Could the U.S. foreign policy system be … working?

By Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

A few thoughts on the marketplace of foreign policy ideas on Ukraine.

Americans have become accustomed to the foreign policy equivalent of dumpster fires in recent years. To be fair, Americans have become accustomed to garbage fires across an array of different policy spaces, ranging from immigration reform to pandemic response, so it is not like foreign policy would be out of the ordinary. Still, the volume and scale of screw-ups ranging from Syria to Iran to Afghanistan to foreign economic policy boggle the mind. The U.S. track record in this century can cause many a foreign policy observer to reach in despair for the largest bottle of liquor at hand.

Pessimists can provide multiple explanations for the accumulation of dumpster fires. One possibility is that shifts in the marketplace of ideas have devalued the ability of policymakers to distinguish experts from charlatans. Another possibility is that the foreign policy expert class has become a victim of mass groupthink, some kind of shapeless “blob.” The reliable go-to explanation is that polarization has become so extreme that those on the ideological extremes identify more with foreign adversaries than domestic opponents, rendering credible commitment next to impossible.

Here is a somewhat contrarian take: When it comes to the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, what if the system is actually … working?

Sounds crazy, I know. This month, Thomas Zimmer took to the Guardian to highlight all the ways that, as the headline suggested, “America’s culture war is spilling into actual war-war.” He correctly observed how “many Republican leaders and conservative elites think the American president is a more dangerous enemy than the Russian autocrat.” Last week in FiveThirtyEight, Julia Azari suggested something similar about the way America’s culture war has had a deleterious effect on the national security discourse, saying that “debates about war are so interwoven with our larger culture-war politics now that most questions of how to handle military conflict have been largely reduced to partisan scoring.”

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts does not want to say Azari and Zimmer are wrong in the macro sense. On Ukraine, however, what is striking to me is how muted these aspects of the debate seem to be. They are there — but they are hardly the dominant cleavage.

Early last month, there were reasons to be worried that the Trump wing of the Republican Party would take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side in the conflict. At the start of hostilities, former president Donald Trump characterized Putin’s military operations in Ukraine as “savvy” and genius.” Similarly, Fox News host Tucker Carlson was blaming everyone but Putin for the situation.

As it turns out, that risible worldview did not permeate GOP policy discourse on Ukraine — probably because the GOP was never entirely on board with Trump’s foreign policy worldview. Post-invasion, Carlson changed his tune on Putin. So did Trump, who felt compelled to tell the Washington Examiner’s David M. Drucker that he was “surprised” by the invasion. As Drucker notes, “Trump has been criticized for soft-pedaling his criticism of Putin, especially by Democrats. But the former president has been absorbing veiled shots from Republicans as well — among them supporters of his who could hardly be classified as ‘Never Trump.’ ” Indeed, this is one sign among many that GOP voters might grow less enchanted with Trump.

This does not mean that critics of U.S. foreign policy have been silenced. It is safe to say that John Mearsheimer’s jeremiads against NATO expansion have gotten a fair hearing over the past few weeks. But his position has also prompted pushback across a wide variety of viewpoints.

On the other hand, more hawkish advocates of no-fly zones have made, at best, only minimal headway in persuading policymakers. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s plea to Congress on Wednesday did not appear to move the needle. Various iterations of this idea are emerging, but they seem unlikely to gain much momentum, as even congressional hawks are not big fans of the idea. Public support for a no-fly zone has also eroded over the past month, and it drops further the moment any context is offered on the option.

The actual U.S. policy response on Ukraine matches the broad-based expert consensus on what to do. International relations experts support imposing economic sanctions, banning oil and gas purchases, deploying U.S. forces to NATO countries in the region and resettling Ukrainian refugees. They do not support offensive cyberwarfare operations, no-fly zones or the use of ground forces in Ukraine.

A functioning marketplace of ideas should weed out bad ideas and let viable ones be debated further. That is what we are seeing. I would like to see a deeper conversation about where the sanctions go from here, as well as more imaginative ways to aid Ukraine in its struggle. Compared with previous policy debates, however, this one has seemed almost normal. Hopefully it will last.

This piece is republished from The Washington Post.

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