Foreign Policy Lessons for 2015 and Beyond

A new year offers a fresh start, an opportunity to reminisce about the year past, and to set goals for the future.

2014 was a busy year. Vladimir Putin hosted the world at Sochi, then reacted to a popular revolt in Ukraine by supporting a counter-revolution and annexing Crimea. Other civil wars raged in Libya and Syria, while Egypt’s military quashed any remaining semblance of democracy that had survived from the 2011 protests. The not-destroyed insurgency returned to Iraq with gusto, fueled by American weapons left behind by an Iraqi army unwilling to fight. And the United States continued its habit of conducting numerous tactical operations abroad without any overarching strategy.

The news wasn’t all bad: Germany and the world celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; President Obama proposed normalizing relations with Cuba; and NATO operations in Afghanistan have (kind of) ended.

The lessons from these episodes suggest some useful resolutions for U.S. policymakers:

Avoid using the U.S. military to fix other nations’ politics

You would think that policymakers would know this by now. After all, our track record over the last dozen years is objectively terrible: Iraq is a mess, Libya is a mess, Syria is a mess, and Afghanistan is still, despite many years of effort, a mess. It says a lot that the advocates of U.S. nation building efforts have to go back over six decades, to the successful rebuilding of Germany and Japan, and the Marshall Plan in Europe, to make their case. Though these countries were deeply scarred by war, they retained institutions, and social and political norms, that allowed them to recover, some quite quickly. In other words, they weren’t failed states at all. Building healthy states out of weak or failed ones, it turns out, is actually really hard – and rarely worth the effort given that ungoverned spaces aren’t as ungoverned as they might seem.

President Obama seemed to understand this. He came into office in 2009 generally opposed to using U.S. military personnel for armed nation-building. Unfortunately, he is now ignoring those instincts, largely because of public reaction to the atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s barbarism, however, does not invalidate the lessons learned from 13+ years of post-9/11 wars. While the U.S. military retains the ability to assist those on the ground who are fighting back against ISIS and other extremist groups (e.g. al Shabaab in Somalia; Boko Haram in Nigeria), the men and women of the U.S. armed forces should not be sent into harms way when U.S. vital national security are not at stake.

Stop rooting for the collapse of the Russian economy

Western sanctions (along with falling oil prices) are having an effect on Russia. November saw the Russian economy contract for the first time since 2009, a trend that is expected to continue. And the ruble’s collapse appears to be accelerating. Those rooting for a full-scale economic catastrophe, however, should be careful what they wish for. An unstable political situation in Russia—a country with still thousands of nuclear weapons—is not in America’s (or anyone else’s) interests. 

The goal of the sanctions should be a negotiated settlement to the Ukrainian crisis that favors western interests. Economic pressure raised the costs of Russia’s revanchism in Ukraine and might deter Putin from trying to foment trouble elsewhere along Russia’s border. But while we can take some pleasure in Putin’s discomfort, the United States still needs Russia’s cooperation on a host of important issues, including Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war.

Put terrorism in context

In their 2014 Cato report, “Responsible Counterterrorism Policy,” John Mueller and Mark Stewart show that the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack in the United States are 1 in 4 million. Compare that to other fatality rates, like driving in a car (approximately 1 in 8,200) or drowning in a bathtub (1 in 950,000) and you start to realize that while terrorism may be frightening, it’s not a large threat. And yet, the United States spends about $100 billion per year seeking to deter, disrupt, or otherwise protect against, terrorism at home. Too much money chasing after too little threat is sure to be spent unwisely.

So, this year, let’s put the danger posed to Americans by terrorists in context, and demand accountability for taxpayer funds spent to fight it. Terrorism is a threat, but not a large one, and certainly not one that justifies all of the current policies enacted under the overly broad counterterrorism rubric.

Related, stop hyping threats in general

The world is a dangerous place, but it is not more dangerous than it has ever been, and most measurements of the quality of life and general human progress are trending up, not down.

You may be forgiven for thinking that we live in a uniquely dangerous world, but appearances can be deceiving. As Harvard’s Steven Pinker points out, “If you base your beliefs about the state of the world on what you read in the news, your beliefs will be incorrect.” After all, we are beset with daily stories of violence, but one’s chances of suffering a violent or premature death are very low, and still declining. And our prosperity and broader well-being are protected by a dynamic and resilient international economy, and by the spread of powerful ideas that have reduced poverty and disease.

A better understanding of what actually threatens us will help tame our tendency to overreact. An honest assessment of the threat environment—problems that lurk today and on the horizon—will allow us to redirect some of the money that currently goes to the national security state back to the taxpayers and private entrepreneurs.

Reform military spending

The 2011 bipartisan Budget Control Act (BCA) imposed caps on discretionary spending, and these caps have worked, to a degree: government spending has remained essentially flat since 2009, and spending as a share of GDP, according to figures compiled by Cato’s Dan Mitchell, experienced the biggest five-year drop since the end of World War II. Though some would lift the caps on the Pentagon’s budget going forward, the United States can maintain the finest military in the world without breaking the bank. The Congressional Budget Office projects that Pentagon spending under the BCA caps will average about $526 per year through 2021 (.pdf, Table 1-4, p. 13), and this figure omits funding for nuclear weapons spending in the Department of Energy; as well as the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs, and overseas contingency operations (OCO). When one factors in those additional monies, total spending for national security in 2015 is likely to exceed $800 billion.

But while that much money can buy a lot, it can’t buy everything. Even the richest country in the world must make choices. So far, that hasn’t happened. The cost to implement the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, according to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, is $115 billion above sequestration levels in 2016 alone. The National Defense Panel, tasked with scrutinizing the QDR, calls for even more spending, presuming that the strategic requirements cannot or should not be constrained by fiscal or political reality.

Instead, the spending caps should be maintained, and the U.S. military’s global posture should be adjusted accordingly. Restraint was a wise policy, even when the United States was flush with cash. It is imperative now, when the costs of maintaining global primacy are rising, and the American people’s will to sustain them are declining.

Policymakers should also seek to end the slush fund known as OCO funding. Funding for overseas military operations should be included in the DoD’s base discretionary budget. That was how it was done for most of the nation’s history, and it’s time to return to pre-9/11, pre-Afghanistan, pre-Iraq spending practices.