Iraq is in turmoil; Egypt is an outcast to the United States and starting to buy weapons from Russia; Iran is ascendant and increasingly aggressive; and the allied effort in Afghanistan is close to collapse. America has little or no credibility or influence. China is growing stronger, the Russians are assertive and brazen in Crimea, and our allies are increasingly uncertain and uneasy. Why?
The legendary Hans Morgenthau, master of realpolitik, would say the United States has not pursued its national interest or applied a wise policy in support of those interests. This, in the end, is a policy and a moral failure, wasting economic and human resources and risking of lives of millions of people around the globe. Political realism, at its best, and Morgenthau was its best, was different from realpolitik in one crucial way: under its adherence to the wise and constructive use of power was a profound moral message. You are not a great power because you can launch drones from afar, or mow down your enemies with flying gunships. You are a great power when you articulate strategic objectives aimed at preventing aggression and upheaval, and using force, if needed, to drive home the point.
America is a superpower, and as a result has a responsibility it probably does not want but cannot escape. Our government’s inability to find a coherent foreign policy and execute it in a clear and sensible manner stokes the isolationism coursing through the country. We need to re-think what we are doing and get it right; Morgenthau can help.
Morgenthau postulated a theory of how nations behave, or should behave, based a modernized form of older, German thinking on international politics known as realpolitik. In its essence, realpolitik means that international politics is primarily based on military and industrial power and not on moralistic ideas. A key modern example is Richard Nixon’s decision to recognize the People’s Republic of China. Prompted strongly by Henry Kissinger (often wrongly cited as the originator of realpolitik), the Nixon-China embrace came at the expense of Taiwan, which was not asked, but was simply de-recognized.
The embrace of China was to try to balance the hostile Soviet Union. For Nixon and Kissinger, the fact that China was at the time more extreme in its Communist views than the Soviet Union was of little importance. The Nixon-Kissinger goal was to tighten the noose around the USSR. Nixon and Kissinger had earlier pushed the idea of “detente” with the Soviet Union, thinking that the U.S. could use its economic power to dissuade the Russians from confrontation. But the Russians had other ideas, and continued their military build-up featuring the famous SS-21 mobile short-range nuclear missile aimed at Western Europe. With “detente” largely shredded and our European allies flirting more and more with the Soviets to avoid Russian political and military pressure, the China card was a way for the U.S. to draw off some of Russia’s military forces from Europe, especially nuclear missiles, which the administration hoped would shift to face China.
China was well aware that it was being used, but the benefits were considerable. The key to China’s future as a growing power was Western technology, especially American microelectronics and computer technology. China also was promised arms cooperation. In the early 1980’s, the Reagan administration jumped on the opportunity to help China modernize its arms industry, supplying important aerospace and underwater systems, including advanced torpedoes.
The Tiananmen Square massacre put an end to burgeoning U.S. and European military cooperation with China, although some of the Tiananmen sanctions (on nuclear power plants and equipment and on space launch) were later substantially eased.
But the transfer of advanced dual-use technology persists even today, long after the strategic idea behind it ceased to exist. The need to offset Soviet power evaporated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Russian empire (something Putin is working tirelessly to restore). The Tiananmen sanctions never addressed the transfers of critical technology to China. By the time sanctions were imposed, trade with China was was too lucrative for the U.S. and its European partners to sacrifice trade for any principle of democracy or human rights.
Political realist Morgenthau and his predecessors would cringe looking at Western policy toward China, because of its clearly self-defeating and risky nature.
The Chinese understand that they need continuing access to Western technology for both civilian and military development. For that reason, China uses the benefits of trade as a lever to extract advanced technology from the West, especially from the United States. China has a huge cyber espionage operation to learn as much as possible about American weapons systems (including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter) and to apply the technology to similar local programs. The U.S., afraid that China might stop “investing” in U.S. Treasury bonds and other financial instruments, does little to stop it.
A current analogous case is Iran. The U.S. unilaterally lifted some sanctions on Iran claiming that the lifting of sanctions would lead to a comprehensive deal to stop Iran’s nuclear bomb building program.
The notion was flawed from the start because of the difficulty of verification and the fact that some “military” installations were off limits. The deal did not include delivery systems, especially long-range missiles, which Iran continues to develop. And the sanctions, once lifted, created a frenzy of trade and business activity with European and American companies flocking to Iran to set up deals. And the State Department, which steadfastly had urged its European allies to restrain themselves from running to do deals in Iran, officially “encouraged” U.S. aerospace companies to apply for licenses to ship jet engines for Iran’s air fleet, the same air fleet that ferries supplies and troops in Syria.
Morgenthau would be appalled. Iran is an expansionist country causing havoc in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, and expanding its influences far and wide, including in the Americas. Iran continues to threaten Israel. The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was quoted by Iran’s Fars news agency saying Iran’s military has its finger on the trigger to destroy Israel as soon as it receives the order; the capacity to execute is irrelevant. In fact, Iran’s policies are not moderate and do not lead to any regional accommodation. The U.S. nuclear proposal fails to take any of this into account, and so is strategically flawed and destabilizing.
Morgenthau explained political realism as “national interest defined in terms of power,” while guarding against two fallacies: concern with motives and concern with ideological preferences. The core idea is that a rational international actor will follow the real interests of the state and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the real interests of the international community. An outside observer should be able to discern a country’s national interests and goals in its foreign policy, and how that aligns with national power defined in both military and economic terms. In short, it is possible to observe whether a country has a rational policy, or one that deviates from rational.
At present, there are questions about the goals and objectives of U.S. foreign policy. But if we follow political realism and Morgenthau’s prescription, we should be able to detremine what our policy actually is, and whether it is coherent and aligned with our fundamental interests.
It is, of course, entirely possible to have a disastrous foreign policy even if it is coherent and aligned with our interests. The U.S. has been grappling with this problem since the middle 1970’s, if not before, but it came into greater focus with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Before Iraq, the most important and costly conflicts in which the U.S. was directly involved were Korea and Vietnam. In the former, the U.S. and its allies were unable to achieve anything more than a truce, which has remained in effect since 1953. General MacArthur and President Truman had a serious argument over Truman’s approach to the war. Although at one point the U.S. considered using nuclear weapons against China and even went so far as to transfer authority to the Army for their use, the real flash point was over MacArthur’s vision of challenging the Chinese and pushing them out of Korea altogether, and Truman’s vision of negotiated deal. Ultimately, Truman relieved MacArthur from command.
While Korea ended in a stalemate, Vietnam ended in a defeat for the United States. Despite constant support for North Vietnam by the USSR and China, the U.S. did not attack China or even propose the idea. Instead the U.S. tried to defeat North Vietnam through conventional battles on South Vietnamese territory, and an extensive bombing campaign aimed at supply routes (the Ho Chi Minh Trail) into South Vietnam from North Vietnam, Laos and a corner of Cambodia. Operating in heavily foliated areas and using networks of underground bunkers as storage depots, the North Vietnamese were able to continue supplying their forces operating in the South. After Kissinger negotiated an accord with the North in Paris, the ARVN (South Vietnam’s army) had to carry on the fight alone. In April 1975, Saigon fell.
Both the Korean and the Vietnam wars were limited because bigger players were either involved or lurking in the background. Was either conflict in the U.S. interest? Surely stopping China’s operation in Korea, which would have resulted in all of Korea in Chinese hands, was the correct policy. Keeping South Korea free was an important message that has, since that war, helped restrain China.
Vietnam is different. While the U.S. was worried about a domino effect (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and more), the U.S. defeat and its aftermath did not work out the way we feared. Cambodia fell to the indigenous Khmer Rouge even before South Vietnam collapsed. Today, the U.S. has reconciled with communist Vietnam, and while Cambodia is still poor, it has a multi-party government. Laos is a socialist, single party country, poor, and with a poor human rights record. In sum, the U.S. investment in Vietnam, and in supporting Laos and Cambodia, was not really in the U.S. national interest. American willingness to fight there, and involve its allies (South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines), had no positive result for the United States and even less for the victims.
Both Korea and Vietnam were so-called “limited” wars because of the threat of outside power intervention. However, neither the war in Afghanistan nor the war in Iraq is limited by any threat of outside intervention. Both are one-sided wars in the sense that it is a big power (and its allies) against far less powerful countries.
The first Iraq war was caused by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which threatened Saudi Arabia, threatened oil supplies and supply systems to the U.S. and to America’s allies, and thus ensured that the United States would intervene. Had the U.S. taken a pass, a chaotic situation might have destroyed the global economy. Intervention thus made sense from the point of view of vital American interests and in terms of global stability. What made less sense was to let the first Iraq war end without putting an end to other potential threats coming from Iraq in the form of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and delivery systems that could threaten the entire region. While the U.S. and the allies took steps to “manage” Saddam, the better solution would have been to topple the regime when they had the opportunity, replace Saddam with a government chosen from Iraqis in exile, and then leave.
American leaders instead confused themselves, their supporters, and the public. The result was a geopolitical blunder and a much longer conflict that did not serve either American or regional interests. It paved the way for al-Qaeda and for Syrian and Iranian trouble making. Per Morgenthau, the blunder seems to have been caused by a faulty moral idea—that allied destruction of Iraqi forces, particularly the bombing of retreating Iraqi forces along the Kuwait-Iraq highway (dubbed the Highway of Death) was an improper use of force. Thus President George H. W. Bush, on advice from his National Security Adviser, Gen. Colin Powell, declared a ceasefire on February 28, 1991.
Letting Saddam Hussein off the hook set the stage for related tragedies, including the decimation of the southern Shiite Marsh Arabs, whose revolt was encouraged by the United States, which then abandoned them to Saddam’s helicopters and poison gas. The U.S. would return to Iraq, defeat the army, remove Saddam, and replace his regime with the costly and bloody American occupation. Disbanding but not disarming the Iraqi Army in 2003 was another faulty moral idea that encouraged the rise of militias full of armed, unemployed, and humiliated young men.
In at the end, the U.S. would pull out, abandoning the rest of the country as it did the Marsh Arabs twenty years earlier, this time creating a power vacuum that Iran quickly filled.
The U.S. could have done better, avoiding the occupation, strengthening bases in the area and stabilizing the region with a rapid action force. The U.S. could have created an independent Kurdish state—an area with significant oil resources and with a pro-American outlook. But lacking a strategy, and violating the fundamental principle of political realism, the U.S. wasted human and economic resources and failed to confront its emerging enemy, Iran.
Similarly in Afghanistan, in a war that has virtually no strategic importance, the U.S. has invested its prestige, and that of its coalition allies, in trying to stabilize a corrupt government. It has failed to stop either al-Qaeda or the Taliban, the latter being well-positioned to grab power after the U.S. and its allies leave. In the meantime, with very limited rules of engagement and unclear objectives, our forces continue to take casualties—including from “friendly” Afghan forces—and burn scarce resources.
The big picture is that the U.S. is not acting as a great power or following the basic rules of political realism as laid out by Morgenthau. From the mistakes the U.S. continues to make in the Middle East, in North Africa, and elsewhere, it is not surprising that foreign leaders no longer look to Washington for guidance and help—or even with respect.
Morgenthau did not live to see all this; perhaps it is best.
Stephen Bryen, Ph.D. is a former Under Secretary of Defense.