Deciphering US Foreign Policy

By Bledar Prifti, Ph.D.

Failure to have a general agreement on what foreign policy is has led to a nation-wide confusion and debate about US foreign policy. For some, foreign policy is like an apple, for some others it is like an orange, and for many others it is like a banana. As a result, when analyzing US foreign policy, commentators have a hard time understanding why others see their apples as oranges and in some cases, even worse, as bananas.

Foreign Policy and Its Supremacy Doctrine

For this reason, it is imperative that before talking about US foreign policy, we should first come to terms with a universal definition of foreign policy. Generally speaking, using common sense, foreign policy is a set of national interests and strategies to pursue those interests. For example, when we talk about US foreign policy, we analyze a set of national interests and strategies how to achieve those interests.

The policy functions of the US government are clearly stated in the preamble of the Constitution, which states that “in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Of all the aforementioned functions, the most important function is providing for the common defense, protecting the US from foreign threats and guaranteeing its national survival. Whenever other interests conflict with national security interests, the latter always prevail. Cultural traits and economic interests of a nation-state matter. However, they are never exercised at the expense of national security interests. National security interests are superior to any other interest. And this is the supremacy doctrine of foreign policy.

The same is true about individuals who run the state. Leadership traits, such as ideology, personality, and personal interests, matter. However, they are never exercised at the expense of national security interests. It is for this reason that in his National Security Strategy of 1988, President Ronald Reagan states:

While it is commonplace to hear that US National Security Strategy changes erratically every four to eight years as a result of a new Administration taking office, in reality there is a remarkable consistency over time when our policies are viewed in historical perspective. The core interests and objectives of this Nation have changed little since World War II.

This is a strong statement made by an outgoing staunch conservative president who succeeded a very liberal one, President Jimmy Carter. It is also important to note that in the last sentence of his statement, President Reagan is referring to core interests and objectives as the substance of US foreign policy, dedicating foreign policy continuity to those unchanged core national interests.

Hegemony and Foreign Policy

A state’s foreign policy, meaning national interests and strategies to pursue them, is dictated by its position/status in the international system and its geographic location. Foreign policy of small states, such as Vietnam, Albania, Iceland, and Cuba, are different from foreign policy of big states, such as China, Russia, Germany, and Australia. But at the same time, foreign policy of big states is totally different from the foreign policy of a hegemonic power like the US.

US foreign policy is dictated primarily by its status as a global hegemonic power and its geographic location in the Western Hemisphere. The primary national security interest of the hegemonic US is preventing the emergence of another regional hegemon whose main objective would be destroying the current hegemon and its world order.

Anything the US does is in service of maintaining the status quo (not to be confused with maintaining peace) of the international system. US foreign policy during WWI and WWII against Germany, during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and today against China is dictated by the ultimate need to prevent the emergence of a rival hegemonic power.

Because most great powers are addicted to challenging US hegemonic power and creating a new world order, the US is left with no other option but to encounter them in any corner of the world. It is this addiction of great powers to challenge the hegemonic status of the US that has created the misperception of the US as being addicted to war.

The Grand Strategy of Offshore Balancing—From Buck-Passing to Direct Balancing

In the attempt to prevent the emergence of a rival hegemonic power, the US relies on balance of power. Balance of power is about preventing a state from becoming powerful enough to dominate itsw own region or hemisphere, subsequently becoming a dominant global power.

Thus, maintaining balance of power in every region of the world is crucial to maintaining US hegemony.

The geographic location of the US as an offshore state makes its grand strategy be offshore balancing. Whenever dealing with a threat, as an offshore balancer, the US has three optional strategies to pursue.

First, the innate and most preferred strategy of every state is buck-passing, passing the burden of containing a threat to other (primarily regional) states.

The probability for buck-passing to work successfully depends on regional power fragmentation and geographic proximity from the threat. The more fragmented a region is, the more diverse state interests are, and the higher the probability to find states to pass the buck onto.

The probability for buck-passing increases even further if the threat is in a distant location. For example, buck-passing was less probable to occur in the case of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta because the region lacked fragmentation of powers and both states were geographically close to each other. For this reason, the Thucydides’ Trap was inevitable.

Thucydides’ Trap and the US-China Conflict

However, this is not the case with the US and China today for the very same reasons. The Thucydides’ Trap cannot be applicable in the case of the US and China because the (Far) East region is very fragmented and the the two aforementioned states are located far away from each other. For example, the US may pass the burden of containing China to several region states, such as India, Russia, Japan, South Korea, etc..

Because China would have to dominate its region before dominating the US and the rest of the world, regional states would likely “carry the buck” for the US. Indeed, they would have no other option but to contain China either individually or in coalition. Regional states may try to pass the burden to other regional states; however, this intra-regional buck-passing would likely not succeed due to the enormous power of China just as in the case of the Nazi Germany during WWII. For this reason, regional states would be more willing to create coalitions.

US and the Middle East–The Ideal Case for Buck-Passing

Especially after the overthrowing of Saddam Hussain in 2003 and the eruption of the Arab Spring, the Middle East has become the ideal region for the US to implement the strategy of buck-passing. The fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a perfect example of buck-passing in action. Due to its distant location from the region, the US is able to pass the burden of containing ISIL to several entities, including to many European and Middle Eastern states.

Indeed, the region has become so fragmented that not only the US but also regional states can successfully implement buck-passing. Regional division of power and geographic proximity to the threat, ISIL, dictate how regional states pass the burden of containing ISIL to each other. If the threat increases, the buck goes in sequence from Iraq and Syria to Iran and from there to Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. For ISIL to become a real threat to the US, it must first conquer/dominate the Middle East and Europe. Like in the case of China, ISIL cannot skip regional states and Europe.

Coalition Building and Direct Intervention

Coalition building is second in the list of preferred strategies to contain threats, and it is often used in combination with or as part of buck-passing. The US has been using the coalition-building strategy to deal with threats that were not able to be contained by individual states, such as the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It is likely that the US will implement the same strategy against China.

Lastly, direct intervention against a threat is the least preferred strategy of a state. It is often used in combination with the previous two strategies and as the last resort to containing a threat. The US was forced to use it during WWII as regional states, alone and in coalition, failed to contain the Nazi Germany. The same strategy was partially used during the Cold War when the US was forced to intervene directly out of the fear of potential Soviet expansion.

The Trump Presidency–Continuity or Change in US Foreign Policy?

Following the aforementioned definition of foreign policy, if one will have to claim that US foreign policy under President Trump has changed, one will have to prove that specific national security interests and strategies to achieve them have changed under this presidency.

If there is no change in national security interests and strategies, no way you can claim that US foreign policy has changed. It is common sense. As Mark Twain used to say, “Actions speak lauder than words but not nearly as often.” And this is truer with the Trump administration than with any prior presidency.

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