The Biggest Foreign Policy Threats to the United States Are the People Who Do Not Understand Foreign Policy

In a very recent PolicyMic op-ed, pundit Kristian Davis Bailey posits that the biggest threat to U.S. foreign policy is ... itself. The basic idea is that America extends a form of neocolonialism on the rest of the world in all, but name. 

He proceeds to highlight the main contradictions and conflicts in American foreign policy and highlights the non-aligned political movement as the political vehicle for a fairer, more egalitarian world order. The unfair treatments of Iran and Israel come up as the standard cases to illustrate his points.

I do like the piece, overall – it is detailed, mostly correct and informative. However, it trips and falls on the analysis, precisely because of its colonialist focus, and the lack of sophistication that makes it such an attractive explanation for all things wrong in the world in the first place actually ends up compromising its analytical value.

First, Bailey employs a definition of colonialism that lumps globalization, capitalism, and international business into one. These are categories each on their own, with push and pull tensions that cannot be said to go purely one way or the other. If, for example, Saudi Arabia as a primary oil exporter, also finances international terrorism, does that make it like the U.S., or an anti-thesis to the U.S.? Is America good or bad for supporting Saudi Arabia, because persuasive cases can be made for both aspects? The definition is by itself problematic.

In the comments section, the issue of America’s place in the world after 1945 came up. Now, the world could have gone on and functioned without America, but would it have been a good place to live? How long would it take to re-build the political and economic connections that existed before both World Wars, if America never took up a leadership role in the world?

Here is a largely unknown example of how American foreign policy is good: when I was in Fairbanks, Alaska, this summer, I saw a monument to American and Soviet pilots who fought alongside as allies in WWII. On the foundation of the monument, there is a plaque with a map of the world and a traced route of the path pilots took, from airplane factories in Ohio, up through Canada, into the Yukon, through Alaska and all the way across the USSR to the Eastern Front. Nearly 8,000 planes were delivered this way, and many died doing it, on top of those who perished in dogfights with the Luftwaffe. Just like America downplays the Soviet role in the war, however, the Russians aren’t terribly loud about this fact in helping them fight off the Nazis. (Superpowers tend to be drama queens.)

American foreign policy towards Israel and Iran can indeed be corrected on moral or humanitarian grounds, but there is more than that at play – the domestic and international balance of interests in the world dictates a sub-optimal foreign policy outcome, despite what might be the best intentions in some of the American establishment.

On terrorism – yes, America sponsors it, just like Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and every other state looking for proxy influence via destabilization. America creates and destroys its own enemies, as necessitated by its interests. The Russians did the exact same thing with the Georgians, as did the Romans with the Carthaginians. Foreign policy is an art. It’s up to the small guy to see that and know how to play the game to his advantage.  

In Bailey’s defense, American foreign policy is prone to black and white, evil and good interpretations of the world, but this is only a surface impression at best. He also does not recognize that the world’s history tends to rhyme, as the brilliant Mark Twain said once upon a time, and the very same world change very slowly as a consequence. President Obama pays more heed to the United Nations than George W. Bush and has adopted a more multilateral brand of foreign policy. That’s not to say the drone strikes in Pakistan that he also endorses aren’t killing scores of innocent people; but, it has begun a shift in American foreign policy towards greater respect for international law and humanitarian values, in my view. It will take more than two terms to see a fundamental character shift, and the costs of doing it will not necessarily be low either.

I am not an apologist for American foreign policy. But, the colonialist perspective Bailey uses is limited by its very nature. Evaluating American foreign policy fairly, with the very same nuance he calls for, begins with all of the above.