Since 2008, the American electorate has been weary (and wary) of overseas adventure. This, on the whole, is a smart response to the U.S.’s chaotic attempts at “nation-building” in Afghanistan and Iraq. The retrenchment and nativism of the Democratic and Republican bases is a part of this response, if an extreme one. It should not be allowed to drive policy — but neither should a desire to react drive our priorities.
Despite criticism to the contrary, President Obama has responded to several foreign policy challenges with hard-nosed realism, as evidenced by his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic. He asks two fundamental questions that should be the starting point of any foreign policymaker: first, is a so-called “crisis” detrimental to U.S. security; and second, does it require a military response prima facie, or will action short of a military response solve the “crisis”?
Obama is not one to see the U.S. as the only actor capable of responding to, or solving, a “crisis.” This has earned him sharp criticism for failing to shape events, which may or may not be fair. But it has also saved U.S. lives, manpower and resources from wasteful over-extension.
Obama’s cool-headed, calculated responses to the crises of his tenure are worth learning from, and in many cases, replicating.
It is hard to resist the temptation to act when the media and members of Congress insist that we must do something. But this temptation misses the forest for the trees:
The crisis in Syria is not the continued existence of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime (although it has destabilized the region). The crisis is the nine million refugees the Syrian civil war has created — the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
The crisis in Nigeria is not the latest gruesome act by Boko Haram. The crisis is the high level of youth unemployment that makes joining Boko Haram a realistic alternative to nonviolent employment.
The crisis in Southeast Asia is not North Korea’s latest missile test. The crisis is a regional power imbalance which China can exploit via its client-state North Korea.
What should drive our policy priorities and resource allocation, then?
Long-term goals such as establishing relationships or mending alliances; proactively preventing conflicts over water (Africa) or territory (Southeast Asia); and creating spaces for problematic actors (e.g. Russia, Iran) to contribute productively, or denying them spaces to contribute destructively, should be the next President’s foreign policy priorities.
In short, the next President needs to articulate a global vision for the next 25 years.
This vision is for two audiences:
First, our international partners need to know what we are willing to do and where. And they need to prepare their markets and their governance accordingly.
Second, American citizens need to understand that the latest flare in the Middle East, while tragic, does not require our undivided attention. Americans are more likely to die under a falling fridge than in a terror attack, and our inordinate fear of terrorism has led us to make poor decisions and ignore realities in Asia and Latin America that have much more meaningful effects on our culture.
The rush to solve the comparatively minor — if newsier — “crisis” instead of putting in the long hours (outside of camera-shot) to solve long-term problems is misguided.
I hope our next president will avoid the temptation to please impatient constituencies with shoot-first-ask-questions-later policymaking, and instead map out a future that diminishes the risk of these crises in the first place.
This post was also published on LinkedIn.
Note: This post contains Ryan R. Migeed’s own thoughts and opinions, which do not necessarily reflect those of his employer, or any organization(s) of which he is a member.