The Worst Foreign-Policy Ideas of the Past 50 Years

In U.S. foreign policy, it isn’t always easy to suss out good ideas from bad. Some bad ideas masquerade as neutral fact, only to be exposed later on. Others worm their way into strategic doctrines, guiding a wide range of policies that long outlast the original thought. Good ideas, meanwhile, can have bad effects—and bad ideas can be used for good. Given this tangle, picking the worst foreign-policy ideas of the last 50 years may seem like knitting socks with fish line. But it’s not impossible.

First, we need to establish what we mean by ideas. In their 1993 book, Ideas and Foreign Policy, the political scientists Robert Keohane and Judith Goldstein defined ideas as “beliefs held by individuals.” Within that broad category, they wrote, are two types: first, descriptive and causal beliefs (thoughts about how the world works and why) and, second, principled beliefs (ideas about how the world ought to look). The how and why beliefs can be evaluated according to their logic and accuracy. The ought beliefs can be evaluated according to whether, when realized, the world is on the whole a better place for the most people.

It is easy to say that ideas are bad when they simultaneously rest on faulty causal beliefs and are wielded in service of dubious principles. For example, King Leopold II of Belgium terrorized the Congo based on the unprincipled belief that African land belonged to whichever European nation could occupy it—and on the false causal belief that late 19th-century political elites, fresh from eradicating the trans-Atlantic slave trade, would neither notice nor object to the horrific reality of Belgian rule in central Africa. Leopold’s policies were bad. They were catastrophic for the local Congolese, ultimately self-defeating for Belgium, and harmful for Leopold himself, who died in disgrace.

Relatively few bad foreign-policy ideas fall into this ideal type, though. As often as not, there’s a mismatch, where apparently fine principled beliefs rest on faulty causal claims or accurate causal claims are deployed in unprincipled or self-defeating ways. And it is in these in-between cases that many of the worst U.S. foreign-policy ideas of the last 50 years can be found.

As an example of fine principles with faulty facts, consider the well-entrenched idea articulated by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama in his famous 1998 Foreign Affairs article, “Women and the Evolution of World Politics.” The argument, shared by some feminists and deployed by many activists, was that women are by nature more peaceful and cooperative than men, leading to better decision-making. This is an inaccurate but powerful causal idea that has been used strategically in the service of many good principled beliefs. As a rationale for increasing women’s inclusion in the workforce, it has had remarkably beneficial follow-on effects in delaying marriage for girls, incentivizing their education, and reducing fertility rates, all of which are correlated with economic development, public health, and even a more pacifist foreign policy.

But the inaccurate belief that such positive results are due to women’s inherent nature should be included on the list of bad ideas because it has undergirded major foreign-policy mistakes as well. These include a continued resistance to women’s full equality in the military, which undermines military effectiveness; a failure to accurately grasp the role of women in violent insurgencies, which leads to them being discounted as enemies; and a consequentialist attitude toward women’s rights, which ought to matter whether protecting them is in anyone’s strategic interest or not.

The reverse is also true: Broadly accurate causal ideas can be misappropriated into grand principles that lead to spectacular foreign-policy failures. Consider the notion that a world filled with democracies would be more peaceful as well as more just. There is some empirical support for the
proposition that democracies are less likely to fight one another. Unfortunately, the popularization of that idea has ultimately contributed to more war: Whether sincerely or cynically, Washington has often cited the belief that spreading democracy will lead to a safer, stabler, more peaceful world as a rationale for war—a prime contender for a spot on the list of bad foreign-policy ideas if you ever saw one.

There’s also the category of seemingly innocuous causal and principled beliefs that still have unsavory side effects. The idea that weapons of mass destruction are a particularly terrible category of weapon worthy of special taboos has been a hallmark of humanitarian efforts since the end of World War II. It has undergirded policies such as the Nunn-Lugar program, which led the United States and Russia to secure or dismantle thousands of nuclear weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union; the creation of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which now has 193 member states; and even a treaty ban on nuclear weapons, which will enter into force in January 2021.

But because of its other side effects, the belief that nuclear or chemical weapons are especially atrocious is also worthy of inclusion on the list of bad foreign-policy ideas. As Brown University’s Nina Tannenwald has noted, the unique opprobrium of “WMD” has rendered conventional weapons and limited wars seemingly more acceptable. In turn, lower-level conflicts have frequently been left by outside players to metastasize. The 1994 Rwandan genocide showed that ordinary machetes and firearms, which were used to kill five times as many civilians as the 1945 nuclear blasts, could become WMDs, too. But that bloodshed drew limited international response, and small arms and explosive munitions have been allowed to soak the world as countries pour resources into nuclear nonproliferation; the International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that such weapons account for the vast majority of conflict deaths, yet the United States continues to sell them to unsavory regimes around the world.

Neutral causal and principled beliefs can also break bad when they are put forth as substitutes for action. The international criminal tribunals established by the U.N. Security Council in the 1990s have done a lot to promote international justice, punish criminals, and stay the hand of vengeance. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), for example, has now caught, tried, and released or imprisoned all the individuals it indicted. Like its Rwandan counterpart, the ICTY has in some ways represented a triumph of liberal internationalism, paving the way for a stronger set of international norms around genocide and the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court. And the court’s existence has had at least some deterrent effect on future war crimes, at least in southeastern Europe.

But it is worth remembering that the ICTY was originally established as an alternative to more robust intervention in the crimes against humanity then unfolding in Europe. The “cessation of ethnic cleansing” discussed by Daniel W. Drezner in his article for this issue (Page 28) was too little, too late. It came after five years of appeasement and hand-wringing and ultimately the slaughter of approximately 7,000 civilians at Srebrenica while U.N. peacekeepers stood by. Many foreign-policy ideas led to this failure: a belief in the sanctity of sovereignty, the disbelief that such horrors were possible in late 20th-century Europe, the notion that civil war was inevitable due to so-called ancient hatreds. But it was the thought that a tribunal alone could deter war crimes that forestalled a stronger and earlier intervention; for that reason, the idea that punishment can substitute for prevention should be included in the ranks of bad foreign-policy ideas.

Similarly, there’s the final category of good ideas—with fine causal and principled underpinnings—that are co-opted to ill effect. After the failure to stop genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, the foreign-policy community set itself to coming up with new ideas, like the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), that themselves contained seeds of dysfunction. In theory, R2P turns sovereignty on its head, articulating a state’s responsibility to its civilians and empowering outsiders to assist if needed. It was a brilliant thought, but it deserves a dishonorable mention on this list in practice because it has been doomed through its association with military intervention. Rather than provide an impetus for genocide prevention in Darfur or Myanmar, in fact it became a rallying cry for wars waged without U.N. Security Council approval and for obviously nonhumanitarian reasons, whether by Russia in Crimea or Saudi Arabia in Yemen. All but forgotten is the other two thirds of R2P—prevention and reconstruction.

The lesson here is that bad ideas can arrive through many routes: faulty logic or facts, bad intentions, good intentions that turn out bad, cynicism, and more. If it fails on any one of these grounds, even an apparently worthy idea can fall short of its promise or worse.

There’s another cautionary tale, too. Beyond assessments of an idea’s causal and principled value, there’s also context to consider. As the international relations scholar Thomas Risse-Kappen once put it, ideas do not float freely: They are nested in complexes of other ideas that all interact, constrain, and enable each other. Once introduced to the web of ideas, new ones can be surprisingly sticky, sometimes even tainting the whole network.

Consider containment. As Drezner and the political scientist Deborah Welch Larson note in this issue, containment is often credited with bringing to an end the Cold War and laying a foundation for the peaceful dissolution of the former Soviet bloc. But it also deserves a place on this list. Though containment may have had some beneficial effects, it required Faustian bargains that fueled the spread of distinctively harmful ideas. Pursuing containment in the Afghan theater in the 1980s led U.S. policymakers to strike an alliance with and empower an emergent jihadi movement in the East. That laid the foundation for the establishment of religious rule under the Taliban, which turned Afghanistan into a recruiting ground for al Qaeda. And when al Qaeda attacked the United States in 2001, the country was later drawn into a series of multifront wars that undermined much of the peace dividend wrought by the fall of the Soviet Union.

Flames rise from an explosion in the Syrian town of Kobani after a U.S.-led coalition airstrike on Oct. 22, 2014.

Flames rise from an explosion in the Syrian town of Kobani after a U.S.-led coalition airstrike on Oct. 22, 2014. Foreign policy photo illustration/Dimitrios Chantzaras/NurPhoto via getty images

Thanks to the web effects, bad ideas can hold fast once embedded in institutions and national narratives. For example, the notion that aerial bombardment is cost-effective and useful in war has had incredible staying power, despite being wrong as a causal idea and a principled one. American high schoolers are still taught that the dropping of an especially terrible bomb ended World War II by signaling overwhelming power and determination to the Japanese government. These myths persist even though, by most historical accounts, Japan largely ignored the bombings and surrendered only after the Soviet Union entered the war. Yet the United States continues to rely on air power in its overseas operations, despite growing evidence that the human cost outweighs and renders counterproductive any long-term advantages.

Policymakers can also latch on to causal ideas that they then mistake for principled beliefs and use to inform whole swaths of policy. One such example, seemingly shared by Republican and Democratic administrations alike, is the argument that grave violations of human rights are necessary and effective in countering terrorism—another candidate for this bad ideas lineup. The very notion that the acceptability of torture or extrajudicial killing should hinge on its effectiveness runs counter to the point of the prohibition on these acts, which is to uphold fundamental human rights—norms that also protect Americans—even when, especially when, it seems beneficial to break them.

It is a testament to the power of bad ideas—and the way they weave themselves into broader narratives—that some have even become the literal targets of U.S. foreign policy. Yet the belief that a nation can declare war on an idea—be it drugs, poverty, or terrorism—is suspect and worthy of inclusion on this list. Since 9/11, the United States has found itself ensnared in an endless asymmetric military conflict rather than using transnational law enforcement to extradite, arrest, try, and punish al Qaeda’s leadership as criminals. As it grasped to justify increasingly wild digressions from international legal standards in support of an unwinnable war now old enough to vote, the United States also inadvertently legitimized members of al Qaeda as warriors rather than criminals. That, in turn, set up the United States for another bad idea for the books: the misbegotten notion that a relatively small band of criminal masterminds can pose an existential security threat to the United States. The money dumped into combating that miniscule threat came at the expense of addressing graver ones including climate change, which the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates already kills 150,000 people annually.

But perhaps all these missteps just boil down to one big bad cloud of ideas—that, whatever your causal and principled beliefs, the United States is exceptional. It is above the law, which it may twist to its advantage when necessary. George W. Bush attempted to convince the world that waterboarding wasn’t torture but rather just enhanced interrogation. Barack Obama argued that extrajudicial execution of criminal suspects without trial, euphemistically called targeted killings, was both legal and justified. Donald Trump raised the temperature by claiming that assassinating a high-ranking foreign government official was, in fact, consistent with the law. For decades, U.S. leaders from both parties have forgotten that Americans, too, benefit from a world in which power is checked by principle. And in that fertile ideological soil, a thousand other bad foreign policies have bloomed.

In the end, however, perhaps the very worst U.S. foreign-policy idea of the past 50 years has been the abandonment of the myriad good ideas America once fought for—and the institutions that promote them. Whereas U.S. leaders of the 1960s invested in the space program and other endeavors of great symbolic and social value, presidents since George H.W. Bush have gradually divested from international space science. Liberal internationalism and free trade have scored great victories over global poverty and child mortality, yet the United States is retreating from the institutions of neoliberalism, ceding Africa to China. Peacekeeping has kept the lid on various civil wars throughout the developing world, yet the United States is sucking the peacekeeping budget dry. The global public health system eradicated smallpox and other major diseases, yet a U.S. president inflamed vaccine skepticism and withdrew from WHO in the middle of a pandemic. It was as much the soft power of democratic ideals as it was the military strategy of containment that ended the Cold War. Yet three recent presidents have abandoned the notion, of which Ronald Reagan was an advocate, that the United States is a refugee nation where human rights and rule of law are shining promises to those landing on its shores.

One reason for the loss of faith in such institutions is the conceptual yardstick used for ceaselessly judging them. As with bad ideas, the correct yardstick is not whether peacekeeping (or free trade or human rights or vaccine science) always works perfectly or could still be improved. The correct yardstick for institutions, norms, and practices is whether they are causally and morally sound and whether, on balance, the world is a better place for the most people affected by them. When the answer is yes, the correct question is how to sustain (while improving) the idea—not how to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

The sunnier fact is that foreign-policy ideas are not simply manufactured, manipulated, and contested by foreign-policy elites and consumed blindly by citizens. They are put forth and evaluated by a sprawling industry of thinkers, scholars, and analysts. It is up to these people—and through them a public rightly skeptical of government claims—to sort fact from nonsense, causal logic from chicanery. Happily, it seems that the earnest evaluators may again have their moment. In November, U.S. voters elected Joe Biden, who has made policy “built on a bedrock of science” a cornerstone of his campaign, over an incumbent president known for mistruths and conspiracy theories. In that sense, three crucial ideas—that foreign policy should be made based on facts, logic, and reason rather than misinformation and emotion; that the United States cannot stand above or apart from its planetary neighbors; and that the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good—are not only alive and kicking but perhaps regaining lost ground.