Set and maintain an exceptionally high bar for political and (especially) military intervention beyond our borders.
We’ve seen over the last twenty-five years that this bar has been very low, and there have been concerted efforts to find new excuses to keep lowering it. Whether it is launching “preventive” wars in the name of counter-proliferation, or embarking on “humanitarian” interventions in the name of the “responsibility to protect, or funneling weapons into another country’s civil war, the pattern has been to find or invent pretexts to justify interference in the affairs of other countries to one degree or another. It is long past time that the U.S. recognize that this interference doesn’t serve its own interests, and often enough actively harms them. More important, it is time to recognize that the U.S. isn’t obliged to take sides in foreign conflicts, nor does it have the right to try to dictate political outcomes in other lands. The U.S. has a poor track record when it comes to the latter, but we need to recognize that it is a mistake to try.
If the bar for political and military intervention overseas is to be raised as high as Bremmer recommends, it will require many changes in the way we debate foreign policy issues. First, there has to be a much narrower definition of U.S. vital interests, and those very few vital interests have to kept very distinct from minor and peripheral ones. As long as interventionists are taken seriously when they claim that their latest proposed meddling has something to do with U.S. interests, it is much more difficult to avoid intervention. The illusion that the U.S. has something at stake, especially something “vital,” is one of the main reasons that the U.S. gets sucked in to crises and conflicts that are none of our business. Remote and minor threats need to be treated as such and not blown out of proportion. The extraordinary security of the U.S. from major threats also needs to constantly emphasized. Most Americans support intervention only when they think their own security is at stake, and it needs to be made clear as often as possible that these interventions usually have little or nothing to do with our security or even that of our allies.
There also needs to be much greater skepticism when we hear demands for U.S. backing for foreign protest movements and rebellions.These demands are almost always framed in terms of supporting our “values,” but often enough the “values” represented by the movements in question aren’t those that the U.S. should want to endorse or encourage. In general, we need to stop projecting our preferences onto foreign movements that don’t share them, and we need to stop thinking of these political causes as having any connection with our country or its ideals. To that end, we need to be very wary when these groups tell our officials what they think our government wants to hear, and we should be cautious about accepting their propaganda at face value as our government has so often done in the past.
These changes alone might not be enough to set a very high bar for foreign intervention, but they would be a good and necessary beginning to doing that.