Friday, September 6, 2013

American Foreign Policy and the Misplaced Idea of "Making the World Safe"

At today’s G20 Summit, President Obama made a simple statement that shed great light on his Administration’s foreign policy and similarly enunciated a goal that is a key reason that this policy will forever be doomed and will never accomplish its desired aim of maintaining credibility and legitimacy on the world stage. It is a policy goal that has been expressed by prior Presidents and gets to the heart of the reason that, since the end of the Cold War, we have never been able to establish the stature we attained while “head” of the so-called Free World.

The simple statement was that the role of the US “was to make the world safe.” This is a far cry from our Cold War policy. In a bipolar world, preventing the spread of Communism and protecting our nation security were much more clearly delineated. In this multipolar world, with so many regional actors determined to establish their own regional primacy and with so many indigenous actors now relatively free to pursue their own parochial goals, a policy designed “to make the world safe” is fatally flawed.

First, the pursuit of that policy has resulted in our almost complete disdain for the notion of nation-state sovereignty. A look at the UN Charter shows that respect for sovereignty is the quintessential foundation for relations among sovereign states. The post- Cold War era has exposed the random and problematic way that many sovereign borders were drawn during the Age of Imperialism, but disrespecting their existence is not the most appropriate way to address their design.

Further, disrespecting sovereign borders leads to our legitimizing taking action within another nation’s borders in the aim of “protecting citizens” from their government or from other indigenous actors. This creates an issue of consistency, as we now are forced to take action across the globe when apparently identical threats to human rights (the fundamental issue in a policy of “making the world safe”) seem to exist. Since it is impossible for the US to extend its resources and power to all instances of human rights violations, our foreign policy is exposed to the ancillary problem of deciding where we take action, choosing the specific groups we will support, and in some cases deciding when to acknowledge a right to self-determination. This deep involvement in the sovereign affairs of another nation actually ends up making us more like a “small” power rather than a great power that is acting out of self-interest rather than any truly lofty goals. This was not the case during the Cold War, where our actions were seen as an act of leadership that challenged threats to global peace and security. Is it any wonder we have so much trouble organizing coalitions?

Obviously the goal of preserving our national security is an expression of “selfish” behavior, but in a Cold War environment our actions were also simultaneously seen as “selfless” acts since we were acting on behalf of our national security and often that of others by extension. Such is not the case in a world where human rights and “fighting a war on terrorism” are our primary motivators.

And finally, our growing involvement in indigenous, sovereign issues has created a diplomatic environment where we are no longer simply involved in negotiation among sovereign states (the true actors in international law) but we now have the most powerful nation on earth engaged in efforts to build coalitions and deal with individuals and the indigenous groups they speak for. These groups are much more diffuse and unstable than nation-states, and so the problems of friction and unintended consequences become more probable and problematic than had ever existed during the Cold War, where our ability to control events and anticipate outcomes was much more predictable.

President Obama is steering our foreign policy, a policy that he was not the first to express, into dangerous new areas. By showing contempt for the historic primacy of sovereignty and driven by a humanitarian desire to “make the world safe,” it has set an example that quite frankly we do not want other nations to emulate. This is not leadership, and it is unsettling. We have sacrificed much, and from my vantage point, gained very little. We have made ourselves “small” at a time where our “bigness” is more important than ever.

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