Recently it was suggested that presidential primaries drive Republican and Democratic hopefuls into making a mess of foreign policy: Republicans emphasize their suspicions about arms control agreements with the Soviets; Democrats rail against new weapons systems and any resort to the use of force to back up diplomacy. This commentary—an editorial in The Washington Post—concluded that the process of the primaries exacts a high cost in American foreign policy, and that it will not be easy for the next president to reclaim a middle ground laid waste by excessive partisan rhetoric.
But the middle can be variously defined. What will matter is how a new administration deals with the core issues of American security policy: arms control and national defense, the use of force, including U.S. military forces, abroad. Even these issues must first be addressed in the broad historical context of those enduring postwar commitments and responsibilities that both Republicans and Democrats have subscribed to since 1945.
If the new administration is to develop a cohesive and coherent foreign policy, it cannot escape the changes in our nation’s strategic position. It must recognize three fundamental new conditions. First, there is a potentially dangerous disparity developing between those vital security interests that the American people are prepared to support with force, and the degree and kind of force we are willing and able to employ to protect these interests. In short, our aims may exceed our resources.
The extent of American commitments abroad has not declined; in some parts of the world our obligations have even increased. This new reality has led some to argue once again that we must reduce our commitments and thereby decrease the risks our country must face. But it is far easier to demand a reduction in commitments than to define with clarity those commitments that can, in fact, be safely reduced. In practice, we must decide whether the loss of prestige from abdicating responsibilities will reduce the effective use of American power