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A Paramount Foreign Policy Goal: Minimizing Refugees

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 [1]. 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.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "A Paramount Foreign Policy Goal: Minimizing Refugees"

#1 Comment By Jeremy 2 On November 30, 2017 @ 10:21 pm

Current U.S. foreign policy is pursuing neither stability nor democracy, however.

#2 Comment By John On November 30, 2017 @ 10:35 pm

The American Revolution went pretty well, this colors our thoughts. Most revolutions don’t go that smoothly consider the French Revolution and the “Terror”. The older I get the more I value stability. Our habit of dropping bombs all over the world and intervening in local politics where we don’t know the players or their motivations in the hope of somehow improving things is just not supported by our track record. It reminds me of the gag “man in the street” interview where some the poor slob is asked his opinion about the situation in some made up country about some made up problem between some made up players. Our government is barely better, like in Yemen you have a local dispute over long standing issues nothing to do with us. Suddenly it is viewed as a “clash of civilizations” and by gum we better aid and abet genocide or all is lost.

Why are folks so loath to admit, that we may not understand what is going on, and since we don’t perhaps we won’t bomb in the hopes of creating stability instead of rubble

#3 Comment By Whine Merchant On November 30, 2017 @ 11:15 pm

This is all just academic under Kim-il-Trump. He will just build his wall around all of the contiguous states [except for Oregon], ban foreign trade to control inflation and make America self sufficient, stop immigration [except for his next wife, whoever she may be] and end welfare payments so current recipients will take the jobs that are presently done by those who will be deported.

Netanyahu will continue to dictate the remnants of foreign policy and we can still get in 18 holes before dinner.

#4 Comment By Lerty23 On December 1, 2017 @ 9:51 am

Syria was destabilized by its own people, not by the US.

#5 Comment By Michael Kenny On December 1, 2017 @ 10:31 am

What is interesting is that Mr Liebmann, although making no mention of Putin, Russia or Ukraine, tacitly admits the link between recent US actions and the supposed “crises” in the EU. The populist parties haven’t really “come to the fore” but it seems clear that they are being backed and financed by American interests and maybe even by parts of the US intelligence services. The American attempt to destroy what we now call the EU goes back to Henry Kissinger’s arrival in the Nixon White House, armed with the pet theory he set out in the book mentioned. The supposed “euro crisis” and the more recent refugee flood, to say nothing of Brexit and even Catalonia, appear to have been part of that operation. The creation of an independent Kosovo was intended to drive a wedge between Serbia and the EU and Putin was intended to be a “useful idiot”, serving as a battering ram to break up the EU and a bogeyman to scare such European countries as were not to be served up to Putin on a silver platter under the pre-1789 “spheres of influence” theory into total submission to the US. Of course, Putin messed the whole thing up by grabbing Ukrainian territory by force and then wading into the Syrian civil war, and Obama’s refusal to stand up firmly to Putin in Ukraine torpedoed the whole idea. The situation was made worse by Trump’s appearing to want to capitulate to Putin in Ukraine and his negative comments on NATO. Thus, the whole of Europe has been thrown into instability by US attempts to destroy the EU and any US foreign policy based on stability will necessarily involve an end to those attempts. Russiagate and its European ramifications are actually very helpful in that regard. However, if the US wants to have a foreign policy based on stability, it will need to remove the source of instability it itself has created in Europe: Vladimir Putin. Having created the monster and unleashed him on his European neighbours, the only way the US can ensure stability in Europe is to destroy its own monster, over which it has now lost control. The US barging into other people’s countries, making a mess and then running for home with its tail between its legs, suddenly discovering the virtues of “non-intervention” (“realism” in Orwell-speak) is not going to bring stability. Quite the contrary! Thus stability = Putin out of Ukraine and, ideally, out of power altogether.

#6 Comment By polistra On December 1, 2017 @ 12:27 pm

Simplest rule:

Don’t start fights. When attacked, obliterate the attacker. When not attacked, mind your own business…. but make sure attackers know what will happen if they attack.

#7 Comment By Youknowho On December 1, 2017 @ 3:28 pm

A dictatorship is not preferable to a democracy, but it is preferable to a state in which each time you live your house you can get shot. This is the reason why people do accept dictatorships.

While the US can do good, and effect change, such change must be done through soft power, and with patience. And for that you need stability first and foremost.

Remember the Hippocratic Oath “First do not harm”

#8 Comment By LouisM On December 1, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

Refugees are mere subterfuge and deflection. Look at the unstable and poor and corrupt countries. They all have birthrates above replacement.

In short, countries with high birthrates (ie >2) is where you find problems people want to flee. Its easy to come from an over populated country and claim persecution and war. Over populated countries in Africa are in a state of anarchy. They are destroying their own country trying to survive and then immigrating elsewhere doesn’t change their behavior…they just transfer their old burden to their new country.

#9 Comment By Stop Now On December 1, 2017 @ 4:16 pm

Thank God that people like George Liebmann are saying it openly. Preventing refugee and migrant floods should be a prime goal of our foreign policy. Instead we seem to be doing our utmost to cause refugee and migrant floods.

The last century has seen catastrophic levels of immigration and refugees. It is destabilizing whole regions and even whole civilizations. It must stop, and we must MAKE our politicians pass laws and authorize expenditures to stop it.

Poor America has taken in more immigrants than any country in the history of the world, and we’re paying a terrible price for having done so – and it’s about to become even more terrible.

#10 Comment By Dennis J. Tuchler On December 1, 2017 @ 6:01 pm

Yes, you are right. But the problem with rational discussion of political problems is that politics gets in the way. International relaltions is no longer a matter for cold calculation of national interest.

You won’t persuade the pro-Israeli lobby and the neo-cons that there is no net gain to our fighting with Iran. The avegage politician dares not accept that North Korea will be a nuclear power. Who will dare to calculate publicly the gains and losses of remaining in Afghanistan? and so on

#11 Comment By Thaomas On December 1, 2017 @ 10:26 pm

I think this misses the point. Promoting democracy need not undermine stability. Case in point: Mubarak. The US did little to push him to liberalize and so left the Muslim Brotherhood positioned to win elections when he eventually fell.

#12 Comment By MEOW On December 2, 2017 @ 7:17 am

I disagree that there is any value in the neoconservative philosophy unless it is supporting Israel and Israeli wishes. There may be individual neocons that have a broader vision, however, this broader vision will be subjugated to the narrower pro-Israel dictates.
Anyone who worked abroad on USAID projects prior to 9/11 knows that the U.S. imprint of nation building did have positive externalities. We were not trying to force our will at the point of the sword. Now we apparently are? Kosovo more or less predated 9/11 but it was not a blank check on the use of military muscle. A military presence in 177 countries? The US dollar cannot afford monetarization of these activities and maintain its value; even in the Foreign Reserve Bank (world’s greatest Ponzi scheme of virtually creating currency out of thin air) continues to support these warlike activities abroad. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. The awakening is nigh.
Many people thought Trump would be able to develop a foreign policy independent of AIPAC et al. Little did these voters realize that he was their “man in Havana” (albeit it DC). Until a Ron Paul type takes over as president we will be drawn into the bottomless political cesspool of Middle East policies that really should not be our concern.

#13 Comment By Barry On December 2, 2017 @ 11:14 am

“That means we should pursue stability rather than democracy—as history has shown time and time again.”

When did the USA last pursue democracy? By my reckoning, that was in post-WWII Germany and Japan.

Ever after that, the US government has happily supported any and all non-communist dictators.

#14 Comment By Cynthia McLean On December 2, 2017 @ 1:38 pm

I highly recommend the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei’s recent film ” Human Flow,” regarding refugees from around the world, but especially from Syria, Afghanistan and Africans pushing off from Libya. Excellent documentary and stunning art film, in that every frame could stand alone as a beautiful photograph.

Ai Wei Wei forces us to look into the eyes of individual men, women and children and ask what has billions $$ of US weaponry accomplished beyond death and destruction and millions of refugees.

#15 Comment By BCZ On December 3, 2017 @ 7:27 am

I think that there is a middle ground between abandoning the historical mission to spread republican liberty and the kind of interventions that create so many refugees with such reliability.

We could use more soft methods to promote and give aid and comfort to local democrats in these countries, and protect our citizens who go and help with foreign liberation movements.

It’s slower, harder, and less glorious but it also means nobody dies who didn’t sign up for that exact mission and we aren’t bringing our military technology into these theatres and laying infrastructure in waste.

It will also mean American civilians will die on their adventures as they did in Spain in the 1930’s.

I see no reason why we could change how we see our democracy promotion policy and vastly reduce the refugee crisis. It’s not either/or.

But, it’s hard not to see that the current strategy is bad all around.

#16 Comment By Thaomas On December 3, 2017 @ 11:36 am

This misses the point. Promoting democracy (actually, promoting liberalism) is a good thing. Invading Iraq was not “promoting democracy” but it sure was “destabilizing.”

#17 Comment By Youknowho On December 3, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

At this moment there is another cathegory of refugees: climate change refugees.

They are not counted as such, because when climate changes and water becomes a scarce resource, people will fight for it. And thus you have wars which cause war refugees.

The Pentagon has already classified climate change as a national security threat.

But in the meantime, the GOP and the White House go on denying it and silencing the scientists who work for EPA, NOAA, and the Weather Bureau, in an effort to deny reality not seen since Comrade Lysenko.

It will NOT end well.

#18 Comment By Zech Judy On December 3, 2017 @ 4:07 pm

As I recall, “reducing refugees” was one of the justifications for intervening in Libya. Even before the coalition interfered, there were boatloads of refugees heading for Italy. The argument went that if the war ended earlier, the refugee situation would be lessened. Or so it was argued. [2]

#19 Comment By Wait Til 2018 On December 3, 2017 @ 5:19 pm

All I can say is “yes please”.

I’ve been waiting for a foreign policy that puts reduction in immigrants and refugees first and foremost. I had hoped Trump would at least get us started in that direction, but I was wrong.

There are even more immigrants coming in now. There are still millions of illegals. There are still refugees pouring in from everywhere. There are even more H1-B visa holders coming in under Trump than there were under Obama. He gave Wall Street all the cheap labor it wanted and screwed the American worker.

#20 Comment By Kirt Higdon On December 3, 2017 @ 6:56 pm

@Michael Kenny

So the solution to instability in the world is regime change in Russia – got it. Nothing would stop refugee flows like a nuclear war. This would be a bad joke were it not for the fact that establishment opinion management seems now dedicated to promoting war against Russia – hopefully by overthrowing the current US president, which I’m sure would bring about even more stability.

#21 Comment By anon On December 4, 2017 @ 12:56 am

Stability was a core conservative value at one time, before the thrill of experimentation took the Movement by storm.

No culture prospered in anarchy; no great achievement grew from the destruction of anarchy. Conservatives fell in thrall to the notion of “creative destruction” but seem to neglect the core of that concept: The better thing already existed.

In foreign policy, stability means granting other nations the respect we demand for ourselves, even the right to be led by idiots.