Advancing American Security: The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy

On May 18, the Charles Koch Institute hosted Advancing American Security, a day-long conference dedicated to bringing together top policy experts for an honest and open inquiry into our nation’s foreign policy.

William P. Ruger, vice president of research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute, explained why foreign policy is such a pressing issue: “It has huge ramifications for our security, prosperity, civil liberties, fiscal health, and our relationships with other nations and peoples. It is critical that we get our foreign policy right.”

With this in mind, 14 speakers representing a range of experiences within and perspectives on the foreign policy field took the stage, helping to broaden the discussion about past, current, and future policy decisions. Together, the speakers carried the conversation through a survey of American intervention since the Cold War and were forward-looking in their discussions of how U.S. foreign policy—particularly grand strategy—should evolve.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor emeritus at Boston University, was the first speaker of the day, addressing the question: “Has American Foreign Policy Since the End of the Cold War Made America Safer?” Bacevich argued that the challenges the United States faces today are a result of the decisions made at the end of the Cold War.


For Bacevich, the decision to pursue military solutions in places like Iraq and Libya makes him fear that “war has now become permanent.” Challenging the current foreign policy establishment, argued Bacevich, is one way to push U.S. government officials to acknowledge the human and financial costs of military intervention.

Following Bacevich’s address was a debate between Kathleen H. Hicks of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. Hicks and Mearsheimer’s debate, “Evaluating U.S. Foreign Policy Since the End of the Cold War,” touched on nation-building, the best and worst foreign policy decisions made in recent history, and the history and consequences of NATO enlargement. One point they both agreed on was that the third round of NATO enlargement, which occurred in 2009, was a mistake that only furthered tensions between the United States and Russia.

Bringing a different perspective to the day was retired Colonel Gian Gentile, a senior historian at the RAND Corporation, and Chas Freeman Jr., former U.S. assistant secretary of defense and ambassador to Saudi Arabia. During their panel, “Practitioners of U.S. Foreign Policy: Views From the Field,” Gentile and Freeman talked about how their experiences with the military and foreign service informed their views of U.S. grand strategy.

Speaking with moderator Dan McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative, Freeman and Gentile both highlighted the gap between public perception and what practitioners know to be true. Gentile made this point most clear by discussing his tour of duty in Baghdad, noting that the narrative of “the surge” had increased public optimism that there was a military solution to the problems in Iraq. Yet, Gentile argued, the number of troops required to truly engage in a nation-building effort would have required more than a half-million military personnel and would have conflicted with the primary objective to defeat al Qaeda.

During lunch, Stephen M. Walt of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government delivered a keynote address on “Challenging the Status Quo: An Alternative Approach to Foreign Policy.” His speech diverged from earlier conversations by outlining a strategy of “offshore balancing.” This strategy, according to Walt, would maintain the United States’ military superiority in the Western Hemisphere and also maintain sufficient military power to challenge potential rising hegemons in Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf without becoming involved in conflicts that do not directly threaten the security of United States.

The final two panels of the day provided a forward-facing view of American foreign policy. The first of these, “The Future of U.S. Grand Strategy,” brought together Michael C. Desch of the University of Notre Dame, Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, and Eugene Gholz of The University of Texas at Austin for a broad discussion about the future constraints and threats facing the United States.

Moderator William Ruger started the discussion by defining grand strategy in a narrow sense (i.e., “a statement of how military means can be used to accomplish national or state goals in its foreign relations”) and in a broad sense (i.e., “something akin to a foreign policy vision, namely a country’s roadmap for how it ought to manage its international interests and obligations”).

Desch and O’Hanlon diverged in their respective preferences for the narrow and broad definitions. For Desch, the narrow definition of grand strategy helped avoid “mission creep,” and though O’Hanlon agreed that grand strategy’s main purpose is to keep the United States safe from threats like invasion and terrorism, he explained that his preference for the broader definition of grand strategy allows consideration of other significant interests, including protecting allies, achieving economic success, and stopping nuclear proliferation

Gholz, meanwhile, maintained that a broad definition of grand strategy (closer to O’Hanlon’s preferences) is in line with the liberal hegemonic model and provides a large margin of error for interventions like the Iraq War. Instead, he argued that the future of U.S. foreign policy should follow a more restrained strategy that abides by narrow definitions of grand strategy and national interests.

The final panel of the day, “Advice for the 45th President,” featured Richard K. Betts of Columbia University, Barry R. Posen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Christopher A. Preble of the Cato Institute, and Heather Hurlburt of New America. According to all of the panelists, the next president must assess and acknowledge the missteps and failures of current U.S. foreign policy. However, the panelists all had distinct views on how to address these challenges.

Posen began by cautioning the next president against following ready-made plans. He offered President Obama’s decision to surge in Afghanistan as an example of a misstep that resulted from military advisers being eager to offer a clear solution. Meanwhile, Hurlburt argued that the next president would have to maintain the United States’ position as an advocate for human rights, though she acknowledged that this would not always require military force.

Preble directed attention to the need for federal counterterrorism agencies to provide robust analyses of the costs and benefits associated with their operations, and Betts argued that the current foreign policy is unsustainable in terms of the United States’ commitments abroad and financial burden. He recommended that the next president avoid unequivocal statements committing the United States to a particular course of action without getting a sense of the accompanying costs.

Together, the speakers’ range of views helped to broaden the conversation surrounding U.S. foreign policy, re-evaluate the status quo, and better inform decisions regarding grand strategy. In an effort to continue these conversations, the Charles Koch Foundation invites proposals for research projects related to foreign policy.

Watch each session:
Has American Foreign Policy Since the End of the Cold War Made America Safer?
Evaluating U.S. Foreign Policy Since the End of the Cold War
Practitioners of U.S. Foreign Policy: Views From the Field
Challenging the Status Quo: An Alternative Approach to Foreign Policy
The Future of U.S. Grand Strategy
Advice for the 45th President

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