablaze. Ideas do indeed have consequences, for good and for ill.
— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.