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Interests and Minimalism

Posted by Newshoggers.com on February 15th, 2010

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By Dave Anderson:

Minimalism in foreign policy requires identifying interests that are core and vital and working towards those interests.  At the same time, secondary interests, or the “nice to have” or default assumptions must be rigorously examined and subjected to a rational examination of costs, benefits and secondary impacts before action is taken on those lesser interests.  This is a bizarre notion in American political discourse because it does not assume that everything in the world is a vital American interest.

Daniel Larison has a good example of the elevation of a minor interest into a “vital interest” despite the external realities that restrict option space and value:

For all of the talk of Georgia as “the last truly Western-oriented country in a highly strategic, critical region,” its Western political orientation is almost entirely at odds with its economic relationship with Russia. If Turkey has become more “unreliable” (i.e., it pursues its own interests even when Washington does not like it) and Ukraine’s flirtation with integration into Euro-Atlantic structures has been put on hold if not abandoned entirely, why is a much smaller, poorer, more economically dependent country such as Georgia going to sustain its “Western” orientation? More to the point, why is it worth damaging a far more important relationship with Russia to make sure that Georgia continues pursuing the illusion of membership in Euro-Atlantic structures?

It is only a universe in which the United States has global and all pervasive interests and no other nation is allowed to have local and near-abroad interests does it make sense for Georgia to be a vital American interest where the US government debates using military force to defend.

Bernard Finel probes at this failure of imagination and thus the maximalization of the American goal set in foreign policy a bit more at his place.

In addition, we never actually bother to define “interests abroad.”  Instead we ASSUME our interests and global and all-consuming, and a consequence any and all “problems” are assumed to threaten interests.  We have drunk so deeply from the fountain of “primacy” that we have wholly lost the ability to distinguish between unpleasant international developments and threats to “interests.”

The reason we won’t follow my suggestion to rethink how we use our military is not that it fails to address key challenges, it is that we define everything as a fundamental challenge and we prioritize a military response above all else….

In reality, we don’t consider alternative mitigation strategies because we fail to consider the possibility that resources devoted to the military ought to be considered fungible.  If you give me $100 billion a year to spend on counter-terrorism, I am pretty sure I could defend us from terrorist attacks more effectively than the indirect consequences of even a wildly successful Afghan war.  But if we were not in Afghanistan, that money would not be redistributed, it would simply disappear from the national security pie.  But that does not reflect rational decision making, it reflects and unconscious prioritization of the military instrument.

We are entering a time of austerity and maximal goal sets or at least actions that are undertaken with a maximal assumption set will not work.  Clear identification of vital needs and interests will pare back the commitments and over-extension that the US currently is laboring under.  These identifications may even increase security as resources could be diverted to a combination of other, more effective and efficient, actions, resiliency hardening and concentration of resources at the truly vital priorities.  But first we need an imagination that is broad enough to acknowledge that the United States is not the only lead actor on the world’s stage.

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