In the traditional security realm--setting aside other national interests such as economics--four priorities flow from this analysis. We discuss them in order of importance:
Peace Among the Major Powers
Engaging Selectively in Regional Conflicts
Responding to Transnational Threats
Assisting Failed States
Among the Major Powers
The most important U.S. interest is maintaining peace among the major powers. The health of the alliances with Japan and the major powers of Europe is primary. The U.S. also wants good working relations with Russia and China, which will be easier to the extent that the transitions to democracy and free markets advance in those countries. Besides having good bilateral relations with each of the major powers, the U.S. should also seek the peaceful resolution of disputes among other major powers--for example, the Kurile Islands dispute between Russia and Japan. Seen in this light, the 1994 Russian-Chinese accord is good for U.S. interests.
Creating mechanisms for non-violent conflict resolution will become all the more urgent if the world divides into distinct great power spheres of influence, because history suggests that great powers tend eventually to fight over the boundaries of their spheres of influence. To date, the spheres are too amorphous to clearly identify potential conflicts over them. New conflicts could arise, for example, in Asia, where the pattern of influence remains muddled, or over Central Europe, which lacks clear lines separating possible spheres of influence.
This interest in peace among the great powers is unlikely to attract the continued close attention devoted to troublesome regional crises, but the deterioration of relations among the major powers would be more threatening to the U.S. in the long term than any regional crisis. When considering how far to press principles like democracy and human rights in China or free markets in Russia, Washington will need to carefully evaluate the risk that such efforts might damage relations with the country in question, with negative consequences for the peace among the great powers. In responding to regional crises, as well, the U.S. should place among its most important considerations the question of how its actions will affect that peace. For instance, a danger in any Korean crisis is the possibility that different perceptions of the danger in Tokyo and Washington could strain the U.S.-Japanese alliance.
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It is neither desirable nor possible for the U.S. to engage in every regional conflict. It is to be hoped that Washington will choose to exercise leadership primarily in those situations in which both U.S. interests and principles are at stake, rather than where only its principles are tested. Priority should be given to traditional commitments and to those cases in which action is needed now to prevent a greater danger later, particularly in the case of rogue states that refuse to fit peacefully into the world system and are acquiring weapons of mass destruction. The most likely arenas for involvement are in areas of traditional U.S. concern: the Korean peninsula, the Persian Gulf, the Levant, and the nations around the Caribbean. This list is by no means exhaustive, because the U.S. could decide to fight almost anywhere if sufficiently important interests were at stake and because the U.S. could make new commitments, for example in parts of Central Europe.
In defending its vital interests and principles, the U.S. must be prepared to use decisive force. It must also be prepared to act alone, although acting as part of a coalition is preferable as long as the U.S. leads that coalition.
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Problems like drug trafficking, terrorism, and pollution are increasingly becoming transnational in character, as criminals operate across borders and environmental problems arise on a global scale. These problems have become an important part of the national security agenda because they affect the well-being of so many Americans. That said, it remains unclear how much the military will become involved in the growing problem of transnational threats.
Some threats of this kind seem to call for military forces to back up police forces that are outgunned and outmaneuvered by international criminal syndicates. Quasi-police operations have been normal for armed forces in many nations and for U.S. armed forces in times past. They have not, however, played a major role since World War II in the activities of most of the armed forces, other than the Coast Guard and National Guard. There may well be resistance within the military to the use of increasingly scarce resources for quasi-police functions. The natural inclination of the military is to concentrate on preparing for major conflict rather than be drawn into areas for which military force is less obviously needed.
On the other hand, a reason to give priority to such transnational threats is the risk that if these problems are left unattended, they could escalate to affect vital U.S. interests or to create massive humanitarian disasters, which would then demand U.S. intervention on a much larger scale.
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The U.S. public is likely to support assistance to failed states in those cases where the military can respond constructively and at relatively low cost. One example would be the provision of relief after humanitarian disasters. Likewise, when a local conflict threatens to spill over into neighboring states, border monitors and military aid to the neighbor can often be effective. Similarly, when clashing parties agree on a political solution but are suspicious of the willingness of the other side to live up to its promises, peacekeepers can make a difference.
Messy domestic conflicts create problems for military intervention. Yet U.S. public pressure to prevent humanitarian disasters and genocide may encourage intervention in countries where the United States has few direct and immediate interests, as was the case in Somalia. No other issue has created a more difficult set of foreign policy problems for the last two administrations.
In general, the U.S. military's role in failed states will probably be to provide humanitarian aid, protect non-combatants, and prevent conflicts from spreading to other countries. The U.S. military is less likely to play a major role in nation-building, at which its success record is spotty at best. But the military is unlikely to avoid all nation-building responsibilities, as the 1994-95 intervention in Haiti demonstrates. A danger in nation-building is that restoring political institutions often requires choosing sides in an ongoing conflict. The side not chosen may then see U.S. forces as the enemy and attack them, leading to casualties that erode public support for the operation. Of course, humanitarian operations can also have a downside: underlying problems that were suppressed when U.S. forces were present often re-emerge after those forces have departed, leading to questions about the efficacy of intervention.
Forming coalitions for crisis response will be difficult. No state, including the U.S., wants to take the responsibility of leadership in those cases where history and common sense suggest that intervention will be lengthy, costly, and complicated. When U.S. interests are not directly at issue, Washington may choose to be marginally involved or to press for a clear exit strategy should intervention go badly.