To remain the preeminent global power, the United States must avoid costly conflicts that drain its resources and distract its leadership from addressing pressing domestic priorities, argues Paul B. Stares in his new book, Preventive Engagement: How America Can Avoid War, Stay Strong, and Keep the Peace. Doing so requires that the United States adopt a more forward-looking and preventive approach to managing foreign policy challenges.
“As the principal guarantor of global peace and security, America is—like no other country—at great risk of being drawn into potentially costly military engagements to counter emerging threats to international order,” warns Stares. The United States can avoid overextending itself by adopting “a comprehensive preventive strategy to manage the risks of a more turbulent world so as to lessen the likelihood that it will be increasingly confronted and potentially overwhelmed with excruciating and hugely consequential choices about the use of military force.”
“The United States has a well-developed doctrine for fighting the nation’s wars but nothing remotely comparable for the task of preventing them,” observes Stares, the General John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention and director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. Stares proposes a strategy of “preventive engagement” that includes
- “first, the promotion of policies known to lower the general risk of conflict and instability over the long term,” such as encouraging global trade agreements with expanded geopolitical benefits under the auspices of the World Trade Organization;
- “second, a deliberate and prioritized effort to anticipate and avert those crises most likely to precipitate major U.S. military engagement in the medium term,” such as supporting external mediation via the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague over Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea; and
- “third, the ability to react rapidly to mitigate—and, better still, resolve—those conflicts that erupt in the short term before they escalate and increase the pressure for U.S. intervention,” such as the use of diplomatic pressure and financial sanctions on Russia to abide by the terms of the latest cease-fire in Ukraine.
Instead of the United States pulling back from the world or relying on military superiority to deter and defeat potential adversaries, Stares demonstrates that preventive engagement is a smarter and less expensive strategy to maintain America’s predominant global role. He outlines how the United States can use it to manage emerging security risks before they become dangerous threats requiring costly military responses, in the South China Sea, Ukraine, and beyond. Stares offers several examples, including when the United States reacted to the warnings of incipient dangers between India and Pakistan and served as mediator to defuse the conflict in early 1990. That same year the United States failed to heed the warning signs that Iraq was gearing up to invade Kuwait and was caught completely unprepared.
“The United States cannot afford to be either naively passive or impulsively reactive to emerging international challenges,” Stares concludes. It “has not only the most to gain by perpetuating the liberal international order but also arguably the most to lose if it mismanages this task.”
A Council on Foreign Relations Book