The United States is at a strategic crossroads. Should we continue to focus our power on crises where we're weakest, or go to established strengths? One path--the current one--is to place our biggest bets on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq where the outcomes will be uncertain and, in any event, costly. The other path--shaped by Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower--is to emphasize building situations of strength with old allies like Germany and Japan and potential new partners like India, China and Russia, where we can expect some cooperation and positive results.
Of course, this is not a black-and- white choice, but a matter of priorities. There's no escaping the need to fight terrorism. Nonetheless, we face a fundamental decision about how to define American interests and employ American power. The choice also bears particularly on our economic destiny. Focusing our efforts on the weakest spots (and greatest crises) is sure to drain attention and resources from the ultimate concern: the economy. Pursuing our strengths will allow us to focus even more on the economy, which is the single greatest determinant of our international power and of the vitality of our democracy.
Our guiding strategic principle should be to train our focus on strong allies and potential partners more than on failing states, on actions where we can succeed, rather than on problems where failure looms. Shifting the focus of our foreign policy from quagmires to opportunities helps us in two ways: It enhances our power to manage problems in seemingly hopeless places and, more importantly, it cushions the aftereffects of unhappy outcomes in those places by demonstrating our unique American power to get things done.
The go-to-strength strategy began with the Harry Truman-George Marshall-Dean Acheson policy of building "situations of strength" as the Cold War heated up. They saw it made little sense to take military action in response to the Communist takeover of China, the independence movements against Western colonialism, or the massive Soviet army still hovering over Europe.
But what Truman could do was shore up a shaky Western Europe and East Asia against economic and political instability. Since this kind of unrest could make them easy prey for communism, Truman's main move was to pour billions of dollars into revitalizing key friendly economies. In particular, the U.S. firmed up Germany and Japan. These three allies came to possess over three-quarters of the world's economic, military and diplomatic power. Creating a wall of power that Moscow couldn't breach meant, in effect, that the United States and the West could no longer lose the Cold War.
The Truman team further multiplied American strength by establishing key international institutions such as NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) process for international trade negotiations. They backed them up with a substantial foreign aid program. These weren't multilateral organizations for multilateralism's sake; they were decidedly American-led. But they were led with attention to the interests of key allies so as to garner their cooperation. And our allies wanted us to lead, because we were helping solve their problems as well as our own.
By refusing to fight losing battles and prioritizing economic and political strength, Truman built a power base that enemies could not match. We now need to replicate this kind of strategy.
In the first place, going to strength requires that our leaders devote the bulk of their time and political capital to stitching together a common economic policy to prevent the top economies from teetering. In Truman's day, the U.S. was so superior economically that others were pulled along. Now, interests vary among allies and potential new partners, requiring a slower, step-by-step approach. But common concerns about the economy, extremism and terrorism should allow Washington to tug Beijing, New Delhi, Berlin, Paris, London and Tokyo in a unified direction. This is the top priority.
The second part of the strategy entails forging power coalitions among a few key states, with the exact composition tailored to the issue at hand. In dealing with Iran, for instance, the coalition would consist of Russia, Germany, France, Britain and China. As for North Korea, we must add Japan and South Korea and can drop Germany. As far as Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned, such a coalition should include India and Iran (which helped us at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan) as well as Russia, China and NATO. Other key nations can be expected, generally, to follow the lead of these power coalitions.
As for the crises that pockmark the landscape from Israel through the Gulf to South Asia, they obviously can't be ignored. These are the breeding grounds for international terrorism and political extremism. At the same time, Washington needs to use its power in these crises more creatively and less intensely. They can't remain the center of our attention and consume the bulk of our resources.
Our basic stance in these trouble spots should be to bulk up our friends in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan with economic aid and military training, and perhaps a brief surge in our military operations in Afghanistan. Our allies in these hot spots need a headstart before we begin withdrawing combat forces. Washington also has to make it crystal clear to them that their future is essentially in their own hands. Iraqis and Afghans must resolve to fight for their freedom, or they will fall into extremist hell.
As for the bargaining that lies ahead with Iran, Syria and between Israelis and Palestinians, let's commence that process. It will no doubt involve a lot of ups and downs, and a basket full of carrots and sticks. This will take time. Meanwhile, there's little sense in huffing and puffing about the lack of results.
That still leaves the threat of international terrorism. The cheapest and probably best tactic here is to aim our power at leaders of countries who might contemplate helping terrorists and who can be held accountable -- rather than at terrorist leaders who have much less to lose. We know the right tools here. They are the same ones that worked throughout the Cold War in dealing with the Soviet Union, China, and later, Libya: containment and deterrence. Those are policies we know how to carry out well.
With so many crises unleashed at once, we have to adopt and maintain strict priorities. And economic revitalization must come first.
This is the worst time to link our fate to crises beyond our control. Our strategy has to focus on anchors that provide stability -- not on dead weights that will drag us under.
Mr. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior official in the State and Defense departments, is the author of "Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy" (HarperCollins, 2009).
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.