Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America

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The United States confronts a host of foreign policy problems in the 21st century, yet the Republic's security strategy is increasingly muddled and counterproductive. The litany of misplaced priorities and policy failures grows ever larger.

More than five years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, American forces remain mired in an expensive nation-building mission in Iraq. Washington's goal of making Iraq a united, secular, democratic model that would transform the political environment of the Middle East looks today like a fool's errand. Instead, the U.S. invasion of Iraq destabilized that country and removed the principal regional strategic counterweight to Iran, greatly strengthening Tehran's power and influence. Equally unfortunate, the prolonged U.S. occupation of Iraq has served as the perfect recruiting poster for al-Qaeda.

Disagreements over Iraq policy as well as other matters have soured Washington's relations with its long-time European allies. NATO, the centerpiece of Washington's transatlantic policy for nearly six decades, is foundering in Afghanistan and displays a growing lack of cohesion and relevance. Tensions between the United States and Russia are on the rise as authoritarianism has reemerged in that country and Moscow resists Washington's assertive policies, especially the ongoing expansion of NATO into traditional Russian spheres of influence and the repeated displays of contempt for Russian interests in the Balkans and other regions.

American policymakers grapple with the prospect of new and volatile nuclear powers, most notably North Korea and Iran. It remains to be seen whether Washington's strategy of using multilateral negotiations involving North Korea's neighbors to induce Pyongyang to end its quest for nuclear weapons will succeed. The more hardline strategy of imposing economic sanctions and considering the use of military force is clearly not working with regard to Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Other problems, such as the Taiwan issue, are just clouds on the horizon at present, but they have the potential to cause serious trouble in the coming years. The Taiwan problem highlights the danger inherent in Washington's habit of making ill-advised security commitments to small, vulnerable client states that are not crucial to America's own security and well being. In the case of Taiwan, such an obligation could lead to armed confrontation between the United States and China.

Even the war on terror looks increasingly murky and problematic. The once decisive victory in Afghanistan has eroded as al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies have made a resurgence, and Washington's strategy seems adrift.

Ted Galen Carpenter examines these and other foreign policy challenges that America confronts in the 21st century and diagnoses what is wrong with Washington's current approach. Throughout these essays, he outlines an alternative strategy that would protect America's security while avoiding unnecessary and unrewarding military adventures.