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A Watershed Doctrine for America

LOS ANGELES – As the United States stumbles through its economic challenges at home, the pressure of world events will not subside. But America’s ability to address them has changed. Its fiscal weakness limits its ability to act as global policeman. Despite the relatively costless overthrow of the Qaddafi regime, America’s prolonged interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have severely strained the public’s tolerance for an active foreign policy.

Nonetheless, the US seems destined to remain the world’s most important actor for the foreseeable future. But today it is an actor without a script – it lacks a strategic guide comparable to the Cold War’s containment doctrine to prioritize policy.

Quite simply, the ad hoc policymaking that directed interventions in the Balkans, Somalia, southwest Asia, and the Middle East in the past two decades will not suffice in this new era of limitations. This suggests that the US should seek out an overarching strategy to discipline its impulses to fight wars of choice or engage in nation-building efforts.

President Barack Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy nurtures broad policy aspirations – “[n]ow we must position the United States to champion mutual interests among nations and peoples” – but falls short as a practical guide. I suggest an alternative strategy, one already embedded in America history, though largely unrecognized. But making explicit what lies implicit can sharpen US decision-making.