The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. So said Thucydides in his account of the Peloponnesian War. And though these words were written nearly 2,500 years ago, the idea that a state’s power determines its conduct remains one of the canons of modern international relations theory.
To be sure, strong countries often do restrain their impulse to conquer or coerce weaker states. They may determine that the benefits are low, even if the costs and risks are also. And they may worry that undertaking a foreign adventure in a faraway place will distract them from more proximate security threats. In short, they prioritize. They choose.
But what informs the choices of when and whether to act for a nearly omnipotent state? Was Thucydides wrong? Can a superpower choose not to use its power? And if so, what restrains it?
Ian Bremmer believes that the strongest state in the international system, the United States, can and should choose. The greatest sin, he writes in Superpower, would be a failure to do so. And, crucially, Bremmer believes that the American people should have a major say in determining the nation’s foreign policies.
He starts with a simple 10-question survey testing the reader’s thoughts on various foreign-policy questions. The results reveal three distinct and competing approaches—Independent America, Moneyball America, and Indispensable America.
Independent America eschews most foreign entanglements and calls on Americans to focus on nation building at home. The United States should lead the world by its example, chiefly by creating a more perfect union consistent with the nation’s founding principles. Independent Americans are intensely proud of their country’s great virtues, but they appreciate that “others love their countries too, and they don’t consider themselves to be ‘Americans at an earlier stage of development’.” As Bremmer explains on behalf of Independent Americans, “It is foolish and arrogant to believe that we know better than the citizens of other countries how their governments should spend, save, invest and make laws.” It is time for U.S. allies to take responsibility for their own security and play a more active role in their respective regions.
The second option borrows from Michael Lewis’s bestselling book (later a film) Moneyball, about the cash-strapped Oakland A’s baseball team: Moneyball America is all about value. U.S. foreign policy should rely on “a cold-blooded, interest-driven approach” focused on safeguarding the nation’s security and prosperity with the minimal possible investment of blood and treasure. This approach accepts that the United States cannot solve every problem, or intervene in every distant conflict, but rejects Independent America’s standoffishness. Certain international challenges, the Moneyballers say, demand America’s involvement. The country’s leaders, however, “need a clear and consistent set of guidelines”—for example, the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine—“to help them decide when war is the last best means of defending U.S. interests.” Failure to discipline our conduct abroad will lead to overstretch and exhaustion.
Such talk is deeply offensive to the advocates of an Indispensable America, Bremmer’s third foreign-policy archetype. The United States of America isn’t a baseball team, for goodness’ sake! America is exceptional because of all that it has done for the world. Leading by example, as the Independent Americans (aka “Isolationists”) would do, is ineffective and even cowardly when so many people around the planet are denied basic freedoms. More democracy and respect for human rights will produce a stable, secure world. Americans, this view holds, must therefore continue to lead a global effort to promote our values, and we shouldn’t confine ourselves to the Moneyballers’ penny-pinching ways.
Few people fall perfectly into any one category. But Bremmer makes the best possible case for each. He writes with a combination of grace and clarity that makes the book easily accessible to a general audience.
Discerning what Bremmer actually believes, as opposed to what his ideal types believe, becomes an interesting exercise. He explains that when he began writing he “didn’t know which of these three choices I would favor,” a claim that seems surprising, if not absurd. Bremmer, the founder and president of the consulting firm Eurasia Group and the author of nine books on international affairs, would seem to have had plenty of time by now to form his views on the subject.
Indeed, one would expect Bremmer to be the stereotypical Indispensable American. He is a member in good standing of a U.S. foreign-policy elite that consistently makes the case for interventionism. Then again, policymakers and pundits sometimes lapse into the middle ground of Moneyballism as a matter of sheer practicality. Caspar Weinberger and Colin Powell were foreign-policy insiders, too, after all, yet they realized that sustaining global crusades becomes more challenging after debacles such as the Vietnam War. In periods of great public angst, including the current introspection after the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the elite soothes Americans’ nerves by assuring them “never again,” talking loudly of lessons learned, and pledging to husband the nation’s resources and intervene abroad only when absolutely necessary.
But Bremmer ultimately eschews the safe middle ground. He declares in the book’s penultimate chapter that his view most closely aligns with that of Independent America, “in part because I believe our leaders will make fewer costly mistakes if they pay greater heed, not just lip service, to our Constitution” and also because U.S. leaders “must build a foreign policy that can earn strong and lasting public backing.” That backing, Bremmer explains, does not exist for Indispensable America and is difficult to secure even for the Moneyball approach.
But is public support really all that important? Does public skepticism of foreign entanglements actually serve as an effective constraint on an interventionist class with the will—and, crucially, the means—to meddle in foreign conflicts?
Signs point to no. Bremmer’s good sense and skillful exposition notwithstanding, it doesn’t appear to matter that 80 percent of Americans agree with the statement that the United States should “not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems”—a classic Independent America formulation. Or consider the public’s strong disinclination to use military force if Russia attacks one of its neighbors. A YouGov poll taken in March 2014 found that just 40 percent of adult Americans would favor using force to defend Poland, only 29 percent would defend Turkey, and only 21 percent would use force to defend Latvia. These are all NATO allies that, presumably unbeknownst to the average American, we are treaty-bound to defend. A mere 56 percent would defend Britain. “If you can barely get a majority of Americans to support a defense of Britain,” Bremmer observes, “it’s clear that the American people want no more foreign wars of choice.” Yet we get more wars of choice, even to defend countries that are not U.S. treaty allies, because the interventionist elite is predisposed to engage in disputes that the public is content to avoid.
Undeterred, Bremmer still believes that the United States can choose to adopt a more limited role in the world. America’s conduct since the end of World War II, and especially since the end of the Cold War, suggests otherwise. This doesn’t mean that Bremmer is wrong, but his optimism appears to be misplaced: it will likely take a combination of both internal and external structural constraints to discipline America’s choices. For now, these constraints are still too weak. Would-be challengers are reluctant to confront the United States across the board and are generally content to let Americans fritter away blood and treasure on marginal adventures in someone else’s neighborhood.
The domestic factors limiting America’s exercise of power may be even less consequential. The American people aren’t sufficiently mobilized even by our foreign-policy disasters to demand a dramatic change of course. The costs of these policies are obscured by endless debt, and the average American is under no formal obligation to risk his or her life in the wars that the nation fights. For the vast majority of Americans, U.S. foreign policy is a spectator sport.
That fact imposes a special obligation on the nation’s elites to ponder the purposes of our foreign policy and the wars fought under its guise. But that hasn’t occurred because, for the most part, these elites are either passive supporters or active advocates of Indispensable America.
But what about the donor class? Where are the American entrepreneurs who give to political campaigns or fund nonprofits? Where is that vast silent majority that is unconvinced or horrified by the Indispensable Americans’ delusions of grandeur?
In general, those who want less government intervention here at home—lower taxes, fewer regulations, and less spending—have ceded the foreign-policy terrain to the interventionists. The few wealthy activists who care most deeply about U.S. foreign policy are drawn almost exclusively from the 20 percent of the population that ascribes unabashedly to America the Indispensable.
Neither major party, therefore, is offering voters a genuine choice on foreign policy; instead they serve up different versions of Indispensable. Occasionally, a Moneyballer will come on the scene, calling his approach “smart power” or “discriminate power,” but as with the similar concept of “selective engagement,” the implementation tends to be less selective than the public desires.
It is therefore encouraging that at least one elite skeptic of U.S. foreign policy has spoken out. Ian Bremmer has, with an open mind, scrutinized U.S. foreign policy and found it wanting. And his clear and elegant prose may cause others to do the same.
But we must also hear from America’s vast business and entrepreneurial class. Their relative silence is tragic, if not shameful. It is high time for the absent sensible center to stand and be counted.
Until they speak up, the interventionist elite within the two major political parties will remain dominant. They will continue to drag the country along with them into countless foreign quagmires. And they will refuse to offer a coherent rationale to explain when the United States acts and when it does not. If you have a big hammer, everything looks like a nail. Power, it turns out, has a logic all its own.
Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free.