Magazine article Insight on the News

Foreign Policy Must Be Based on Geography

Magazine article Insight on the News

Foreign Policy Must Be Based on Geography

Article excerpt

President Clinton's Haiti policy reveals that the intellectual foundations of American security policy have collapsed. This charge may sound academic, but it means that American leaders literally are basing war-and-peace decisions on ideas incapable of producing sound guidance. At the heart of the problem lies a conception of national interests - and of vital interests in particular - that has become positively otherworldly.

This conception already has led to a debacle in Somalia, and could bloody more than American noses in the future unless brought back to security basics. The specifics of a new approach are eminently debatable, but no approach can work without two ingredients strangely but unmistakably absent from American strategy today. First, it must focus like a laser beam on international challenges and opportunities that affect America's fate in concrete ways. Second, its definition of security interests must be grounded in old-fashioned geography.

Defining American interests admittedly is more art or crapshoot than science. There are no magic formulas (or doctrines"' as the cognoscenti call them) that can produce infallible guidance for using force. Leaders always need to weigh a shifting series of tradeoffs involving costs, risks, capabilities, intentions and the odds of success. Whoppingly subjective judgment calls are unavoidable - hence voters value qualities such as street smarts, wisdom and experience more than political science expertise. And with no Soviet adversary to concentrate American minds, defining interests today is more difficult than it has been for half a century.

Still, wise foreign policy-making involves more than pursuing whims; throughout history a geography-based definition of vital interests has managed to bring some order and discipline to decision-making on war and peace. That is, statesmen have tended to think of the circumstances that would or would not justify using force in terms of countries whose fortunes did and did not matter to their nation's own.

Thus, countries considered vital either were very powerful militarily; represented major markets or sources for raw materials or other economic assets; or boasted strategic location. Even when religion and other intangibles shaped definitions of vital interests, thinking in terms of place enabled leaders to draw up missions with a clear goal and end point - for example, liberate the Holy Land.

Such guidelines could never guarantee success, or even rational thinking, but even when the stakes were less than vital they continuously reinforced the notions that a nation's blood and treasure should not be spent in a cavalier manner, and that the benefits of foreign policy ventures had to outweigh the costs in some finite time frame. They also encouraged statesmen to analyze exactly when and how foreign events would affect their country's future. As a result, they enabled leaders to recognize the need for choice, to set sensible priorities, to strategize within their means and to recognize when initiatives were no longer worth the candle.

Such traditional notions of interests may sound too obvious to belabor. But because America has been so strong, so geographically isolated from potential threats and so economically self-sufficient, we have never paid them much heed. The Cold War was no exception. By viewing every inch of the globe - whether Germany or Angola- as an actual or potential battlefield, American leaders forgot Frederick the Great's maxim: He who tries to defend everything can defend nothing. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.