Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Myths of Primacy: Alliances and Security Dilemmas

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has followed a foreign policy of primacy. The strategy aims to preserve and extend America’s dominant position in the world using its massive military and global network of alliances to spread western values and stop prospective threats before they materialize. Yet, while primacy continues to receive bipartisan support, a growing number of U.S. foreign policy and military experts are now calling for a new grand strategy, one that would make the United States stronger and more secure, and that would better align with the fundamental values at the core of the nation’s founding.

Last Wednesday, the Cato Institute hosted a conference titled “The Case for Restraint in U.S. Foreign Policy” to explore one such strategy. Over the course of the day, four panels of international relations experts explained why a grand strategy of restraint could and should replace primacy.

The first panel challenged the conventional wisdom about the benefits of U.S. alliances formed during the Cold War. The first speaker, Brendan R. Green of the University of Cincinnati, discussed the gulf between the academic literature and the arguments made by primacists on nuclear proliferation, concluding that the advocates of hegemony oversell the role that alliances play in halting nuclear proliferation.

Following Green, Eugene Gholz of the University of Texas at Austin explained how our alliance relationships come at significant costs to American security by exacerbating the security dilemma between the United States and countries like China for the sake of ally interests.

The third and final panel speaker, Joshua I. Shifrinson of Texas A&M University, spoke on behalf of himself and David Edelstein of Georgetown University. Shifrinson and Edelstein argued that the United States faces significant risks of entrapment—getting drawn into a conflict by its allies.

You can watch the full discussion below. 

How Terrorism Has Hijacked American Foreign Policy

Terrorism has hijacked American foreign policy. First Al Qaeda and now the Islamic State have come to dominate thinking about international affairs so completely that there is hardly any issue that has not been “terrorized.” Issues that once had significance because they were important in their own right now only matter insofar as they affect the fight against terrorism. Russia? Now discussed primarily with respect to whether their air campaign affects ISIS in Syria. Syria? Important only because of ISIS and other jihadists who want to rule. Iraq? The birthplace of ISIS. Iran? A regional power broker who supports terrorism as whose support for Assad in Syria matters because of…ISIS. Libya, the latest concern du jour? You guessed it: concern for Libya is in fact concern for the growth of ISIS in the country.

The figures below illustrate just how deeply ISIS has infiltrated American foreign policy news. In the first figure, you can see that over the past three years almost every foreign policy topic has taken on a distinct ISIS flavor. As the second figure shows, after reaching a historical high after September 11, news coverage of terrorism dropped steadily in the following years until rebounding in 2013. Attention to ISIS only really took off after June 2014 when ISIS started calling itself ISIS and simultaneously announced the establishment of a global caliphate.

(News data from Factiva’s Top US newspaper file)

The Dissent Channel Goes Public

This morning, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published excerpts and summaries of an internal memo by 51 State Department officials calling for airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria. The key idea expressed in the memo is simple: take military action immediately to stem the tide of violence in Syria. It’s an understandable sentiment, especially from those who have been dealing with Syria’s barbaric civil war on a daily basis, as many of the signatories have. Unfortunately, it is also an exercise in wishful thinking, ignoring the concrete problems with further U.S. military commitment in Syria which have formed the basis for the Obama administration’s refusal to overthrow Assad.

The memo criticizes the Obama Administration’s decision to eschew military action in Syria, arguing instead for the “judicious use of stand-off and air weapons” against the Assad regime. Though such internal memos contesting the administration’s official policy – known as a ‘dissent channel cable’ – are not uncommon, the large number of signatories is more unusual. The memo blames the Assad regime’s violence towards civilians for both Syria’s instability and the appeal of ISIS, arguing that the moral rationale for airstrikes “is unquestionable.”

Congress Poised to Punt on Selective Service

Congress, in predictable fashion, seems poised to slap a band aid on a problem in the nation’s Selective Service system. The smarter long-term solution would end the practice of draft registration once and for all. 

Changes to the military’s combat rules would open the Selective Service system to new legal challenges on equal protection grounds. The new rules allow women to serve in previously closed ground combat units, a sensible change in policy that reflects the realities of the modern military. But, given this change, it is unfair to require only 18-year-old males to register for the draft. If the rules remain in place – and they should – women should also be required to register.

The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed by a wide margin on Tuesday, includes this change. Hillary Clinton has come out in favor of draft registration for women. Some conservatives are now urging the House and Senate conferees to strip the provision, and, if they don’t, to vote against the entire NDAA. But these objections mostly revolve around the changed combat rules, not the inherent unfairness of requiring only men to register. 

Congress should instead revisit whether we need a Selective Service, not whether both men and women should register for it. As I explained back in February in an online article for the Washington Post:

The entire draft architecture is anachronistic and unnecessary. We’ve operated with an all-volunteer force for decades; no one, regardless of gender, expects that they’ll be drafted; and the wars that we fight don’t depend upon conscription. Future wars aren’t likely to, either.


[I]t is highly unlikely that we’ll face threats that require troop deployments on a scale that would necessitate another draft. Policymakers in Washington have chosen to fight wars in the Middle East with smaller, more nimble and highly-trained special operators, along with air power, manned and unmanned, in part because the capabilities are available to them, but mostly because these wars do not engage vital U.S. national security interests or threaten our survival.

In the event that a mass-conscripted army was ever again required to defend our country from attack, Congress could immediately pass a law to make that happen. But any notion that today’s Selective Service System is what stands between us and military defeat is absurd. And the push to expand combat roles to women signals that more, rather than fewer, Americans are willing, voluntarily, to do their part to defend this nation. We should take this opportunity to recognize that we can get rid of the draft altogether.

You can read more here.

U.S. Policymakers Shouldn’t Leave China with Nothing to Lose

The United States is attempting to use its military to check Chinese military and political assertiveness in East Asia. Yet Beijing has not responded to American freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea (SCS), increased troop deployments to the region, and deepening political/military relations with former adversaries by changing course. Instead, China has reacted with its own form of military escalation.

In response to Beijing’s intransigence, prominent U.S. policymakers, think tanks, and scholars advocate policies that impose higher costs on Chinese actions. This singular focus on cost imposition is dangerous because it ignores the “benefit” aspect of coercive strategies and places China in a corner. Cost imposition has utility, but it should not be the only leg for U.S. policy to stand on.  

Coercive strategies work by manipulating a target state’s cost/benefit calculation to prevent it from taking certain actions (deterrence) or force it to take certain actions (compellence) to the benefit of the coercing state. Advocates of greater cost imposition in the SCS want to deter aggressive Chinese actions by making the costs of such actions greater than the benefit that would accrue to Beijing. However, the high value that China places on the SCS implies a very high level of cost necessary for deterrence to be successful.

Complicating the task of deterrence further is the fact that China has shown a willingness to escalate its military presence and bellicose rhetoric when confronted. This suggests that any increase in costs inflicted by the United States will be replied to in kind by China. Such a dynamic is ripe for dangerous escalation, which undermines a stated U.S. goal of “peace and stability” in East Asia.

Instead of focusing on cost imposition, U.S. policymakers should devote more effort toward the benefit side of China’s cost/benefit equation. China’s willingness to respond to American displays of military presence in kind shows that Beijing thinks it can gain more from escalating than backing down. It will be difficult to move Beijing away from its territorial ends, but Washington can counteract the ongoing escalation spiral by offering incentives for China to change its means in the SCS.

On the pressing issue of whether or not China will conduct island building in the Scarborough Shoal, the United States could agree to not go through with plans to set up “permanent logistics facilities” at five military bases in the Philippines so long as China does not engage in island building at the shoal. Such an agreement would benefit China by keeping the U.S. military presence in the Philippines at its current level while avoiding the diplomatic costs associated with island building. The United States would benefit from reducing escalation risks in the SCS. Washington could also retain the ability to impose costs on China through its position at Subic Bay, which would not be affected by this agreement. Importantly, the United States could make sure Beijing upholds its end of the bargain via satellite imagery of Scarborough Shoal.

The approach outlined above would likely be difficult to implement for a host of reasons, and it is certainly no silver bullet for solving U.S.-China tensions in the SCS. However, taking a step back from cost imposition will serve U.S. policymakers well in crafting an effective coercive strategy to prevent armed conflict. The most important task for American policymakers is to prevent deterioration in U.S.-China relations to the point that China has more to gain from conflict than cooperation. A “nothing to lose” mentality in Beijing would be a major problem. 

One Strategy to Better Address Responsible Muslim Organizations

America’s relationship with Islam is fraught with tension. No one wins if America ends up fighting an endless war with 1.6 billion people worldwide.

Rather, Washington should encourage responsible Islamic voices. One is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. According the group diplomatic status would give Americans greater opportunity to influence an important forum for Islamic activism.

The OIC was founded in 1969 and is made up of 57 states, most with majority Islamic populations. Past relations have been difficult.

In 1990 the group adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam which emphasized the role of Sharia Law. At the UN the OIC routinely attacked Israel.

Bring Home American Forces from Okinawa

Could the U.S.-Japan alliance founder as a result of alcohol? Apparently. At least, that’s the implication of the U.S. Navy’s ban on drinking by personnel stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

It would be far better to phase out America’s military presence on Okinawa, turning U.S. bases back to the Japanese government. More than seven decades after the end of World War II, Tokyo should take over responsibility for Japan’s defense.

Washington currently bases and personnel on the island of Okinawa, with just .6 percent of Japan’s land mass. Local anger exploded in 1995 after three American service members raped a 12-year-old girl. The Japanese government sought to placate islanders with financial transfers and plans to move Futenma airbase and relocate Marines to Guam. These schemes failed to satisfy, however.

Base opponents, bolstered by the 2014 gubernatorial victory of Takeshi Onaga, continued to resist. Fueling popular anger has been a seeming spate of high-profile offenses committed by U.S. military personnel (who, in fact, have a lower crime rate than locals). Last month a sailor pled guilty to rape. Also last month a contractor and former Marine was detained in a murder case.