Deep engagement is a two-way street

Deep engagement is a two-way street
© Greg Nash

For three years, the American people have endured high-profile spectacles and investigations of suspected foreign influence in their governing institutions. The consequences have brought outrage, indignation and division.

They have led to the beginning of the fourth federal impeachment of a U.S. president in American history. They have focused mainstream attention on Russian dirty tricks, seeming domestic corruption and the Wild West of digital media. 

These are worthy targets of national scrutiny, but there is another, deeper culprit: Washington’s pursuit of an “indispensable” U.S. global role, which gives foreign actors powerful incentives to influence and compromise our republic.

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The U.S. is deeply engaged in every international policy area and every major region of the world. Despite unfounded claims of global withdrawal, the United States formally guarantees the security of half of the Group of Twenty (G20) club of industrial and developing countries.

We deploy 200,000 soldiers overseas to fight, reassure friends, and deter adversaries. The United States comprises about 75 percent of NATO’s military expenditures, even though the organization includes 28 other nations. 

But deep engagement is a two-way street. By engaging so forcefully in the affairs of foreign actors, Washington gives them deep interests in our decisions and in the institutions that produce them.

Our open institutions grant foreign friends and foes alike a cornucopia of opportunities to pursue their interests inside our borders, and they do just that. As Andrew Bacevich points out, foreign countries have long been adept at the (perfectly legal) art of Washington, D.C. influence peddling. 

It should appall but not surprise us that one particularly aggrieved and paranoid adversary sought to influence our presidential election.

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Deep engagement also gives unscrupulous domestic actors an actual world of opportunities to twist our national security policy to serve personal ends. It should appall but not surprise us that a president would personalize our national security policy, especially since so few of our national security decisions seem to have much to do with the direct defense of our country, the strongest, most secure country in the world.

Our current president is unique in many ways, but he is not the first to put foreign policy in the service of domestic political ends.

Some commentators and former officials have invoked the words of our first president to focus our attention and resolve. Voices as divergent as NPRThe Wall Street Journal, and former FBI director James Comey have lately reminded us of President Washington’s admonition in his Farewell Address that “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence...the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” But this bite-sized quote sells the founders’ wisdom short. 

They held that combating foreign influence wasn’t just a matter of vigilance; it was also a matter of crafting a foreign policy that would court foreign influence to the minimum extent possible. So the Farewell Address follows with:

Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other…The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. 

Washington and the other founders allowed exceptions to the great rule in emergency situations. For example, temporary alliances were sometimes prudent. However, they argued against permanent entanglements in part because they would court foreign influence. 

The founders would understand that foreign influence is an inevitable byproduct of U.S. global interventionism. Whenever we extend a security guarantee, support a foreign protest movement, or sell a weapons system, we are by definition giving foreigners a stake — sometimes an existential one — in our policies and institutions. 

Foreign influence has always been a threat, and there is no way to eliminate it entirely. But while we are investigating presidential wrongdoing and hardening our elections and other infrastructure, we should also heed our founders’ counsel and turn a skeptical eye to the gigantic scope of our political engagement with the rest of the world. A better approach would be to avoid intervention — and the attendant risks of foreign influence — unless core U.S. security interests are at stake.

As long as the United States is indispensably tied up in the passions, controversies, and conflicts of foreigners, we should expect that foreign actors will work hard to influence our decisions to their advantage, often in ways that compromise the integrity of our domestic institutions. We should expect that there will always be unscrupulous, self-dealing Americans ready to be their partners. 

We should ask ourselves if the perversion of our republic is really worth it, especially since most aspects of American foreign policy are, for the American people, matters of luxury, rather than necessity. We should be appalled by all of this, but we should not be surprised.

Evan Sankey is a research analyst at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.