Nowhere in America would a few New Year’s resolutions make such a positive difference to so many people than in Washington, D.C.
Reviewing the past year, learning lessons, and pledging to apply them in the next is just as valuable to those who practice and study U.S. national security policy as it is to the average American. So, now that the ball has been dropped in Times Square, here are three New Year’s resolutions that the Trump administration, members of Congress, and the foreign policy establishment would be wise to make.
1. Don’t sweat the small stuff: The United States continues to be the most militarily powerful, economically prosperous, and politically influential nation in the international system today. Despite Russia’s interventions in Syria and Ukraine and the Trump administration’s assessment that Moscow and Beijing aim to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests,” the United States is still far and wide the most relevant player in the 21st-century contest for power.
The U.S. military is the only force in the world able to rapidly deploy combat power on extremely short notice during an emergency—evident in last November’s training exercise of three aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific. The U.S. accounts for 40 percent of the world’s entire defense expenditure, a far different picture than many alarmist lawmakers who portray a Crockett U.S. military in disrepute.
With hard and soft power, however, comes immense responsibility in how U.S. leaders choose to use it. Because the U.S. remains the sole superpower in the international system, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have often felt compelled to leverage it. Either out of ignorance, arrogance, hubris, or misplaced assumptions, the people in positions of authority making these decisions and formulating these policies have minimized the costs and consequences, perhaps wagering that the U.S. was more than capable of managing them.
The last decade and a half, of course, has thoroughly disproved the thesis. As evidenced in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and now eastern Ukraine, Washington’s habit of intervening rather than practicing caution and restraint has inversely affected international stability.
Washington’s obsession with primacy—devoting our time, attention, troops, and national treasure to every internal dispute regardless of how insignificant or indeed geopolitically meaningless it may be to America’s core national security—has pushed U.S. foreign policy toward a focus on peripheral missions. Rather than being the “end of history” that primacists predicted at the tail end of the Cold War, the absence of a strategic competitor since the Soviet Union dissolved more than a quarter of a century ago has ushered in a world where the U.S. was free to undertake democratization and regime-change campaigns that ended up creating more problems that continue to this day.
The first New Year’s resolution, then, is to learn from past mistakes in order to avoid repeating them.
In a global environment that will continue to change, sometimes violently so, the United States must return to a grand strategy that focuses the country’s diplomatic power, military might, and considerable foreign policy expertise back toward balance-of-power politics and away from tangential missions that distract our leaders from what is really important. U.S. officials must be substantially more selective in which conflicts, crises, and emergencies warrant U.S. involvement and investment. And the hubris that says America can and should fix every ill and heal any fissure in the world through sheer force of will must be replaced with prudence and humility.
The United States should reserve its vast national power for consequential conflicts vital to our national interests and press our wealthy allies to do more to shoulder the burden of common defense.
2. Follow the Constitution: One of the most cherished constitutional powers the legislative branch has—the power to authorize the nation to go to war—is increasingly seen as a presidential prerogative. The framers of the Constitution viewed the decision to send Americans to war as so serious and potentially existential for the nation that the public themselves, through their elected officials, were responsible for making it.
Needless to say, the post-9/11 period has drifted the nation away from this basic but fundamental constitutional principle. The balance of power between the executive and legislative branches on issues of war and peace has gravitated too far toward the president’s side of the court.
It is not uncommon for members of Congress to learn about a botched special operations raid in Africa or the deployment of additional military advisers into Syria from the newspapers, just like every other American. The counterterrorism wars of the last 16 years, encompassing at least 7 countries and 2 continents, is reliant upon an outdated, stretched authorization. Many lawmakers, in their quest to avoid a politically-fraught debate or vote on the wars America is fighting, have become content with sitting on the bleachers rather than playing on the field as the Constitution demands.
For Congress, there is no greater New Year’s resolution than reclaiming war-making power; exhibiting strong, effective oversight on military operations; and elevating the war debate on behalf of the Americans who fight in and pay for them.
3. Give diplomacy a chance: Military force is the last resort, and diplomacy should be the first.
Look around the world today and one will be challenged to find a situation where pressure alone would promote a resolution.
Tightening economic sanctions and threats of preventive military action, for example, have done nothing to change Kim Jong-un’s opinion of how essential a nuclear weapons program is to his regime’s preservation. Supporting Saudi Arabia’s proxy wars against Iran in Lebanon and Yemen, to take another, have only added to the tension surrounding the Saudi-Iranian relationship, throw the region’s political stability into turmoil, and caused death and misery to millions of people who are caught in the middle of the rival. Sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine so Kiev can disable Russian armor and increase the Russian death toll is unlikely to change the facts on the ground or shake Vladimir Putin’s self-confidence.
As it prepares for 2018, the Trump administration can begin to put far more energy and trust in preventive and unconventional diplomacy than it has during its first year. This is not just a matter of reforming an antiquated State Department. It is also about adopting a diplomacy-first foreign policy that places added weight on the value of peaceful and more cost-saving solutions to international conflicts.
Americans can usually afford to break their New Year’s resolutions after a few months. U.S. officials don’t have the same luxury. The country’s security depends on the bureaucracy following through. The start of the year is as good a time as any to wipe the slate clean and fix things that need fixing.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
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