When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, Americans must sometimes feel like Goldilocks in the three bears’ house. The porridge that was President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda”—promising democracy for everyone from Karachi to Casablanca—was too hot. The mush that has been President Barack Obama ’s foreign policy—heavy on rhetoric about resets, pivots and engagement but weak in execution and deeply ambivalent about the uses of U.S. power—is too cold.
What we need instead, as the fairy tale has it, is a foreign policy that is just right—neither too ambitious nor too quiescent, forceful when necessary but mindful that we must not exhaust ourselves in utopian quests to heal crippled societies.
The U.S. finds itself today in a post-Cold War global order under immense strain, even in partial collapse. Four Arab states have unraveled since 2011. The European Union stumbles from recession to recession, with each downturn calling into question the future of the common currency and even the union itself. In Asia, China has proved to be, by turns, assertive, reckless and insecure. Russia seeks to dominate its neighbors through local proxies, dirty tricks and even outright conquest. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and Iran’s effort to develop one tempt their neighbors to start nuclear programs of their own. And even as the core of al Qaeda fades in importance, its jihadist offshoots, including Islamic State, are metastasizing elsewhere.
As for the U.S., the sour experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has generated a deep—and bipartisan—reluctance to interfere in foreign conflicts, on the view that our interventions will exact a high price in blood and treasure for uncertain strategic gains. One result is that aggressive regimes seem to think that they can pursue their territorial or strategic ambitions without much fear of a decisive U.S. response. Another is that many of our traditional allies, from Israel to Saudi Arabia to Japan, are quietly beginning to explore other options as the old guarantees of the postwar Pax Americana no longer seem as secure as they once were.
How should an American president navigate through this world of ambitious rogues and nervous freelancers? How can the U.S. enforce some basic global norms, deter enemies and reassure friends without losing sight of our global priorities and national interests? How do we conduct a foreign policy that keeps our nightmares at bay, even if we can’t always make our dreams come true?
When it comes to restoring order in places widely assumed to be beyond the reach of redemption, there is a proven model for us to consult. But it has nothing to do with foreign policy; it has to do with policing our toughest inner cities. And it has brought spectacular—and almost wholly unexpected—results.
The year 1991 was a year of foreign policy triumphs for the U.S., from victory in the Gulf War to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it was the annus horribilis for American crime, with nearly 1.1 million aggravated assaults, 106,590 forcible rapes and 24,700 murders. In every category, crime was up from the year—and the decade—before. As late as 1995, some criminologists were predicting that a new wave of “super-predators” would descend on American neighborhoods. “If current trends continue, the number of arrests of juveniles for violent crimes will double by the year 2010,” reported the New York Times, citing a Justice Department report.
“Current trends” did not continue.
In 1990, New York City registered a homicide rate of 30.7 murders for every 100,000 people. By 2012, it had fallen to a rate of 5. A similar, if slightly less dramatic, story unfolded in every other major U.S. city. The social deliverance happened despite the fact that many of the factors often cited to explain crime—bad schools, broken homes, poverty, the prevalence of guns, unemployment—remained largely the same from one decade to the next.
What happened? The crack epidemic crested in the early 1990s. The police began developing new techniques to track and control patterns of criminal activity. Between 1992 and 2008, the number of law enforcement personnel rose by 141,000, a 25% increase, and from 1990 to 2000, the adult incarceration rate nearly doubled. More cops on the streets; more bad guys behind bars. It was bound to have an effect.
But something else was at work. In 1982, George Kelling, a criminologist at Rutgers, and James Q. Wilson, a political scientist at Harvard, wrote an essay for the Atlantic Monthly titled “Broken Windows.”
Their core insight turned on a social-science experiment conducted in 1969 by Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford. Dr. Zimbardo parked a car on a street in the Bronx, with the hood up and without license plates. Within 10 minutes, vandals begin to pick the car clean of its valuables: battery, radiator, tires. By the next day, people began destroying the car, ripping up pieces of upholstery and smashing windows.
Dr. Zimbardo then conducted the same experiment in tony Palo Alto, Calif., near the Stanford campus. This time, the car—also with the hood up and the license plates removed—sat untouched for several days. So Dr. Zimbardo smashed a window with a sledgehammer. “Soon, passersby were joining in,” wrote Drs. Kelling and Wilson. “Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed.” What to conclude?
“Disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence,” Drs. Kelling and Wilson argued. It had long been known that if one broken window wasn’t replaced, it wouldn’t be long before all the other windows were broken too. Why? Because, they wrote, “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”
The idea that the mere appearance of disorder encourages a deeper form of disorder cuts against the conventional wisdom that crime is a function of “root causes.” Yet municipalities that adopted policing techniques based on the broken-windows theory—techniques that emphasized policing by foot patrols and the strict enforcement of laws against petty crimes and “social incivilities”—tended to register sharp drops in crime and improvements in the overall quality of life.
We are disposed to think that, over time, order inevitably dissolves into disorder. But the drop in crime rates reminds us that we can go the other way—and impose order on disorder. Could it be that there’s a “broken windows” cure not just for America’s mean streets but for our increasingly disorderly world?
President Obama often talks about rules. After Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad used sarin gas to murder more than 1,000 people near Damascus in August 2013, Mr. Obama warned that “if we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons.” After Russia seized Crimea in 2014, he denounced the Kremlin for “challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident, that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force.”
The language is elegant; the words are true. Yet the warnings rarely amount to much. The U.S. succeeded in getting Mr. Assad to give up much of his chemical arsenal, but the Syrian dictator goes on slaughtering his people, sometimes using chlorine gas instead of sarin. The president’s immediate response to the seizure of Crimea was to sanction a handful of Russians, send a few fighter jets to Poland and Lithuania, and refuse Ukrainian requests for military support.
This is how we arrive at a broken-windows world: Rules are invoked but not enforced. Principles are idealized but not defended. The moment the world begins to notice that rules won’t be enforced, the rules will begin to be flouted. One window breaks, then all the others.
The most urgent goal of U.S. foreign policy over the next decade should be to arrest the continued slide into a broken-windows world of international disorder. The broken-windows theory emphasizes the need to put cops on the street—creating a sense of presence, enforcing community norms, serving the interests of responsible local stakeholders. It stresses the need to deter crime, not react to it, to keep neighborhoods from becoming places that entice criminal behavior.
A broken-windows approach to foreign policy would require the U.S. to increase military spending to upward of 5% of GDP. That is well above the 3.5% of GDP devoted to defense in 2014, though still under its 45-year average of 5.5%. The larger budget would allow the Navy to build a fleet that met its long-stated need for 313 ships (it is now below 290, half its Reagan-era size). It would enable the Air Force to replace an aircraft fleet whose planes are 26 years old on average, the oldest in its history. It would keep the U.S. Army from returning—as it now plans to do, over the warnings of officers like Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno —to its pre-World War II size.
The key to building a military ready to enforce a broken-windows policy is to focus on numbers, not on prohibitively expensive wonder-weapons into which we pour billions of research dollars—only to discover later that we can afford just a small number of them.
Broken-windows foreign policy would sharply punish violations of geopolitical norms, such as the use of chemical weapons, by swiftly and precisely targeting the perpetrators of the attacks (assuming those perpetrators can be found). But the emphasis would be on short, mission-specific, punitive police actions, not on open-ended occupations with the goal of redeeming broken societies.
The central tragedy of the Iraq war is that it took nine months, at a cost of some 480 American lives, to remove Saddam Hussein from power and capture him in his spider hole—which ought to have been the central goal of the war. Yet we spent eight years, and lost an additional 4,000 Americans, in an attempt to turn Iraq into a model of Arab democracy—a “root cause” exercise if ever there was one. There’s a big difference between making an example of a regime like Saddam’s Iraq and trying to turn Iraq into an exemplary state.
A broken-windows foreign policy would be global in its approach: no more “pivots” from this region to that, as if we can predict where the crises of the future are likely to arise. (Did anyone see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine coming?) But it would also know how to discriminate between core interests and allies and peripheral ones.
As Henry Nau of the George Washington University notes in a perceptive recent essay in the American Interest, we should “focus on freedom where it counts the most, namely on the borders of existing free societies.” Those are the borders that divide the free countries of Asia from China and North Korea; the free countries of central Europe from Russia; and allies such as Israel and Jordan from many of their neighbors.
A broken-windows foreign policy wouldn’t try to run every bad guy out of town. Nor would it demand that the U.S. put out every geopolitical fire. American statesmen will have to figure out which of those fires risks burning down the entire neighborhood, as the war in Syria threatens to do, and which will probably burn themselves out, as is likely the case in South Sudan.
Then again, foreign crises rarely present a binary choice between doing nothing and conducting a full-scale military intervention. A cruise-missile strike against a single radio tower in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide could have helped to prevent Hutus from broadcasting instructions for murdering Tutsis, potentially saving thousands of innocent lives at minimal cost to the U.S. Bomb strikes by NATO to lift the siege of Sarajevo helped to turn the tide of the war in the former Yugoslavia against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, also at no serious cost to the U.S. Perhaps it is time for a strategy that enshrines the principle that preventing tragedy should enjoy greater moral legitimacy than reacting to it.
In his famous 1993 essay, “Defining Deviancy Down,” the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed how Americans had become inured to ever-higher rates of violent crime by treating as “normal” criminal activity that would have scandalized past generations of Americans. “We are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us,” the senator from New York wrote. Twenty years later, the opposite has happened. We have defined deviancy up. But having done so, we have tended to forget how much better things are now than they were before.
Americans have lived in a relatively orderly world for so long that we have become somewhat complacent about maintaining it. Perhaps that explains why, in recent years, we have adopted a foreign policy that neglects to do the things that have underpinned that orderly world: commitments to global security, military forces adequate to those commitments, a willingness to intervene in regional crises to secure allies and to confront or deter aggressive regimes.
In recent months, however, and especially since the rise of Islamic State and the beheading of American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, Americans have begun to rediscover certain truths about Pax Americana: If our red lines are exposed as mere bluffs, more of them will be crossed. If our commitments to our allies aren’t serious, those allies might ignore or abandon us. If our threats are empty, our enemies will be emboldened, and we will have more of them.
In other words, if the world’s leading liberal-democratic nation doesn’t assume its role as world policeman, the world’s rogues will try to fill the breach, often in league with one another. It could be a world very much like the 1930s, a decade in which economic turmoil, war weariness, Western self-doubt, American self-involvement and the rise of ambitious dictatorships combined to produce catastrophe. When President Franklin Roosevelt asked Winston Churchill what World War II should be called, the British prime minister replied, “the unnecessary war”—because, Churchill said, “never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle.” That is an error we should not repeat.
To say that the U.S. needs to be the world’s policeman isn’t to say that we need to be its preacher, spreading the gospel of the American way. Preachers are in the business of changing hearts and saving souls. Cops merely walk the beat, reassuring the good, deterring the tempted, punishing the wicked.
Not everyone grows up wanting to be a cop. But who wants to live in a neighborhood, or a world, where there is no cop? Would you? Should an American president?
Mr. Stephens writes “Global View,” the Journal’s foreign-affairs column, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013. This essay is adapted from his new book, “America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder,” to be published Tuesday by Sentinel.