Time for America to Set Its Foreign‐​Policy Priorities

This article appeared in National Interest (Online) on June 23, 2014.

In the Middle East, for instance, the president should drop his policy of incremental escalation in Syria. The battle is tragic, but no one knows what would emerge if Bashar al‐​Assad were ousted. Almost certainly, fighting would continue, reprisals would be made and radical forces, such as ISIS, would be empowered. The assumption that administration officials can craft just the right approach, giving the right weapons to the right groups to ensure a liberal, democratic, unified pro‐​American state, qualifies as a fairy tale worthy of the Brothers Grimm. Washington should back away from the conflict.

In Europe, Ukraine remains far from the continent’s population and economic centers that the United States spent decades defending. Kiev’s situation is unfortunate, but Washington cannot change Ukraine’s geographic destiny. American policy makers never viewed Ukraine’s status as vital when it was incorporated into the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The country matters even less strategically to America today. There should be no thought of military involvement by the United States or NATO, nor should Washington foreclose the possibility of cooperation with Russia on more important issues — Iran’s nuclear program and withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example — in a vain attempt to dissuade Moscow from acting on interests Russia views as vital.

In Asia, nowhere is there more dramatic disparity than on the Korean peninsula, where the South has a GDP and population respectively forty times and twice those of the North. The Republic of Korea could deploy a military capable of deterring North Korean adventurism. Instead of concentrating on defense, in the past, Seoul has instead shipped cash, food and other goods north in an attempt to buy goodwill — even as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was building nuclear weapons. In Korea, Washington can rightly claim, “mission accomplished”: South Korea is populous and prosperous, and should take over responsibility for its own defense.

These issues are just the start. In a world of diminishing resources (Washington faces a debt tsunami in the years ahead, with more than $200 trillion in accumulated unfunded liabilities), the United States can no longer be expected to solve every international problem, especially through military means. American policy makers should begin to make tough choices. Now.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (co‐​author).