The big problem with American foreign policy is that there isn't one. Our current foreign policy can be boiled down to three words. "Don't Hate Us." The current administration has introduced an innovative fourth word. "Please."
It's a long way from a century ago when American leaders still had no foreign policy, besides warning European countries to stay out of their hemisphere, but had begun to think that being involved in the affairs of other countries was a prerequisite for global good citizenship.
Theodore Roosevelt won a Nobel Prize for trying to get the Russians and Japanese to end a disastrous war in which the Japanese had the suicide determination and the Russians had the machine guns, but barely broke even.
Roosevelt, like many of his successors, had no true foreign policy beyond articulating American greatness on the world stage. But the deeper those successors involved themselves in international politics, the more they came to see American greatness as the obstacle, not the point. The more the United States became involved in organizing global alliances to hold back one threat or another, the more that same national greatness began to be seen as an obstacle to maximizing those alliances.
A hundred years ago, American presidents thought that their country should be a world power because of the manifest destiny of its national greatness. A century later they were minimizing that national greatness to preserve world power status.
Roosevelt's "Pedicaris alive or Raisuli dead" became "Let's Pull Together" and "Don't Hate Us" during the Cold War. And today the motto, in a world where a whole lot of people want to do it, is, "Please Don't Kill Us."
The United States does not appease in pursuit of its objectives, appeasement has become the objective. Being hated is the ultimate national security threat. Being loved is the ultimate national security objective. These aren't even sarcastic observations. They are actual policy.
CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) through outreach to Muslims is our foreign policy and like global warming and gay rights, it encompasses every single area of our government, to the absurd extent that NASA's top priority under the dog-eater-in-chief was designated as improving Muslim self-esteem. NASA's former priority of boosting American self-esteem was no longer appropriate because that would just make people hate us even more and make us act in such a way that they would hate us.
Americans and American leaders now both want the same thing. To be left alone. But American leaders remain convinced that the best way to be left alone is to appease those who might want to attack their country by minimizing national power and contributing more lunch money to their international cause of free lunches.
America is often accused of bullying other nations, but our policies are not those of a bully, they are those of his victim cowering in the corner with broken glasses and smeared tears, one hand extended with his crumpled up lunch money inside. Our lunch money total comes into the many billions, but as our bullies and their advocates remind us, we're rich enough to be able to afford it.
Reactive foreign policies are a recipe for defeat, but America has never had any foreign policy beyond progressive world citizenship and coalition building against global threats. And that has made American into the world's social worker and the world's policeman for so long that it has hardly any sense of what it might want for itself, as a country.
America is still involved in global citizenship projects even though the dictatorships who are the plurality of the global polity and the progressives who define global citizenship innately hate it. while working hard at maintaining global coalitions that do not exist against a threat that not even it is prepared to name. Whatever relevance these had, they no longer have any relevance when the conventional clash of nations of the Cold War gave way to the ride of the barbarians in the Islamic Wars of Terror.
The United States has been suckered into playing the same game as Israel. The impossible game of winning wars without alienating anyone. And that game is played by not winning wars and being more hated than if they had won all those wars. If we are forced to fight because we are hated, then the only way to avoid fighting is not be hated which means fighting just enough to survive, but not enough to earn us any more than the minimum amount of hate balanced against the minimum amount of survival. And if we win, maybe they'll leave us alone. If they don't, we'll fight back even less.
During the Cold War the United States sacrificed its economy, its trade balance and its manufacturing sector to score coalition points and contain Communism. With Communism defeated and capitalism thriving in Russia and China, the United States is now stripping away civil liberties to counter Islamic terrorism. But that doesn't just mean strip searches in airports, it means outlawing anything that offends Muslims. And if we survive that, and the Muslim world becomes a mecca of free speech, then we'll have won yet another Pyrrhic victory at our own expense.
Countering external threats is a legitimate foreign policy interest, but it cannot be the only interest. That way leads to a purely reactive foreign policy and down the garden path to Stockholm Syndrome politics that accept responsibility for the actions of an aggressor to maintain the illusion of control over his actions. Our leaders, the ones who eat dogs and the ones who just pose for photos with them, are already there. If we reach European critical velocity, then we'll be there as an entire nation, not just members of our chattering and spending classes.
America needs a foreign policy that is bigger than its defensive needs but smaller than progressive ambitions of global citizenship. It is a foreign policy that cannot be defensive or altruistic, but that actually resurrects the long buried question of American interests, rather than American obligations or needs. And to get there, the country's policymakers have to get in touch with their 19th Century selves and stop asking what America is obligated to do for the world or what it desperately needs from the world, but what it would like to do with the world.
A foreign policy is assertive. It seeks to gain things, rather than to minimize losing things. It is not as concerned with the feelings of the world, as it is with the feelings of its own citizens. To the question of what it wants, it does not answer with the time-honored response of Miss America contestants, to make the world a better place, but rather it answers to make America better, bigger, richer and stronger. That answer is not idealistic, it is realistic. It is how other countries expect us to think and it is how they react no matter how altruistic our policies may be.
American foreign policy needs goals and horizons to gain definition. It needs to want something more than a way to avert the next big explosion or to feed the hungry people of Warlordistan to have a foreign policy that is based on substance, rather than cobwebs of fears and dreams. It needs to stand not for a better world, but for a better, stronger and richer America.