Are Means Everything?

Matthew Yglesias says my previous criticism of Obama’s foreign policy doesn’t really hold water:

The rhetoric of American foreignpolicymaking has always been suffused with grand — some would say grandiose — aspirations and professions of lofty ideals. And yet the actual substance of policymaking has differed enormously over the years, decades, and centuries. That’s because methods — what’s dismissed here as “their strategy for achieving this goal” — are essentially the entire ballgame. Practical American politicians will always commit themselves to a set of basically similar highest-order goals of spreading wonderfulness throughout time and space. Even in our “do not seek out monsters to destroy” phases we’re supposed to be a model the rest of the world will emulate.

Are these aspirations “dangerously unrealistic” and “overly ambitious?” I think it depends on what you mean. To say that the short-run policy objective of the United States is to wage war on tyranny is dangerous and unrealistic. But to say that the long-run goal of the United States is to do what we can to foster the conditions of international peace and prosperity that are most conducive to the spread of liberalism and democracy seems eminently sensible.

I would agree with his characterization of the history of U.S. foreign policy. Americans have always been guided by our founding values and a certain sense of America as at least a “well-wisher” of those values around the world. Once we became a world power, perhaps the closest we’ve ever come European-style realpolitik was the foreign policy of Henry Kissinger — European-born himself and a scholar of 19th century European balance-of-power politics.

I don’t advocate returning to the foreign policy of the Nixon years, nor do I want to forsake any attempt to spread “wonderfulness throughout time and space,” as Yglesias puts it. Even if a presidential candidate did advocate such a policy, I don’t think most Americans, on the right or the left, would stand for it. And as readers of this blog have learned by my advocacy of “smart power” and of better using non-military instruments of power such as public diplomacy, I recognize that means are extremely important.

But I don’t agree that means are “essentially the entire ballgame,” as Yglesias writes. Otherwise, there’s a very distinct danger of mission creep. I think the Clinton administration was a good example of how the lack of a good sense of the limits of “spreading wonderfulness” led to means getting out of control. There were interventions everywhere. And I worry that Obama’s advisers don’t have a proper sense of the limits of American power. Humanitarian crusades can be dangerous too.

But Yglesias’ reference to John Q. Adams’ 1821 formulation gets at the heart of the issue. Adams said American is “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

During the Bush administration, we’ve become much more than well-wishers. Even if an Obama administration is much smarter about the means they use, a desire to be a “champion and vindicator” of freedom or prosperity or whatever for the whole world still holds great risks.

U.S. foreign policy will never fail to be guided by America’s values, nor should it. But this is a question of strategic emphasis, and the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of “vindictor” in recent years, and both Democrats and Republicans are guilty. I think we need to swing back a bit more in the direction of being “well-wishers.”