The United States possesses more force and money than any other country in the world, yet it does not seem to be enough. Over the last decade our society has deployed the best-trained soldiers and the most advanced weapons across the globe, but challengers — state and non-state — are multiplying. Over the last decade the United States has spent billions of dollars to build governing institutions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan and other nations, yet they all appear to be falling apart. It is hard to argue that we have not done enough. It often looks like we have done too much — perhaps making regions like the Middle East worse by our efforts.
These observations are motivating a new isolationism movement/sentiment among both Republicans and Democrats. According to this argument, the United States should tend its own garden, using its force and money exclusively at home to address domestic needs. We have tried to change the rest of the world, isolationists claim, and we have failed because too many foreign societies cannot be changed. We should accept their tyranny, poverty and violence and simply build walls to insulate ourselves. We have, of course, literally done this on our southern border with Mexico. Americans fought the Cold War to tear down the Berlin Wall; now they are building walls of their own.
The problem with isolationism is not the criticism of American foreign policies, but the suggested alternative. Walls fail to insulate and they weaken those living within them. Walls also abandon the possibilities for improving international conditions and helping people suffering from the worst forms of repression. Isolation falsely assumes that if force and money cannot get us what we want, then nothing will.
There is another way, and that should be the true agenda for innovative policy-making in the next decade. American force and money have focused primarily on punishment and prohibition. We use our weapons to kill terrorists and intimidate possible adversaries. We use our money to support individuals that enforce order in foreign societies. For all the talk about “development” and “nation-building,” the vast majority of foreign policy resources go elsewhere. We have spent the last decade throwing our weight around, shooting first and asking questions later, buying the friends we think should be in charge abroad.
As one would expect, this bullying behavior has made us feel strong — it always draws cheers from frightened American citizens — but it really makes us weak. Too much force turns potential friends into enemies. No one likes to be pushed around. Too much money encourages selfishness and corruption. No one works hard for their community when a foreign patron places millions of dollars in their pockets. The paradox is that American force and money have contributed to the failed states, extremism and terrorist violence that threaten us today.
What if we used our force and money differently? The missing ingredient is persuasion. We have allowed American bullying to make the United States appear unlikable, even threatening, to many people who could be persuaded otherwise. This is evident from the thousands of young citizens throughout the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Latin America and even Europe who want the kind of wealth and freedom that Americans flaunt, but believe that Americans will never let them have it. We appear too self-centered, too disrespectful and too hypocritical in the eyes of precisely those people who demand real democracy abroad.
Isolationism will only reinforce this view of the United States. More effective policy requires the deployment of force and money through institutions that actually make people’s lives better: law-abiding police officers, uncorrupt state institutions, local businesses and effective schools. The United States has, of course, tried to fund these kinds of institutions in the past, but they have always received far less attention and support than the direct applications of force. Washington has also allowed local dictators — Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, as two examples — to distort these efforts for personal gain.
It does not have to be that way. If the American military can kill with precision, civilian agencies should be able to direct our knowledge and money into the hands of citizens who really want to make their lives better, working as our potential partners. This has never been easy, but we have done it with some success after the Second World War and in the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The time has come to re-examine these experiences and think long and hard about how we can make our force and money more persuasive abroad. We cannot abandon the punishment of terroristic enemies, but we must get better at helping potential friends. If we abandon this mission, we will soon run out of the force and money necessary to defend ourselves.
Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. Follow him on Twitter @JeremiSuri.