The Perils Of Confrontational Foreign Policy

As the Obama administration draws to a close, the world that Obama left behind is very different from the one that he had inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush. Many can agree that America’s relative power and security on the world stage is significantly weaker than under Bush. Adding to the old persistent problems of North Korea and the Middle East are new challenges to American power. Russia and China are pressuring American hegemony in Europe and Asia with ever bolder actions. The emergence of new terrorist groups, each one more radical than the last, followed the collapse of many Arab regimes. The world economy has stagnated, both in the old industrialized world and the new emerging economies. For opponents of Obama’s policies, these problems are evidence of Obama’s failure in foreign policy.[1] For these foreign policy critics, the antidote to “problems” created by Obama’s “weak” foreign policy should be a return to confronting America’s competitors, as Ronald Reagan had successfully conducted against the Soviet Union. This hardline attitude, as supported by the likes of Donald Trump and the conservative Heritage Foundation, is dangerous, not only for America, but also for the world. Needless to say, viewing the world through a zero-sum lens dramatically increases the possibility of needlessly escalating conflict. This view has been adopted by many of America’s competitors, with the predictable result of dramatically increased global tensions. Furthermore, historical evidence is weighted against such hardline policies’ ability to “restore” international power and prestige. Adopting a confrontational stance when dealing with other states not only has not worked in the past, but also brings with it great dangers that undermine global security.

Sentiments of discontent, and fear of America’s relative decline, permeate the American election discourse. Notwithstanding the Republicans’ assertions, not all of America’s troubles can be laid at Obama’s feet. The current problems plaguing American foreign policy are simply the latest manifestations stemming from trends that date back to at least the demise of the U.S.S.R., if not earlier. The examples are numerous: Islamic fundamentalism can be traced back to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qubt in the 1960s, which in turn was stimulated by the Iranian Revolution in 1979; the Chinese economy had been growing steadily since Mao’s death in 1978; the P.R.C.’s willingness to sustain North Korea demonstrates that it intended to maintain a buffer zone against American influence in the region; and Russia’s defiance predates Putin, dating back to at least the dispute between Russia and N.A.T.O. in the Yugoslav conflicts, especially the near firefight between N.A.T.O. and Russian troops at Pristina Airport in Kosovo in the closing days of the N.A.T.O. intervention there. High oil prices, long built up resentment, and rising international demand had allowed these competitors to challenge America’s post-Cold War hegemony, and it is highly unlikely that Obama could have reversed these trends during his time in office.

Given that the current problems are decade-long trends, they are not likely to be reversed if America is to adopt a confrontational policy tomorrow. Instead, confrontational policies are only likely to raise global tensions and the risk of conflict, rather than reduce it as some claimed. During the Cold War, confrontation had at numerous points almost led to a Third World War because both sides were committed to negotiate from a position of strength and the two sides were too invested in their ventures to de-escalate early. From the Berlin Blockade to Operation Able Archer, numerous times the leader of one of the superpowers decided that more pressuring can get results, only to threaten to plunge the world into a war which neither wanted.

Today, both the Russians and the Chinese view international relations through the same lens of zero-sum competition as the hawks in the United States do. Both Russia and China see America as the aggressor intent to stifle potential challenges to its hegemony. The Russians since the days of Gorbachev and Yeltsin have believed that N.A.T.O.’s ultimate goal is to eventually attack Russia itself. In the Kosovo intervention in 1999, Russians that opposed the intervention claimed “Today Yugoslavia, Tomorrow Russia”.[2] The Chinese also perceive malevolent intent behind American initiatives. Co-opt editorials in the Renminbao went as far as claiming that America is deliberately manufacturing tension to threaten China.[3] The American opposition towards a number of Chinese initiatives, from the AIIB to South China Sea, through use of force rather than legal arguments, have led to a Chinese belief that Americans will oppose any Chinese proposals.[4] These beliefs are not conducive to international peace, as actors will give up on negotiations. The act of building up defensive forces often becomes misinterpreted, and the world edges closer to crisis.

The historical evidence concerning uncompromising and confrontational policies does not paint a promising picture. During the Cold War, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. often believed the only way to achieve security is through overwhelming strength. Some conservative commentators do believe Reagan’s confrontational policies were successful in winning the Cold War.[5] However, Reagan built up unsustainable debt to the American economy to pursue his policies, and Reagan was also aided by the structural weaknesses of the Soviet economy. Following the Cold War, the N.A.T.O. coalition successfully stopped ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia through a unilateral military campaign, but it was able to so in part due to Russian cooperation, where Yeltsin abandoned Milosevic to his fate. President Bush’s ventures is another testament to the futility of consistent confrontation and hardline policies. The American invasion of Afghanistan was successful because it was fought by a massive multinational coalition that included some of America’s adversaries including Russia and Iran. Bush’s invasion of Iraq by contrast, where America tried to force its allies to side with its unpopular decision led to a low point of American international prestige. The invasion itself laid the foundation for the later rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The historical evidence points to the conclusion that blustering and ultimatums work rather less well compared to trying to achieve common understanding and cooperation in areas with common interests. Instead of boosting the country’s international respect by projecting an image of being “strong”, it is more likely to alienate allies and create new enemies.

The observation that unrelenting confrontation can harm the national interest holds also for America’s adversaries. Russia is the archetypical case. Putin has a very similar view to U.S. conservatives on national security despite being one of their most hated adversaries. Putin wants to “restore” Russian “greatness” as an international mover, roll back N.A.T.O. which he sees as a national security threat, and defend “Russian values” in the face of “Western onslaught”.[6] While on the surface Putin seemed to have triumphed as the West dithered from Ukraine to Syria, the costs of intervention for Russia are very high. The Russian economy entered a period of freefall, the Ruble collapsed, standard of living fell, and investors fled the country. Russia has not succeeded in many of its goals either. While Ukrainians had been ambivalent about N.A.T.O. at best before Putin’s intervention,[7] the threat of Russian intervention intensified the efforts of its neighbours to distance themselves from Russia. Putin’s hardline, military policy not only created the opposite of what he wanted, but Russia had to suffer through crisis because of it.

A consistent, confrontational approach as advocated by some conservative think tanks are unlikely to be beneficial to American interests or global security. First, the current series of challenges are an accumulation of decades of development and are unlikely to be solved merely by increasing the military budget and backing up threats with militarily fighting the threat on every front. Second, the signal of deterrence is likely to be misinterpreted and everyone involved will become anxious to build up their strength to deter attacks, driving the world into a crisis. Third, historical evidence does not indicate that confrontation will necessarily “reduce future cost” by scaring-off enemies. Instead, those states that initiate the confrontation tend to suffer significant damages to reputation and in many cases fail to achieve what they set out to do. This is not to say that states should not take principled stands, such as in World War Two when the allies should have confronted the Nazi regime sooner. However, confrontation should not be treated as a solution that can solve all of America’s international foreign policy ills. A “smart” policy of knowing when to use which tools to leverage a reasonable outcome is much more important than issuing ultimatums to friends and foes alike.


Holmes, Kim R. “Reviving American Power after Obama.” The National Interest, 02 Feb 2016 2016.

Li, Dun Qiu. “Dong Ya Chu Zai Li Shi De Shi Zi Lu Kao.” Renmin, 05 Mar 2016 2016.

Monaghan, Andrew. “A “New Cold War”? Abusing History, Misunderstanding Russia.” 16: Chathan House, 2015.

Stent, Angela. The Limits of Partnership.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Treisman, Daniel. The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev.  New York: First Free Press, 2011.

Webster, Graham. “Making Good on the Rebalance to Asia.” Foreign Affairs, 03 Mar. 2016 2016.


[1] Kim R. Holmes, “Reviving American Power after Obama,” The National Interest, 02 Feb 2016 2016.

[2] Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[3] Dun Qiu Li, “Dong Ya Chu Zai Li Shi De Shi Zi Lu Kao,” Renmin, 05 Mar 2016 2016.

[4] Graham Webster, “Making Good on the Rebalance to Asia,” Foreign Affairs, 03 Mar. 2016 2016.

[5] Holmes, “Reviving American Power after Obama.”

[6] Andrew Monaghan, “A “New Cold War”? Abusing History, Misunderstanding Russia,” Russia and Eurasia Programme (Chathan House, 2015).

[7] Daniel Treisman, The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev (New York: First Free Press, 2011).

Hanyu Huang


The Organization for World Peace