James Joyner calls for returning to what then-Gov. Bush called a “humble foreign policy,” but he also mentions something that reminds us how misleading that rhetoric was:

Bush agreed, for example, with the Clinton administration’s actions in the Balkans: “I thought it was in our strategic interests to keep Milosevic in check because of our relations in NATO, and that’s why I took the position I took. I think it’s important for NATO to be strong and confident. I felt like an unchecked Milosevic would harm NATO.”

At the same time, he observed, “I’m worried about over committing our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use.”

As James acknowledges, Bush’s appeal to humility was largely a “platitude rather than policy prescription,” but there is no genuinely humble foreign policy that can include a willingness to attack another country in response to a low-level internal conflict. The presumption that the U.S. or NATO had any business policing a conflict in a country whose government posed no threat to any member of the alliance was the opposite of the humility Bush professed to want. Indeed, Bush’s humility rhetoric was intended to distinguish him from the hyperactive interventionism of the Clinton years, but the impulse to meddle remained so strong that Bush endorsed a foreign war that contradicted the principle that was supposed to set him apart from his opponent. Unless the rhetoric of humility is matched by policies that reflect a proper understanding of the limits of American power and resources, it will have no more meaning than repeating “peace through strength” while simultaneously calling for new wars.

Calling for a “humble foreign policy” is a start, and it’s a useful shorthand to distinguish what traditional conservatives and realists support from the alternatives, but calling for humility without explaining what it means in practice can become the realist equivalent of hawkish demands for resolve or strength. Humility in foreign policy should imply that the U.S. should acknowledge and respect other states’ legitimate interests, refrain from interfering in their affairs, adhere to the requirements of international law as much as possible, and as often as possible avoid trying to dictate the outcomes of other states’ internal political quarrels and conflicts. It would obviously imply that the U.S. wouldn’t wage “preventive” wars, but it would also mean that the scale and number of U.S. commitments overseas would be reduced significantly. A humble foreign policy wouldn’t absolutely rule out future expeditionary wars, but it would set the bar for such conflicts much higher than it has been for the last twenty years.