America's foreign policy choices

Ian Bremmer has developed a set of three foreign policy options that Americans need to choose from to develop a coherent foreign policy. The three are the indispensable, the Moneyball, and the independent approach.

The indispensable approach sees the United States as the only superpower that must intervene when something needs to be done because nobody else can do the job. The Moneyball approach says we need to look out for American interests -- we need to recognize that we can't do everything and should only intervene when American interests are at stake and we can clearly make a difference.

Finally the independent approach suggests that the best thing we can do for the world is to take care of ourselves here at home. We need to recognize our own limitations as a country and stop being the world's policeman. Too many of our recent interventions have demonstrated that we are often incapable of making a positive difference and can, in fact, at times complicate or make things worse. Vietnam and Iraq could be cited.

Although Bremmer admits that there is something to be said for each of these approaches, he sides with America's need to adopt the independent approach. I understand his choice, and given the options, I too would lean toward independence as the direction circumstances and reality are leading our foreign policy involvement today.

The fallacy of Bremmer's approach, however, is the idea that we need to choose one of the three options. Foreign policy and the world we live in are much too complicated to follow one path in all cases. Perhaps this is why it is so easy to criticize an administration's foreign policy because it seems inconsistent. Yet I believe that each of the three mentioned approaches could be the right one in certain cases.

I believe President George H.W. Bush was right to go into Somalia in 1992 to save the lives of thousands of innocent people. We were the indispensable power, and we were able to make a difference. The fact that the mission turned bad later does not negate the good that was done initially. Perhaps it is particularly in the humanitarian area we can still be the indispensable power.

I believe President Bill Clinton was right to go into Bosnia to alleviate the genocide that was about to take place there. This was kind of a Moneyball approach. We could make a difference. We had the resources, the interest in peace in Europe, and there was a path to achieving results. Again, a humanitarian disaster was alleviated. We perhaps should have intervened sooner, but we did intervene.

Finally, I think President Barack Obama has been correct to be very cautious in the current situation in Ukraine. The independent approach seems the right one here. We are clearly facing the limits of what we can do around the world as a nation. There has to be a realistic assessment of the impact we can have as well as the potentially negative consequences of intervening.

It is still difficult for Americans to accept that we cannot on our own solve all of the world's problems. However, I don't think that is a reason to go in the direction of isolationism. I think we need stronger alliances rather that weaker ones. We need the building of useful coalitions to address world problems, such as the nuclear threat from Iran. War should not be the only or preferred option, but engagement is still necessary.

There is an understandable desire to simplify foreign policy and develop a yardstick that we can use to determine what the right move should be in each case. The world is certainly more complicated than that. It makes foreign policy quite messy. It also makes it easy for politicians to criticize whatever choices are made. Yet it seems to me there is no other way to operate in the messy world in which we live.


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