Student Blog — Thomas Schmedding | Strategic Dilemmas in American Foreign Policy

Tower Scholar Thomas Schmedding interviewed Dr. Kenneth Schultz, professor of political science at Stanford University, before his lecture “Strategic Dilemmas in American Foreign Policy” Sept. 7.

In the 2016 American political season, the vastly different perspectives of foreign policy continue to serve as a key point of debate between the presidential candidates. While it is easy to advocate for specific policy options, we generally fail to recognize the interests and preferences of other actors, as well. In order to postulate the possibilities and limitations of American foreign policy, Kenneth Schultz from Stanford University discussed three key dilemmas that have challenged policymakers in his lecture Sept. 7: force vs. restraint, stakes vs. leverage, and coercion vs. reassurance.

Force vs. Restraint

Addressing the first dilemma, Schultz argued that because terrorist organizations successfully embed themselves in local populations, applying force in an attempt to eliminate the terrorists could harm civilians, driving them to radicalize and join the terrorist group. Therefore, in certain situations military restraint is preferable because the use of force can be counterproductive. With this in mind, Schultz mentioned the need for inclusive democratic growth in fragile contexts that are susceptible to militant non-state actors. “When groups are systematically deprived of [democratic] resources and powers, they tend to shift more towards extremism,” he said.

Stakes vs. Leverage

The second dilemma, stakes vs. leverage, becomes an issue when the stake a state holds in kkied-1a client increases, and as a result that state’s leverage decreases. This dilemma was best depicted by a simulation of three SMU students as provincial governors in Afghanistan with a varying array of financial support from the United States. The exercise demonstrated that because the United States gives more money to nations battling insurgencies, the incentive is to exaggerate the effects of insurgency and corruption within local governments in conflict areas rather than to rid the nation of the insurgency.

Coercion vs. Reassurance

A final exercise to explain the third dilemma, coercion vs. reassurance, was a graphical representation of the dilemmas nuclear disarmament presents from the perspective of the adversary. Americans typically perceive nuclear disarmament as a scenario where an adversary can make the decision to disarm or face sanctions from the United States. Often discounted, however, is the perception by adversaries that they are making themselves weaker by setting a precedent for giving in to demands. This decision can be a risky process for adversaries. Prior to the lecture, I mentioned to Schultz that this game theory approach sounded like a quasi-geopolitics version of Newton’s third law: “For every action, there is an equal or opposite reaction.”

Schultz concluded by pointing out that while the United States is the most powerful nation in the world, it is not all-powerful. He recommends the U.S. exercise restraint when making foreign policy decisions. “We cannot be narcissistic, we have to be strategic,” Schultz said.

I generally agree with the decision to restrain, but was curious how America’s foreign policy-making institutions could adapt to new constraints in the future. This idea largely stems from the idea that domestic and international conditions facing the United States have changed a lot in the past 25 years, while the ideas, policies and institutions supporting American foreign policy have seen little transformational change. We are inherently clinging to old ideas because change is difficult. “America’s foreign policy institutions are very sticky and tough to adapt to major changes,” Schultz said. “We have seen more informal flexibility, as opposed to formal institutional changes. For example, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security has allowed for greater resistance. With that said, the United States came out of the Cold War extremely powerful and essentially forced adversaries to come up with a different strategy.”

Listen to Dr. Schultz’s lecture at the Tower Center:

Tower Scholars PortraitsThomas Schmedding is a senior from Apex, North Carolina majoring in management, international development & social change, and public policy with minors in economics and international affairs. He is an intern for a public-private partnership between USAID and The Kaizen Company, as well as SMU’s Student Representative to the Board of Trustees for Student Affairs. Previously, Thomas has seven completed internships in the public, private, and social sector, both in the United States and abroad