Has the United States reached peak incoherence in foreign policy?
President Obama spent seven years expanding the war on terror and intervening inconsistently and incoherently in the Middle East, only to acknowledge in recent interviews that Libya was his greatest mistake. The frontrunners in the presidential campaign are no better. Hillary Clinton supported the Iraq War before she later opposed it, and promoted the TTP and TTIP while Secretary of State but now says they’re a bad idea. Donald Trump’s foreign policy views have doubled back on themselves so often it’s hard to tell where he stands.
Observers on both the right and the left agree that the United States has lost its vision of how to succeed in the international arena. This makes it impossible to craft sound strategy or to build any sort of public consensus around it. What the United States needs is a new paradigm to help cut through the many conundrums that currently have the United States flummoxed. This new vision must clarify the primary goals of American foreign policy and identify the appropriate means for achieving those goals.
Crafting consensus around such a vision will be challenging, however, and in the meantime we need strategies to save us from our worst tendencies towards threat inflation, overspending, and excessive military intervention around the world.
Today I would like to propose a mechanism for doing just that. I call it the Switzerland Test. Applying the test is simple. When assessing threats, making decisions about defense budgets, or thinking about whether to intervene in another civil war, our political leaders should just ask: What would Switzerland do?
Switzerland provides a compelling vision for American foreign policy for several reasons. First, the Swiss assess security threats rationally. The Swiss are lucky, surrounded by mountains as they are, which has allowed them to fend off would-be invaders and occupiers for most of their history. Even Hitler didn’t bother. And today, the Swiss share borders with friendly neighbors. As a result, the Swiss waste little time or money on unnecessary national security initiatives. The most heated security debate in Switzerland recently has been whether or not even to have an army.
The United States will surely keep its army, but notice the parallels here. The United States, like Switzerland, is surrounded by imposing natural obstacles and friendly, militarily weak allies. Beyond this the United States also enjoys the safety of a secure nuclear deterrent. Unlike Switzerland, unfortunately, the United States sees threats everywhere and thus the legacy military-industrial complex from the Cold War continues to rumble along, sucking up trillions of dollars that the private sector economy could put to far better use.
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