America's defensive strategy

By Lee Hamilton
Jun 1 2009


An exasperated President James Madison wrote to Congress 197 years ago today seeking a declaration of war against Great Britain, despite his efforts "to make every experiment short of the last resort [war]."

Congress declared war weeks later and the War of 1812 began.

Our fourth president was wrestling with American intervention in the world, including the use of force, an issue we have often confronted in the past and will confront often in the future.

The country, and the world, is in a transformative moment. We are in the midst of the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression. There are emerging global powers in Asia and elsewhere. There is swelling turmoil wherever we look, from Sri Lanka to Baghdad, from Mexico to the Congo.

The United States still has great power, but a limited ability to determine outcomes. We still stand alone atop a pyramidal power structure. While no one knows what shape the future world order will take, the United States will likely emerge as a leader.

But while we can lead the world, we cannot control it. Our human and financial resources are finite. America cannot dictate solutions to the world's problems, particularly those problems rooted in the domestic affairs of other states.

We should always consider how individual policies fit into a larger image of America's role in the world.

Should we focus, in George Washington's words, on "extending our commercial relations?" Should America, in John Quincy Adams' words, go "not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy"? Or, should it, as James Polk believed: "Observe a careful respect for the rights of other nations, while our own will be the subject of constant watchfulness"?

Should our aims be loftier — to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty," as John F. Kennedy said? Should we strive to end tyranny in our world, as George W. Bush advocated?

Answering these questions is not an abstract exercise, particularly with ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It cuts to the heart of what kind of country we are.

That is why the American public should address them. It is the American people who end up paying the price and bearing the burden of our actions abroad. Sustainability is a word often used in discussions of agriculture, but it also belongs in foreign policy debates. Effective presidential decision-making depends on what the American people and their representatives in Congress are willing to support, not just initially, but even when the reports come in on the costs of intervention in lives and dollars.

This is the case with nation-building and democracy-promotion, and the lengthy time-horizon and large costs they require. In my view, we should pursue both more modestly, with a better understanding of what is achievable, and the price in both blood and treasure the country is willing to pay. If we make commitments, we should be prepared to honor them, but we should make such commitments only after extensive thought and debate.

Of course, we can and will help our friends with economic and military aid, but they must know that their future is largely in their own hands. We can encourage, help and even prod — respectfully — countries in a direction we want.

But we should not send troops into harm's way unless vital interests are at stake, our goals and strategy are clear, and always with the support and resources needed to get the job done assured.

At times, we should be prepared to accept partial success in defense of our interests, aware of the unintended consequences that inevitably result from a military footprint on foreign soil. The world can be relatively safe and stable, while not necessarily reflecting our ideals and principles. Our ability to transplant them abroad is limited.

The gravity of the decision to intervene should always prompt the most rigorous scrutiny. We should recall Madison's words, written in his pre-presidential days, on the seriousness of military action: "The strongest passions, and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace."

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)