Is American Foreign Policy Too Ambitious?

In The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, Peter Beinart argues that an overestimation of power has led the U.S. into three wars. We asked four scholars of foreign policy — Princeton’s Julian Zelizer, UCLA’s Kal Raustiala, American University’s David Vine and Temple University’s Richard Immerman — for their responses to a question sparked by Beinart’s argument: Is American foreign policy too ambitious? Read their distinct takes below.

Yes, we’re too ambitious.

Julian ZelizerAmerican foreign policy has usually been too ambitious and policymakers have been willing to bite off more of the world than we can chew.

During the progressive era, some leaders wanted to remake and “modernize” other civilizations. During World War I, Woodrow Wilson sought to promote new concepts of self-determination and international cooperation. During World War II, we set out to defeat fascism.  During the Cold War, our politicians wanted to defeat international communism and any allied government.

On a few occasions, the ambition has produced successful results. Certainly, during World War II America’s arsenal of democracy succeeded in its goals against Germany, Italy, and Japan.

But more often the nation fell short of what it wanted to do. The result has been that the government tempered its ambitions and dealt with the realities of what America’s resources could accomplish. Unfortunately, those moments have come only after the nation made serious and costly mistakes by overextending ourselves and causing more problems abroad than we could solve. This was the story of Vietnam, which did generate an era of greater restraint in the 1970s with the advent of détente.

Now we are coming off a period where national hubris was strong. The nation is deeply committed in two ambitious conflicts that seek to remake civil society to diminish the treat of terrorism. Thus far, President Obama, despite his campaign rhetoric, has demonstrated that he shares some of the same ambition that convinced President George W. Bush to go into Iraq and Afghanistan.

Julian Zelizer is a Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and author of Arsenal of Democracy.


We’re too ambitious and not ambitious enough.

Kal RaustialaFor at least 200 years Americans have debated how ambitious our foreign policy ought to be. John Quincy Adams famously wrote that the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Adams thought this was a good thing, and lots of others since have too. I am not of that persuasion. And in any event, in 2010 it is neither possible nor desirable to radically change our global footprint.

That said, some aspects of our foreign policy are too ambitious, while others are not nearly ambitious enough. One area where we are too ambitious is in our quest to control and stabilize the sources of oil and gas around the world. Our intense need for fossil fuels has led us to lean heavily on the Middle East, with many pernicious consequences. Of course, to ease up on our footprint in the oil-producing world requires as much, or more, of a domestic policy change as it does a foreign policy change. But we need to see that our addiction to oil is a national security issue.

Likewise, we should be more ambitious when it comes to tackling climate change – a deadly serious problem with potentially major repercussions here and abroad. We also need to push harder on the global framework for infectious diseases, and on smarter approaches to development around the world-not just economic development, but political development. Today, weak states are in many respects a greater threat than strong states. These are all areas where we can and should be more ambitious, not less.

Kal Raustiala is Director of the UCLA Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations and author of Does the Constitution Follow the Flag?


Let’s ask the people who bear the costs.

David VineGiven the tens of thousands dead, wounded, and displaced in Afghanistan and the millions dead, wounded, and displaced in Iraq since 2001, I wonder how an Iraqi or Afghan would answer this question. So too, I wonder how the family of a dead or maimed member of the U.S. military would respond?

These are some of the many who have borne the costs of U.S. foreign policy in recent years.  It is long past time that their voices, as well as the human consequences of such policies, move to the center of foreign policymaking.  For too long, U.S. foreign policy has been led by elites who have paid scant attention to the human costs of policies that have led to more than 200 overseas military operations since World War II and total annual military spending now exceeding $1 trillion (about the same as the rest of the world combined).

Of course, everyone in the United States has borne the costs of this militarized foreign policy – in the hundreds of billions spent on warmaking that could have gone to defending the nation’s territory, to building stronger diplomatic relationships, and to ensuring the health, education, jobs, and well-being of Americans.

Attending to the human costs of foreign policy suggests that this question isn’t the one we should be asking.  Unless one’s answer is a simple “no,” the question suggests the United States needs a moderation of its foreign policy, an adjustment, rather than the transformation that is urgently needed.  The question should then be, How do we transform U.S. foreign policy away from policies that have led us repeatedly into bloody, unnecessary wars, away from out-of-control military spending that continues to push the nation deeper into debt even in a time of economic crisis, away from occupying other countries, and toward a human-centered foreign policy based around non-aggression, diplomacy, international cooperation, and the protection of human lives as the best way to protect the security of the United States and, ultimately, the world?

David Vine is a professor of anthropology at American University and author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia.


Let’s ask a different question.

Richard ImmermanTo ask whether U.S. foreign policy is too ambitious is the wrong question. Certainly Americans must recognize the limits of their power, and the premise of American exceptionalism can readily produce an arrogance of power. Yet although “ambition” has become a value-laden term, it should be policy neutral. At issue is how Americans define and calibrate the sources of their power, and to what ends – and what purposes – they apply that power.

The architects of American foreign policy have been normatively ambitious. They have sought greater security and prosperity; they have sought more territory and markets; they have sought empire. The consequences of that ambition, however, have varied. So have the drivers and objectives. Woodrow Wilson surely overreached by proclaiming that America’s entry into World War I would make the world safe for democracy, and the League of Nations lacked the domestic and global support required of it to be effective. But in hindsight the world is a better place because of Wilson’s ambition. In fundamental respects Richard Nixon was less ambitious than John Kennedy or (internationally) Lyndon Johnson. He recognized that Americans would never pay any price and bear any burden. Yet regarding China, to cite but one illustration, Nixon achieved more than either of his predecessors imagined.

In the contemporary environment American foreign policy needs to be if anything more ambitious. It must recognize that to focus on geopolitics, terrorism, and nuclear non-proliferation is necessary but not sufficient. Just as important for foreign policy are such concerns as global debt, resource management, and environmental degradation. Moreover, even in crisis areas like Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan the problem is not ambition. Policy must be smarter, and resources exploited more effectively. Any military surge, for example, should be matched by a civilian surge. Too ambitious? I think not.

Richard Immerman is Director or the Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy at Temple University and author of Empire for Liberty.

*Photo above courtesy hellosputnik. Homepage photo courtesy Crisologo.


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