The last time Chris Preble joined my show, we discussed the full sweep of U.S. foreign policy from the founding period to the “forever wars” in the middle east, all through the lens of his monumental book Peace, War, and Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy.
Just as one long conflict in Afghanistan comes to an end, there are new rumors of war brewing in hotspots around the world. From Taiwan to Ukraine, the temptations for new exercises of American influence abroad are everywhere. The Biden Administration has put Americans on alert that Russia may invade Ukraine at any time. But should this happen, what is the right response? Few Americans, let alone Europeans, seem to have the stomach for a hot war with Russia.
Preble now serves as co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC. We discussed the shifting alliances underlying both NATO and Putin’s patchwork of strongmen in Eastern Europe, and how the struggle is likely to play out.
Do we have a compelling interest in “defending democracy” in far-flung regions? And what about “preserving credibility” in the wake of our disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan?
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The Founders’ Foreign Policy
BOB: Take us back to the founding era, as you do so beautifully in your book, Peace, War & Liberty, and give us an insight into the core principles, which the founders hoped we would follow in the operation of foreign and defense policy of our country. CHRIS: Sure. There's a lot of insight into the founders’ views on foreign policy in the Constitution itself. It starts with what Madison referred to as the most important clause of the entire document, which vested the War Powers with the Congress and not the executive branch. This is arguably a person who understood and appreciated not merely the substance of the Constitution, but the philosophy behind it. He and other founders were very anxious about the concentration of power in the hands of the executive branch. They believed that the most important decision that could be made was to take the country to war, and that that decision would not be taken lightly. It should not be taken by one man or by a small number of people, but it would be with something approaching the consensus the American people, and the way they express that, of course, is through a declaration of war.
We haven't had that in this country since since the second World War. I think that the founders’ predictions or concerns about the concentration of power in the hands of the executive, and of the erosion of control on the part of the Congress – much of this was just willingly relinquished to the executive over the last 75 years – is something that would have concerned the founders a lot.
On Deference to Executive Overreach
CHRIS: But since since the Second World War, in particular, the United States has had a vast military establishment in being, and that exists, and that is at the discretion of the President with a few exceptions – like the War Powers Act and other legislation that attempts to tie his hands. But as a practical matter, once the President has committed US forces to fight, congress is understandably quite reluctant to cut off on forces in the field. That's something that the founders just never would have anticipated, because they just didn't imagine the United States would have a standing army in the first place. As far as the legislation goes, the authorizations exist, and I think when when the conduct of the wars are challenged, legally, the courts have generally concluded that an authorization to use military force is sufficient. But there are there are very few instances in American history where the courts have overturned decisions of war and peace. This is an area where they are most deferential to the other branches. And, in fact, I think the argument would be that it’s up to members of Congress to do their jobs. If you are upset or offended by this erosion of your power, then it's on your, it's on you to take it back. And so far, we haven't seen sufficient interest, frankly, on the part of many members of Congress to do that. And so the status quo just sort of prevails by inertia.
Putting Russian Aggression in Perspective
BOB: How dissimilar, if at all, is the Russia/Ukraine situation from the US asserting almost the the Monroe Doctrine of "sphere of influence," and "no foreign troops this close"? Isn't their position identical to the US position on the Cuban missiles? CHRIS: Well, it's certainly very similar, Bob. From a Russian perspective, they look upon the potential for foreign forces, including US forces to be on their border, in the same way that Americans would look upon Russian troops or Chinese troops stationed in Cuba, Mexico or Canada. I think most Americans struggle with that. They don't see an equivalence between the United States and Russia or China – that the intentions of the adversary are somehow a function of their system of government or of their culture or their approach to global politics. So I think the key to understanding this particular crisis actually is that we really do have different perceptions of what we are doing – what we the United States and our NATO allies are doing, which we see as defensive, which we see as not threatening, which we see as consistent with the principle about countries being able to choose their own way. There is perhaps an inability or unwillingness to see it from the perspective of the other side.
John Stuart Mill on Intervening in Civil Conflicts
CHRIS: Now, as you know, there are instances in which people's liberties are threatened by foreign actors. Here's where a key distinction can be made. Actually, John Stuart Mill wrote eloquently on this back in the middle of the 19th century, saying, "Look, if a people is oppressed by a foreign power a foreign actor, then there is some wisdom and even morality in helping them to throw off that foreign threat." But when you intervene in a civil conflict – when people are struggling amongst themselves with a ruler that is of their own, and a foreign power comes in to "deliver" the country to them, it's really only a matter of time before they will lose control of it again, because if they can't throw it off on their own, amongst themselves, then that's a different thing. That's what we've seen with a lot of interventions the US has undertaken. We focus on the role of external actors, but many of these conflicts are civil conflicts. They are internal conflicts, and they reflect deep division in a particular country – an inability of the people there to just settle and to come to a settlement. And I think those kinds of conflicts are extremely difficult for outside actors to adjudicate. The end result is in the United States or other foreign actors get drawn into the process.
The Biden Doctrine
I think that the Biden administrations position has been that the United States will use all manner of economic pressure sanctions, punishments, the delivery of weapons to Ukraine, but will not use force that will not involve the the the actual US military in fighting. I've seen no evidence to suggest that the American people would support U.S. military personnel being involved in this conflict. So that's where we where we are from the US perspective. I think the founders could imagine in some respects economic pressure or embargoes or things like that, which they did in their day. They could imagine military support of various types, or material support to Ukraine to defend itself from foreign invasion. But we have to squarely face the possibility that all manner of pressure, threat and coercion that the United States can bring to bear short of the use of force – short of US military personnel being involved in a war with Russia – are not sufficient to deter a Russian attack. If Russia attacks Ukraine and the Biden administration carries out various measures to to punish Russia for the invasion, then what? What happens next? I think that it is critical in a situation like that for the United States and for the American people to be to understand the stakes, because they are very severe. They're obviously severe for the people in Ukraine, but secondarily, the United States could could find itself in the middle of a conflict with a nuclear armed adversary, and I think that's something that would give most Americans pause.