The push for a much more restrained US foreign policy, whether in the Middle East (as Gregory Gause argued) or around the world (as Stephen Walt would have it) makes eminent sense. But if pundits and policymakers are serious about moving the United States in that direction, it is going to require challenging two core beliefs: American exceptionalism and conditional sovereignty. Without challenging these pillars of American interventionism run amok, any shift toward restraint will be shallow and temporary.
The rise of the United States as a global power may have come about because of economic might, technological innovation, and military prowess, but it has also been intimately linked to a can-do attitude and a perception of inherent superiority. While a realist might emphasize that growth in US material power and what the US can do (see Monteiro here), we need to recognize that it has been married to an ideational commitment to using that power. From the moment the colonists prevailed over the mighty British Empire, this was a country that could overcome great odds and re-make the world in its image. We are the city on a hill, the arsenal of democracy, the indispensable nation. The American way is the best way.
History seemed only to add further proof of American supremacy. US forces crushed the native population and gathered the survivors in reservations. Territory, whether through war or dealmaking, led to the great expansion west – the Louisiana Purchase, Texas and the southwest, Alaska, and even faraway islands in the Pacific Ocean. Our doughboys helped turn the tide in WWI, and we vanquished Nazi Germany in WWII. With Europe in tatters, America saved the day with the Marshall Plan and NATO. Just 20 years ago, the United States won the Cold War, a massive accomplishment. In short, history is seen as proving that American expansion and intervention was good, necessary, and effective.
For U.S. political candidates, the idea of questioning America’s ability to be number one, to effect change, and to influence others remains a risky strategy. For the GOP presidential candidates this year, it has been an attack line against President Barack Obama. In the 2008 campaign, one thinks of the brouhaha when Michelle Obama said, “for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” Critics pounced because expressing doubt about the United States was seen as unacceptable.
Of course since the United States has been a full-fledged superpower, the record has slipped in a way that you might think would lead to the “judicious” use of the U.S. military that then Gov. George W. Bush preached during the 2000 campaign. The military struggled in Korea and then more so in Vietnam. After the seeming redemption of the first Gulf War in 1991, the last decade has brought back the questions; Iraq and Afghanistan were and are a difficult slog. On the economic front, the 1950s and 1960s gave way to energy crises and the rise of other economic powers, whether Japan in the 1980s or China and India today.
Now if we were strict about sovereignty, we might have a problem meddling in countless countries. So hand in hand with American exceptionalism has been a commitment to the conditional nature of sovereignty. If Washington feels it needs to intervene, it does.
To be fair, sovereignty is not an impenetrable roadblock. International law makes exceptions for genocide, for example, and R2P is carving a much larger hole in sovereignty. Moreover, if the United States gets multilateral, regional, and/or UN blessing for proposed meddling, the sovereignty question fades even more from the debate.
The problem is that violations of sovereignty may come with a heavy price, a price far worse than the initial benefits. The US invasion of Iraq created a political vacuum that al-Qaeda exploited to the detriment of Iraqis and Americans. What is blowback, after all, if not US meddling coming back to bite Washington? When the United States kills 24 Pakistani soldiers or when a US drone crashes in Iran, we should all recognize the fluid take on sovereignty that such incidents represent and worry about the future implications of such behavior.
Aggressive internationalism, whether of the neoconservative or liberal variety, relies on a belief in U.S. effectiveness, on a missionary zeal (nicely captured by Dominic Tierney), and on the ability to waltz into and out of countries. So if the grand strategy needs rethinking, it will not be enough to simply table an alternative built on humility and restraint. It is going to take a much deeper debate about how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world and whether we are willing to reformulate our ideas. Is that a debate our polarized political system is ready to have?