How should the next president shape U.S. foreign policy? Well, to hear the average American tell it per a poll commissioned by the Charles Koch Institute and Center for the National Interest, Washington should shift to a more restrained approach, avoiding the habit of imprudent military interventionism that has gripped the bipartisan foreign policy establishment for the past 15 years.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen has other ideas. Though Rasmussen is hardly a household name, he served as NATO secretary general until 2014, and at present he is busily peddling his influence in Washington to preemptively push the incoming administration toward further entanglement abroad. “We need America as the world’s policeman,” Rasmussen argued in an interview published by Britain’s Sky News Thursday. “Look around you will see a world on fire,” he added, a world he says the United States must fix.
Rasmussen touted the same case in The Washington Post last week, insisting that the United States must never show even “the slightest reluctance to use hard power” while eagerly nation-building on a Marshall Plan scale. America must be everywhere, all the time, he says, resolving every conflict and putting on future generations’ tab the endless costs of building new countries from the ground up. Disingenuously pressing Ronald Reagan—who was hardly the trigger-happy hawk Rasmussen simplistically suggests—into service of his argument, Rasmussen muddles the important differences between aggression and defense, diplomacy and threats, isolationism and realist prudence.
This matters because Rasmussen is representative of the sort of naïve interventionist, willfully ignorant of recent history and deliberately oblivious to fiscal and security realities, who will flood post-election Washington with demands for America to more expansively shoulder the counterproductive, costly, and dangerous role of world police.
And again, Rasmussen is the former head of NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance. In other words, his perspective is no fringe view—though it should be. Indeed, in the Sky interview, Rasmussen lays out a telling rationale for his world policeman case, listing a series of problems he would like American soldiers and taxpayers to solve: “Syria torn by war and conflict. Iraq on the brink of collapse. Libya a failed state in North Africa. Russia attacking Ukraine and destabilizing Eastern Europe. China flexing its muscles, the rogue state North Korea threatening nuclear attacks.” All that, Rasmussen concluded, “requires a world policeman.”
It’s a tidy argument that conveniently glosses over too many relevant details to count. In Syria, Iraq, and Libya, the United States is already militarily engaged—and in all three, it is significantly because of ill-conceived past interventions that these conflicts rage at their current heat. The problem here is not caution, as Rasmussen claims, but recklessness.
Libya is a particularly illustrative case, because Rasmussen remains among the few lonely defenders of the Obama administration’s failed 2011 intervention that entangles the United States to this day. Rasmussen continues to tout Libya as “a very successful military intervention” when the truth is precisely the opposite. The U.S.-led NATO campaign likely prolonged the humanitarian crisis it was pitched to solve, and it unquestionably helped create the power vacuum into which the Islamic State surged. If this is a “model” intervention in Rasmussen’s book, his vision of an increasingly interventionist America is grim indeed.
The other examples Rasmussen cites—an unstable Eastern Europe, a rising China, and the madman in Pyongyang—are indeed troubling matters and not to be taken lightly. But they are hardly the slam dunk case for constant, global, American overstretch that interventionists believe them to be. Rushing to U.S. military solutions at the expense of viable diplomatic and alliance-centric options is a foolish approach to national security that treats American soldiers as expendable toys and American taxpayers as an endless piggybank.
The United States has more than a hammer, and we would be unwise to treat everything as a nail.
Come 2017, we will have a new occupant of the Oval Office and, hopefully, a new direction for U.S. foreign policy. This is a valuable opportunity to reorient ourselves toward a more stable and prudent defense—especially if Congress re-asserts itself, as the Constitution requires—that does not mindlessly equate use of hard power with success. In short, if the coming change is to be an improvement over the last decade and a half, it is time our elites discard once and for all this backwards notion of the U.S. as world police. The rest of us Americans learned this lesson long ago.