Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Neurotic Fixations of U.S. Foreign Policy

| Feb. 12, 2024

A close look at several ruts that American policymakers are currently stuck in.

Rich and powerful countries like the United States can do the same things over and over, even when they aren't working, without facing immediate and severe consequences. The White House can change hands, presidential appointees can come and go, and new crises can erupt without warning, and the same well-worn responses get pulled out of the drawer, dusted off, and put into practice once again. Sometimes familiar approaches are so deeply entrenched that they become almost reflexive: People in power rarely question them and dissenters face an uphill battle if they try to convince superiors to do something different. In extreme cases, nobody even questions them. It's foreign policy on autopilot.

I'm not angling for a job in Washington, which leaves me free to raise questions about some of these rinse-and-repeat responses. Here are four of my current favorites.

1. Why do we keep thinking we can bomb our way to victory?

For more than a century, air-power advocates have claimed that it could be used to punish opponents and get them to say uncle. Because the United States, Israel, Russia, and a few other states can use air power with near-impunity in some places (e.g., Gaza, Ukraine, or Yemen), they keep thinking that dropping bombs, conducting drone strikes, or firing cruise missiles at their adversaries will convince the targets to run up the white flag and do whatever is being demanded of them.

If only that were true. In fact, as Robert Pape and others have shown convincingly, air power is rarely, if ever, an effective coercive tool. Bombing Germany and Japan with conventional explosives or incendiaries did not cause their leaders to surrender, and the massive coercive bombing campaign that the United States conducted against North Vietnam did not convince Hanoi to abandon its campaign to unify the country. Israel's repeated aerial assaults on Lebanon and Gaza haven't convinced Hezbollah or Hamas to lay down their arms or reduced Palestinians' desire for their own state; if anything, such actions have merely strengthened their resolve. Saudi Arabia's bombing campaign in Yemen didn't convince the Houthis to knuckle under, and Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities haven’t persuaded Kyiv to give up, either. You might regard NATO's air campaign against Serbia in 1999 during the Kosovo War as a rare success story for air power, until you discover that Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic got a better deal at the end of that campaign than he'd been offered before the bombs started falling....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Neurotic Fixations of U.S. Foreign Policy.” Foreign Policy, February 12, 2024.

The Author

Stephen Walt