Let’s briefly review the American foreign-policy debates of the past year. Last August, President Obama declared that he would bomb Syria for defying his call to not use chemical weapons. Then, in a sharp about-face, he decided instead to work with Russia to dismantle the weapons, and was denounced as weak by hawkish critics. Obama’s supporters said he had done as well as he could have under the circumstances. Two months later, America and its allies struck an interim nuclear deal with Iran. Hawks called it appeasement. Obama’s supporters said it was as good as one could expect under the circumstances. Within hours of the deal, China claimed the right to monitor and possibly take military action against aircraft crossing a disputed area of the East China Sea. Hawks denounced Obama’s response as weak. The president’s supporters said it was as strong as possible under the circumstances. Then, in February, Russia began menacing Ukraine. Hawks called Obama’s response weak. His supporters said the president was doing all he reasonably could.
Each debate resembles the others, but occurs in splendid isolation. Today’s foreign-policy disputes rarely consider the way America’s response to one crisis might affect another. Adopt a tough stance on China’s air-defense zone, for instance, and Beijing is less likely to join the West in condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Severely punish Russia for that aggression, and Moscow is less likely to help America enforce sanctions against Iran. Take an ultra-hard line on Iran’s nuclear program, and Tehran is less likely to help broker an end to Syria’s civil war that the U.S. can live with. Instead of discussing each threat in isolation, America’s politicians and pundits should be debating which ones matter most. They should be prioritizing.
To understand how Americans stopped doing that, you need to go back to the middle of the 20th century. Over the course of the 1940s, as America lurched from isolationism to world war, foreign-policy strategists such as George Kennan and Walter Lippmann roughly outlined America’s core interests around the world. First, the United States must continue to prevent an enemy power from establishing a beachhead in the Americas, a principle set forth in the venerable Monroe Doctrine. Second, no enemy power should be allowed to dominate Europe, thus threatening what Lippmann called the “Atlantic highway” connecting the United States to Britain and France. Third, no enemy power should shut the United States out of East Asia; that’s what had precipitated war with Japan. Fourth, no adversary should block America’s access to Middle Eastern oil. But beyond these areas, U.S. interests were limited. “I am more and more convinced,” Lippmann wrote in 1943, “that it is just as important to define the limit beyond which we will not intervene as it is to convince our people that we cannot find security in an isolationist party.”
In the wake of World War II, as American politicians grew increasingly fearful of the Soviet Union, Kennan warned that it was foolish to talk about foreign threats without defining national interests. If America didn’t first determine which chunks of the globe were worth defending, any place Moscow threatened would become important to the United States. The U.S. would effectively outsource its foreign-policy decision making. “Our opposition to Communist expansion is not an absolute factor,” argued Kennan in 1947. Rather, containment “must be taken in relation to American security and American objectives.”
Over the decades, Lippmann and Kennan saw their worst fears realized, as U.S. presidents increasingly equated containment with stopping Communism anywhere on Earth. In January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson did not include South Korea in America’s “defense perimeter,” only to see his boss, President Harry Truman, rush troops there once Pyongyang attacked. Dwight Eisenhower didn’t consider South Vietnam important enough to defend militarily; Lyndon Johnson did. By the 1970s, some American hawks were warning about the consequences of Communist control of Somalia and Angola.
But the final blow came with the Cold War’s end. After the Soviet empire fell and America vanquished Iraq in the Gulf War, it became hard to imagine any foreign power seriously challenging America’s core interests. So hard, in fact, that the framework Kennan, Lippmann, and others had established no longer seemed a useful guide to American action. The first clue as to what would replace it came in a 1993 essay by National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, titled “From Containment to Enlargement.” The idea was that instead of defending the democratic world against Soviet advance, the United States would now push forward its boundaries. In eastern Europe, for example, the Clinton administration began admitting formerly Communist countries into NATO. “Enlargement” continued in a different form during the George W. Bush administration, which, in response to the 9/11 attacks, established pro-American governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, and dramatically expanded America’s military footprint in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Promoting democracy and defending human rights were considered expressions of American values. Any country that opposed the expansion of American power was deemed a threat. But without the language of interests, as Kennan had warned, championing American values and opposing foreign threats were limitless endeavors.
Foreign-policy strategy requires harmonizing means and ends, yet during the first two decades of the post–Cold War era, American foreign-policy commentators stopped trying to “define the limit” to America’s overseas ends. The results of this shift are especially troublesome today, as America struggles with reduced means. After years of post-9/11 increases, America’s defense budget is decreasing. There’s also less money for foreign aid. Challengers like China, Russia, and Iran are fighting the enlargement of American power and American-style government. Obama, by withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and resisting military action in Syria and Iran, has tried to better align America’s overseas obligations with its domestic resources. But he’s encountered relentless criticism from hawks who want America to push forward, as hard as possible, on every frontier.
The press bears part of the blame. When politicians and pundits write an op‑ed or go on TV to offer opinions about the crisis of the day, they are rarely asked to reconcile those opinions with the ones they offered on a different crisis the day before. Moreover, foreign-policy debates are frequently segregated from domestic-policy ones, so commentators who propose increasing the defense budget or sending more foreign aid are seldom asked to explain which domestic programs they’d cut, or which taxes they’d raise, in order to find the money.
To change that, reporters should begin their coverage of each foreign crisis with this question: Why should Americans care? In today’s environment, that sounds churlish. But it didn’t always. Lippmann famously called U.S. foreign policy the “Shield of the Republic.” Part of his point was that the best yardstick for evaluating U.S. policies overseas was their effect on citizens at home. By asking why Americans should care that Russia controls Crimea or that Iran has a nuclear program, journalists would force a discussion of American interests. They’d make politicians and pundits explain exactly how events in a given country might make Americans less safe, less prosperous, or less free. In some cases, after all, when America enlarges its sphere of influence, its citizens lose more—in money, freedom, or blood—than they gain. Focusing on ordinary Americans would bring attention to this possibility.
At times, the politicians or pundits might admit that Americans have no tangible interests in a given country, just a moral obligation to prevent killing, poverty, or oppression. That’d be fine. At least they’d be making their case honestly.
Where might a renewed focus on interests and priorities lead America’s foreign-policy debate? Toward Asia. However thuggish Vladimir Putin’s behavior is in his own backyard, Russia is in economic decline and lacks the capacity even to dominate eastern Europe, let alone to shut America out of Europe as a whole. Iran, as a Persian Shia middle-rate power widely hated for its role in the slaughter of Sunni Arabs in Syria, has little chance of achieving regional hegemony in the Middle East. The country in today’s world with the greatest capacity to threaten America’s core historic interests is China, which is converting its extraordinary economic dynamism into both military might and soft power. It is China, not Russia or Iran, that could block America’s access to key overseas markets, thus imperiling American jobs, and that could dump America’s debt, thus destabilizing the American economy. It is China, not Russia or Iran, that is developing the technology to mount a serious military challenge to the United States.
The point is not that the U.S. should see China as an enemy. Americans will be far better off if the relationship between Washington and Beijing never deteriorates into cold war. But what America needs now with regard to China is leverage: the leverage that comes from a strong economy, a strong military, and strong relations with China’s neighbors. American foreign-policy debates should focus on how to achieve these things. And if doing so requires the United States to temper its responses elsewhere, so be it. If you can’t decide which parts of the world matter less, you can’t influence the ones that matter most.