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.
Second, Swiss foreign policy is mostly geared toward improving its economic well being by expanding international trade through the development of cooperative agreements. And because it is so tiny, Switzerland has had to become competitive economically through investments in its people, its educational infrastructure, and its physical infrastructure.
The United States could learn a lot from this effort as well. Rather than focus on military power, which costs a lot but does little to advance the nation’s economic interests, the United States should focus on improving its economic power. Rather than flirt with protectionism like Clinton and Trump have done throughout the campaign, the United States should embrace the cause of free trade much more fully.
Third, Switzerland accepts the world as it is and does not seek to change it or to control it, only to make money by working with it. Unlike the United States, Switzerland does not seek to control the behavior of other nations, to resolve other nations’ internal conflicts through force, or to reshape the world to make it safe for democracy.
To be sure, as a tiny country with zero ability to project military power, Switzerland has little choice in this regard. But the benefits to Switzerland are many. In the United States pundits decry the turmoil in the Middle East and worry about which group of moderate rebels to support in Syria, Yemen, Libya, or Iraq. Does anyone think Switzerland won’t end up making money by trading with whichever government winds up emerging? There is simply no reason for the United States to struggle so hard against what is. Instead, like Switzerland the United States should accept the world as it is and work to get rich and happy by working with the world.
Finally, Switzerland ensures that it will not wind up doing stupid things by staying neutral and maintaining its strategic independence. Rather than entangling themselves in the EU or in NATO, the Swiss stay neutral in most things but remain willing to cooperate to solve problems on a situational basis.
The United States would benefit from the Swiss example here as well. Though the threat of Soviet attack justified American participation in NATO during the Cold War, today there is no reason for the United States to hitch its wagon to Europe’s security. Today, neither Russia nor the Islamic State poses the sort of military threat that requires American assistance. Likewise, though China certainly scares its neighbors in the Pacific, but many of them can take care of themselves and none of them are worth the United States risking major military conflict with China. The United States has more to gain by trading with China than confronting China.
The Switzerland Test is simple, clear, and easy to apply. The primary goals of U.S. foreign policy are national security and prosperity. Since the security angle is almost entirely taken care of by geography and nuclear weapons, most U.S. foreign policy should be focused on expanding America’s economic connections with the rest of the world and enabling those efforts with the appropriate investments in education and infrastructure.
When confronting a foreign policy question, the United States just needs to ask: What would Switzerland do?