The View From Olympus: An Animal Shelter Foreign Policy

On Wednesday, June 4, President Obama spoke in Warsaw’s Castle Square. Responding to Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, the President said, as reported in the June 5 New York Times,

“Poland will never stand alone. Estonia will never stand alone. Latvia will never stand alone. Lithuania will never stand alone. Romania will never stand alone.”

After meeting with Ukraine’s newly elected president, Petro O. Poroshenko, President Obama added, “The United States is absolutely committed to standing behind the Ukrainian people and their aspirations, not just in the coming days and weeks but in the coming years.” Unaccountably, Ruritania and Graustark were forgotten.

This is an animal shelter foreign policy. Based entirely on sentiment, we are taking in any and every little country that somehow feels threatened by a state that actually counts. We equally “stand with” Vietnam and the Philippines against China, in an area long known as the South China Sea. Just what “standing with” means is left vague. Does it mean that if they get knocked down, we’re in a fight with whomever threw the punch? If so, the Obama administration is making one of the worst foreign policy errors a country can make, casually and thoughtlessly offering commitments that can lead to war.

Even apart from that risk, we are making a fundamental mistake. These little countries can do nothing for us. A commitment to them benefits them, but does absolutely nothing for us. It is to such a “giveaway” foreign policy that sentiment invariably leads.

In contrast, a foreign policy based on realism and interests would lead us to want big, powerful countries as allies, not little weak ones. The two most obvious candidates are Russia and China. Both could do a great deal for us. They have vast resources (Russia), a powerful manufacturing economy (China), nuclear arsenals, effective conventional armed forces, highly competent espionage operations, all things that could do us real good. What can Poland do to help us? Sell us cheap kielbasa? Maybe Romania can teach us how to steal.

Yet the price of playing international dog warden and filling our kennel with mutts and strays is that we are turning Russia and China into opponents. Just as they can offer us effective help, they can also do us real damage. What might result if they reciprocate our folly by “standing with” al Qaeda and the Taliban? Had either Russia or China supplied the Taliban with the latest shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, we would have been driven out of Afghanistan years ago.

History shows over and over again that foreign policies based on sentiment lead to disaster. They sound good up front to domestic audiences, who cheer as, depending on time and place, they ride to the rescue of fellow Catholics/Protestants/monarchs/democrats/Teutons/Slavs/etc. But because nations in a nation-state system have objective interests, the results are invariably unhappy. Policies based on sentiment end up working against interests, and in the end, it is the interests that count. Whether or not we “like” the current governments of Russia and China, our relations with them involve very important interests. We have no important interests at stake in Ukraine, or Poland, or the Baltics, or Vietnam, or the Philippines.

As I have written before, conservatives owe the Obama administration due credit for not getting this country into more stupid wars. We equally owe it condemnation for offering casual commitments to countries where we have no interests at stake, commitments that could result in future conflicts. As bad as the pointless war against Iraq was, it was less bad than a pointless war against Russia or China because one of them kicked a dog. tr favicon