Use timely compromise to maintain public support. A foreign policy that combines liberal internationalism’s goal of freedom with the muscular but targeted diplomacy of realism and the steely will of nationalism may be more effective than any one approach by itself, but how do you make the case for such an integrated foreign policy when a democratic public is worn out by war? As the debate about Syria in Congress suggests, it is a tough sell, without a doubt, both because the goal is more ambitious — it pursues freedom, not just stability — and because the use of lesser force earlier is riskier.
The answer is timely compromise. When the United States uses force in negotiations, and especially when it goes to war, it should look immediately for ways to translate military gains into diplomatic compromises, even if such compromises do not fulfill all objectives at once.
Successful presidents have always recognized that spreading democracy does not require the unconditional surrender of despots. Total victory means total defeat, and total defeat means protracted efforts to install new governments and build new nations. The cost of that, especially in regions remote from the borders of freedom, is simply too great for the American public to bear (and they are the ultimate judge of what the American military and economy can bear). Germany and Japan after the Second World War were exceptions. They were not remote from but on the borders of existing freedom, and public support for nation-building was sustained only because a greater threat came along after the war: the Soviet Union. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no greater threat in sight — at least not yet. It may come, and that’s why it is critical to have the American people on board before it arrives, to deter or preempt it at lesser cost.
The way to keep the public on board is not to exclude military intervention from the arsenal of the United States, as the current pullback mood prescribes, but to keep such interventions short and accompany them with diplomatic compromises. By this measure, George W. Bush’s biggest mistake was not the decision to intervene militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was the failure to get in and out as quickly as possible, to follow up military victories with diplomatic initiatives and earlier American withdrawals. That might have been accomplished in Afghanistan if the United States had accepted the allied offer to aid America under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. The United States demurred, not wanting to fight another campaign by NATO committee, as in Kosovo. But NATO was needed in Afghanistan eventually anyway, and its presence earlier might have facilitated both a speedier exit from Afghanistan and greater allied cooperation in the invasion of Iraq.
And a quicker exit might have been accomplished in Iraq if George W. Bush had acted like his father after the Gulf War and begun immediately, rather than four years later, follow-up diplomatic initiatives. Yes, the governments left behind in Afghanistan and Iraq might have been fragile and vulnerable to future instabilities. But look at the governments the United States is leaving behind after ten years of nation-building. They too are fragile and unlikely to survive a full American retreat. The United States might have been able to reenter these countries in 2014 if American troops had left in 2005 or 2006. Now, as with Vietnam after that war, there is little chance, without a direct attack on American forces, that the American people will support a return of boots on the ground in either country.
Conservative internationalism offers a way to stay engaged in the world at a price the American people can accept. Pursue the goal of defending and spreading freedom but discipline that goal by prioritizing freedom on the borders of existing free countries, not in remote regions; back negotiations with a lesser use of force early to avoid having to use greater force later, after negotiations fail; give adversaries a peaceful way out, but one that forces them to confront the failures of their own domestic systems; and forge timely compromises to retain public support. This strategy may not be appropriate under all circumstances. The conventional strategies continue to offer valuable guidance. But a conservative internationalism should not be excluded in the false hope that, by abandoning the spread of freedom and not using force until negotiations fail, we can succeed in taming despots and reducing overall violence in the world.
– Mr. Nau is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and the author of the recently published Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy Under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan. He served in the White House under President Reagan.