America's flawed foreign policy thinking

Fifty-eight years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. Had Kennedy lived, it is impossible to know whether the United States would have become trapped in the Vietnam quagmire. One of JFK’s legacies, however, was to build the foundations for U.S. foreign policy that still largely remain in place today. But, after the Soviet Union imploded, those foundations became infested with intellectual termites.

The upshot is that for at least two decades, these foundations have been eroding and now do not support the foreign policy structure. That policy has been based on an admixture of containment, deterrence, collective security and a strong defense to which some have, mistakenly, added a measure of American indispensability. Of the many examples of this failure, three are among the most significant.

Every president since Reagan believed that China and Russia could be brought within the framework of a Western values-based international system. That obviously has failed. Since the end of the Korean War, the U.S. military has won virtually every battle it has fought. But the U.S. has lost every war it started. (Note that in 1990, it was Saddam Hussein who provoked a nearly universal international response that liberated Kuwait from Iraq and wrecked its army.)

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Last, U.S. international standing as the global leader has been in free fall. Even the election of Joe BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE has not so far changed the trajectory. Why?

Containment and deterrence were 20th century concepts that were successful against a military superpower whose political system and economy were unsustainable. How are China and Russia being contained and deterred today? They are not.

Containment and deterrence have not prevented China from pursuing its Belt and Road initiative; intimidating neighbors; embarking on a major rearmament program; militarizing islets in the various Chinese seas; violating human rights on an industrial scale; and rejecting its legal agreement to allow Hong Kong measures of independence. 

Russia has actively intervened in the domestic politics of many states, particularly to weaken Western cohesion in NATO; seized part of Georgia, Ukraine and all of Crimea; murdered its alleged “traitors” in other countries; and massively violated human rights.

About collective security, NATO is fraying. And about the role of a strong military, ironically, the more that is spent on American defense, the smaller that force becomes. The reason for what one expert calls the “shrinking military” is uncontrolled real annual cost growth of about 5-7 percent for every item from precisions weapons and people to pencils. No doubt weapons systems are far more capable. But are they affordable? With a defense budget of $750 billion, an extra $40-50 billion a year must be approved just to stay even. That will not happen. 

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And if the U.S. were truly indispensable, why would allies not conclude that they were dispensable? Hence, a very serious examination of the basic assumptions underwriting U.S. foreign and defense policy is long overdue. Many will argue that is underway.   

The law requires the administration to submit its National Security and Defense Strategies, a Nuclear Posture Review and other studies to Congress next year. Further, missile defense and reviews on China and Russia are ongoing. If these efforts were tasked to challenge basic assumptions, then perhaps a major change in trajectory would be possible.

Unfortunately, all these studies are unlikely to follow that direction. First, it is unclear how each is being coordinated and integrated. Second, the iron hand of legacy commitments and past policies, retarded by bureaucratic sclerosis, is an irresistible inertia that cannot be easily overcome. Third, too many programs are funded that can only be canceled at great expense, and replacements are not in hand.

What might the administration do in these circumstances? One pessimistic answer is not much. That choice could ultimately lead to disaster. Or the White House could rightly argue that before making decisions, all these studies and efforts must be reviewed under a common framework of rigorously testing their underlying assumptions.

The better plan would have been to emulate President Eisenhower’s 1953 Solarium Project to determine a new Soviet policy following Stalin’s death. Four teams were assembled, each with different assumptions. And the result was Eisenhower’s strategic “new look,” which worked.

This is not 1953. The U.S. believes it is facing two powerful adversaries simultaneously. And decisionmakers may not recognize all the flaws in our current and past policies. Until they come to this recognition, do not expect any improvement in where the nation is headed.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book, due out in December, is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”