The “Powell Doctrine” Gives Us a Clue
As someone who subscribes to the principles of libertarianism, I have a problem with foreign policy. Libertarian philosophy is based on individual freedom and responsibility. Yet, many of the world’s individuals aren’t free and, in foreign-policy terms, none of them are individuals. They’re all little bits and pieces of a nation, and herein lies the problem…
An assembly of nations cannot be governed like an assembly of individuals.
Nations don’t have equal rights before the law because… there isn’t any law. (Oh, supposedly, there’s such a thing as “International Law” but, really? Nice try, World Court in the Hague.)
Foreign policy is ruled by force. Matthew 11:12 says, “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”
Foreign policy is never an individual enterprise. “I’m going to invade Ukraine,” is a harmless statement – at most a plea for help from mental health professionals. “Russia is going to invade Ukraine,” is a different kind of statement. Especially if it’s made by the Kremlin.
Foreign policy is always a collective enterprise. Even the freest nations bind their citizens into collective enterprises, particularly when it comes to international relations. In fact, international relations are worse than actual relations, like my Grandfather O’Rourke said, “I don’t care if the kids next door all won Nobel Peace Prizes and all your cousins are in jail, family is family.”
Collective enterprise undercuts individual enterprise. Inside a free nation, individual self-interests are balanced through democracy and rule of law. Therefore, individual enterprise can be assumed to be – in the long term, on average, in aggregate – rational.
Collective enterprise can be assumed to be no such thing. Collective enterprises, such as foreign policy, have no balancing mechanisms with other collective enterprises, such as foreigners’ foreign policy.
Collective enterprises may be inert and benign like coral reefs. But even then, they’re thoughtless and stupid and lack individual liberty and dignity…
When humans are involved, you do as you’re told, when you’re told, usually by a government whose only interest is its own preservation of power. Human collective enterprises are busy and active and fraught with potential for, at best, amoral conduct and, at worst, outright evils such as dictatorship, oligarchy, or mob rule.
Foreign policy is always a collective enterprise. Even the freest nations bind their citizens into collective enterprises, particularly when it comes to international relations.
The dictators and oligarchs might be, individually, nice enough people. (I have it on good authority that even Bashar al-Assad is personable around the house.) But they will give into the temptations of their collective power. And collective power, unlike individual liberty, is not constrained by reason. Likewise, mob rule is extremely dangerous no matter whether the mob is wearing slogan t-shirts and carrying hand-lettered placards or wearing bed sheets and carrying flaming crosses.
In other words, collective enterprises suck, and foreign policy is one. So, what’s the solution?
We’ve tried having no foreign policy at all and got Pearl Harbor… Isolationism didn’t work.
We’ve tried aggressive internationalism and found ourselves in Vietnam…
We’ve tried apologizing for our aggressive internationalism under Obama, and ended up with the Arab Spring…
We’ve tried sanctions, yet Putin persists, Kim Jong Un endures, and the Ayatollah Khamenei abides…
And we’ve tried electing a loudmouth commander in chief and having him go CAPS LOCK on Twitter.
There’s no such thing as a foreign policy that “works” in the sense of making problems with foreign countries go away. It’s like an endless road trip with kids in the back seat of the car. Sooner or later we’ll have to turn around and say, “Don’t make me come back there,” knowing full well that the only result will be more fighting.
It’s the use of military force in America’s foreign policy that’s the crux of the matter – the realpolitik equivalent of parents who spank. Use of military force is definitionally a collective enterprise. And it’s the part of foreign policy that’s much more dangerous than, for example, trade agreements. I’d rather pay lots for high tariff goods at Target than shoot people, not to mention them shooting back.
One of the clearest thinkers about American use of military force is former National Security Advisor, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Gen. Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the 1990-1991 Gulf War (which actually did work). He proposed eight questions that should all be answered “yes” before America uses military force. These questions became known as the “Powell Doctrine.”
It’s the use of military force in America’s foreign policy that’s the crux of the matter – the realpolitik equivalent of parents who spank.
Let’s apply the Powell Doctrine to a current foreign policy issue. Not a grave, portentous geo-political foreign policy issue like the Middle East. That’s too complicated. We’d be here (like the Middle East has been there) for a couple thousand years. Let’s apply the Powell Doctrine to a less sweeping foreign policy issue closer to home – illegal immigration.
The U.S. has deployed more than 6,000 troops on the Mexican-American border to stop illegal immigration. Put that to the Powell Doctrine test:
1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
Well, rag-tag bands of Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and unemployed campesinos hardly make for a Red Dawn scenario. And, say what you will against illegal immigrants, their cuisine is a lot better than the commies’.
2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
No immigrants at all? I’d be digging taters in County Mayo, Ireland.
3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
Mexico, I’ve been told, is paying for the costs of the wall, but there seem to be some risks that the check will get lost in the mail.
4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
There are 16,600 (reasonably) non-violent border patrol agents assigned to the region, and they are tired. But if we gave them some energy drinks to keep them up all night, they could stand in a line along the 2000-mile international boundary and be only about 600 feet apart… Or we could reform our immigration process so that applicants for residency got a quick, clear answer without arrest, detention, and/or years of bureaucratic wrangling.
5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
Other than conquering Mexico? We tried that already. Of course, if we’d left well enough alone in 1846, the people now trying to sneak across our border would be Californians. Frankly, I’d rather have the people we’re getting.
6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
No. If it weren’t for illegal immigrants, I couldn’t find anybody to mow my lawn. Not to mention that American businesses (such as agriculture of the kind that’s more extensive than my lawn) are already having a hard time finding people to fill the difficult and labor-intensive jobs that immigrants are willing
7. Is the action supported by the American people?
In the “paid for” sense of supported? Considering our deficit and national debt, Americans aren’t supporting anything these days.
8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
Ha! Our strongest international supporters are all trying to get into America illegally.
Of course, no doctrine is perfect. Powell himself violated the Powell Doctrine when, as Secretary of State, basing his decision on imperfect and distorted intelligence reports, he countenanced the Iraq War. (Which didn’t work.)
But at least Gen. Powell had devised a rational means of thinking about a collective enterprise with an individual mind.
If we applied the Powell Doctrine rigorously to American foreign policy, I wonder how many things we’d find that are more absurd and perilous than deploying the military to the middle of nowhere to prevent my lawn from being mowed?
on a personal note
Colin Powell is a man I respect and admire. And I really like him too, even though I’ve met him only a few times.
I interviewed Powell in the early 2000s, when I was working for The Atlantic Monthly and he was Secretary of State. The Atlantic Monthly is a magazine that takes itself very seriously, something Secretary Powell does not.
For example, he tells a great story about the relentless tendency of government to govern, no matter what…
Shortly after 9/11, the then-Secretary of State bought a first-class, one-way airline ticket to New York City, doing so at the airline ticket counter, with cash, and without a reservation. As a result, he was fast-tracked to a full body search and complete luggage dissection – from TSA agents who recognized him. “Hi, Secretary Powell! We’ll be done here in a moment, Sir!”
My interview – The Atlantic Monthly being The Atlantic Monthly – was supposed to be very serious. (Probably about the Powell Doctrine or something.) But Secretary Powell likes cars and so do I, and we spent the hour in his vast, trappings-of-power, Secretary of State office talking about old Volvos.
They’re a favorite of Powell’s. My Atlantic Monthly editors were not wildly pleased when I came back with a 60-minute tape-recorded on-the-record discussion of Volvo PV544s, 122s, 140s, 164s, and P1800 Ghia-bodied sport coupes.
But I thought it was valuable information. Old Volvos are an important element in certain vital security issues, such as your kids starting to drive…
Years later, when my eldest daughter turned 16, I got her an old Volvo – a 2007 XC70 with 100,000 miles on it. Of course – 16-year-olds being 16-year-olds – she had an accident. She was driving down a back road with a Toyota in front of her and a Honda behind. A deer ran in front of the Toyota whose driver slammed on the brakes. My daughter rear-ended the Toyota, and the Honda rear-ended my daughter.
The Toyota’s trunk was bashed in almost to the rear window… The Honda’s hood was crumpled up to the windshield… The Volvo? A broken taillight.
My eldest daughter is now off at college, while her younger sister is driving the XC70. And she’s about to pass it down to her kid brother.
Thank you, Colin Powell, for more than just the Powell Doctrine.
– P.J. O’R.