Foreign Policy, History and Future of Nationalism, Realist Theory

America – The Great Balancer

Nationalist Foreign Relations – A History, Part 5

This is the final installment of the series “Nationalist Foreign Policy – A History”. Please click on the menu item above to see previous installments.

Theodore Roosevelt coined his famous maxim when Great Britain still dominated the world through its mastery of the seas and colonial empire.   At the same time, Roosevelt had the foresight to recognize the world was becoming increasingly multipolar with the United States, Germany and Japan becoming regional hegemons in the Western Hemisphere, Europe and Asia respectively.  Both adroit diplomacy and a newly invigorated navy and armed forces would be necessary to preserve America’s national security and way of life in the coming new world  order.

Today America fills the role of a great world power watching its influence wane in an increasingly multipolar and nationalistic world.  This new world order consists not only of regional hegemons like China, but also non-state actors as diverse as multinational corporations, international non-profit advocacy groups and terrorist organizations. This proliferation of powerful actors and the variety of weapons available to them multiplies both the risk of conflict and the arenas in which conflict can occur. Wars can now be fought in outer space, cyberspace and the trade and migration spaces. The US cannot waste its advantages in soft, hard and economic power if it expects to remain secure and a beacon of freedom in this newly competitive world.

“Speaking softly” in such a world should be based on a policy of realism and restraint that respects other nations’ cultures and interests and vigorously defends our own only when it is directly in danger.  The Center for Strategic and International Studies’s recent paper “Getting to Less” surveys the various theories for achieving this, two of which stand out – offshore balancing and command the commons.  As further described in this article by Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, offshore balancing relies on local powers in a region to keep the peace with America intervening only if they are incapable of opposing a potential hegemon.  For example, while it is in our direct national security interest to prevent Russian hegemony in Europe, our commitment to NATO can be scaled back since Western Europe has the capacity to defend itself against Russian aggression. We would intervene only to counterbalance against any temporary Russian advantages, echoing TR’s balancing intervention in the Moroccan crisis. Realist offshore balancing would also call for military withdrawal from the Middle East, though we would watch in “splendid isolation” in case any nation like Iran was achieving hegemony. 

Meanwhile, the “big stick” of a realist foreign policy would be the “command the commons” approach, in which the US would defend itself and project power through dominance of the air, space, cyberspace and seas. Preserving the dollar as the world’s reserve currency would also help continue American hegemony in the commons of international finance. While America already is a great power in these arenas, we will need more investment in our Air Force, space program and cyberdefense capabilities to maintain it. Finally, Roosevelt’s beloved navy would need to be expanded to the 350-ship size that has been discussed for years.

We also must remove important domestic barriers to a realistic and restrained strategy.  American globalists have essentially privatized trade and immigration policy for their benefit and thus removed two important levers for responding peacefully to international conflict. This makes armed conflict more likely. Our lax immigration laws also make us vulnerable to the use of mass migration as a weapon (cf. Syria and Venezuela) and multilateral trade agreements prevent us from hardening our economy from trade disruptions and dumping.  The federal government should reclaim power over these policies and return them for use in the national security toolbox.

While our military and economic power is formidable, America’s soft power of freedom and democracy has always been our most effective form of international influence.  America’s mere existence is a threat to regimes like China and Russia and we must remain strong to deter their attacks. However, for America to be strong, the American people must be strong.  Dealing with our serious social and economic challenges by guaranteeing them a “square deal” in their lives would be the most effective way to assure our long-term security.

As a veteran himself, Roosevelt was proud that no American soldier or sailor died during his presidency.  He achieved this with a policy where diplomacy was primary and military intervention a rarity.  In today’s nationalist world, a modern Rooseveltian foreign policy would draw on our historic respect for diversity to develop a policy of respect for the similar diversity of nations and confine conflict, both peaceful and military, to serious dangers to our national security and way of life.  Multilateral organizations would be an important means, but not an end, in this strategy.  A sustained commitment to such a realistic and restrained strategy would preserve our independence and freedom in the 21st century while maintaining America as a beacon of freedom and hope for the rest of the world.     

Foreign Policy, Realist Theory

Restraint through Freedom

Opening the Pandora’s Box
Presidential Military Power – Part 3

I believe that war should never be resorted to when, or as long as, it is honorably possible to avoid it. I respect all men and women who from high motives and with sanity and self-respect do all they can to avert war. I advocate preparation for war in order to avert war; and I should never advocate war unless it were the only alternative to dishonor.

Theodore Roosevelt, “America the Unready”, Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography, 1913

A democracy like the United States assumes unique risks in an anarchic and hostile world. As a free people, we accept a higher vulnerability to attacks like 9/11 as the price of maintaining our freedoms.  Once war is declared,  we then accept the casualties, both to our soldiers and our values, but only for the limited period necessary to win the war.  The gravity of both types of loss demands that the decision to go to war be made not just by one person, but by the nation pursuant to the open debate envisioned by the Founding Fathers. 

I outlined the deficiencies of the current War Powers Resolution in a previous post in this series.  The law desperately needs to be updated to distinguish between different threat levels and to address new types of warfare.  First, we should recognize that not all warfare requires the same level of congressional scrutiny.  An attack upon the American homeland and a first strike against a foreign state or its leaders should be subject to a significantly higher level of congressional consultation and review.  These should be considered “major conflicts” under the law. In contrast, retaliation against overseas attacks, peacekeeping actions and other types of conflict should continue to be covered, but require authorization under the current level of scrutiny.  

The law also should apply to clandestine warfare such as cyber-attacks and low level actions such as drone attacks. Since military action will not always be the appropriate response to these kinds of attacks, presidents should be able to seek non-military responses such as trade sanctions, diplomatic or other actions in a new type of resolution called an Authorization of Action (AOA), which would also apply to military action.  To prevent endless wars, AOA’s should be automatically limited to no more than three years in duration absent a vote to renew the authorization or a declaration of war.  AOAs should also be directed at a specific state and not at a private organization or type of warfare as was the 2001 authorization. 

However, history shows that no change in the scope of presidential war powers will effectively restrain president military power without an enforcement mechanism that forces Congress to act and take responsibility for the situation.  Next to the war-making power, the most important power of Congress is the power of the purse – it’s authorization and appropriation of federal dollars.  Current law and  budgetary practice grants broad authorization to the Pentagon to spend money to support our military in the field – a necessary tool, but one that can be abused.  To prevent this, the law should provide that, notwithstanding any other law or appropriation, the President is not authorized to spend money on an action requiring an AOA after the 60-day deadline for congressional authorization.  

Finally, since major conflicts inherently expose the nation to greater risk, they should require more congressional consultation and an enforcement mechanism that makes it equally risky for presidents to ignore the process.  To achieve this, the role of the “Gang of Eight” congressional leaders should be formalized and strengthened.  If the President engages in a major conflict without proper consultation and authority, any four of the “gang”should have the power to force a record vote on impeachment of the president in the House of Representatives or a censure resolution in both the House and Senate.  For example, these standards would have triggered such consultation and review not only for the Soleimani killing, but also the Russian hacking campaign against the 2016 election.  

Critics of these reforms will complain they tie the President’s hands in the prosecution of a war.  If a conflict is truly momentous enough to give the  commander-in-chief wide-ranging power to prosecute it, there is a clear solution – seek and obtain a formal declaration of war.  At the other extreme, advocates of clandestine warfare will claim that applying the same authorization standards to lower profile cyber and drone attacks would unnecessarily expose our capabilities and risk spiraling the conflict into a shooting war.  Granting the President the right to seek a non-military response, however, lessens this threat, informs the American public of it and enlists their support in combating the threat.  It also would prevent the secret wars the act was designed to prevent and whose very existence also creates a risk of escalation. 

TR‘s most famous saying was “speak softly and carry a big stick”.  The most important element of this “big stick” was the knowledge that the American people would fight a war to a victorious conclusion.  At the same time, he knew from personal experience how horrible war could be and was proud no American service man died in combat during his presidency.  A realistic and restrained foreign policy assumes the costs of war only in those rare instances when the national security is directly in danger and thus when public support is more likely.  Those are exactly the wars America can and should win.  These reforms to the War Powers Resolution would help limit our wars to only those kinds of necessary conflicts.