American Foreign Policy is Broken

September 2, 2013

The Obama administration’s struggle to respond to the Syrian regime’s almost certain use of chemical weapons is the culmination of over a decade of bankrupt and bungled US foreign policy. The past few days have made it clear that neither the American public nor their counterparts around the world trust the US government to lead the international community through another military conflict. On Saturday, President Obama punted the decision to Congress, which will create a tortured week or more of debate, accusations, and grandstanding in the US. Unfortunately, few are likely to do the soul-searching required to realize just how bad a state American foreign policy is in.

For over a decade, America has bullied and bruised its way through crisis after crisis, leaving behind damaged relationships, broken societies, and discarded international norms. Since 9/11, US foreign policy has been characterized by an overwhelming reliance on military force as the instrument of choice, and by an overbearing and gratingly moralistic unilateralism that has done great damage to global stability, US prestige, and the alliances and relationships that should guard the international order.

Thus, as the world faces yet another crisis—which will certainly not be the last to darken this decade—we find Secretary of State John Kerry fretting over American credibility and the inviolability of international norms. “We have been warned,” Kerry declared, “against inaction, indifference, and especially against silence when it mattered most.” He argued that the issue at hand

matters deeply to the credibility and the future interests of the United States of America and our allies. It matters because a lot of other countries, whose policy has challenged these international norms, are watching. They are watching. They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say.

It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.

Yes, credibility, the old siren song of American foreign policy. The same lure of credibility drew us into a losing battle in Vietnam, as it has drawn us into a string of subsequent military adventures, each of which sapped the very credibility policy-makers sought to uphold. The very fact that the US has to go to war so frequently in pursuit of foreign policy ends and in defense of international norms should sound an alarm. When you have no credibility and you lack the patience to build it, you find yourself left with no options but to fight.

This credibility deficit owes significantly to the Bush Administration’s handling of the “Global War on Terror” and the rush to war in Iraq in 2003. Yet the same sort of kinetics-first approach to foreign policy has continued unabated with the Obama administration’s handling of a host of crises. After the bungling of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the shine of US military power as an instrument capable of solving the world’s problems has faded. But the American foreign policy elite still has not given up on this faith in military force as a panacea. It is not, except perhaps as a 10 percent accompaniment to a 90 percent symphony of skillful international diplomacy and consensus building.

Due to characteristic American impatient righteousness and to domestic political pressures that reduce our discourse to an apoplectic cacophony, US diplomacy has been reduced to half-hearted, moralizing lectures to the rest of the world accompanied by the threat of unilateral use of force to police the international order. US officials swear that they value international norms, but they are too impatient to bolster and follow those same norms and institutions when crisis strikes.

When it comes to Syria, then, it should be no surprise that world leaders are unable to even begin building an international consensus. They’ve failed even at aligning their own constituents behind them. Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK put the question of military intervention in Syria to a parliamentary vote, but made little effort toward building support. Unsurprisingly, he was rebuked,  with even his own party deserting him. And President Obama has now publicly thrown the gauntlet down in what seemed much like a huffy taunt, daring Congress to shy from the righteous path he has chosen. The coming debate is unlikely to create clear consensus, much less enhance the credibility of the American position on the world stage. Tellingly, the two parties are so petulantly estranged that they even took their briefings on the situation separately.

It is high time that the US foreign policy elites clamored for something other than war. It is time not only to seek to uphold international norms, but also to follow and nurture them. It is time for the US to realize that it cannot go it alone, and cannot lead by pushing. Rather, it must lead by building consensus and doing the patient, slow, grating work of diplomacy. It will take a good deal of time to heal the wounds created by more than a decade of trampling all over the rest of the world. Indeed, it is precisely because of American unilateralism that there is no consensus to be found today when a dictator inflicts atrocities upon his people. Yet, as grave as the toll is in Syria, rushing into another unilateral action (that will solve nothing militarily, by the way) will only deepen and prolong the harm done to international norms and institutions. The next crisis may be even more critical to core US national interests. The community that US policy-makers find on that dark day will be the one that they either cultivate or further alienate today.


Peter J. Munson is responsible for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation, coming to this position after his retirement from the US Marine Corps in 2013. He is a Middle East specialist with professional proficiency in Arabic. Munson is the author of two books: “War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History” and “Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.”


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