Fixing U.S. Foreign Policy

Mackubin T. Owens

June 1, 1999

“It’s the economy, stupid” was the maxim that guided Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and has defined his presidency ever since. But a number of foreign policy crises have erupted during Mr. Clinton’s second term. His administration’s response to them, from China to Kosovo, leaves much to be desired and indicates that U.S. foreign policy needs to be repaired.

Clinton came to office as a committed internationalist and advocate of multilateralism in international relations. He touts the idea that globalization is transforming the world, creating a liberal world order characterized by the free flow of capital, goods, and ideas and the spread of democracy. In this promised new world order, preventive diplomacy and cooperative structures based on liberal principles will enable us to prevent conflict in the future. Yet he has used force more often than any president in recent history, often unilaterally.

To some, these apparent contradictions indicate that the Clinton administration lacks a unifying vision, a grand strategy, that would define U.S. interests, identify threats to these interests, and describe the means necessary to deal with these threats. Lacking such a unifying vision, it lurches from one crisis to the next.

In fact, the Clinton administration’s approach to foreign affairs does manifest an identifiable theme. The problem is that the goals are flawed and that there is a mismatch between these goals and the means the president employs to achieve them.

As Charles Krauthammer observes, the foreign policy of the Clinton administration rests on three pillars. The first is internationalism, the idea that objectives established by international institutions such as the United Nations take precedence over mere national interests. The second is legalism, the belief in the efficacy of treaties and international law. The third is humanitarianism, the idea that the primary role of the United States in the international arena is to ameliorate suffering throughout the world.

The international problems that have bedeviled the Clinton administration are largely the result of the collision between hope and reality. In the beginning, the administration’s preferred approach was “cooperative security,” which envisions collective action by the international community to deal with threats to peace and prosperity. Thus initially, the administration sought to enhance the prestige of international institutions, especially the United Nations, in order to resolve international problems.

But while cooperative security seems to be nearly risk free and low cost, it is really quite ambitious and costly. Theory notwithstanding, a peaceful, cooperative world does not arise spontaneously. Although the diplomatic and economic instruments of national power would seem to take precedence in such an international regime, anything resembling cooperative security can exist only if it is underwritten by credible military power, the sort of military power that only the U.S. possesses.


As this reality was driven home, the Clinton administration turned to the military instrument more frequently, often unilaterally. But unlike previous administrations, it has usually justified the use of force not to defend its own national interests, but to slay the dragons of injustice and oppression worldwide. Thus rather than justifying U.S. action in Kosovo on the basis of U.S. interests, e.g. stability in Europe and the credibility and viability of NATO, President Clinton invoked humanitarian goals, as if foreign policy were social work. These problems have been exacerbated by a strong moralistic streak most apparent in the diplomacy of Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

The ends pursued by the Clinton administration have created a number of problems. First, the commitments arising from this policy are open ended. This has had an adverse impact on the U.S. military establishment. As “humanitarian” operations have proliferated during the Clinton administration, the military has been stretched thin, especially since at the same time force structure has been reduced substantially.

As a result, operational tempo is extremely high, placing tremendous stress on both personnel and equipment. Readiness has suffered, modernization has been deferred, service members are leaving the military in record numbers, and recruitment shortfalls have developed over the last year. Because of the mismatch between Clinton’s expansive, indeed open-ended foreign policy and the military means necessary to implement this policy, we are on our way to a “hollow force,” reminiscent of the 1970s.

Second, the Clinton use of force has been exemplified by what Sam Huntington calls a policy of “rhetoric and retreat” in which “American leaders repeatedly make threats, promise action, and fail to deliver.” Additionally, since the use of force is rarely justified on the basis of U.S. national interests, the domestic requirement to avoid U.S. casualties supersedes strategic imperatives. Kosovo is a case in point.

Neither the United States nor international society can afford the Clinton approach to foreign policy. If the U.S. is to maintain its dominant position in the world, the gap between ends and means must be closed. The current open-ended goals must be curtailed and the means, especially military means, must be increased.

New Priorities for American Foreign Policy

In order to craft a coherent foreign policy, a statesman must answer three questions. First, what are U.S. national interests? Second, what conditions must be created in order to ensure that American interests will be protected? Third, what means are available and how should they be integrated to achieve the ends?

The most critical U.S. national interests are the security and prosperity of the American polity and its citizens. The security environment that best ensures continued U.S. security and prosperity is a liberal world order. Thus one can agree with President Clinton that the overarching goal of U.S. foreign policy is to create and maintain such an order. This goal is achieved by creating and securing a commonality of interests among a broad array of other states, while deterring the use of force by potential aggressors.

To do this does not require U.S. action everywhere, intimidating both friends and allies, wielding power unilaterally, and ignoring international institutions. A realistic U.S. foreign policy should be based on the interaction of Churchill’s “two As,” arms and alliances. To employ a common analogy, the U.S. is not so much the world’s policeman as it is the world’s sheriff who organizes the posse to maintain order: alliances, coalitions, and the various international institutions that create, at least in some parts of the world, an international society.

U.S. foreign policy must recognize that not all regions of the world are of equal importance to its security and prosperity: a strategy by definition implies priorities. Additionally, U.S. foreign policy must divest itself of the Clinton administration’s moralistic, crusading spirit. Foreign policy is not social work.

But U.S. foreign policy should not err in the opposite direction, accepting the notion of moral equivalence among states. Republican government is better for its citizens than other forms. Accordingly, U.S. foreign policy should, to the degree possible, favor the expansion of republican principles and practices over the expansion of illiberal ones.

Policy makers must recognize the impossibility of expanding these principles by force. For practical purposes, U.S. foreign policy must recognize that regional powers possess security zones, within which it is imprudent to threaten to use U.S. power. We should not presume that the goal of international order means preventing any regional sphere but our own.

U.S. foreign policy should not mandate a single approach to the world. In certain parts of the world, viz. Western Europe, multilateral cooperative security structures exist. In others, e.g. East Asia, a commonality of interest sufficient to support bilateral relations but not multilateral structures prevails. In still others, there are few prospects for cooperation. U.S. foreign policy should seek to strengthen and expand cooperative structures where they exist, and to take advantage of whatever opportunities may arise to develop them where they do not.

The Importance of Strength

Fixing U.S. foreign policy requires not only the articulation of coherent goals, but also the provision of means necessary to achieve those goals. As the Yale historian Donald Kagan has argued, history indicates that “good will, unilateral disarmament, the avoidance of alliances, teaching and preaching the evils of war by those who…seek to preserve peace, are to no avail. What seems to work best…is the possession by those states who wish to preserve peace of the preponderant power and the will to accept the burdens of and responsibilities required to achieve that power.”

To shape the security environment, U.S. policy makers must be able to integrate all the instruments of U.S. national power: diplomatic, economic, and military. The major failures of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy in the realm of means have been (1) the atrophy of U.S. military power at a time when it is increasingly employed in open-ended operations in areas of only marginal importance to the United States, and (2) the hollow threat of force.

The U.S. must maintain a military capable of carrying out four broad missions: deterrence, both conventional and nuclear; constabulary operations; the projection of power to areas of importance to the U.S.; and homeland defense. Policy makers must ensure that the U.S. military is capable of shaping today’s security environment by deterring aggression and reassuring allies while preparing for the possible rise of a future peer competitor.

Foreign policy requires the prudent balance between ends and means. Fixing U.S. foreign policy requires the elimination of the current mismatch between ends and means. The failure to do so is a recipe for failure.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.