What Does America Want?

When the leaders of the world's richest nations gather in Evian, France, one unasked question will dominate: what does America want in the world? So it may be helpful to outline the principles and ideas that guide US foreign policy.

First, inconsistency is no vice. Indeed, in foreign policymaking, inconsistency is often a virtue. I speak not of principles, but of policy. The US does not have a "one size fits all" approach to the world. What happened in Iraq should not be over‑interpreted as a rigid template for US policy toward countries that pursue weapons of mass destruction, support terrorism, or deny people liberty.

In Iraq, the US used force as a last resort, against a country with a clear record of aggression, and after a large degree of international consensus had developed about what Iraq needed to do. Different policies-tailored for local, regional, and international realities-will be needed to meet the challenges posed by North Korea, Iran, Syria, or elsewhere.

America's armed forces are an essential background to much of what the US accomplishes internationally. But defense policy is only one component of foreign policy. Not every threat to America's national interests can be addressed with military power. If all you have to work with is a hammer, as the saying goes, every problem looks like a nail. Success in foreign policy, as in carpentry, requires the right tools for the job.