What should be the defining objectives of U.S. foreign policy?

Some urge that it should be military superiority over any foreign nation or coalition of nations, in terms of their capabilities, not their intentions. But as Henry Kissinger reminded us in his first and best book, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, nothing can reassure those in quest of absolute security.

A second objective is said to be the worldwide promotion of, or at least defense of, democracies, familiar from the rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson, Samantha Power, and Condoleezza Rice. There is, indeed, a neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, though one sometimes gains the impression that it is concerned with the defense of only one democracy, and it’s not this one. Tracing its links to other organizations produces a chart resembling that of the unreformed Standard Oil Trust, with a proliferation of front organizations unmatched since the dissolution of the Comintern.

A third objective is the establishment of a Pax Americana with a controlling influence—though not necessarily a democratic one—everywhere. “Even England’s experience in ruling subject nations,” the former German Ambassador Count Bernstorff observed in 1920, “will not enable it to found and maintain a world empire and a world civilization like that of Rome. The material interests and the national character of the peoples of the earth are too discordant for this.”

Yet the United States now has troops deployed in 177 countries, according to the Department of Defense. Against all historical evidence, our forces are asked to subdue Yemen, where the British, Turks, and Saudis failed; Afghanistan, where the British and Russians failed; and Mindanao where the Spaniards, Americans, and Japanese failed. This enterprise is thought to be sustainable because it produces few body bags, but there are 10 times the number of walking wounded as there are dead and upwards of 660 suicides per month among military veterans. They die scattered and far from the attention of the mainstream media.

A fourth possible objective is supported only by Mikhail Gorbachev and the ghosts of Franklin Roosevelt and Edward Stettinius: that of the five permanent members of the UN as a Holy Alliance. They were convened as a group only once, in the wake of the Iraq War, by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

But there is a fifth approach: the paramount objective of U.S. foreign policy, that of a status quo power, should be to minimize massive flows of refugees.

Although this sounds like a modest purpose, nothing has been further from the minds of our policymakers for the last 50 years. The Vietnam War produced vast floods of refugees, and for the first and last time, the U.S., France, and Canada took responsibility for those that did not drown. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have generated huge refugee flows, destabilizing those nations and their neighbors, notably Syria, Turkey, and Pakistan. The Central American wars of the 1980s still account for most of today’s U.S. refugee flow, as well as for violent Southern California drug gangs.

But the ultimate example of American obtuseness was supplied by President Obama and Secretary Clinton, and urged on by Samantha Power and Susan Rice, in opposing the established governments in Syria and Libya without any UN authorization for regime change. In less than two years, these feckless Americans, filling the air with Wilsonian slogans, managed to shake the structure of governance in Western Europe, a project that Secretaries of State George Marshall and Dean Acheson (and their European collaborators) took more than 10 years to construct. Populist, anti-immigrant parties came to the fore almost overnight in Germany, France, Greece, Austria, The Netherlands, and even in Britain and the Scandinavian countries. The fraying of the European Common Market was forestalled only by huge payments from Angela Merkel’s government to the Erdogan regime in Turkey and the reduction of humanitarian rescue missions by the Italian Navy.

What are the lessons from this? One finding, distasteful to Americans, is that almost any government is better than none; dictatorship is to be preferred to anarchy. At the time as our intervention in Somalia, the nonagenarian George Kennan warned that country’s problems were due to drought, overpopulation, and lack of governance, none of which would yield to a short-term American military cure. The people of Minneapolis and Oslo, who now have problems with Somali refugees, understand that he was right.

In Yugoslavia, our intervention roused false hope among Bosnians, torpedoing the Lisbon Agreement and two Vance-Owen agreements, and leading to massive refugee flows and a Kosovo ruled by its Mafia. Tito well understood that a disunited Yugoslavia would give rise to a Greater Serbia; resistance to this consequence protracted the war between Croatia and Serbia and gave rise to an unstable peace based on expulsion of Serbs from the Krajina.

Many of our other interventions—those in Nigeria and Niger, for example—resulted in our treating tribal conflicts over water resources as Christian-Islamic religious wars. A terrible price has also been paid in Africa because of our visceral objection to secessionist movements. Our resistance to the secession of Katanga from the Congo in the 1960s and of Biafra from Nigeria in the 1970s aided wars, undertaken against the advice of France’s General De Gaulle, that cost millions of lives in both instances—as did our later policies, eventually abandoned, in the Sudan and the Horn of Africa. We have been recreating the religious wars of the 17th century, ended by the Treaty of Westphalia with its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.

The calamities of Africa will be as nothing if our policies are extended to our own hemisphere. In 1912, Judge Learned Hand urged that our interest was in the earliest possible establishment of a stable Mexican government, even if its policies were not to our liking. In our policies toward Cuba and Venezuela, this object must remain paramount. We should be working toward soft landings, not sudden collapses. We should in no event stimulate civil wars. Cuba, notwithstanding left-wing admiration for its elementary education and health systems, is a thoroughly totalitarian state, with a sordid apparatus of block captains and government informers. What happens when such a state collapses is seen in the Albanian experience after 1989, in which a large portion of the population took to the boats. The ensuing cost to Italy of repatriation and reconstruction is in the tens of billions—and Albania has about one-fourth the population of Cuba.

The Eastern European countries that did best after 1989 were Poland and Hungary, not the more industrialized Czechoslovakia and East Germany. Their 1956 revolts had won for them preservation of the rudiments of civil society. The Brandt and Schmidt governments in Germany were reproached for their deepening of economic ties to the East. But the wisdom of their policy was soon to be displayed.

There are also lessons to be derived from the current problems of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Seventy years ago Senator Robert Taft said there were no solutions to the problems of an over-populated Puerto Rico other than education and emigration. Of emigration there has been much and will be more, as the mayors of Miami and New York will learn soon. Of education there has been little, and there are only limited signs of New Orleans-style school reform, let alone serious efforts at combating youth unemployment, and ending the drug war and the destructive effects of the food stamp program.

Washington should not be eager to further display its incapacity at nation-building. As a colonial power, the U.S. has never sought local knowledge or practiced indirect rule.

To some ideologues, these reflections may seem unheroic. But there is a school of political philosophy that reconfirms them. In the 1950s, in the wake of the discrediting of political ideologies, some of the logical positivists in England undertook to define empirically principles by which regimes and changes in them should be judged. T.D. Weldon’s The Vocabulary of Politics was one effort along these lines. Yet the touchstone of nearly all of these works was that the virtue of a political state, or state of things, was to be judged by the absence of flight of its population. A rediscovery of this approach has the potential to return U.S foreign policymaking to a realist frame of mind.

George Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of works on politics and international relations, including the forthcoming America’s Political Inventors: The Lost Art of Legislation.