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The End of Foreign Policy

By Nick J. Danby, Contributing Opinion Writer
Nick Danby '20 is a concentrator in History in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

The past few years have been an interesting time to study foreign and defense policy. The “liberal international order” falling apart, great power competition returning, Iran and North Korea seeking nuclear weapons, and the rise of authoritarianism are just a handful of challenges United States national security officials must grapple with.

As global affairs become increasingly more complex, however, few events abroad seem to affect the American citizen. Over these last few weeks, the Hong Kong protests, Boris Johnson’s suspension of British parliament, and the tanker dispute in the Persian Gulf solicited far less attention from news outlets and the general public when comparable events happened in the past. Nowadays, most Americans seem indifferent. Turkey is going to buy the S-400 missile system from the Russians? Too bad. The Venezuelan conflict has no end in sight? What a shame.

Americans of all political persuasions seem intently fixed on what occurs domestically, including Harvard students. Despite being some of the most well-rounded members of our generation, I have seen few Harvard students thoughtfully examine a national security issue, offer their own insights, and suggest a solution. This makes sense. Most polls show that younger Americans are wary of any U.S. foreign intervention — most want to prioritize domestic affairs. Our generation scores low on measures of patriotism, are less confident that U.S. intervention will solve crises, and, in fact, believe that America causes more problems than it solves on the world stage.

These studies correspond with my own experiences. I have heard too often in Harvard’s dining halls and dorm rooms that the U.S. must “stay out” of the world. The remark, “We are not the world’s policeman” is often invoked. But when did caring about domestic affairs and engaging in foreign affairs become mutually exclusive? The two are interconnected. Focusing on American infrastructure or political turmoil will make it a stronger power on the world stage. Conversely, involvement in the world stage improves America’s economic security and moral standing.

Surveys suggest that our generation overwhelmingly supports free trade agreements and humanitarian missions. At the same time, millennials disdain confrontation, intervention, and a strong military. Yet without a strong military or international engagement, America’s influence in trade negotiations or humanitarian operations diminishes. Without its extensively deployed military, the U.S. would not be able to deliver aid during natural disasters or political revolutions. Without American naval fleets patrolling the Persian Gulf regions, more tankers would be seized by Iran, further disrupting trade.

Even if millennials don’t seem to care, American engagement is also critical to national security. Without America’s enhanced forward presence in Eastern Europe, Russia could easily overrun and reclaim the three Baltic nations. Without freedom of navigation missions in the South China Sea, China could augment its harassment of our Pacific allies. Of course, a successful national security is preventive. Without America’s involvement in the world for more than 70 years, one can only imagine what type of conflicts would have succeeded World War II.

I am not arguing that every millennial should believe America must remain the “indispensable” superpower. But millennials, and especially Harvard students (many of whom will be our nation’s future leaders), should study and debate these issues and their histories. Their importance to peace and prosperity demands more reflection.

To make it easier, Harvard should provide more opportunities for students to learn about these issues. It should offer more undergraduate-level classes on foreign policy as well as diplomatic, political and military history. When teaching these classes, teachers should move away from lectures and readings and focus on battlefield staff rides, crisis simulations, and group projects. My favorite course at Harvard has been Kennedy School Professor Fredrik Logevall’s “U.S. Foreign Policy in a Global Age.” In this class, I delivered a 30 minute group presentation on the 1953 Iranian coup, played George Ball in a simulation about increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and debated classmates routinely on today’s biggest issues. Logevall cut his lectures short so we would not just learn the concepts but do them.

Additionally, few debates and discussions on campus — student-run or otherwise — are about foreign policy. The few discussions that do focus on foreign policy are simply that: discussions. There is little debate and negligible distinctions among viewpoints. To remedy this problem, I started a chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society on Harvard’s campus, which regularly holds debates on foreign policy, economic statecraft, and national security as well as war games, social events, and dinners with scholars and practitioners in these fields.

Most importantly, stay updated on foreign and defense news and, perhaps, continue to read this column.

Nick Danby '20 is a History concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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