When Is Selective Engagement too Selective?

The Ukraine crisis typifies the paradox of American opinion on foreign affairs today: we don’t want to get entangled in something costly and certainly not something involving the use of American forces, but we don’t really approve of looking feckless and inept. These mixed emotions were equally at play during the “redline” debate in Syria, the Chinese declaration of an air defense identification zone and subsequent territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea, and during debates over whether the nation is spending enough on defense and security. 

As this litany demonstrates, executing a selective foreign policy is difficult. Yet it is our only rational approach if we wish to retain our role as a global leader at a manageable cost. On paper, a strategy of selective engagement requires us to have and communicate a firm understanding of our interests, the objectives for achieving those interests, and the policies we are willing to employ to achieve them. The problem of course is that such linear strategy development is simply not possible, particularly in the U.S. democratic system. Our sense of interests, objectives, applicability of power, and available means is heavily context dependent, and situational dynamics can significantly affect public and leadership impetus for action (or inaction). It is such a dynamic that saw Secretary of State Dean Acheson declare in 1950 a defensive perimeter in Asia that did not include Korea, only to turn around within the year to lead the Truman Administration’s justification for the deployment of U.S. troops in Korea after the outbreak of conflict there. It is that dynamic that might explain why more Americans support doing more to help find the missing Nigerian school girls than believe we should do more in Syria or Ukraine.
We need not be victims of our own ambivalence and mercurial nature, however. The president of the United States can and must lead the American public through international crises by communicating effectively in word and deed. Congress has responsibility here, too, but I’ll focus on the White House. To date, the administration has rationalized the necessity of its temperate approach in each of the crises it has handled in this second term, relying in no small part on the public’s strong preference for limiting the use of force. (The president’s “foreign policy leadership as a baseball game” analogy was the most recent attempt.) In the case of Ukraine, the White House has also rightly pointed out that Putin is the real loser in the long-term. Russia is a declining power, Crimea’s annexation will exacerbate its economic challenges, China and Central Asia are now wary of Russia, and NATO will be somewhat reinvigorated. 
What these approaches miss is that Putin’s long-term “loss” is not seen as an American “win,” and a long pattern of withholding the American fist in the face of perceived provocations, however rational in each individual case, can tempt others to act opportunistically in the future. For deterring al Qaeda, Syria, North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China, this communication failure matters. Calibrating hard power is difficult, but it is imperative. Perceptions that the United States is unwilling to act assertively, whether justified or not, embolden others. Deterrence works best when backed by the credible threat of force. Today, we are risking that credibility despite our rhetoric, potentially undermining deterrence and increasing the chances that the American public will seek to act at much higher cost down the road, whether on the Korean Peninsula, in the South China Sea, or, most likely, somewhere we cannot yet predict.
And therein lies the ultimate irony for the White House. If in its efforts to avoid another Iraq it allows the selective engagement pendulum to swing too far toward inaction, it risks being knocked over when the pendulum swings just as strongly into overreaction at a time and place Washington may not anticipate.

Kathleen Hicks is senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

(A version of this Commentary originally appeared on the Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire on May 16, 2014.)

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Kathleen H. Hicks