The unfolding crisis in Ukraine has prompted a new and forceful wave of commentary lamenting U.S. passivity in the world. On February 28, only a few hours after President Obama announced that “there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine,” Russian President Vladimir Putin requested and received the Duma’s approval to send forces into Ukraine. The Washington Post summarized the reaction of many observers around the world: “Rarely has a threat from a U.S. president been dismissed as quickly—and comprehensively.”
Those who discern weakness in America’s response tend to regard it as part of a wider arc of U.S. impotence, encompassing (at a minimum) an ineffective “reset” with Russia; chaos in Iraq following the U.S. withdrawal; a frail security environment in Afghanistan that, some fear, will deteriorate further after the U.S. withdraws; seeming powerlessness to stop internecine Syrian carnage; a failure to slow Iran’s uranium-enrichment program; and an inability to dissuade China’s increasing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific.
However self-evident this assessment may appear at first blush, it proves misguided upon further reflection. Consider the annexation of Crimea: even most critics of the Obama administration’s foreign policy concede that there is little, if anything, the U.S. could have done to forestall that undertaking. Given that verdict, the diagnosis of “weakness” does not follow. On the other side of the debate, numerous observers have urged the U.S. to exercise restraint and rejected the judgment that Russia’s latest adventurism poses a fundamental threat to international order. This latter assessment is closer to the mark: while U.S. leadership in international affairs remains vital, it should not be exercised in accordance with what might be called the “do something now” doctrine.
The “Do Something Now” Doctrine
The “do something now” doctrine holds that the U.S. should respond strongly at the outset when foreign policy crises arise. If it does not, the thinking goes, adversaries and allies alike will premise their subsequent conduct on an assumption of U.S. vacillation. Adherents fear a kind of contagion or multiplier effect, whereby U.S. weakness in one theater emboldens its adversaries in others, thereby reinforcing the precipitant weakness.
Neither the doctrine nor criticism of it is new. In Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, Stephen Sestanovich argues that U.S. foreign policy in the postwar era has alternated between maximalism and retrenchment: “Again and again,” he explains, “one has provided a corrective to he other’s mistakes.” Both of those postures “have regularly yielded to blindness, inertia, and overconfidence. It is easy to think of maximalists as more likely to ‘overdo’ it, but retrenchers have overdone things too—in the opposite direction.” The “do something doctrine” has naturally found its most powerful voice when the latter have been at the helm. In October 1957, for example, prominent political commentator Richard Rovere warned that an appreciation of America’s foreign-policy limits should not be allowed to sow “an illusion of American omnipotence”—what he described later as “a realpolitik of inaction.”
A critique of the “do something now” doctrine is in order not only because it is gaining renewed traction, but also because, more importantly, social media have heightened its influence. In an age of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, perceptions of weakness crystallize far more rapidly, as do pressures to respond decisively in times of crisis; as such, the windows for imaginative diplomacy shrink. One more note before proceeding: I chose to say “preliminary critique” in the title rather than “critique” because a complete treatment would have to grapple with this new dimension. While responsiveness to public opinion will always be essential, leaders will increasingly have to train themselves to exit the frenzied chamber of social media and engage in careful reflection. In The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen share Henry Kissinger’s observations on these points:
‘It is hard to imagine de Gaulles and Churchills appealing in the world of Facebook,’ he said. In an age of hyper-connectivity, ‘I don’t see people willing to stand by themselves and to have the confidence to stand up alone.’ Instead, a kind of ‘mad consensus’ will drive the world and few people will be willing to openly oppose it, which is precisely the kind of risk that a leader must take. ‘Unique leadership is a human thing, and is not going to be produced by a mass social community.’
Guidelines for Credibility
This new media environment also reinforces the judgment that America’s credibility suffers when it fails to respond to a crisis. But does its credibility not suffer as much, if not more, when it vows that it will respond but ultimately does not (hence the growing call to retire “red lines” as an instrument of pressure, military or otherwise); or when, having decided to respond in some fashion, it proves unable to make much of a dent? Or, to take the worst outcome, what if a rash U.S. response prevents it from pursuing diplomatic recourses? The more rapidly one decides to act in a moment of crisis, the more one will be misled into believing that one’s options are binary: do nothing or “go all out,” as it were.
An unlikely affirmation of these points comes from the late Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Given the staunchness of his opposition to communism and the fierceness of his attacks upon the Carter administration’s alleged fecklessness, one might have expected him to sympathize with the “do something now” doctrine. When David Ignatius interviewed Jackson, however, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (Ayatollah Khomeini had ascended to power in Iran less than a year before), he found him to be more even-keeled:
Rather than demanding tougher statements or more saber-rattling, he said he worried about ‘overreaction’ to events: ‘We appear to be going from one crisis to another,’ with Washington dispensing ‘red-hot rhetoric at least once a week about the dire consequences of this or that or something else.’
‘We need to be prudent,’ said Jackson, who was perhaps the most prominent Cold Warrior of his day. ‘There is a need for the U.S. to make careful decisions, stand by those decisions, and avoid sending false or conflicting signals’ to U.S. allies or the Russians.
Indefinite inaction may be a form of dithering. But as John F. Kennedy’s diplomacy during the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrates, perhaps more vividly than any other example in postwar U.S. history, initial restraint can create strategic openings. Writing shortly before the 50th anniversary of that event, Graham Allison noted that Kennedy’s advisors gave him a stark choice: “attack or accept Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. But Kennedy rejected both. Instead of choosing between them, he crafted an imaginative alternative.” As a result, he avoided a nuclear exchange in which untold numbers of Americans and Soviets would have died.
The distinction between restraint and inaction is similarly apparent when considering the situation that is evolving in Ukraine. An impulsive U.S. response to Russia’s incursion may well have caused (what remains) a limited crisis to escalate into a more widespread challenge to international order. Putin would surely have exploited the opportunity to paint the U.S. as the instigator of a new Cold War. Instead, having overplayed his hand, he has compounded Russia’s diplomatic isolation and reenergized a NATO in search of purpose and cohesion. As such, the U.S. is better equipped to work with its European allies and international institutions to suppress further Russian revanchism and work towards securing a “Finland” outcome (Finland is not a member of NATO, and it values its strong economic ties with Russia, but it can scarcely be considered a de facto Russian satellite) without sacrificing cooperation with Russia on crucial issues.
As a general principle, crisis management should either enable or be subordinated to the pursuit of vital national interests. The U.S. does not enhance its credibility by nurturing the perception that it will take the lead in addressing every undesirable contingency; in doing so, it nurtures unreasonable expectations and demonstrates either an inability or unwillingness to accept the limits to its influence. As its relative decline continues, the U.S. must encourage its allies—especially in Western Europe and the Asia-Pacific—to be more resourceful in protecting their own core interests.
U.S. Agency and Influence
This encouragement reflects a desire not to relinquish leadership, but rather, to exercise it more effectively. Paradoxically, while the “do something now” doctrine often diagnoses U.S. impotence prematurely, it also exaggerates U.S. agency. In December 1952, Scottish historian Denis Brogan urged Americans to reject the belief that “the world must go the American way if the Americans want it strongly enough” and the attendant suggestion that “the whole world…can be moving in directions annoying or dangerous to the American people only because some elected or non-elected Americans are fools or knaves.” Brogan’s insight applies equally to Republican and Democratic critics of U.S. foreign policy. The judgments that he warned against proceed from a conviction that the U.S. once enjoyed hegemony, which it is now choosing to relinquish. In truth, it has never been able to exercise anything approximating control over the course of international affairs: consider, to name only a few strategic headaches, the Soviet Union’s detonation of a nuclear weapon (1949), the “loss” of China (only one month later!), stalemate in the Korean War (1953), the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising (1957), the botched attempt to depose Fidel Castro (1961), the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968), the fall of Saigon (1975), and the overthrow of the Shah of Iran (1979).
Not even the most bullish appraiser of America’s strategic prospects would deny the gravity of its foreign-policy challenges, which include strategic tensions between China and Japan, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and the metastasis of al-Qa’ida offshoots across the Levant. But, as the highly incomplete list above suggests, one could produce a comparable catalogue of foreign-policy crises for every single year of the postwar era. Indeed, it is hard to reconcile U.S. ascendancy over the past seven decades with the reality that prominent observers have been bemoaning its declining influence throughout that time. Simply reciting the array of foreign-policy challenges that confront the U.S. at a given time creates a misleading impression. It has faced many such challenges before, and it will face many such challenges for as long as it is the world’s preeminent power. In appraising any such litany, one should focus not on the likelihood that such challenges can be solved—few lend themselves to total resolution—but on the extent to which they can be circumscribed.
A better way to judge U.S. influence is to assess the health of the international system in which they play out—the system that the U.S. has played the signal role in nurturing and developing for seven decades. Notwithstanding the reality of relative decline, the U.S. sits at the center of this system. In their classic response to Harry Truman’s January 1950 directive, which requested a reassessment of America’s “objectives in peace and war,” Paul Nitze and his colleagues observed that America’s “fundamental purpose” is to foster “a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish.” Influential officials and observers at the time had serious doubts about the possibility of its attainment. In April 1954, for example, then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles warned that “the Soviet rulers seek gradually to divide and weaken the free nations.” “It is not easy,” he explained, “to devise policies which will counter a danger so centralized and so vast, so varied and so sustained.”
In the intervening decades, though, in large part because of strategic U.S. vision, the prospect of a great-power war has diminished significantly, as has that of a nuclear explosion or exchange; the global economy has benefited enormously from a progressive reduction in barriers to trade and investment, along with the development of a system of global commons; and there is no longer an ideological competition of comparable scale or intensity to that which the U.S. and Soviet Union fought. The “rest,” especially China, will continue to mold the international system over time, but they have neither demonstrated the ability nor evinced the desire to overturn it in the medium run. And, because the U.S. possesses a prodigious reserve of what Anne-Marie Slaughter calls “networked power,” it remains better positioned than any other country to mobilize coalitions of the willing to address urgent global challenges.
A Hierarchy of Foreign-Policy Challenges
Beyond creating an unfounded impression of U.S. haplessness, the “do something now” doctrine offers limited prescriptive guidance. Critiques of the Obama administration’s foreign policy often end with what is supposed to be a self-evident verdict: if only the U.S. had strong leadership—leadership that was decisive in times of crisis, unafraid to deploy hard power, and versed in the law of the jungle that governs international affairs—many of the challenges that it faces abroad would either disappear or become less serious. While realism should not become a pretext for inaction—the U.S. would indeed be reduced to a bystander if it averted complex challenges abroad on account of their complexity—foreign policy is, Kissinger explains, “the art of establishing priorities” abroad. Discerning leaders are capable of defining them; strong ones, of resisting both political and popular pressure to accord equal attention to priorities that do not merit it.
Specifically, U.S. policymakers should evaluate foreign-policy challenges on the basis of at least two criteria: the threat that they pose to vital U.S. national interests and the degree to which the U.S. can address them. These two criteria produce four categories of challenges, ranked in descending order of how much focus they should receive: (1) those that threaten vital U.S. national interests and are at least partially susceptible to U.S. influence; (2) those that threaten vital U.S. national interests but are largely insusceptible to U.S. influence; (3) those that do not threaten vital U.S. national interests but are at least partially susceptible to U.S. influence; and (4) those that do not threaten vital U.S. national interests and are largely insusceptible to U.S. influence.
Think of international order as a ship that is charting turbulent waters. The captain’s responsibility is to move the ship’s crew and passengers to safer ones. There will inexorably be disturbances along the journey. The captain has to assess which ones are of little to no concern; which ones, if not addressed, could take the ship off course; and which ones, if not addressed, could sink the ship. If the captain comes to fear that every disturbance could jeopardize its journey, he or she will constantly be racing around the vessel; by the time one disturbance has been contained, extant ones may have gotten worse, and others will have arisen. Without the captain at the helm to see and steer, the ship will invariably veer off course; it will also be far more vulnerable to collisions with rocks and attacks by pirates.
Even in the most dexterous of hands, foreign policy that operates in perpetual crisis-management mode can only continue so far before it becomes untethered to underlying strategic trends—a risk that is especially acute given the frailty of America’s economic recovery. Less than a month after the Department of Defense announced that the U.S. military would “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” the Syrian Army initiated a massive crackdown on Homs, the stronghold of elements opposed to Bashar al-Assad’s rule, creating strong pressure on the Obama administration to restore its focus on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The pendulum swung back this past November when, following China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone, Sino-Japanese strategic tensions took a sharp downturn. A conundrum emerged: how could the U.S. bolster its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific without ignoring MENA? Vali Nasr argued earlier this year that the U.S. has to “convincingly divide its attention between these two parts of the world….The key to success is underscoring our commitment to both, rather than complaining of an either-or choice.” Now, amid Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the fear that it may be tempted to press further west, some are calling for the U.S. to sustain yet another rebalance, this time to Eastern Europe.
Rebalancing intrinsically involves a reallocation of focus and resources. Multiple rebalancings are difficult to sustain, and omni-directional rebalancing—the result of taking the “do something now” doctrine to its extreme—is logically impossible. Developments of the past two years do not change the rationale for focusing on the original rebalancing—that is, to the Asia-Pacific. In October 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wound down, the U.S. would have to “accelerate efforts to pivot to new global realities….In a time of scarce resources…we need to invest them wisely where they will yield the biggest returns, which is why the Asia-Pacific represents such a real 21st-century opportunity for us.” That assessment is as valid today, if not more. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel testified recently that the region “boasts over half the world’s population, half of the world’s GDP, and nearly half of the world’s trade, and is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world.” Maintaining its focus on the Asia-Pacific should not, and need not, render the U.S. oblivious to flashpoints elsewhere; instead, it should allow the U.S. to retain its strategic orientation during and after crises outside of the region.
A final, related point: the “do something now” doctrine belies the long-term nature of sustaining international order, a vexing enterprise with no defined outcome. The rehabilitation of Germany and Japan after the Second World War, the containment of Soviet expansionism, and the integration of China into the global economy all required decades. Many of the phenomena that are now transforming the international system will similarly play out over the long term: for example, the establishment of a new balance in MENA and the evolution of an accommodation between the U.S. and China in the Asia-Pacific. Each of these phenomena will entail numerous crises. It is neither realistic nor necessary for the U.S. to “win” each time; some crises will prove to be strategic setbacks, while others will be washes. It behooves the U.S., instead, to continue moving the ship forward.
Ali Wyne is an associate of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat. He is a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).