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 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 Yet, at a time when Washington seeks an agreement with Pyongyang about its nuclear weapons program, America has withdrawn from two historic deals (the INF and the JCPOA) and is unlikely to extend New START.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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.