Former U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Panmunjom, South Korea, June 2019
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Americans love a winner, and its foreign policy leaders are no exception. As a new team takes the reins of government, officials in the National Security Council, State and Defense Departments, and beyond are scanning the landscape for victories: quick wins, big wins, historic wins.

Devising solutions to national security problems might seem all to the good. The problem is that not all problems can actually be solved—and many of today’s foremost foreign policy challenges fall squarely into that category. Policymakers often consider it better to “get caught trying” (as the previous Democratic secretary of state put it) than risk the costs of inaction. But trying to fix the insoluble can often make things worse.

Whatever the credit that comes from deploying diplomatic capital against impossible causes, that approach also generates unrealistic expectations, squanders valuable time and energy, risks eventual disengagement, and crowds out efforts to make more modest progress. The Biden administration should resist the temptation to “get caught trying” and instead settle on a less satisfying but more constructive option: working to manage such problems indefinitely.

THE QUEST FOR FINALITY

James Forrestal, the first U.S. secretary of defense, once reflected on the “American desire to secure finality in dealing with historic and fluid problems.” He might have added the American habit of devoting maximum effort to such aspirations and walking away discouraged if they come up short.

This quest for finality transcends differences among presidents and administrations. Every president since Bill Clinton, for instance, has tried to broker a final-status solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Each tried to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. George W. Bush’s “war on terror” aimed to defeat “every terrorist group of global reach,” and his “freedom agenda” sought to “end tyranny in our world.” Barack Obama, committed to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, withdrew all troops from the former and set a pullout deadline from the latter. The administration of President Donald Trump pursued its own Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, encouraged the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to trade away nuclear weapons, and mused alternately about striking a grand bargain with Iran and overthrowing its government.

Today, alas, tyranny still exists in our world. So do the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and a hostile regime in Tehran.  Given the gravity of such problems, it’s hard to begrudge any administration from trying mightily to make progress on them. But improving matters is far different from resolving them once and for all. Aiming for full resolution can, it turns out, make things worse rather than better.

The Biden administration should resist the temptation to “get caught trying.”

Some rounds of Middle East diplomacy, for instance, raised expectations that, when dashed, led to violence between the parties. The 2003 effort to finally remove the nagging problem of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein created disaster, and then the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq produced a power vacuum ultimately filled by Shiite chauvinists and Islamic State (or ISIS) militants. The commitment to building a stable, centrally governed, and democratic Afghanistan no longer vulnerable to terrorist presence fell short, and then eventually promising an end to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan likely encouraged the Taliban to continue fighting. Pyongyang used months of summit-level diplomacy to enlarge its nuclear arsenal and add new missile capabilities; it added perhaps 15 nuclear warheads during Trump’s term as well as two new intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Then there are the opportunity costs. The war on terror’s all-consuming focus left Washington well informed about obscure offshoots of Boko Haram but underprepared and insufficiently informed about a revisionist Russia. At the height of the Obama administration’s efforts to secure a Middle East peace deal, an Indian diplomat wondered, “Why has your secretary of state chosen the international issue with the least chance of resolution and decided to devote maximum time, energy, and resources to it?” Such diplomatic expenditures could, a number of U.S. partners believed, have been better directed at the Indo-Pacific. Trump’s all-or-nothing summit diplomacy crowded out the possibility of a modest but meaningful rollback in North Korea’s weapons programs. The time and attention of senior leadership represent a precious commodity, all too easily squandered if allocated disproportionately to insoluble challenges.

DON’T GET CAUGHT TRYING

Insoluble problems do not remain that way forever, of course, and the key to success in foreign policy is to attach likelihoods to the possibility of their resolution and seizing the moment when odds change. In the meantime, to deem international problems exceedingly unlikely of resolution does not mean simply abandoning them. Instead, Washington should embrace issue management, which is unsatisfying yet productive. Small steps in the right direction make a difference.

For the team now assuming positions of responsibility, some of the chief foreign policy dilemmas facing the United States fall squarely in the “manage rather than solve” category. North Korea is already rattling its saber and threatening renewed missile tests. Nuclear armed and with the ability to strike the United States, Pyongyang poses a problem that cannot be ignored. But it is also a problem that cannot be solved, at least at reasonable cost. In an effort to get North Korea to denuclearize, Washington has tried carrots, sticks, summit diplomacy, working-level talks, multilateral and bilateral approaches, and even the stark choice between the promise of condos on North Korean beaches and a pledge to wipe Pyongyang off the face of the earth. Today, North Korea has more nuclear weapons than ever, with more advanced long-range missiles to go with them. Nonmilitary inducements won’t get Kim to surrender his weapons; military solutions portend unacceptable levels of risk.

The alternative is a policy built mainly around deterrence, threatening massive retaliation for any use of nuclear weapons against the United States or an ally. It would include better missile defenses in the region, an effort at a unified Tokyo-Seoul approach, covert options such as cyber-sabotage against weapons programs, and new economic sanctions aimed at the Pyongyang elite. Over the long run, Washington and its partners could foster change away from the Kim dynasty by expanding the North Korean population’s access to information, encouraging defections, and sowing distrust within the regime. Economic pressure could aim at a partial rollback in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. But even successful efforts along those lines would not take care of the basic problem anytime soon.

In the Middle East, the new administration has criticized the Trump plan for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement as one-sided and wholly unrealistic, and Biden advisers have advocated for a more evenhanded approach that would build momentum toward a two-state solution. Unfortunately, however correct those criticisms of the Trump approach, other comprehensive plans are unlikely to be much more successful than the Trump administration’s attempt to unlock “the deal of the century.” The previous three administrations all tried and failed: the Bush administration initiated the Annapolis process; the Obama administration made an early run at peace and appointed former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as its envoy; and then in his second term Obama tried again, with Secretary of State John Kerry devoting a full year to the quest for an agreement.

Managing the problem would involve not abandoning the hope for Middle East peace but instead accepting incrementalism until interests in the two parties align to make it possible—if they ever do. The administration could focus on improving the everyday lives of Palestinians, who saw aid cutoffs under Trump and have been excluded from Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. It could help deepen Palestinian democratic institutions and build on the Abraham Accords, both widening and deepening regional normalization with Israel. A full-time, low-profile peace process envoy—not the secretary of state—could push for additional steps, keeping an eye out for looming breakthroughs that merit higher levels of engagement. Many small steps will be better than attempting one giant leap.

It’s often better to put a few points on the board than none at all.

The war in Afghanistan is another case of the insoluble. The United States tried mightily over the years to bring the war to an end through outright victory over the Taliban, which today remains as strong as ever. Shifting course, the Trump administration pursued a negotiated solution, one that ideally would have the Taliban forswear al Qaeda, embrace the Afghan constitution, share power peacefully with the existing government, and uphold the rights of women and girls. This appears no likelier than defeating the Taliban on the battlefield. A new chorus of advocates and members of Congress call for a full U.S. withdrawal, assuming that some combination of American threats and Taliban restraint will prevent a terrorist sanctuary—a risky bet with long odds. 

The alternative—management—is likely to mean retaining a residual troop presence in the country indefinitely, with or without an agreement with the Taliban. Doing so would allow for continued counterterrorism operations and assistance to the government while deterring the Taliban from moving to seize power after a U.S. withdrawal. This approach would have the frustrating effect of prolonging the “forever war.” But as the complete withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 demonstrated, a residual presence would be preferable to seeing an al Qaeda–sympathizing Taliban retake power in Afghanistan, with the United States forced to deal with the consequences from a far weaker position.

Even great-power competition with China and Russia is ultimately an exercise in management. Long gone are the hopes that deep engagement with China would moderate its external ambitions and spark eventual liberalization at home or that sufficient American resolve will awe it into submission. Beijing today is powerful, confident, assertive, and authoritarian, a combination that poses deep challenges for U.S. interests and values. The new administration has made clear that no “reset” of relations is in the offing. The result will be a long period of competition in which both the United States and China each seek advantage across a broad array of issues, with no neat resolution of differences. With Russia, similarly, the new administration is neither promising a reset nor dismissing Moscow as a second-tier power that can be cowed or ignored. It will have little choice but to combine pressure, diplomacy and arms control agreements, and vigorous pushback into the indefinite future.  

MANAGEMENT AND ITS DISCONTENTS

Management does not mean passivity or permanent resignation. Even while managing these issues, policymakers can probe for openings and, when opportunities appear, seize them. The Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Arab governments and Israel, for instance, represent a genuine breakthrough enabled by the United States: it would not have happened without personal, high-level diplomacy and a willingness to cut diplomatic deals with multiple countries. It’s also one few saw coming but that arose out of intensive engagement with the parties involved. 

Incremental progress against devilish problems is not the stuff of Nobel Peace Prizes. Managing foreign policy issues involves difficult tradeoffs, partial victories, and much dissatisfaction. No policymaker seeks a world in which Pyongyang retains nuclear-armed missiles that can reach the United States, Israelis and Palestinians are locked in unending conflict, or a sustained U.S. troop presence occasionally clashes with the Taliban. But as with everything in this life, potential outcomes must be weighed against the available alternatives.

Americans invented the Hail Mary pass: when in desperation, throw high and long and pray for a miracle catch in the end zone. Such is the stuff of football highlight reels, and the diplomatic equivalent can guarantee lasting fame (or notoriety) for a foreign-policy maker. Yet like their sports counterpart, most foreign policy Hail Marys are dropped or intercepted. It’s often better to put a few points on the board than none at all. And managing foreign policy problems will help the new administration stay out of the kinds of desperate situations in which wild, risky passes look like the best way to play.

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  • RICHARD FONTAINE is CEO of the Center for a New American Security. He has worked at the U.S. Department of State, on the National Security Council, and as a foreign policy adviser to U.S. Senator John McCain.
  • More By Richard Fontaine