Principle and Prudence in American Foreign Policy

There is much with which to agree in Angelo Codevilla’s thoughtful essay. To the extent that he and I differ, it is with regard to means and not ends. We both agree that U.S. foreign policy is in shambles, characterized by drift and incoherence. It is at best a-strategic at worst anti-strategic, lacking any concept of how to apply limited resources to obtain our foreign policy goals because this administration has articulated no clear goals or objectives to be achieved.

The result is a weakness that opens the way for those who wish America ill. Winston Churchill’s 1936 characterization of the Stanley Baldwin government as Hitler gained strength on the Continent echoes ominously today: it was, said Churchill, “decided only to be undecided, resolved to irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”

Codevilla is right to point out that the purpose of American foreign policy is to ensure the security, prosperity, and liberty of American citizens. All too often, policymakers have approached the world as if it is legitimate to use the military and other instruments of power only when U.S. interests are not at stake.

The United States has been most successful when it has followed what I have called a foreign policy of “prudent American realism,” which links American principles with Aristotelian prudence.

On the one hand, this approach is based on the recognition that American realism differs from the realism taught in international relations courses. American realism has always fused the features of traditional realism—power and security—with prosperity and the preservation of American principles. George Washington articulated this unique American realism in his Farewell Address:

If we remain one People, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel.

On the other hand, Aristotle called prudence the virtue most characteristic of the statesman. Prudence requires the statesman to always maintain a clear vision of what needs to be achieved—the ends of policy—while maintaining flexibility regarding the means. Successful American foreign policy, for example that pursued by Ronald Reagan, fused American power and American principles in order to ensure the survival of those principles.

Prudent American realism, as opposed to a more traditional realism, recognizes that the internal character of regimes matters and that foreign policy must reflect the fundamental principles of liberal democracy. And unlike liberal internationalism, which holds that international law and institutions alone are sufficient to achieve peace, prudent American realism understands that there are certain problems that can be addressed only through the prudent exercise of power. Thus the strategic objective of prudent American realism is to maintain a liberal world order characterized by freedom and prosperity.

Prudent American realism is based on hegemonic stability theory, which holds that a “liberal world order” does not arise spontaneously as the result of some global “invisible hand.” Instead, such a system requires a  “hegemonic power,” which is a state willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods of economic stability and international security. The United States, as Great Britain before it, took up the role of hegemon not out of altruism but because it is in its national interest to do so.

The foregoing could be caricatured as a “go-it-alone” approach in which the United States intimidates both friends and allies, wields power unilaterally, and ignores international institutions. But prudent American realism is a “benevolent” hegemony, in keeping with the liberal political tradition of the United States but recognizing that the world is a dangerous place in which a just peace is maintained only by the strong. The form of primacy embodied in prudent American realism is based on the idea that U.S. power is good not only for the United States itself but also for the rest of the world.

At the same time, it must be understood that efforts to reach the desired outcome are not motivated by altruism. They are motivated by the recognition that the United States can be fully secure, free, and prosperous only in a world where others are also secure, free and prosperous. The mere existence of liberal institutions is not sufficient. A liberal world order is possible only if the United States is willing and able to maintain it. In the words of the late Sam Huntington,

the maintenance of US primacy matters for the world as well as for the United States . . . . A world without US primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.

According to the theory of hegemonic stability, the alternative to U.S. power is a more disorderly, less peaceful world. The precedent for the United States is the decay of Pax Britannica, which, many believe, created the necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for the two world wars of the 20th century. As British hegemony declined, smaller states that previously had incentives to cooperate with Britain “defected” to other powers, causing the international system to fragment. The outcome was economic depression and war. As I write this, it seems clear that the purposeful decline of American power is leading to a similar outcome.

In addition to fusing principle and power, a foreign policy of prudent American realism must recognize certain operational principles. First, it needs to distinguish between friends and allies on the one hand and enemies and adversaries on the other. For the last six years, the Obama administration has failed to make this distinction, emboldening our enemies while causing our allies to lose faith in the United States.

Second, any attempt to spread democracy abroad must be limited by considerations of prudence. For one thing, “democracy” is not always liberal democracy. For another, U.S. resources are finite, and good strategy requires us to prioritize among the goals we wish to accomplish.

Third, the United States must return to the more classical connection between force and diplomacy. For too long, American policymakers, motivated by the assumptions of liberal internationalism, have acted as if diplomacy alone is sufficient to achieve our foreign policy goals. As Frederick the Great once observed, “diplomacy without force is like music without instruments.” Prudent American realism recognizes that diplomacy and force are two sides of the same coin.

Finally, the United States should not hesitate to use its economic power as an instrument of foreign policy. The changing geopolitics of energy provides an opportunity for the United States to counter the likes of Putin and others who have wielded the energy weapon against America in the past.

President Obama’s foreign policy has been a disaster, not only for the United States but also for the hopes of others who desire a more free and prosperous world. Only an approach such as prudent American realism can stanch the loss of American power, influence, and credibility. As the passage from Huntington makes clear, it matters who the hegemonic power is. For those who value freedom and prosperity, there is no alternative to the United States.