01 November 2019

Regardless of your view on President Obama’s leadership, Congressional troublemaking, and the increasingly vitriolic 2016 Presidential campaign, there is no question that today, in 2016, many of our allies feel concerned, and many of our enemies feel emboldened. We have a chance for a reset in January 2017, and we need to take advantage of that opportunity to ensure the U.S. is well positioned for both the challenges and opportunities in the years ahead. The best way to do that can be summed up in a phrase that became the motto of the 1st Marine Division in which I served in under Gen. James Mattis – “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy.” In America, you will find no better friend, and in America, you will find no worse enemy.

Americans are a nation of storystellers, and this is a popular story that we like to tell about ourselves. We are a nightmare to our foes, and unstinting in the defense of our friends. But it is not exactly correct. Look at the headlines lately.

Now, some caveats. First, not all of the parties left adrift are necessarily entitled to unlimited American support and sometimes even the closest of allies will have to be shafted for the national interest. And the question in the last link is sadly “yes, they will, as long as America has something to give them in return at least some of the time.” But this does not really get to the underlying problem. Americans like to believe that we are “no better friend, no worse enemy.” But the reality is much less pleasant. Americans abandon partners all the time. By some measures, the US has been double-crossing the Kurds since the 1970s. And not just formally, on the battlefield. But informally as well. When the United States evacuated Indochina following the end of the Vietnam War, Washington left 10,000 Hmong behind to face the combined forces of the Laotian and Vietnamese governments. Only a handful were resettled in the US. There are many such stories going back to America’s founding, and even the colonial period prior to it.

Americans are not uniquely faithless. In our defense this is how many other countries behave, even though it is not much of a defense given our inflated self-image. But nonetheless there are several unpleasant facts we must contend with. First, when someone needs our help, they will trust us because they have little other choice. Additionally, there is no way to guarantee a weaker partner that there will be unstinting American support. Geopolitical circumstances will change, and with it the decision calculus of DC policymakers. And more importantly, whatever sentimental attachments that some Americans may develop with foreign partners are not necessarily transitive. Resettling refugees involves burning political capital, especially when the public mood (America has mood swings, like a teenager) favors retrenchment and is wary of taking on more foreigners from exotic places. We probably mean it when we swear bonds of eternal brotherhood, but so quickly forget them when it is difficult to honor such oaths.

As long as America is attractive as a potential partner, people will cooperate with us despite our long history of faithlessness. And proxies are attractive to politicians precisely because they can fight in lieu of American troops and can be abandoned like discarded army men toys when DC is done playing soldier. So what should America do as a moral matter? The easy answer is to say “follow with through the promises, don’t let anyone down.” But everything about American history suggests that this is far easier said than done. The only thing that guarantees, for example, some level of refugee resettlement for people that cooperated with the US in a foreign war is pressure campaigns from civil society (church groups, activist networks, veterans organizations, etc) coupled with sympathetic politicians and a good helping of luck. Sometimes these conditions will be in place. Other times they will not. There is no way to know for sure in advance. So what should America do? Knowing that we have a highly uneven record of following through with our promises, what promises should we make?

My own bias is that we ought to be very careful about who we make promises to. But maybe that first requires that we abandon the benevolent image of ourselves as “no better friend, no worse enemy” because too many times foreign partners discover that America is in fact no worse friend.