I have posted here (which has links to my other posts on this subject) on other aspects of our necessary future foreign policy. In this post, I want to talk about principles of policy application given an understanding of who our friends, our allies, our enemies, and our foes are; in a closely related post, I talk briefly about how to recognize our friends, allies, enemies, and foes.
As I have written before, the mindset within which our policy decisions are made must be that of American leadership in the 21st century. We are not just one among many nations; our national security requires that we maintain that leadership. While being the leader brings its own constraints to our freedom of action, we can choose not to accept those constraints when our security requires. Being led (and we either lead or be led; there is no middle ground) has constraints on our freedom of action that are far more binding. Nor is it hubris to suggest that the national security of our friends requires that leadership, as well, if only because they are not strong enough in their own right: our own security demands the security of our friends.
Accordingly, our foreign policy decisions must be founded on what is best for the United States, and our responses to other nations’ words and behaviors must be made within that framework. Reading and understanding those behaviors, though, demand coldly objective and highly skilled foreign policy personnel in the State Department. It is necessary to be able to discriminate between legitimately competitive behavior and behavior that is (directly or indirectly) inimical to our national interests, and our policy personnel must be equal to that task.
Within the framework, then, of understanding the relationships the various nations and non-national organizations have with us for the time, what should we do?
How should we shape our foreign policy?
In what follows, I will limit myself to relationships involving our enemies and foes. To be sure, interacting with our friends and allies also is important, and especially with them it’s too easy to act on auto-pilot, taking them for granted. But they are not threats to us, and so I will leave that topic for another post.
In responding to, and in following up on, an action or a collection of actions, we must follow a clear, predefined sequence of steps (although both the steps and their sequence must themselves be flexible enough to handle disparate situations—no two sets of encounters can be identical). Again, the purpose of diplomacy is to resolve differences, even with those who oppose us, through peaceful means and to influence others through peaceful activities. It is the purpose of the State Department to lead in these endeavors, and our national foreign policy is the tool set through which these endeavors are attempted.
Our necessary first step in any interaction with an opponent (whether a nation or non-national organization) is to obtain in our own minds a clear understanding of the consequences for us and for others (most especially our friends and allies) of the opposing entity’s activities. This must be followed by obtaining in our own minds a clear understanding of what might be termed the victory conditions: the outcomes we must have for the sake of our (for the rest of this post, I’ll subsume our friends and allies into “our”) national security and our continued freedom of action on the planet. (It’s important to note that this step is highly important to our domestic policy set, also.)
Another step (not of necessity a second step; time constraints may not permit this order in every instance) is to engage with the entity(s) (from here on, I’ll subsume nation and non-national organization into such collective terms) diplomatically. This is useful for a couple of reasons. First, it might actually work: with a clear explanation of the consequences to us of the offending entity’s actions, we will demonstrate both that we know and that we know they know those consequences. Following this with a clear explanation of the consequences to them of their continuing their actions may persuade them to desist. This step is unlikely to succeed, however; we must assume the leadership of the entity in question is highly intelligent and highly motivated, they know what they are doing and the effect of their actions on us, and they’re doing those things, anyway. But the second reason for attempting this first, where possible, is frankly political: if we can go to other nations that have a stake in the dispute having already attempted diplomatic solutions, we will be more likely to succeed in taking the next step in the sequence.
This next step is to attempt to form a coalition of nations for the purpose of attaining a political encirclement and constraint (note that constraint is the goal; encirclement is only a tool for achieving the goal) of the entity(s) in question. The encirclement need not be geographical to achieve constraint; political and/or economic encirclement will constrain, as well. Further, this constraint must be real: it cannot leave loopholes; likewise, attempts to evade the constraints must themselves have clear consequences that are plainly more costly than any gains from the evasion. Failure to meet this condition is the reason most internationally applied sanctions fail: they are insufficient to constrain and/or they are too easily evaded.
Key to either of these two steps is our own credibility. If our efforts are perceived as just talk—what China often refers to as being a paper tiger—then our efforts are still-born. This, for instance, is why northern Korea has nuclear weapons and Iran is about to achieve them. When the Bush administration found northern Korea in violation of the terms of the Agreed Framework in 2002, it notified the Congress of that fact, which by law triggered some mandatory responses, including the cessation of all aid to northern Korea. But, symptomatic of our own lack of seriousness, there was much debate within the administration over whether we should even take the formal action of notifying Congress. Yet there could be no debate over the existence of the violation: this was a matter that could be verified or falsified on the basis of hard fact. The very existence of the debate over whether to report the violation is the proof of our own lack of resolution. Further, when the administration did report the fact of the violation, it asked for an exemption for $95 million in aid to be continued. Of course, regardless of intent, northern Korea responded logically: they read the waffling and the exception as our own lack of determination. Our diplomacy was just idle chit-chat, they went about their purpose, and today they have nuclear weapons.
So it is with Iran. Despite the failure of the Bush administration’s repeated attempts to deal with Iran diplomatically to dissuade them from attempting to obtain nuclear weapons, the present administration has simply done more of the same. Certainly, the Obama administration has obtained “sanctions” against Iran, but with Russia and China actively opposing more than lip service sanctions, and with Germany and Japan actively trading with Iran for oil, the sanctions, and the ever-increasingly sterner talk from us, has been correctly understood by the Iranians as just idle chit-chat, and of no consequence.
But we cannot necessarily wait on the remonstrations or on the constraints from encirclement (for instance) to take effect, even were those potentially effective. Excessive delays in favor of getting an international response coordinated first are foolish—at best they allow the damage to us to grow and constraints on our own freedom of action to increase, and dangerously so. When it becomes clear that those steps are not working, or results are not occurring quickly enough (and we must make this decision quickly, without dithering), then we must act unilaterally. There comes a time when State must accept that their diplomatic efforts are not working, and the reasons for the failure—whether State missed the boat, or the diplomatic process cannot work in the present circumstances, or our enemy simply is unresponsive to diplomacy—are irrelevant.
It’s also important to understand that we can take unilateral actions (and often we must take these actions) while our other diplomatic efforts are in progress without interfering with those efforts. What unilateral actions can we take? There are several; I suggest these by way of illustration. (Military actions I’ll leave to later posts.)
Unilateral actions include the relatively benign, such as our military shipping, on being harassed, ignoring the harassment, and continuing on its way, including being rammed—collided with—as a result of the other nation’s shipping losing its intimidation game of chicken. Unilateral actions include applying tariffs to targeted—or all—trade goods from the offending entity. They include embargoing those goods. They include freezing the offending entity’s bank accounts, up to and including refusing to deal with that nation’s central banking facility or its financial network entirely. To be sure, such economic sanctions will harm agents of our own economy, but that harm is already occurring at an unacceptable level—it’s why we’re responding in the first place. Economic sanctions will be leaky, absent participation by an encircling coalition, but this is no reason to leave the offending entity entirely unscathed.
But more important than these application principles, are the principles of pushing the pace and of maintaining the engagement until our goals are realized. There can be no “graduated responses,” no “nuanced ‘dialog’ or series of actions and reactions.” We learned—and we must remember—the lesson in this regard from our Viet Nam war: gradually escalating does not dissuade the enemy; it only allows him to adjust and to act with greater effect. Our actions in response to the offending behaviors must inflict greater cost than the enemy is gaining from his actions to which we’re objecting, and the application of our responses must be faster than the offending entity can respond, they must be inside his decision cycle. Further, we may not necessarily know his tolerance for pain; it behooves us to over-punish rather than risk our opponent believing we’re weaker and not interested in a real fight. Doing this lets us seize the initiative from the offending entity, and it enables us to hold the initiative.
Additionally, we must not disengage until our goals have been satisfied. In concert with keeping up the pace, we must keep applying ever-increasing pressure until then. To paraphrase a fundamental principle of the self defense system of Krav Maga, “Finish him!” Disengagement before true completion is not materially different from graduated responses: it gives that offending entity space in which to regain his balance, to regroup, and to come at us again, with better organization and stronger effect. And even more emotional commitment to damage or destroy us in response to our damage to him.
If the principles outlined in this post seem martial, they are not very. It’s important to keep in mind that military and diplomatic actions are not mutually exclusive: as Clausewitz understood 180 years ago, they are two areas of a continuum. Finally, the principles I’ve outlined are not new; they represent no breakthrough in diplomatic technique. The real keys, here, are that accelerated pace (especially compared to traditional diplomacy) coupled with a continuing pressured engagement. These are paramount; they are the keys to driving the situation to resolution in accordance with our goals and not those of our enemy. Success here will make future attempts less likely. On the other hand, accepting the others’ actions without consequence to them only makes our failure, and future challenges, more likely as we’ve already seen with northern Korea and Iran and with an increasingly belligerent China.