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From Bombing to Sanctions, U.S. Foreign Policy Is Stuck in a Rut

Internashonal

From Bombing to Sanctions, U.S. Foreign Policy Is Stuck in a Rut


Rich and powerful countries like the United States can do the same things over and over, even when they aren’t working, without facing immediate and severe consequences. The White House can change hands, presidential appointees can come and go, and new crises can erupt without warning, and the same well-worn responses get pulled out of the drawer, dusted off, and put into practice once again. Sometimes familiar approaches are so deeply entrenched that they become almost reflexive: People in power rarely question them and dissenters face an uphill battle if they try to convince superiors to do something different. In extreme cases, nobody even questions them. It’s foreign policy on autopilot.

Rich and powerful countries like the United States can do the same things over and over, even when they aren’t working, without facing immediate and severe consequences. The White House can change hands, presidential appointees can come and go, and new crises can erupt without warning, and the same well-worn responses get pulled out of the drawer, dusted off, and put into practice once again. Sometimes familiar approaches are so deeply entrenched that they become almost reflexive: People in power rarely question them and dissenters face an uphill battle if they try to convince superiors to do something different. In extreme cases, nobody even questions them. It’s foreign policy on autopilot.

I’m not angling for a job in Washington, which leaves me free to raise questions about some of these rinse-and-repeat responses. Here are four of my current favorites.

  1. Why do we keep thinking we can bomb our way to victory?

For more than a century, air-power advocates have claimed that it could be used to punish opponents and get them to say uncle. Because the United States, Israel, Russia, and a few other states can use air power with near-impunity in some places (e.g., Gaza, Ukraine, or Yemen), they keep thinking that dropping bombs, conducting drone strikes, or firing cruise missiles at their adversaries will convince the targets to run up the white flag and do whatever is being demanded of them.

If only that were true. In fact, as Robert Pape and others have shown convincingly, air power is rarely, if ever, an effective coercive tool. Bombing Germany and Japan with conventional explosives or incendiaries did not cause their leaders to surrender, and the massive coercive bombing campaign that the United States conducted against North Vietnam did not convince Hanoi to abandon its campaign to unify the country. Israel’s repeated aerial assaults on Lebanon and Gaza haven’t convinced Hezbollah or Hamas to lay down their arms or reduced Palestinians’ desire for their own state; if anything, such actions have merely strengthened their resolve. Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen didn’t convince the Houthis to knuckle under, and Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities haven’t persuaded Kyiv to give up, either. You might regard NATO’s air campaign against Serbia in 1999 during the Kosovo War as a rare success story for air power, until you discover that Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic got a better deal at the end of that campaign than he’d been offered before the bombs started falling.

Air power is a poor coercive instrument for two main reasons. First, despite improvements in yield, accuracy, and surveillance, conventional air power cannot bring a society to its knees and force it to comply. There are simply too many ways for adversaries to adapt and endure. Look at Gaza: It is a small and densely populated enclave that Israel can bomb as freely as it wishes, but Israel still can’t eliminate Hamas that way, and its efforts to do so are doing untold damage to its global image. Second, dropping bombs on people produces not a desire to comply but a spirit of resistance and a desire for revenge.

I am certainly not suggesting that air power is of no military value. When combined with powerful ground or naval forces, command of the air can help countries win conventional military campaigns on land or at sea and eventually enable them to impose their will on a defeated opponent. What it can’t do is accomplish this goal by itself. Leaders with powerful air forces at their disposal should stop thinking that they provide a quick, low-cost, and highly effective way to persuade opponents to give in. But good luck convincing anyone in Washington, Jerusalem, or Moscow of that these days.

  1. How many times must we “restore deterrence”?

When powerful countries use force against an adversary that has done something they don’t like, officials often claim their goal is to “restore deterrence.” Israeli officials have declared this to be their goal on numerous occasions over the years, most recently following Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7. Similarly, U.S. politicians seeking to justify the use of force routinely deem it necessary to restore deterrence against Iran, Russia, the Houthis, or whomever else might be doing something we object to.

Mind you: There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this goal. If an opponent did something objectionable because it underestimated your resolve or capabilities and erroneously concluded that it could act with impunity, then a demonstration that it miscalculated may be in order. But if a country finds itself having to restore deterrence on a regular basis, it should consider the possibility that its responses aren’t having the intended effect. At a minimum, the need to keep punishing someone to restore deterrence tells you that hitting them in the past hasn’t altered their calculation of costs and benefits in the manner you wanted. It might even be making the problem worse, either by fueling the opponent’s desire for revenge or by increasing their need to show that they can’t be intimidated. Defiance in the face of repeated punishment is a good sign that an opponent is highly motivated, and states whose deterrent threats keep failing (and thus keep having to be restored) should ask themselves if there’s some other way to reduce the opponent’s motivation to challenge the status quo. Is it conceivable that some sort of compromise might do a better job of defusing the problem than another round of pointless and ineffective violence?

  1. Can the U.S. finally acknowledge that North Korea won’t give up its nukes?

North Korea is a thorny problem for South Korea, the United States, and sometimes even its Chinese patron. Repeated U.S. administrations have been forced to pay more attention to Pyongyang than they probably wanted to, and a big part of their concern has focused on its nuclear program. The Clinton administration tried to persuade former leader Kim Jong Il to forgo nuclear weapons via the 1994 Agreed Framework, but neither side kept up its end of the bargain and the agreement ultimately collapsed. North Korea conducted its first weapons test in 2006 and is believed to have an arsenal of perhaps 40 to 50 warheads today.

North Korea wants nuclear weapons because they are the ultimate guarantee against a foreign-led effort to topple the Kim family. It is hard to think of a combination of carrots and sticks that would convince its leaders to give up this potent protection, yet North Korean “denuclearization” remains America’s main policy objective. In other words, the United States is officially committed to an unreachable goal, which cannot help but constrain efforts to develop a more effective approach to this recurring problem. Although well-credentialed experts have called for the United States and its regional partners to accept the reality of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, U.S. policy is still stuck. Isn’t it time to acknowledge reality and base U.S. policy on the recognition that North Korea is about as likely to give up its nuclear arsenal as the United States?

  1. Will the United States ever stop overusing economic sanctions?

I sometimes wonder if there’s a machine buried in some obscure building in Washington that scans the news wires, identifies whoever is currently ticking off U.S. officials, and then spits out a list of economic sanctions to impose on the persons responsible for their irritation. I’m kidding, of course, but whenever U.S. policymakers are mad at someone and want to do something, their first recourse is to freeze some foreign assets, restrict trade, deny the enemy access to global financial markets, or limit some foreign official’s ability to travel. Sanctions have become the go-to move when force is not an attractive option, even when everyone knows they won’t alter the target’s behavior in the slightest.

As with air power, properly designed sanctions can help a country accomplish some of its foreign-policy goals. In wartime, for example, embargoes and other forms of sanctions can weaken an adversary and reduce its ability to fight, though they rarely have decisive effects and certainly do not work quickly. As careful scholarly studies have shown, the fear of future sanctions may convince some targets not to do something, but if they go ahead and defy the threat of sanctions it means that they anticipated the pressure and were willing to pay the price. Sanctions are usually too slow and too easily evaded to cause determined adversaries to alter their behavior, yet U.S. policymakers persist in applying them without bothering to consider if they will work. We are still waiting for the communist regime in Cuba to collapse after 65-odd years of sanctions, which tells you all you need to know about their effectiveness as a coercive instrument.

As you’ve probably noticed, there’s a common thread running through my list of questions. Because the United States has so many tools it can use to put pressure on others, there’s a powerful tendency to reach for one or more of them at the first sign of trouble. We decide what we want others to do (or not do), inform them of our demands, and then start ratcheting up the pressure or the punishment in the hope the other side will cave. This approach rarely works, however, because we are usually asking others to make substantial concessions and because bringing pressure to bear gives adversaries even more reason to resist us. After all, if a foreign government or rebel group gives in as soon as Washington drops a few bombs or imposes some financial penalties, what’s to stop U.S. officials from issuing additional demands later?

Our reflexive overreliance on coercive tools and our stubborn adherence to unreachable objectives are significant obstacles to a more effective U.S. foreign policy. Instead of convincing others to do what we want with minimal recourse to threats and pressure—which is the primary task of diplomacy—Washington hopes that its toolbox of coercive instruments will allow it to get its way without having to compromise much, if at all. Understanding others and trying to work out mutually acceptable solutions is difficult and time-consuming, whereas slapping on a few more sanctions or sending a Tomahawk is quick, easy, and makes the people in charge look resolute. Unfortunately, this take-it-or-leave-it approach gives adversaries little reason to cut a deal and even less reason to stick to whatever deal we might be able to impose on them. If Americans want their leaders to think before they act, it’s time to start asking them a few more questions—and to insist on better answers.

The first part of this sentence feels a little iffy factually, as the initial proposition for an agreement was put forth by Kim Il Sung. The U.S. generally agreed to these terms for the 1994 agreement because the elder Kim had died in July (before the agreement was signed in October), and they thought the North Korean regime would collapse at any moment. That first suggests that Clinton had primarily been negotiating with Il Sung, and later finalized these terms with Kim Jong Il, who did initially agree to halt nuclear advancement (perhaps secretly continuing such tests regardless), but publicly it appears the U.S. failing on its end of the agreement is what led North Korea to abandon the agreement entirely.



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