Global Glory or Grounded Goals?

By Fil Lekkas:

Hot on the heels of one successful intervention in Libya, and arguably poised to attempt others in Syria and Iran, the role of the US globally is again in the center of public debate. To pinpoint the ideal aggression level for American foreign policy, the William F. Buckley Jr. Program and the Rozenkranz Foundation hosted a debate on Thursday, March the 22nd between Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Christopher Preble, Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the CATO Institute. As representatives of divergent strands in conservative thinking—Preble representing  “realists” and Donnelly neoconservatives—they sparred over the theory and practice of American foreign policy.

Preble began by taking aim at the neoconservative thinking that has long dominated US foreign policy circles. Wary of its “fatal conceit” in believing the US able to “better repair broken neighborhoods in Baghdad than it had been able to in Chicago”, he criticizes neoconservative understandings of “war as the ultimate state project”, however high the price tag.

Christopher Preble took on Thomas Donnelly on Thursday, arguing that his foe's ideas were both irresponsible and unaffordable. (CATO Institute).

Instead, Preble would pare down US foreign policy to its bare essentials, pursuing only “vital national interests” through “well-defined” and “publicly supported” initiatives. Though frustrated by the lack of participation from European allies—characterized as having “liabilities but few capabilities”—he did suggest that “maybe the Germans and the Japanese shouldn’t decide to do more” if that meant acquiring nuclear weapons. Though he knows his views lie “outside of the Beltway consensus”, he claims that a more restrained foreign policy would better reflect the preferences of the American public.

Taking a more ambitious stance, Donnelly emphasized the need for an active America. Instead of merely engaging “in a the kind of offshore balancing” that amounted to “splendid isolationism”, he prescribed to the US the role of ensuring safe global access to the traditional “international commons” of “the oceans and seas” as well as “the atmosphere, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum”.

Donnelly also highlighted the successes on America’s global record, including the pacifying of conflict-ridden Europe thanks to the sacrifices of “blood and treasure”, and the prosperity-kindling consequences of American intervention in Vietnam, which he claims helped establish the peace during which “the great Asian economic miracle” has taken place. Unlike Preble, he believes that Europeans, among others, “would prefer the US to be the strongest power in their region”. Though “Rasmussen polls may say otherwise”, he claims that the policies he defends have long been those of “American leaders of all political stripes”.

The policy consequences of their theoretical differences emerged more clearly when answering questions on priorities of American policy today. Regarding counter-terrorism, Donnelly defended a role for the military, arguing that “non-state actors are impossible to understand without the contexts in which they develop”—contexts, of course, the US military has considerable power to shape—as demonstrated by how “Al Qaeda’s power derived from controlling a piece of Afghanistan for a while.” Preble, again, urged caution, emphasizing how even when there is a state sponsor for a terrorist groups, even a “military solution doesn’t always involve an invasion”.

However, on China, Preble claimed they stood on similar ground, arguing that despite China’s success in raising “250-300 million people out of poverty, they still have 750 million to go”. Despite that, Preble was concerned about the potential for China’s leaders to “foment foreign conflict’ to deflect attention from internal unrest, which the presence of American vessels in the South China Sea would only accentuate. Donnelly, however, emphasized how domestic “nationalism”, rather than an assertive U.S. Navy, would determine whether China’s leaders pursued an aggressive foreign strategy.

As is often noted, whatever the outcome of these debates, the United States will remain the world’s only  superpower for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, a spirited but respectful dialogue about policy priorities is our only hope to make the U.S. a more responsible player in the global arena.

Fil Lekkas ’14 is an Economics major in Calhoun college. Contact him at