Five Things America Needs to Learn

Harvard Prof. Stephen M. Walt has an excellent article in Foreign Policy that I highly recommend. Although its title is “The Top 5 Things the Next American President Needs to Know About Foreign Policy,” ordinary Americans need to learn these as well because, until enough of us do, the president will be unable to act on them out of fear of the political consequences. Key excerpts from Prof. Walt’s article appear directly under my signature line.

Martin Hellman


No. 1:Geopolitics 101  

The president needs to know that … major powers are invariably sensitive about their own territory and concerned about anything happening near their borders. If top U.S. and EU diplomats had understood this principle, they wouldn’t have been so surprised by Russia’s heavy-handed behavior toward Ukraine, Georgia, or even Syria. After all, Putin was just doing what America had done repeatedly in its own “backyard.” [That link is to another article by Prof. Walt that I highly recommend. It shows striking parallels between Putin’s recent actions in Ukraine and Reagan’s in Nicaragua during the 1980s.] …

No. 2: The need for and limits of military power

If you’ve watched too many movies like Zero Dark Thirty or Top Gun, or if you’ve read too many Tom Clancy novels, you might think the U.S. military has magical powers and can perform extraordinary feats of heroism and technological wizardry. … But military power remains a blunt instrument whose ultimate effects are nearly impossible to predict. Accidents, mistakes, surprises, and the “fog of war” invariably undermine even the best-laid plans, and using force invariably produces some results that no one anticipated. To go to war is to open Pandora’s box, unleashing whatever demons lie within. …

No. 3: Even your best people won’t always tell you the truth. …

To be effective, therefore, the next president will need to be ruthlessly skeptical about just about everything his or her subordinates say and quick to oust anyone who exhibits a fast-and-loose relationship with the truth. And it would be a good idea for any president to occasionally meet with outsiders who are known to disagree with existing policy, merely to get a fresh view on things. Such vigilance won’t prevent every error, of course, but it might make it easier to recognize and correct them. …

No. 4: There’s a big difference between the urgent and the important.

A central challenge for U.S. foreign policy is its sheer ambition: No other country tries to shape events in every corner of the world and on a multitude of issues. The result is that the U.S. foreign-policy agenda is perennially overcrowded … Compounding this problem is the irresponsible behavior of major media organizations, which never saw an unfortunate international event they could not blow out of all proportion. And for one simple reason: to keep eyeballs glued to the screen. Viewers were treated to an endless orgy of alarmist coverage and speculative punditry after 130 violent deaths in Paris — a media spectacle that just gives the Islamic State more free advertising — but we are rarely reminded of the … far greater numbers who died from more prosaic causes. [That link is to a Wikipedia entry for the 2003 European heat wave that was estimated to kill more than 70,000 people.]

No president can avoid the pressure of events, but a smart president needs to find ways to keep his or her agenda moving despite the inevitable surprises that occur. And that means not trying to do too much, because every administration needs to leave time and capacity to respond to events that arrive without warning.

No. 5: Beware the fatal combination of fear and hubris. …

What happens when these two things come together: our sense of looming danger and our overwhelming capacity for action? The answer is: nothing good. Indeed, if one looks at the past 20 years, it is clear that the greatest wounds suffered by the United States were self-inflicted. What al Qaeda did to the United States on 9/11 was very bad, but the decision to topple Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq cost far, far more. … Bush & Co. were simultaneously scared and overconfident: a dangerous combination. …

More than anything else, the next president needs a … bullshit detector to protect [him or her] from those who promise them a great reward for little or no effort.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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