Foreign policy is fundamentally different from domestic policy for a number of reasons.
First, domestic policy is generally not classified. By classified, I mean information whose disclosure would threaten the vital interests of the United States. Some politicians operate in secrecy, or try do. In some domestic cases they are up to no good, while in others, they are protecting a particular program or person.
Diplomacy, however, involves the vital interests of the United States. Its purpose is to achieve what is best for our country. I served with a number of foreign service officers who were altruistic, yet when push came to shove, the key question was “What is in it for the US.”
Another factor that makes foreign policy different is the complexity of that world. Unless a country is enough to dictate its will to others, its ability to get what it wants will be complicated by other nations. Some nations are small and can be ignored, although even small countries can become important.
Leadership, important in domestic policy, is even more crucial in foreign policy. If a nation does not respond to challenges to its authority, it will be seen as weak, and other states may no longer worry about what its leadership thinks. Closely associated with a lack of leadership is a tendency by a country’s leadership to issue threats but to not back them up.
Let us now turn to the real world. Consider supplies of a vital commodity such as oil. A country that is not able to provide its citizens with oil will have to obtain it abroad. But that may not be simple in a complicated world. For example, the United States and most of our allies get much of our oil from the Middle East. Yet, this area, especially the Persian Gulf, is unstable and likely to remain so.
The Middle East demonstrates the complexity and frustrations one often encounters in diplomacy. Washington seeks good relations with all of the countries in the region. But the region is complex and unpredictable as well as volatile.
Syria, for example is in a bloody civil war. What should the United States do? There are calls for us to provide the rebels with weapons to protect themselves.
But we are not sure of the composition of the rebels. Before we provide weapons, we’d better determine who they are. Al-Qaeda is clearly present among rebel forces. What if al-Qaeda ends up seizing power with weapons we provided?
Then there is Israel. We are as closely tied to Tel Aviv as we are to London or Berlin or Paris. We supported Israel in the United Nations against up-grading Palestine’s status but lost. Israel immediately opened more land in the Palestinian region for housing for Israelis, which infuriated the Palestinians, Egypt, Turkey and other nations.
Egypt is another problem. How far should we go in supporting Mohamed Morsi? He is Egypt’s president, but also is part of the Muslim Brotherhood. Also, despite moving to increase his authority, he could easily be deposed. Our best friend in Egypt is its army. It has received most of the aid we provide, and many Egyptian officers have attended military courses in the United States and look toward the United States in many regards. But what if the army were to seize power? A lot of people in the world, including Americans, would oppose such a regime on principle.
If issues in the Middle East were not complicated enough, North Korea has announced plans to launch a large missile. Pyongyang knows this will irritate us and others. How should we respond?
Finally, there is the question of leadership in foreign policy. Unfortunately, President Bar-ack Obama has largely abandoned a leading posture. Most of the countries in the Middle East expect us to take a leadership role in standing up to Iran. Instead, we have made one threat after another but done nothing except institute sanctions — most of which hurt the average Iranian more than they do the leadership.
Foreign policy is complex and frustrating. Simple answers seldom suffice. However, it is important to keep in mind that every action will have an impact on other states, which in turn will impact the United States.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.