The Problem with Our (US) Foreign Policy is That It Is Foreign
Those that know me well will not be surprised at all by my tackling the subject of US foreign policy. During my 45+ years as a US resident I have been more than little perplexed by some of our foreign policies and decisions. For info, I am just an entrepreneur; however, I am also an immigrant that cares deeply about my adopted homeland and the birth country of my two beautiful children. I was born and raised in Macedonia (part of the former Yugoslavia) surrounded by dusty reminders of former great empires dating back at least two millennia, many of which got too big for their britches. As I am fond of saying, I have traveled through centuries and experienced things most Americans only see and watch on the History channel. Note the use of the word ‘watch’, because it is a huge part of the problem I am attempting to address.
In today’s complex, instagrammed world news and information truly travel at the speed of light. That wasn’t the case about 70+ years ago when we became the FIRST global superpower. That term is now reserved for countries with nuclear weapons; conversely, the then ‘superpowers’ were either crumbling empires or just outdated colonial nations who had already divvied up the world and were pretty complacent with their worldly status. Ever heard of the Sykes-Picot agreement? Conceived by two diplomats; a Brit and a Frenchman 100 years ago it still shapes politics and events in the Middle East. They literally drew a straight line between what is Israel today and Afghanistan; the French took the north and the British took the south part of the territory.
At the turn of the last century the USA was nothing more than a friendly little outpost somewhere ‘over there’. In fact, even after WWI many Europeans thought we were inconsequential — an island if you will — not in the geographic but most certainly in the geopolitical and economic sense. And they turned out to be right. Yes, we did help our Euro friends in WWI but that happened towards the tail end and was not a ‘materially-altering event’ as lawyers like to call it. It helped in shortening the war but that was only a matter of time anyway; Der Kaiser (Wilhelm II) was on his way being sauerkrauted!
And then came the Rise of Nazism and altered the balance of power, forever. As a proud son of a highly decorated anti-Nazi warrior I learned about the evils of Nazism first hand. However, and in a very twisted fate, it was the very threat of Nazism that gave rise to the US and our dominance as a global superpower today. So how did we become one and what were the factors that contributed to it? Well, it is actually pretty simple — we ended up building the biggest dick around but in those days we called it the A-bomb. Yup, that is it, which is why we are still opposed to any other nation building one. It dilutes our power, period!
Please take a moment if you will and consider the very circumstances just prior to WWII. We were a nation still hurting and trying to recover from the Great Depression. Unemployment rate for the decade just preceding the Great War averaged 19% and those were then-number collecting figures. My take is they were at least double that. But in 1942 that figure dropped to 4.7% and in 1944 was a staggering 1.2%, best EVER!!! Even if you double that it is still incredibly low, which proves that war is a great economic engine (not condoning it, just stating the facts).
Back to that big dick thing again. We helped our Euro friends once again but this time we were absolutely instrumental in the Allies victory over Nazi Germany (and our own victory over Japan). And that victory came at their own expense; one could argue it was their own fault for not seeing the evil in Hitler’s eyes. Europe was practically destroyed and it was going to take lot of rebuilding. Aided by the very courageous Marshall Plan we helped our Euro friends and, for the first time ever, actively participated in divvying up the world (remember East Germany?) thus grabbing a leading geopolitical position. Reluctantly and, I might add, resentfully, the entire world looked at us as the new kid on the block; we were strong, escaped unscathed from the bloodiest battle the world has ever seen and were in a position to influence decisions and policies on the geopolitical stage. The formation of NATO in 1949 further cemented our global leadership position; we were no longer just a little friendly outpost ‘over there’. And in yet another stroke of economic luck (or genius) the dollar became the de-facto standard for global monetary exchange. Yup, the All Mighty Dollar became a symbol of power and prestige almost overnight. We had indeed arrived on the global stage.
However, as the old adage goes, the more things change the more they remain the same. Though being a global player gave Americans a ton of pride and satisfaction it did not change much of the psyche of the populous, most of whom thought of Europe — and the rest of the world for that matter — as ‘over there’. This is why I have always held on to the belief that what happens ‘over there’ is not really important over here! While most of the world can pinpoint to the map of USA blindfolded, sadly and unfortunately, most Americans could not point to any country ‘over there’ much less countries that have no historical significance to us (e.g.: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, etc.). And that my dear friends is the root cause of most of the global problems on the world’s stage. Not suggesting that we are the ones causing them but our collective lack of appreciation for the nuances and intricacies between various feuding parties that have been going on for several millennia is most certainly exacerbating the problem. (e.g.: the Jewish/Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sunnis vs. Shiites, Catholics vs. Protestants, Serbs vs. Croats, Turks vs. Armenians; Greeks vs. Turks, ad infinitum).
Call it ethnic cleansing, religious oppression, brutal dictatorships, ideology differences, scripture interpretations, class warfare; call it whatever you wish, it has been around for a long, long time and it is not likely to stop anytime soon. Enter our naïve, new-kid-on-the-block-we-can-fix-all-your-problems-with-our-dollars approach and watch all hell break loose. Why you ask? Good question and the simple answer is we are just way too diplomatically inexperienced to solve problems that have been around much longer than we have. It’s like asking a rich teenage kid to rule in a murder case; that kid may know what qualifies as a murder but do they have the wisdom, knowledge and experience to make a solid and just judgment? Nope! And that is precisely how the rest of the word sees us; spoiled rich kids from ‘over there’ with no international diplomacy experience to speak off yet we make decisions that affect not millions but billions of people around the globe. We use business-centric diplomacy; we buy our way into ‘peaceful coexistence’. Think about all of those dictators that we supported over decades that enslaved their people thus creating more resentment and hatred towards us that today are numbering in the billions. Even the historic Camp David Accord between Egypt and Israel was not a negotiated settlement, it was purchased with tens-of-billions of dollars by the US taxpayers. Just how many of the tax payers actually know that? No wonder some of our closest allies including Britain, Germany, Japan, Turkey, even Israel have severely and publicly condemned some of our foreign policy initiatives and decisions and with good reasons. Call it Monday morning foreign policy-ing or second guessing, it highlights the fact we are just too exposed on multiple fronts. That is the price of diplomatic amateurism, in my not so humble opinion.
Nonetheless, we loved our new found position of power. It was intoxicating! It was exhilarant! But most of all, it was addictive! And we have NEVER kicked that habit, the bigger we got the more addicted we became. On the surface it gave us a ton of pride but underneath it all was a bulging chamber of arrogance. When the old Soviet Union (and the Eastern Bloc countries) came to an end TV networks could not stop proclaiming that we ‘were the ONLY superpower left’ over and over and…. If I had a dime for every time I heard that phrase on CNN, Fox, MSNBC and various other media entities I wouldn’t have to work for a living. Imagine how the Russians and Chinese felt every time they heard us speak. Even our British, French and German friends were resentful. It sounded a lot like bragging, which is what it was. And our enemies were fuming and boiling, just waiting for an opportunity to strike and strike they did. It took only 19 religious extremists to bring the most powerful country the world has ever known down to its knees.
Unfortunately, I do not see a change coming anytime soon. To use one of my favorite Yogisms — the future is just like the past except much longer. Our very dedicated foreign servicemen and women are some of the best in the world; however, they are not the ones implementing policies. That is left to our elected and/or appointed politicians that are either on-the-job trainees or are using foreign policy as a resume-building exercise designed to take them to the next level. And they know it works since the only thing they need to do is to package it to us, the American public. One does not have to be a marketing guru to understand that executing on that strategy is a no-brainer. Why? Because most Americans are still living ‘over there’ and could care less what happens on the other side of ‘over there’. While we debate admitting several thousand Syrian refugees the Europeans are dealing with an influx in the millions because they know for them (Europeans) there is no such thing as ‘over there’. Our politicians can’t even agree on a common reference to our current enemies; is it IS, ISIS, ISIL? It’s all over the place.
At the risk of extreme hyperbole there are 12-year old kids in Beirut, Baghdad, Belgrade and Bratislava that know more about foreign policy than most of our appointed Secretaries of State in recent history and most certainly the majority of the US populous. In my book, foreign policy is not an academic subject but, rather, an integral part of human history. To date, we have just been observes and not participants. Foreign policy is just not part of our DNA, which has mutated during our time as a global superpower. It is turning increasingly isolationist in nature, which is not a good thing. We like our ‘island’ and not willing to share it with anyone anymore and not interested what the folks ‘over there’ think or say.