All I Want for Christmas is a Saner Foreign Policy | Opinion

This year's holiday season is a particularly depressing one for hundreds of millions of Americans. Many will choose to stay home rather than fly or drive to visit relatives, unsure whether traveling is the right thing to do with the coronavirus spreading out of control. Businesses normally dependent on the holiday to boost their end-of-year profits are now struggling to stay above water.

With a full plate of trouble at home, the last thing the United States needs right now is reckless or counterproductive policy overseas. The $600 stimulus payments and financial assistance to small businesses aside, the best gift Washington can give the American people this holiday season is a large dose of common sense in U.S. foreign and national security policy.

All of this sounds a bit general. What, after all, does a common-sense foreign policy look like? How would it be structured? And how much would it cost? Ask 10 people these questions and you're likely to get 10 different answers. But for yours truly, a foreign policy of common sense would prioritize three overarching themes: 1) ditching unnecessary security commitments and rightsizing U.S. military force globally, 2) putting national security threats in perspective, and 3) challenging conventional wisdom.

The first item on the list is arguably the most pressing. Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992, the United States has expanded its military reach to every corner of the globe. The dream of unchallenged U.S. primacy that foreign policy analysts proffered in the 1990s and early 2000s have turned out to be extremely expensive and shortsighted. There are approximately 800 U.S. military bases in the world today (40 in Europe alone), many of which are either duplicative or totally unnecessary for keeping the United States safe and secure. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley appears to agree with this conclusion. He told a panel in early December that the Defense Department needs to look for savings as the defense budget is likely to remain flat over the next several years. Part of the savings, according to Milley, would involve consolidating or outright shuttering permanent military facilities that were never supposed to be permanent in the first place.

Downsizing the U.S. military presence globally wouldn't just serve as a cost-cutting exercise. It would also preserve U.S. military readiness over the long term by ensuring American soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen and women aren't stretching themselves by taking on the role of the world's geopolitical firefighters—an inevitable consequence of an over-zealous, knee-jerk and reactive foreign policy.

Mark Milley
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Mark Milley looks on at a press conference in the briefing room at the Pentagon on March 2, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Olivier DOULIERY / AFP/Getty

Gift number two is placing the full threat picture into perspective. The hysterics surrounding all things Russia is a perfect case study in how frequently the U.S. foreign policy community succumbs to threat inflation. This trend has become starker over the past week, as U.S. intelligence officials finger Moscow for one of the most sophisticated, comprehensive hacks into U.S. government systems in history.

Don't get me wrong: the purported Russian-orchestrated cyber-intrusion into U.S. systems is a serious event that shouldn't be understated (even Tom Bossert, President Donald Trump's former homeland security adviser, acknowledged how concerning the breach was). But neither should Washington overestimate Russia's power. The media has exhibited an alarming, if not comical, tendency to portray Vladimir Putin's Russia as a more prepared and durable version of the Soviet Union. Yet zoom out of the daily news cycle, and you can see that modern-day Russia is a relatively weak nation with extreme internal vulnerabilities. The Russian economy is completely subject to the whims of the global oil market. The Kremlin faces significant demographic problems that will limit its productivity, and its financial situation is so extended at the moment that Russia's Finance Ministry is recommending a 10 percent cut in the defense budget. Russia may be a prolific hacker, but it can barely take care of its own people.

Last but not least, a foreign policy of common sense would include a willingness to buck the conventional paradigm that has dominated the Beltway for decades. Economic sanctions—a tool promoted and used on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue with willful abandon—would be reevaluated and tied to realistic U.S. policy objectives rather than used exclusively as a form of punishment or upheld as a magic bullet to solve all of Washington's foreign policy problems. Pragmatic diplomacy with U.S. adversaries would be increasingly seen as an integral part of statecraft instead of a concession. U.S. military force would be treated as a last resort rather than a panacea. And the U.S. would restrain itself from the urge "to do something" every time a minor disaster rears its ugly head, opting instead for an unemotional analysis of the costs and benefits of intervention.

Americans will likely have to wait until the next U.S. administration—and perhaps even longer—before these holiday wishes are fulfilled. But at this point, simply starting the discussion would be better than the current reality.

Daniel DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, a contributor to the National Interest and a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.