Monday, June 16, 2014

identifying superpowers

I'm about to turn my attention to full-time grandparenting, but Micah Zenko's new article in Foreign Policy caught my eye. I don't agree with all his criticisms of U.S. policy in Iraq or his disparagement of the effectiveness of U.S. military training of foreign forces, but I do agree that too many politicians, pundits, and analysts seem to think that only military action counts in promoting U.S. national security.
Somewhere along the line, in many influential schools of punditry and analysis, the totality of U.S. foreign policy has been reduced to whether presidents bomb some country or adversary, and the alleged impressions that this decision leaves on other countries. The binary construction employed by these pundits and analysts is that a president either demonstrates strength and engagement with air strikes, or fecklessness and detachment in their absence.

Today, the U.S. military has over 400,000 troops stationed or deployed in 182 countries around the world -- primarily conducting force protection, training, or security cooperation missions, but these troops do not factor into this equation. The binary choice is either bombs, or isolationism. Of course, the activities of the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Treasury Department, or any other government agency and entity working abroad are wholly disregarded or given short shrift at promoting and implementing foreign policy objectives.
He is also right to point out that military missions only indirectly may contribute to how other nations calculate superpower status.
Though never referred to by proponents of militarism, there is an actual joint planning process and universal task list that the military uses when planning and conducting operations. These documents provide the common reference points and actions that all affected service members are supposed to know. Nowhere in U.S. military planning documents can you find missions like "demonstrating resolve," "exhibiting strength," or "retaining superpower status." It is impossible to make other countries think of you what you would like. Their impressions are highly situationally dependent, and the result of the power and interests that surround a discrete country or issue. Their opinions of the United States are not merely based upon whether the president decided to bomb someone or not. 
We are a superpower in terms of economic and military strength, and we have a sizable amount of "soft power" and moral stature from some of our past actions.  And while I don't agree with all of Robert Kagan's analysis and recommendations, his headline point is true: superpowers can't retire. I've also heard senior officials working in the NSC system say that "you can't avoid issues just because they are too hard."

So yes, we have to "do something" about Iraq, and other problems. But let's remember we have a large and diverse toolkit --  I do love that term -- beyond military attacks.

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