U.S. Foreign Policy Beyond 2016: What Can We Expect?

What will U.S. foreign policy look like after 2016? Will we see a new strategy emerge or will the status quo continue as it has for well over a decade? That was the topic of a panel discussion hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s International Security Center and the Charles Koch Institute in December. The panel featured a selection of experts on American grand strategy and politics, including John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune, William Ruger of the Charles Koch Institute, and Michael Desch of the University of Notre Dame. Each panelist provided his own unique and complementary answer to questions about the future of foreign policy.

Calling our current foreign policy “abysmal” and referring to the U.S. foreign policy elite as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” Mearsheimer argued that despite a long list of clear failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria, American foreign policy will not change after 2016. In Mearsheimer’s view, “the bottom line” is that “we’re going to pretty much go on marching along the way we have been marching along at least since 2001.”

Mearsheimer gave three reasons for his opinion. First, in order to win elections, American politicians have found it advantageous to be perceived as “hawks” rather than “doves.” Second, having an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy and a huge national security bureaucracy provides benefits to elites, such as jobs managing crises and overseeing nation-building efforts. Third, there is a great deal of threat inflation in the United States, such as the tendency to view terrorist groups as an existential threat instead of rationally evaluating their limited power to directly harm Americans. Together, these reasons lead Mearsheimer to believe that it won’t matter who next takes office in the United States.

Chapman, a longtime journalist, agreed with Mearsheimer that a change in U.S. foreign policy in the near future is unlikely. However, where Mearsheimer emphasized incentives, Chapman emphasized history and psychology. According to Chapman, “During World War II and the Cold War, we develop[ed] a sort of notion of ourselves as the saviors of the world, and I think once communism collapsed we were left with kind of a void.” Ultimately, America’s policymakers came to the conclusion that “we have to save the world.” Chapman believes this is now what’s driving our foreign policy and our decision to pursue frequent military interventions in trying to solve other countries’ problems. He advised that the United States needs to break this habit, going so far as to call it an “addiction to war.”

Describing our “mistaken approach to foreign policy and to grand strategy,” Ruger said that “it’s too expensive, it’s counterproductive, it’s unnecessary, and it doesn’t make us safer. … It’s ill-fitting for a liberal republic.” The status-quo foreign policy of the United States has led to the deaths of 7,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, $4 trillion spend on those wars, a projected $8 trillion in interest costs paying off the deficit spending from those two wars, an inflamed hatred of the United States around the world, the undermining of our nonproliferation efforts thanks to our ill-advised actions in Libya, and the erosion of our liberal values due to our alliances with unsavory and perilous partners.

Fortunately, the United States still has many things going for it. Ruger outlines a number of U.S. geostrategic advantages, including having two oceans that serve as “moats,” militarily weak and friendly neighbors, a continent full of resources, a large and growing population, the world’s largest economy, a very strong military, and nuclear deterrence.

Looking at 2016 and beyond, Desch argued that “the big question on everybody’s mind is: What does the public want in terms of foreign policy?” There are two ways of thinking about the polling data, he said. One posits that the public reacts to real-world events, has opinions based on the facts, and affects the actions and policies of the elites. The other argues that leadership elites can shape the perceptions of the public. Desch warns that if this is true, “foreign policy debates [are] no longer about facts and logic but about perceptions and, especially, emotions. It’s not … a recipe for a sound foreign policy if politicians can frame and spin events and [the] world to their own advantage.” To combat these potential problems, Desch recommends seeking a deeper understanding of public opinion, learning which public opinion trends are short-term versus long-term, and staying engaged with independent analysts who can provide a “reality check.”

Desch concluded his remarks, and the panel as a whole, by arguing that academics, bureaucrats, military officers, and politicians all have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to discussing foreign policy decisions. Together, he said, “we should be part of the mix that builds a more robust marketplace of ideas and hopefully leads to a better and more credible series of foreign policies for the United States.” Contributing to that marketplace of ideas was the goal of this panel; hopefully it was accomplished through the collaborative efforts of Notre Dame’s International Security Center and the Charles Koch Institute.

In order to further contribute to the marketplace of ideas in foreign policy, the Charles Koch Foundation requests research proposals for projects related to foreign policy issues such as grand strategy and defense policy, trade policy, diplomacy, intelligence, civil-military relations, and more.

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