America is once again tempting fate. A broad coalition is coalescing to curtail America’s role and influence in the world. After ten years of two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the country is hightailing it home. The urge to pull back is irresistible but wrongheaded. The world does not go away when America retreats. Each time America has come home, after the First World War, the Second World War, Vietnam, and the Cold War, new conflicts yanked it back into world affairs, always under less favorable circumstances and with higher casualties than if it had acted earlier.
America needs a strategy whereby it stays engaged in the world and accepts smaller costs in the short run to avoid much greater costs in the long run. That strategy would address direct threats from any region of the world but prioritize the spread of freedom primarily on the borders of existing free countries, use less force early to avoid the use of greater force later, back force with diplomacy to give adversaries a peaceful way out, and compromise in timely fashion to sustain public support.
Conventional approaches include some parts of this strategy but lack others. Liberal internationalists promote freedom but use force only as a last resort and with multilateral consent. Realists use force more readily but only to stabilize the balance of power, not to weaken despots and expand freedom. Nationalists use force most assertively but only to defend America, usually after it is attacked. And many neoconservatives use force to boost freedom but at costs that quickly exceed the limits of public patience and support.
The needed alternative strategy is internationalist but conservative and combines rather than rejects the insights of the other approaches. A conservative-internationalist strategy embraces the promotion of freedom touted by liberal internationalists, the balancing of power advocated by realists, the respect for national will and sovereignty championed by nationalists, and the diplomacy backed by force recommended by neoconservatives. In short, a conservative-internationalist strategy advances freedom against despots but disciplines the use of force by prioritizing freedom in countries that border on existing free countries and forging timely compromises that both offer despots a peaceful way out and husband domestic public support.
A conservative-internationalist strategy involves four key tenets:
Spread freedom in a way that is disciplined by priorities. American foreign policy should seek to increase the number of regimes that are democratic, not just to preserve global stability or defend national borders. But it would seek to do so primarily on the borders of countries where freedom already exists, not in areas such as the Middle East (Iraq) or southwest Asia (Afghanistan). Today the borders of freedom stretch in Europe from Turkey through Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland to the Baltic states, and in Asia from India through Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan to South Korea. The greatest threats along these borders come from the major authoritarian states of Russia and China, not from terrorists and rogue states. Terrorism by itself is a threat to parts of an American city (e.g., the Twin Towers). Backed by rogue states and weapons of mass destruction, it’s a threat to several American cities. Backed by a steadily rising and hostile Russia and/or China, however, it’s a threat to all American cities, on the level of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, or worse.
Hence, in the future, the United States should think twice before it fights rogue states and terrorism in remote regions such as the Middle East and southwest Asia while it ignores or placates efforts by Russia and China to extend their autocratic influence along the borders of freedom in Europe and Asia. While America was preoccupied in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia and China expanded their influence in these border regions. Russia established a “sphere of privileged interest” in the former Soviet space, undermining Ukrainian democracy and permanently basing Russian forces in Georgia; and China backstopped a nuclear-crazed North Korea, laid claim to island territories in the Pacific, and became the dominant economic force in democratic South Korea and much of Asia. As a result, democracy is weaker today on the frontiers of freedom in both Europe and Asia. And so is the defense of democracy. Obama pivots declining U.S. military forces to Asia while Russia, for the first time in decades, deploys a naval task force in the Mediterranean.
This does not mean that the United States should not respond to threats from remote regions such as Afghanistan. It means simply that the United States should not prioritize the promotion of democracy there. When threats come from a country that doesn’t border on existing democracies, the United States should defeat the threat and get in and out of the country as quickly as possible. If it replaces a government, such as the Taliban, it should not try to install a Jeffersonian democracy but being in a position to repeat the action in the event of another attack, “ratcheting” local governments toward greater openness and stability. Such a strategy is likely to retain public support, whereas long wars exhaust public patience and preclude the return of U.S. forces under almost any circumstances.