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Priorities: The problem with shifting regional focus in American foreign policy

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The next day, the U.S. declared war on Japan, and most men in the country lined up for city blocks on end to sign up for military duty against the Asian enemy. Literally overnight, America was on lockdown against Japan as never before and had no other purpose than to punish the enemy into oblivion (which it eventually did). Three days later, Nazi Germany, out of the blue, declared war against this country, throwing all the previous war plans and national fervor into chaos. Few in America anticipated a world war against both enemies, and Congress by itself would never have declared war against Hitler’s regime while simultaneously fighting in the Pacific theater.

Without warning, the U.S. had to prioritize its war aims, strategies and interests. Again, literally overnight, the U.S. had become the world’s policeman, definitely against its own will. By war’s end, the U.S. had come to adopt the “Europe First” strategy that acknowledged the priority of the Nazi threat to both the U.S. and Britain plus the longer-term threat that Hitler came to represent against the values of liberty, civilization and democracy. By 1945, almost 80 percent of total U.S. Army and Air Force resources were employed in Europe (although the Navy was dominant in the Pacific).

This transfer of commitment carried over well into the post-war years. The emergence of the Soviet threat amidst the Cold War, the fall of Eastern Europe and East Germany to the Red Army, and the political threat from communist parties in Italy and France dictated the continuity of a Europe First foreign policy. This was solidified in 1949 with the North Atlantic Treaty and carried over into the 1950’s with the addition of Greece, Turkey, and West Germany to NATO.

While the fall of China to the communists in 1949 meant the extension of U.S. interests to East Asia, this fact alone was insufficient to offset the priority of Western Europe. Secretary of State George C. Marshall made this clear in his testimony shortly before the loss of China: the U.S., he said, “cannot afford, economically or militarily, to take over the continued failures of the present Chinese Government to the dissipation of our strength in more vital regions” (Europe). But these priorities slowly changed, beginning with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and gradually extended into Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam, by the end of the decade.  

The transfer of priorities from Europe to Southeast Asia, a transfer that would last for nearly twenty years, offers yet another example of the historic American penchant to move from area to global area, always seemingly near the disaster point, only either to resolve the issue or to retreat into another threatened region. During the first half of the twentieth century, nearly paranoid about the security of the Panama Canal, the U.S. committed troops in twenty-five separate interventions, some lasting as long as fifteen years (Haiti), constantly on the watch against overseas threats, first Germany and later Japan. It was not until 1979 that this paranoia came to an end, with the transfer of authority to Panama itself. The region has been comparatively quiet since.

A similar fate haunted U.S. interests in the long and tragic Vietnam War. After nearly twenty years of involvement, domestic revolutionary threats and over 57, 000 dead, the U.S. left the area in 1975. Today, Vietnam is poor, oppressed, and still committed to a communist regime, but it is also strategically neutral, a tourist center, and an American partner in the Pacific Trade Pact.

It is now the Middle East that has dominated American attention, into its third decade since the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983. With seventeen separate military interventions, stretching from Lebanon, to Syria, Libya and Iraq, Americans are still obsessed with the region, and the current political debates offer no other strategic priority. It’s as though the rest of the world does not even exist.

Like the rise and fall of previous geopolitical passions, these, too, will have a finish line. Then what or, more importantly, where?

This is not to argue that these regions did not deserve attention and even, at times, military attention. But strategy has to be governed by prudence, intellect and vision. America is deeply involved in the world but still lacks a coherent strategy for its policies and these include purpose and, above all, priorities.

In 1907 British foreign officer, Erye Crowe, sent a now-famous memorandum on the long-term priority and purpose of the country’s foreign policies. Based upon the concept of the “balance of power,” Crowe provided advice which can still resonate in the face of America’s continuous search for its own strategic direction a century later:

“… History shows that the danger threatening the independence of this or that nation has generally arisen out of the momentary predominance of a neighboring state at once militarily powerful, economically efficient  and ambitious … the only check on the abuse of political predominance derived from such a position has always consisted in the opposition of an equally formidable rival … The equilibrium established by such a grouping of forces is technically known as the balance of power, and it has become almost an historical truism to identify England’s secular power with the maintenance of this balance, by throwing her weight now in this scale and now in that, but ever on the side opposed to the political dictatorship of the strongest single state or group at a given time.”

It’s called strategy, and it is beyond time the United States thought about one.