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A Prudent Foreign Policy

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Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America
by Ted Galen Carpenter (Cato Institute, 2008); 352 pages.

Change has come to Washington in the form of a new administration. Yet the cast of characters looks much the same. Their philosophies, while differing in degree, remain solidly interventionist. The question isn’t, will America have wars? Rather it is, which wars will America have?

Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute has long battled interventionists of all stripes. Smart Power is a collection of recent articles packed with facts, strongly argued, and easy to read. Someone should slip a copy under Barack Obama’s pillow.

U.S. foreign policy is a failure. Observes Carpenter,

Despite spending as much on the military as the rest of the world combined, Americans do not feel especially secure. And the United States has not enjoyed an era of peace despite the demise of the Soviet empire and the USSR itself.

He observes that the United States has failed to reconsider any alliance, no matter how antiquated. The Soviet Union disintegrates and the Warsaw Pact dissolves, but NATO lives on. South Korea rushes past the North economically but U.S. troops remain. Can’t the U.S. government ever declare its job finished?

A related problem, Carpenter writes, “is the casual extension of security commitments to new client states that are even less relevant than Washington’s traditional Cold War-era allies to America’s security needs.” Why, pray tell, should America extend NATO to Albania, guaranteeing its security from threats unknown?

Finally, Washington has become ever willing to intervene where both the geopolitical situations and specific missions are complicated and unclear — the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq, for instance. All told, Carpenter argues,

The crazy-quilt pattern of U.S. security pledges and military interventions is strong evidence of a foreign policy elite that is intellectually unable to establish priorities or even to develop an analytical framework for assessing strategic choices.

Perhaps most important, he emphasizes that much of what goes on in the world is irrelevant to the United States Argues Carpenter, “Which faction rules in Burma, Liberia, or Georgia need not be of concern to U.S. officials.”


Realism and peace

Carpenter calls for radical change. “America does not need to be — and should not aspire to be — a combination global policeman and global social worker,” he writes.

In Smart Power he covers today’s most important security issues. Regarding NATO, he contends that it is not in America’s interest to make permanent commitments, and “[when] permanent commitments are made to strategically and economically irrelevant clients, the folly is compounded.” The dispute between Georgia and Russia, which occurred after the book’s publication, dramatically illustrates the soundness of Carpenter’s argument.

He also takes on the U.S.-South Korea alliance, as well as Washington’s attempt to negotiate with Pyongyang. Carpenter is a realist on North Korea, but warns against the hawks who would risk starting a Northeast Asian war.

Carpenter’s analysis of Taiwan and China threads the needle between the “China is the next enemy” and “China is the next market” perspectives that characterize the extremes of the debate in the United States. He warns against offering security guarantees to Taiwan, which would risk war with Beijing, but supports selling Taipei the arms to defend itself. As for China, he writes, “U.S. policymakers should not be naïve about the strategy of engagement.” He advocates “a hedging strategy — one that would complicate Beijing’s strategic calculations if the PRC does turn disruptive and expansionist. A crucial component of that strategy is to reduce America’s military profile in East Asia and expecting “such major regional powers as Japan, Indonesia, and Vietnam (as well as India in South Asia on China’s other flank) to play more active and assertive security roles.”

Carpenter was an early critic of the Bush administration’s rush to war in Iraq. He presciently warned (in January 2002),

The inevitable U.S. military victory would not be the end of America’s troubles in Iraq. Indeed, it would mark the start of a new round of headaches. Ousting Saddam would make Washington responsible for Iraq’s political future and entangle the United States in an endless nation-building mission beset by intractable problems.

Carpenter derided the Iraq hawks who “failed to see the most obvious pitfalls of their strategy from day one.” He wrote, “What would work? Withdrawing U.S. troops and allowing the Iraqis to shape their own destiny.” Most telling, he urged Americans to ignore the predictions and promises of the “false prophets who have led the republic into disaster. We must spurn them regarding Iraq and every other foreign policy issue.”

Afghanistan is another Carpenter target. He consistently warned against turning the attack on al-Qaeda and the Taliban into an attempt at nation-building. Moreover, Carpenter explains how Washington’s attempt to suppress drug production hinders its campaign to defeat the Taliban: “This is a case in which U.S. officials need to establish priorities, because it will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve both objectives.”

Carpenter brings the same mix of realism and commitment to peace to his analyses of Iran, the Middle East peace process, and the war on terrorism. All of these subjects are devilishly complicated, and all illustrate that promiscuous U.S. intervention usually has counterproductive consequences.

Carpenter closes his worthy book by taking on two subjects avoided by most foreign-policy scholars. The first is the disastrous foreign policy consequences of the war on drugs. In November 2005 he prophetically asked, “Is Mexico the next Colombia?”

He also looks at how an interventionist foreign policy undercuts domestic liberties. He writes,

Given the scope of Washington’s interventionist foreign policy, we face an increasingly stark choice. Either the United States will adopt a more circumspect role in the world in order (among other reasons) to preserve domestic liberty and constitutional government, or those values will continue to erode, perhaps beyond recovery, to satisfy the requirements of a global interventionist foreign policy. That choice will determine not only how the United States is defended, but whether this country retains the values and principles that make it worth defending.

Ted Carpenter’s Smart Power ably makes the case for moving America in a new direction. It would make a fine addition to the White House library.

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    Doug Bandow is vice president of policy at Citizen Outreach, the Cobden Fellow in International Economics at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and serves as adjunct scholar for The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a former special assistant to President Reagan; he is also a graduate of Stanford Law School and a member of the California and D.C. bars. BOOKS BY DOUG BANDOW: Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus (forthcoming) Tripwire : Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (1996) Perpetuating Poverty : The World Bank, the Imf, and the Developing World (1994) The Politics of Envy : Statism As Theology (1994) The U.S.-South Korean Alliance : Time for a Change (1992) The Politics of Plunder : Misgovernment in Washington (1990) Beyond Good Intentions : A Biblical View of Politics (1988)