The economist Scott Sumner recently fleshed out his views on foreign policy, which I found quite interesting. He is not a political scientist or scholar of international relations, but he is certainly a very smart man with consistently cogent takes. Therefore, I feel compelled to share and comment on his arguments. As with any good piece of writing, Sumner’s post is nuanced and detailed, so there is no way I can adequately respond to every distinct point and opinion. Happily, there seem to be three core arguments; I will address them below.
The first argument is that the United States should continue to strengthen and honor its alliance network:
I think we should go to war against Russia if they invade Estonia. I also think we should go to war against China if they invade Japan or Australia, due to our defense treaties with Pacific powers. I like mutual defense treaties among countries that have their act together. AFAIK, it’s the only “foreign policy” that seems to consistently work. They are one of humanity’s greatest achievements.
The second argument is that Americans should be very skeptical of hawkish voices and also of alleged foreign policy panaceas. I think this contention is something that is meant to be applied broadly, but Sumner seems to be referring primarily to human rights concerns:
Perhaps military force should be used to stop extreme human rights abuses like genocide. But how many now favor a US invasion of Myanmar, where the government is massacring the Rohingyas? There are enormous practical problems with that policy option. Saddam Hussein had an appalling record in many different dimensions, and indeed in 2003 I thought there was a pretty good utilitarian case for getting rid of him. (I wrongly assumed a quick war like the 1991 Gulf War.) The 2003 Iraq War obviously turned out to be a disaster, and this has helped to shape my views on foreign policy.
There’s a better case for using economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool. But here again, the historical record is quite unimpressive. Yes, the sanctions against South Africa may have contributed to the end of apartheid. But for every success like that there are far more failures, such as the Cuban sanctions. If you are using sanctions because of human rights abuses in the targeted nation, the goal should be to make the people in the targeted nation better off. Thus it helps if you have popular support, which seems to have been the case in South Africa (but not Cuba.)
Finally, he views the probability of war between the United States and another country to be vanishingly small:
Some regard China as a military threat to the US, which I think is implausible. The combined strength of NATO plus Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand towers over anything else on the planet. These mutual defense pacts are hugely successful and will almost never be attacked by outsiders (except possibly by the accidental launch of nukes or, of course, terrorism.)
I think his second point is entirely correct. There are simply too many hawks within the foreign policy establishment that appear to always be on the lookout for new conflicts in which to intervene. This is monumentally stupid, as most of the conflict-related humanitarian crises that exist in the world are simply unsolvable, even by a military as large and capable as that of the United States. There is much that can be done to alleviate the suffering of those facing humanitarian crises – economic aid, support to neighboring countries, acceptance of a greater number of refugees, etc. – but the immediate leap to measures such as military occupation is, in my view, exceptionally obtuse.
I also agree with Sumner’s first point. America’s alliances grant it immense power and leverage throughout the world. They permit the United States to easily project power abroad, and they grant the U.S. leverage over other major powers. I think alliances also tend to create stable coalitions of countries that are more prone to cooperate amongst themselves. However, I think Sumner suffers from a lack of historical perspective when he refers to “countries that have their act together.” After all, Japan and Germany were a shambles when they entered into alliance relationships with the United States. NATO also contained authoritarian countries like Greece and Portugal during parts of the Cold War. Did they have their “act together?” While I chose not to quote Sumner’s discussion of Taiwan, it is interesting because he advocates against the creation of a formal defense agreement with the island. I think this is a prudent position, but it seems to be in conflict with his more general view of alliances: Taiwan certainly has its act together, after all. Conversely, I think the U.S. should expand NATO into the Balkans despite the fact that many of the countries there arguably do not have their act together. By improving their security and imposing institutional standards through the Alliance, however, NATO might force them to improve their governance. So while I generally agree with Sumner, I think his argument is underdeveloped and a tad too simplistic to be accepted at face value.
Finally, I think Sumner is far too blithe about the potential for a future great power conflict. He is certainly correct that peace is more likely than conflict during any given year, but over several decades it seems worryingly probable that a fairly serious war will break out somewhere in East Asia or Eurasia that drags in the U.S. and its allies. That being said, if everyone were to take Sumner’s advice and embrace a more dovish foreign policy, the odds of these kinds of large-scale wars appearing would be much reduced.