Defense and Foreign Policy Studies

The scholars in the Cato Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Department believe that the United States should engage the world through diplomacy, mutually beneficial trade, and extensive cultural exchange.


The Cato Institute’s foreign policy scholars believe that the United States should engage the world through diplomacy, mutually beneficial trade, and extensive cultural exchange. The use of military force may be warranted when America’s vital national security interests are threatened, but only as a last resort. Cato scholars argue that America should model the principles of liberty, democracy, and human rights. We therefore advocate transitioning from our current grand strategy of primacy to one based on restraint. America’s global influence is greatest when spread by peaceful means.

America’s War in Afghanistan

The use of military force in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was justifiable. Nearly two decades later, and with the counterterrorism mission complete, it is time to end America’s military mission in Afghanistan. A negotiated end to the war and the removal of all U.S. forces from the country in a deliberate but expeditious fashion is in America’s national interest.

Arms Control

Arms control agreements have been effective tools for advancing U.S. interests, decreasing the likelihood of interstate conflict, and limiting proliferation of nuclear weapons. Yet, at a time when Washington seeks an agreement with Pyongyang about its nuclear weapons program, America has withdrawn from two historic deals (the INF and the JCPOA) and is unlikely to extend New START. Instead of undermining and degrading the existing arms control infrastructure, America should strengthen and modernize it to address new technologies and changing international dynamics.

U.S. Arms Sales Policy

Arms sales can play an important role in American foreign policy, but there are significant risks in sending billions of dollars of deadly weapons abroad, including blowback (wherein American weapons end up being used against American interests) and dispersion (in which weapons sold to a foreign government end up in the hands of criminal groups or adversaries). U.S. arms sales policy should prioritize transparency, data collection, and risk mitigation.

U.S. Counterterrorism Policy

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States launched an international war on terrorism defined by military intervention, nation building, and efforts to reshape the politics of the Middle East. Unfortunately, that strategy has not delivered the intended results. It’s time to turn the page in the War on Terror and adopt policies that better reflect the serious but limited threat that terrorism poses to the United States.

The COVID-19 Pandemic and U.S. National Security

The unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak has every nation in the world scrambling to address the current threat and reconsidering future priorities. Many aspects of the U.S. government’s response to COVID-19 merit scrutiny. There will be a thorough review of policies and procedures that might have slowed the spread of the virus, but the primary focus should be on stopping the spread of the disease and caring for those who have contracted it. Policymakers must also consider how this crisis will shape Americans’ collective understanding about present and future threats and how to address them effectively.

Energy Security

Today, America’s energy security position is far stronger than in prior decades. This is the result of the growth in U.S. domestic production as well as the changing global oil market. Militarily, no country or nonstate actor is able to cut off U.S. consumers’ access to oil. Thus, while energy security remains important, it is far less problematic today than in previous decades and does not require substantial military action abroad.

U.S.-Iran Policy

U.S. and Iranian policymakers hold competing visions for the future of the Middle East. A lack of trust between the nations makes negotiating compromises exceedingly difficult. But instead of a policy of “maximum pressure,” U.S. policymakers should prioritize sustained engagement to develop trust and mutual respect and to lay the foundation upon which a durable relationship can be constructed and conflict can be avoided.

Missile Defense

U.S. missile defense policy emphasizes countering limited missile threats posed by rogue states and the risks of accidental launch. However, China and Russia believe the steady expansion of the size and sophistication of America’s missile defense systems undermines their respective nuclear deterrents, prompting both to make countermoves. The action‐​reaction spiral threatens nuclear stability at a time of increasing tension among great powers.

National Security Threat Assessments

The United States enjoys a level of security that is unmatched in human history. The country is blessed with its relative geographic isolation, prodigious nuclear deterrent capabilities, diverse and resilient economy, and abundance of natural resources. However, many policymakers see things differently. Intelligence assessments and government reports often exaggerate foreign‐​based national security threats. Such threat inflation leads to excessive government spending and a misallocation of resources. It often results in policies that erode fundamental civil liberties and can be detrimental to U.S. national security.

Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy

Public attitudes toward American foreign policy are in flux. After years of war in the Middle East, polling in 2013 and 2014 recorded historically low support for global engagement, and the election of Donald Trump in 2016 led many in Washington to worry about whether the American public was turning inward. It turns out that American internationalism is not dead, but simply evolving.

U.S.-Russia Policy

America’s current approach to Russia isn’t working: the reflexively hawkish policies adopted in the wake of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election have failed to significantly alter Russian behavior and have made cooperation on issues important to U.S. national security more difficult. A more effective policy would acknowledge the unpleasant realities of today’s U.S.-Russian relationship while focusing on deterrence and reengagement on critical issues.

U.S.-Syria Policy

Withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria and ending America’s direct military involvement in that conflict is the correct decision, though the implementation of this policy has been mismanaged. The administration should have held deliberate and calculated discussions with Turkey, the Kurds, Damascus, and perhaps even Moscow to mitigate the negative consequences of U.S. withdrawal prior to the president’s announcement.

The Use of Economic Sanctions

Given the global economic power and financial importance of the United States, it is understandable that U.S. policymakers view sanctions as a primary foreign policy tool. Unfortunately, the historical record demonstrates that sanctions are rarely successful in achieving their objectives, especially on issues of high salience, such as questions of war and peace. By overusing sanctions, policymakers risk degrading America’s global economic power and harming its national security.