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Realism, Restraint, and Prudence Needed in American Foreign Policy

Flags of both the EU and Ukraine.

The world is in turmoil. The war in Ukraine grinds on, with persistent calls for the United States to continue supplying Ukraine’s war effort. China may be poised to invade Taiwan in the coming years and assert its ambitions throughout the South China Sea and elsewhere in East Asia. Israel continues its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, with no end in sight. US troops remain ensconced in Syria and Iraq, and continue to be attacked by Iranian proxies throughout the region.

This international turmoil, and the constant calls for US military intervention, ignore the very real costs and consequences to the United States. Supplying ever-more munitions to Ukraine has already induced critical shortages in US munitions and ignores the danger of escalating the war with Russia. Acting as though a new cold war with China is inevitable only serves to make such a conflict more likely. Going to war to maintain the independence of Taiwan means risking nuclear war over a small island 7,000 miles from California. Keeping US soldiers in the Middle East, despite widespread opposition throughout the region, places these men and women at great risk for nebulous purposes and further destabilizes a region that is already in chaos.

The status quo American foreign policy — based on a desire for American global primacy — does not adequately promote American interests or prosperity, and in fact harms both. The United States is remarkably safe. It is surrounded by weak neighbors and two oceans and possesses a strong nuclear deterrent and overwhelming conventional military capabilities. The United States does not need to go abroad seeking enemies to destroy, to paraphrase John Quincy Adams. A new US foreign policy based on the principles of realism and restraint would serve American interests much better.

The many deleterious effects of the post-9/11 American foreign policy have become abundantly clear. By no standard were the long US military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan a success, though the war in Afghanistan did enable the killing of al-Qaeda leaders. These forever wars led to tremendous costs in lives, treasure, and regional stability. The Global War on Terror in all its incarnations has produced not only foreign policy failures but also massive domestic surveillance programs and militarized law enforcement tactics, all of which seem to have become institutionalized. It has also significantly harmed American financial prosperity. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that the post-9/11 wars have cost American taxpayers more than $8 trillion. This total does not include the many ongoing costs associated with subsidizing wealthy US allies’ security, the lingering healthcare costs for a generation of veterans, nor the many costs associated with current US trade policy, sanctions, and tariff regimes that are ineffective at producing behavioral change abroad.

How to change this seemingly intractable set of policies politically is a major challenge, but the path forward is clear. America’s burgeoning defense spending (the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act authorized $842 billion in spending for the Defense Department) is driven by needless foreign wars and military deployments spurred by nebulous but expansive “national interests.” To be sure, the United States should not allow other regional hegemons to emerge, but a weakened and declining Russia is not a viable candidate and China’s geography and domestic challenges make it far from inevitable that it will become a threat to the United States rather than a challenge to be managed. Rather, the United States must reorient away from the need for global military primacy and decrease military spending. It should stop subsidizing wealthy allies’ security (especially with Europe, South Korea, and Japan). If these allies are concerned about aggressive neighbors they can increase their own military spending to deter aggression rather than free ride on the United States. 

The US should pursue energy independence, which will have significant financial benefits and ease pressures to remain engaged in the Middle East (and invite attacks by Iran and non-state actors in the region). It must find ways to decrease tensions with China (the American goal must be to peacefully coexist with China) and head off a trade war and possible future military conflict. Lastly, it should stop using economic sanctions and similar means to harm other states; these instruments are ineffective and simply harm American economic interests without securing meaningful concessions from other powers.

While it seems unlikely that a second Biden administration would reverse course on its foreign policy, there is hope that a second Trump administration would follow Trump’s gut instincts — if his administration is not captured by hawkish policy advisors — and pursue a foreign policy that is grounded in realism, restraint, and prudence.

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