America's biggest foreign policy problem: No one trusts America anymore

The more times Uncle Sam pulls out of half-finished conflicts, the less likely America is to be counted on as the globe's protector

Iraq America
(Image credit: (Lucas Jackson-Pool/Getty Images))

Iraq is ablaze again. And as is so often true in the Middle East, it looks as if there are no good options.

Doing nothing and allowing an al Qaeda offshoot to set up a terrorist state over half of Iraq is obviously not a good idea. Then again, the U.S. invading Iraq all over again doesn't seem like such a hot idea, either.

Obviously, the Iraq misadventure was started by America's 43rd president, and opposed by its 44th. Nonetheless, it looks like the scale of this new disaster might have something to do with the Obama White House's incompetence and dithering in matters of foreign policy. The administration, for instance, was unable to decide whether it wanted a deal with the Iraqi government on the nature of continuing American presence.

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Iraq is fractured by a lethal sectarianism between Shiites, Sunnis, and, to a lesser extent, Kurds. Few Iraqis blindly trust members of the groups of which they are not a part. And it's this lack of trust that is critical.

Part of the reason why the United States, in the aftermath of the famous surge, was able to bring some order to Iraq was because America was able to bring a measure of trust to a region with a long history of mistrust. Sunnis could trust that the United States would protect them against the majority — and, perhaps, revenge-seeking — Shiites. Hence the so-called Sunni Awakening that tamped down much of the violence.

Today, the United States cannot be trusted.

This is not a new problem. If you were to look at the history of America's conflicts since the end of World War II, the main lesson would be: "Don't trust America."

What do the following groups have in common? Koreans above the 38th parallel in 1953; South Vietnamese in 1975; anti-Taliban Afghans in 1989; Iraqi Kurds in 1991; Somalis in 1993. Here's the commonality: They all put their trust in the United States of America, and they got screwed as a result.

States are, in Nietzsche's words, the coldest of all cold monsters. But not all states are as untrustworthy as the United States. Imperial Britain was ruthless. But it was rationally ruthless. This is not the case for America. When America intervenes in a country, forms local alliances, and then screws its allies, it is almost never because of cold-hearted calculation. Most of the time, it is because of frightened improvisation. All the cases I have laid out involve America pulling out of a half-finished conflict, primarily for domestic political reasons, rather than reasons of national interest.

Please understand my point: In each of these particular cases, you can debate the case for or against what America did, and in some, or even many, America might have even done the right thing. But you are still left with the problem that groups of non-Americans trust the American state at their own peril.

And it really is a big problem for U.S. foreign policy. If you lead an important faction in a country where America intervenes, why should you help the Americans, since the record so clearly shows they will drop you when the going gets tough?

This leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy: Because America is not seen as trustworthy, local stakeholders don't support America; because local stakeholders don't support America, the going gets tough; because the going gets tough, America gets going. This is pretty much what happened to the U.S. in Afghanistan. That self-fulfilling prophecy leads to a never-ending, vicious cycle.

But here's the thing: Despite everything, America really is "the indispensable nation."

The world's shipping lanes, and with it its trade, and with it the global economy, are protected by the U.S. Navy. We hear a lot about war, but we don't hear about the many regional conflicts that don't happen because the world has a largely benevolent (though often clueless) hegemon instead of being the plaything of jostling regional blocs. U.S. security guarantees ensure peace in the Pacific, Europe, and, still, important chunks of the Middle East.

These U.S. security guarantees are not perfect. Consider, if you will, a bank. Since 2008, we are all too aware of how a bank is fundamentally an unstable edifice built on trust. On any given day, a bank never has enough money to meet all its deposits. If there is a bank run — if everyone tries to take out their money at the same time — the bank collapses. Trust and distrust in the bank are self-fulfilling. If everyone trusts the bank, there won't be a run, and depositors will have been right to trust the bank. If there is widespread distrust, people will make a bank run, collapse the bank, and have been right to distrust it. And so maintaining trust is a bank's most important job, as the managers of Lehman Brothers found out too late.

Well, the United States is a bit like the world's security bank.

Can the United States fulfill all its security guarantees? The great thing is that if everyone believes in the security guarantees, America doesn't have to fulfill them all. Would America really go to war with China over the tiny island of Taiwan? It's obvious that the best outcome for everyone is that we never find out.

In the meantime, the world is kept sorta-peaceful and sorta-prosperous because all over its map are, ahem, red lines, drawn by American security guarantees. But, if America continues to be so untrustworthy as an international actor, how long until there is a "bank run" on American security? Already, Chinese officials are watching America's response, or lack thereof, to the defiance to Uncle Sam's global order in Ukraine and Syria. The world is a big chessboard, and moves in one place affect the rest of the board.

This is a problem that is bigger than any country or any region. It's a fundamental problem with how America approaches the world. And the biggest problem is that no one seems to be aware of the problem, or only dimly.

How to fix it? Well, the first step is to admit you have a problem. But perhaps I can offer a suggestion, or just a wish. Perhaps if America actually had a strategy for how to deal with the world; perhaps if America viewed the world as something definite to embrace and work on, rather than an amorphous blob out there; perhaps if America actually had a sense of mission, rather than necessity, about its role in the world; perhaps then it would feel a bit ashamed to so rarely honor its commitments.

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