Looking at the idea of intervention through a strictly military lens leads to tunnel vision when it comes to foreign policy. This is presumably one of the purposes for the new Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts wrote about this initiative in the summer, impressed with the initial roster of contributors. That roster has been expanded with the official rollout and is even more impressive now. Last week, Politico’s Bryan Bender wrote about Quincy: “Organizers aim to seize on what one considers a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity’ to galvanize growing support on the right and left for a less interventionist foreign policy — thanks in part to President Donald Trump’s dogged efforts, so far unsuccessful, to extricate troops from what he calls America’s ‘endless wars’ in the Middle East.”
One can seriously quibble over whether Trump’s efforts have been as dogged as Bender claims. As Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent recently noted in Foreign Affairs, “The president hasn’t meaningfully altered the U.S. global military footprint he inherited from President Barack Obama. Nor has he shifted the costly burden of defending U.S. allies. To the contrary, he loaded even greater military responsibilities on the United States while either ramping up or maintaining U.S. involvement in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere.” One could argue whether this is because of Trump’s weakness vis-a-vis the Blob or Trump’s Jacksonian worldview, but there it is.
See, I started this column by talking about how views of intervention need to be thought about in a more capacious way, and here I am zeroing in on the United States’ military footprint! This is an occupational hazard for the foreign policy analyst. The use of force is a serious choice in foreign policy and merits a great deal of attention. But there are other, less kinetic forms of intervention as well, from military aid to economic inducements to nonmaterial forms of assistance. It is precisely because of that spectrum that the dichotomies with which this is often talked about in U.S. foreign policy circles — internationalist/isolationist, activism/restraint, enlargement/retrenchment — confuse far more than they reveal.
To understand my frustration, it is worth reading Colum Lynch’s recent exploration in Foreign Policy of how 2020 Democrats would approach international relations. Lynch’s essay is an exploration of the divide that the Democrats’ foreign policy community is experiencing on military intervention and how “enthusiasm for the U.S. role as the primary guarantor of peace and security from Europe to the Middle East and Asia is losing currency in Democratic quarters.”
There are two issues with Lynch’s story. The first is that it is far from obvious that Democratic quarters beyond the elite level are reacting as claimed in the story. At best, the polling data shows ambivalence among younger people toward a more hawkish approach to foreign affairs. At worst, there is not a ton of support for reducing the U.S. military footprint even in places like Syria. Maybe that is because of a lack of elite advocacy for restraint — but that is different from saying there is a groundswell of support for retrenchment.
Second, based on the story, the reader would infer that there is little more to foreign policy than military intervention. Beyond devoting a single paragraph to trade, the story is hyper-focused on the U.S. use of force. There is nothing on substitutes for U.S. military action, such as support for U.N. peacekeeping or economic sanctions or economic inducements. Dig a little deeper and it turns out that Democrats have some pretty ambitious aims in other areas. I am not sure those policies will succeed, but they are not isolationist.
Skepticism toward U.S. military interventions is justified, especially after the reporting my Post colleagues produced Monday. Foreign policy, however, is about a lot more than the military variable. As we start to learn what 2020 Democrats and the Quincy Institute think about foreign policy, I hope we learn how they view nonmilitary forms of intervention as well.