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Tam Hunt: Money or Idealism? What Drives U.S. Foreign Policy?

How should the most powerful nation in the history of the planet behave abroad? This is the basis of all foreign policy discussions here in the U.S. Even though the U.S. has now enjoyed almost 14 years without renewed attacks on our soil from terrorists or other groups, there is a very good chance that we will eventually experience new attacks. What do we do to prevent such attacks? How do we respond to groups threatening us abroad even if they don’t pose a current threat to the homeland? How do we respond to threats to the sovereignty of other nations, as is arguably happening in Ukraine now? How do we act within the context of international law and other nations’ interests?

These are all legitimate questions for the nation’s policymaking elite and spectators like myself. Jeremy Kotkin is part of the military community that helps military leadership and civilian policymakers translate policy to effective strategy. He shares with us in the interview below his thoughts on many of the big foreign policy issues of our day.

Kotkin is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a strategist in the Army’s War Plans Division. This means he helps to plan U.S. Army operations and strategy. He wrote the most popular submission to the Foreign Policy Best Defense debate in the “Gourley Challenge,” a short piece on why we lost the war in Afghanistan which can be accessed on Foreign Policy magazine’s website.

On a personal note, I enjoyed the chance to pose serious questions to someone in Kotkin’s position. My history with the U.S. military goes back 25 years now, when I joined the Army as an enlisted soldier. I still remember vividly my battalion commander in Germany, a lieutenant colonel, joining his troops for physical training and offering his inspirations to us as we trained for potential war with Iraq during the run-up to the first Gulf War (I am, by sheer coincidence, wearing my Army grey physical training T-shirt as I write this, which is still in good shape after all these years). I could not have and wouldn’t have even thought to engage my commander in a discussion about U.S. foreign policy at that time, but it is interesting to see how time can change one’s views on the big issues.

The views expressed here are Kotkin’s own and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Army or the federal government. I interviewed Kotkin by email.

How does your position give you particular insight into the workings of U.S. foreign policy?

The workings of U.S. foreign policy are a multidimensional affair much larger than the Department of Defense [the U.S. Army is part of the Dept. of Defense]. To be a part of that process as military strategists we’re formally educated in the classical approach to strategy development. Covering both the art and science of strategy, we learn statecraft, international relations, geopolitics, comparative political and religious ideologies and sources of legitimacy, and national security decision-making processes. The classics are especially focused on, from Sun Tzu through Thucydides and the great Prussian strategic theorist, Carl von Clausewitz.

As far as insight into US foreign policy, I’d say the formal education plus the postings afterwards to strategist-rated jobs in the Army or across the Department of Defense gives us a close relationship to how the national interest is developed, how that turns into policy, and then how we can formulate effective strategy to achieve it. More often than not in today’s geopolitical environment and the challenges we face as a nation, these issues require us as strategists to coordinate not only with the other military services but also between Departments, and within Congress and the White House staff.

In terms of setting strategy, and you and your colleagues’ role in choosing or guiding US military strategy, how much do you and your colleagues sway actual decision-making? I ask because it often seems like our leaders don’t learn much from past mistakes — Iraq being an obvious recent example.

I’d like to say that strategy development is a totally iterative and open process, independent of personalities; where leaders consider the recommendations of their advisors and staffs as well as inputs from the environment, and adjust accordingly. That’s how it should be, by definition, in the strategy development process. But, as evidenced by our counterinsurgency strategy development in Iraq and Afghanistan, recent strategy seems more and more likely to be developed almost in a vacuum, by a commander who decides an overall strategy then surrounds him or herself with like-minded individuals (a trusted clique) to put it into action. Or, worse yet, the military will outsource strategy development and critical thinking to contracted think tanks who we should know would provide courses of action or strategies that already fit our preconceived notions. Again, this is largely the way Afghanistan played out. With the revolving door between the DoD and politically-connected think tanks in Washington, as well as risk aversion and love of the fait accompli strategy development process (what came first, Russia’s hostility to the West or the West’s poking them into a military buildup/response?), this trend probably won’t change any time soon.

How do you feel about the Obama administration's recently announced initiative to normalize relations with Cuba and lift the 54-year old economic embargo on the Cuban people?

Personally I think it is a very smart move. Speaking as a strategist, we’re taught that one of the key components to developing rational strategy is that our actions — the strategy we’re employing to achieve a desired goal — will impact the system of the political or military environment we’re involved with. Therefore, a constant reassessment is always necessary; as we go forward with a policy or a strategy, we must not only be aware of the first, second, third, etc., order effects of our choices on this system, but also on the effectiveness of our chosen strategy itself. If we are not having the desired effect, we must reassess that strategy. What the president has done, after 54 years of the same policy and strategy [the embargo was first instated in 1960], is to finally take a step back, reassess our objectives in relation to the chosen strategy, and see if we’re any closer to achieving our goals. Obviously we weren’t under the longstanding strategy, and he has therefore directed a new strategy. This was probably a long time coming. What the President did is simply rational strategy reassessment and development.

Is it fair to call the U.S. an empire? Are we over-reaching with our current military initiatives that give us a military presence in dozens of countries and over 600 military bases in those countries?

To be exact, an empire is a situation where a larger, more powerful state fully controls the political sovereignty of another state; where the dominant state exerts political control over the internal and external policy of the other subordinate state. Using this accepted definition, the U.S. is not really an “empire.” Even in states where we have direct influence and effective military control, i.e., Afghanistan up until the time we transitioned security responsibility to their government and armed forces, we take special care to protect and be responsive to the sovereignty of that state. For example, in Afghanistan we made every effort to respect the sovereignty of the Afghan state as created by their president and constitution.

We did not get involved in domestic political issues or directions, took a purely advisory role in their relationship with international neighbors, and worked closely with the Afghan government to further build up and enact their own political control at all levels of government. In fact, part of the strategy itself was to ensure the Afghan national government was represented and effective down to the smallest District Center, and that the voice of the Afghan people was answered by their government, not ours. This is the same approach we take with all of our bilateral military partnerships. From Afghanistan to Korea, Japan, with NATO, etc., we ensure that our military forces and the strength of our state are only used according to a mutually agreed-upon legal framework that both states agree to.

But if the question is simply one of U.S. military footprint or overreach, then we have to consider why those forces are deployed. During the Cold War we had troop commitments all across the globe in order to contain the Soviet Union. That was the strategy then. We did this to ensure we could achieve our national interests. As the Cold War has ended and the geopolitical situation has evolved, so too has our military footprint changed. U.S. military bases have closed all across Europe as NATO has built up its capabilities. We’ve had to reorient ourselves to new challenges but this is a very difficult process. Although the U.S. military prides itself on being quickly scalable and adaptable, it is also a big bureaucracy and change doesn’t come easy. What Eisenhower termed the Military-Industrial Complex (which is actually the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex) has a long and intricate process that drives everything in national security decision-making, from the acquisitions of weapons systems, basing and closures, troop levels in the Services, to ultimately how strategy is developed, etc. Changing the direction of any of those factors is a lengthy and difficult political process.

As this global strategy, the defense industrial base, and bureaucracy evolves to achieve national interests in a very fluid and challenging world, the risk becomes overreach; not only overreach but mismanaging the budgetary balance of national security in an ostensibly peacetime world. At a time when our country has other very pressing requirements (infrastructure, healthcare, energy, etc) to keep us holistically strong as a nation, the standing assumption that the DoD receives the lion’s share of the discretionary budget might not be valid in the 21st century.

In terms of Afghanistan and your assertion that the U.S. let Afghans run their own government for the most part, what about the bag men and many other techniques used by various branches of the US government in Afghanistan to sway decision-making?

I worked in the same office in the Afghan National Security Council in the Presidential Palace in Kabul at the same time as one of these ‘bag-man’ incidents, so I know that situation fairly well. I don’t know much about the covert money transfers, mind you (this wasn’t a DoD-led situation), but rather how we would usually try to ‘align efforts’ one way or another in order to meet both Afghan and US national interests. This was necessary since we were tasked with developing their capacity to formulate policy and strategy on their own… to eventually take over all wartime responsibilities. Granted, Afghanistan at that time was a blank slate. We built their bureaucracy — to include the National Security Council — literally from the ground up. Over time we knew we had to shift from a ‘doing everything ourselves’ role to simply a ‘standing back and advising’ role where we could work ourselves out of a job. The host nation would need prodding and nudging at various levels of coercion at different times because we knew we were operating in a massively inefficient system. So did we prod? Yes. Coerce? That depends on how you define it. But we only did that because we knew the system of patronage networks and political corruption we were trying to work within and we owed it to our taxpayers as well as the Afghan population to ensure their national security decision-making process met their own as well as our needs.

Shifting gears, let’s look at Asia. As China rises in terms of regional and global power, is it conceivable that we might actually see a more peaceful world emerge or is the likelihood of major clashes between China, the US and other global powers more likely to increase and thus bring about a less secure world?

Yes, the Democratic Peace Theory states, loosely, that as countries become more democratic, the lesser the chances for open conflict between them become. A corollary says that the closer (and more dependent) our economies become, so it too lowers chances for conflict. That’s the theory, but there are always counter-examples. The German drive that began World War I and Putin’s drive to invade Ukraine are two exceptions. Neither of these national policies made very much economic sense at the time, and these examples also conflict with theory in other ways.

That being said, China is our nearest near-peer competitor. This makes the U.S., and especially our DoD, nervous, even if China shows no overt hostile intention to us or our vital national interests at this time. China is trying to protect its interests; its access to sea-lanes, resources and trade routes, its honor, etc. This is all completely rational but is all too often mistranslated as overt hostility to their neighbors and eventually to us. This is a mistake. China is a rational actor whose needs can be taken into account as we both progress and negotiate together. It is not a zero-sum game. Like Iran and Cuba, diplomatic actions and empathizing with the needs of the other nation is central to moving ahead peacefully. Our policymakers unfortunately don’t often display that kind of empathy or acknowledge the other side’s perspectives; that kind of serious and enduring diplomacy seems to play second string to our more hawkish policymakers, calling in the DoD to fill the gap in enabling foreign policy.

Turning to Europe, how important do you see Russia's actions in Ukraine in terms of threats to our national interest or threats to European interests?

This is a difficult question to answer, only because we, the West, make it difficult for ourselves. The White House just recently published the 2015 update to the National Security Strategy wherein it clearly identifies Russian aggression as a threat to our interests. So there’s that. But peel that back a little further and it becomes difficult to clearly see and articulate a response to this challenge. What specific interests are being threatened? Ukraine is not a NATO state; we do not have large trade agreements with Ukraine; they are not a strategic territorial crossroads for us; a Russian annexation of Crimea or eastern Ukraine/Novorossiya doesn’t translate into a threat to the US homeland or European/NATO partners.

So why is the sky falling? I suppose it gets back to two things: our Western idealism based on, among other things, the notion of Immanuel Kant’s ‘Perpetual Peace’ coupled with many policymakers and defense officials who automatically and unnecessarily revert to the Cold War lens when considering Russia. Our love affair with Idealism in foreign policy (vice Realism) tells us that conflict anywhere is a threat to peace everywhere. This notion, straight from Kant, loosely instructs our thinking to venture well beyond protecting ‘vital’ national interests into ensuring we can be the guarantor of peace within conflicts that have little to actually do with us, our security, or way of life. And then we have the added benefit of having people who still look at Russia as if it were the Evil Empire and think that Russian perspectives, history, and interests don’t matter as they develop their own security strategies (this is a pretty common aspect of American hubris nowadays). Russia wants a Ukraine that is not in NATO. A Ukraine in NATO doesn’t create a more secure Europe or protect any vital US interests. We shouldn’t be festering this sore.

Keeping in mind the not-too-distant memory of the trumped up case for war in Iraq isn't it important that our media and policymakers always subject claims of threats posed to intense scrutiny, including the events unfolding in the Ukraine? I don't doubt that Russia is guilty of some wrongdoing in Ukraine but it seems clear to me, at the least, that we are yet again seeing the White House and more bellicose members of the foreign policy establishment get a free pass when it comes to describing Russian actions in Ukraine. Where is the scrutiny of such claims, given what happened in Iraq?

Sadly journalism isn’t what it used to be although when it comes to foreign policy decision-making, going at least as back as far back as the entry into the Vietnam War [the Gulf of Tonkin incident, for example], lack of oversight seems to be more common. Open and honest national discussion/debate seems hard to come by. It’s obvious in hindsight that the Press and Congress almost entirely passed on their responsibilities when it came time to investigate and provide critical oversight for the run up to war in Iraq. Much the same is happening now, at least to the extent that the press actually reports about Ukraine. We see shelled towns; we hear our European allies calling for increased U.S. assistance; we know the Senate is largely on board with sending arms. Nobody is really asking ‘why’ though. And those that do are quickly shut down because “we have to defend against the Russian Bear as they reconstitute the Soviet Union.” It’s like the lack of critical thought that produced the Domino Theory is occurring all over again. Critical thought doesn’t make headlines, you can’t put it into sound bite bumper stickers, and it doesn’t get politicians re-elected. Sadly that’s the world of 21st century American decision-making and that’s why we continually chase the next shiny object without any serious thought why.

Last, how much influence, covert or overt, does the massive military-industrial complex exert on foreign policy? Given the fact that our military budget, when all relevant items are included, already exceeds $1 trillion, with more and more of that going to consultants rather than the military itself, a big clue to the general and pervasive trends pushing our policymakers toward war as the default option?

After deploying twice to Afghanistan and seeing the amount of money spent there and now being in the Pentagon and seeing how much parochialism, money, and thinktanks and contractors are part and parcel of our national defense strategy decision-making, it’s not exactly a ‘covert’ influence. I’ve always said that one of the primary reasons why the war in Afghanistan lasted as long as it did was because of how much money was being made off it back home. Nobody wanted to stop that, let alone the defense industry, and they’ve got a strong voice with Congress.

To channel General Smedley Butler, war is a racket and it always was. And now that money is so intertwined with politics, and the lobbyists and contractors of the defense industry are so incestuous within the Pentagon, the trend is obvious. In a good example of “military Keynesianism,” we cannot fathom a solution to any problem around the word that doesn’t immediately include the use or deployment of our military. As our military downsizes after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and after the constant state of readiness that was our official policy during the Cold War, we should be reconsider how we engage global challenges; reconsider how we fund the Department of State compared to the DoD; reconsider our proclivity to use the military solution for all types of problems. But changing our current ways won’t make people and contractors rich. Such is the world we live in now, unfortunately.

Sorry, one last question (this time, I mean it): You mention Kant’s Idealism as a driving force in U.S. foreign policy but is this really a significant factor in actual policy? Obviously, it’s invoked at times (by, for example, you here in this interview) but looking at actual foreign policy choices it sure seems like realpolitik and the military/industrial complex are better predictive and explanatory frameworks for what we really do. And saying that our Idealism and Kant’s Perpetual Peace Theory has been responsible for at least some of our military actions over the years sounds to me a lot like “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.” How can perpetual military action be equated with perpetual peace?

No, literally, I suppose not. Probably no one in Washington has a copy of Perpetual Peace on their desk or in their minds as they go forward developing policy. There are some books that I would recommend they read or re-read (namely On War or The History of the Peloponnesian War for their theories of how politics relates to the use of the military and its effectiveness, risks, and results), but national policies and national interests are largely defined by the moment of time we all share together.

That being said, we are certainly more predisposed to Idealism than other philosophical stances. This might be owed partially to our DNA as Americans that defines us more as global optimists than pessimists and partially that we think we’ve arrived at the “End of History” after the Cold War and are freer to re-make the world more to our image. The Military-Industrial Complex is just the happy vehicle to help that happen and earn money along the way.

But I would disagree that realpolitik explains our actions. If that were the case we wouldn’t be at the 11th hour from war with Russia over Ukraine, we wouldn’t be unnecessarily challenging China in their own back yard, we wouldn’t have tried to rebuild Afghanistan in our image, and we wouldn’t be involved in a 7th century sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia flavors of Islam being fought over in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other. But our Idealism-based foreign policy instructs us that we can and should be involved in all these and more.

Realism and realpolitik would otherwise tell us that Grand Strategy, national policy, and subsequent military strategies should only be used to promote our interests where it matters to us and secure them when they are directly challenged. To be sure, perpetual military action does not equate to perpetual peace; it instead equates to ‘Forever War,’ perpetual profits for our defense industry, and perpetual job security for a DoD trying to justify its size and budgets.

Our country can be made strong again but not by buying tanks we don’t need, maintaining bases and troops we can’t afford, or forward positioning or rotating our military forces overseas in a world markedly different than it was prior to 1991. Ensuring national security at the outset of the 21st century will come not from these things but making sure we are strong at home and having a strong and common bond with our true allies, not countries bribed into alliance through coalitions of convenience. Education, infrastructure, civil rights, an open press, reconnecting politics to people and not corporations, etc. will make us a strong nation at home and abroad without needing to spend more on our military than all of the next ten highest defense budgets of the civilized world combined.

— Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer based in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Hilo, Hawaii. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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