Political Viewpoint

The Need for Moderation in U.S. Foreign Policy

First we explain why U.S. policy should be guided by pragmatic analysis with U.S. security as the goal. Then we analyze U.S. relations with Russia and China. We conclude that the U.S. should steer a less aggressive course.

In the U.S., commentators advocate the hawkish approach to dealing with Russia and China. This approach plays well with voters. But the most aggressive approach does not always benefit the American people nor U.S. national security. The best approach is driven by pragmatic analysis with U.S. security as the goal.

The Danger of Morality in Foreign Policy

Morality is problematic in foreign policy. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the stated purpose was to remove “weapons of mass destruction” from Iraq. U.S. officials strongly implied that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But as the date of invasion drew closer, these officials had a problem. They knew they had been grossly exaggerating the evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Once they invaded Iraq, they might not find any weapons of mass destruction. The invasion was already decided and planned, but the officials needed to change their stated purpose of the invasion. So the new purpose was to remove from power the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, because dictators are bad. After the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq, the U.S. officials searched Iraq far and wide in the hope of finding weapons of mass destruction. But those weapons just did not exist in Iraq. U.S. forces would later find and capture the Iraqi dictator. But the U.S. had always been friends and with various dictators in the world. Why would the removal of the Iraqi dictator be so important, while we make friends with other dictators?

In 2022, after the U.S. increased its supply of weapons to Ukraine, Russia countered by launching a large scale invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. responded to the invasion by supplying Ukraine with increasingly potent weapons, as well as helping Ukraine with computerized battle management systems for intelligence and targeting. In effect, we had entered this war on the side of Ukraine. Our stated purpose was to protect the sovereignty of Ukraine. We held that sovereignty was a high moral principle in affairs among nations. But in the past we had violated the sovereignty of many nations. Once again, our moral justification did not seem to make sense.

Morality in foreign policy leads to warfare. Think what would happen if nations formulated their relations using calculated self interest instead of moral passions. Two nations of equal strength would avoid war because each does not want to risk losing. A disagreement between a strong and a weak nation would be resolved as the weak nation agrees to limited concessions, while the strong nation prefers to avoid unnecessary war. As said long ago by some wise American, “It’s always the good men who do the most harm in the world”. We should not be harming ourselves and our country. Therefore, let us take a rational, pragmatic approach to foreign policy, as we proceed below to analyze U.S. relations with Russia and China.

U.S. Relations with Russia

The U.S. and Russia both pretend they are not at war with each other in Ukraine. Russia calls the war a “special military operation”. For our part, we see it as a war between Russia and Ukraine. We merely supply weapons to Ukraine, while U.S. soldiers are not fighting in Ukraine. But modern warfare is increasingly technological in the powers of weapons, weapons systems, and computerized battle management systems for intelligence and targeting. Soldiers still play an important role, but the most important factors in the Ukraine war are the training, weapons, and technology supplied by the U.S. Therefore, this is really a war between the U.S. and Russia.

In this kind of war, the nuclear option is the big problem. In a nutshell, if we start winning this war, then the more we are winning, the more likely Russia will use nuclear weapons. Let us look at one of many possible scenarios. Suppose our side (Ukraine, U.S. and NATO) started winning and advanced through southern Ukraine into Crimea. The Russians view Crimea and its warm-water naval base as Russian territory that is very important to Russian power projection. Probably the Russians would respond with a small tactical nuclear strike at advancing forces. We would then loudly accuse Russia and warn against more use of nuclear weapons. After a pause, our forces advance further and Russia sets off more tactical nukes. We respond with massive conventional air strikes launched by nearby NATO countries into Crimea, Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, and perhaps parts of Russia very close to the war. Once again, our forces are winning. So the Russians destroy three medium sized U.S. cities with nuclear missiles. At this point, assuming we do not have overwhelming superiority in intercontinental nuclear war, then the logical response on our part is retaliation in kind. So we nuke four Russian cities and warn the Russians against any further use of nuclear weapons. At this point, we want a cease fire and so does Russia. But Russia still insists they get to keep Crimea. Crimea is very important to Russian security, but not really important at all to U.S. security. Therefore, we agree to a cease fire that allows Russia to keep Crimea. This terrible scenario is entirely realistic. It will not happen exactly as described. Some details will be different. But a realistic outcome is a limited nuclear war that destroys some U.S. cities.

Historians Strauss and Howe published a book titled “The Fourth Turning”. They said societies follow a repeating cycle of four “Turnings” which each last a little over twenty years. Strauss and Howe describe this cycle in U.S. history, but the same cycle should exist in Russian history from the times of the Russian revolutions in 1905 and 1917 until the present day. Today, in the view of this author, Russia appears to be in a First Turning. A First Turning society is characterized by team-oriented behavior, loyalty to institutions, nationalism, and pragmatic foreign policy. In a First Turning, a nation typically tries to avoid major warfare but will fight when they believe they are sufficiently threatened. The Russians invaded Ukraine because they believe that NATO advancement is a long-term threat to Russian security.

Commentators say that Russia will attack NATO countries such as Poland or Germany, if Russia has any success in Ukraine. That does not make sense. For three reasons, Russia will not try to conquer territory outside of the former Soviet states. First, a Russian invasion of a NATO country would mean direct, large scale, war with NATO. Second, Russia is more concerned with controlling Ukraine than Poland or Germany, because Ukraine contains a large population of Russians, whereas Poland or Germany contain relatively few Russians. Third, Russia does not want to occupy territory outside of the former Soviet states. Russian policy has two goals: 1) increase the power of Russia; and 2) avoid reducing the power of Russia. In the modern world, the power of a nation depends mostly on the strength of the national economy. Acquisition of territory will not make Russia more powerful. (Crimea is an exception to the rule, as its naval base has high importance to Russia.) In fact, acquisition of territory would be bad for Russia. Conquered lands are difficult and expensive to manage. In empire building, nations tend to be aggressive if they have a recent history of success, whereas nations tend to be cautious if they have a recent history of failure. The fall of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s taught the Russians the folly of empire building.

We showed that Russia is less of a threat than commonly described. We also showed the danger of escalation of the war in Ukraine. The time has come to negotiate a settlement between Ukraine and Russia.

U.S. Relations with China

China has a much stronger economy than Russia. Therefore, in the long term China poses a potentially greater threat to U.S. security. China’s large economy can support large military spending. Also, the U.S. may be less able to wage against China the kind of economic warfare waged against Russia in the Ukraine war. Furthermore, whereas Russia is cautious due to the recent fall of the Soviet empire, China may be less cautious because it is on a recent trajectory of expanding influence in the world.

But in one important respect, China and Russia are the same. They both have substantial nuclear forces including missiles that can reach the U.S. A conventional war against either China or Russia becomes a nuclear war when we go too far in winning the conventional war.

There are at least three contentious issues between the U.S. and China. The U.S. has sometimes pressured China to respect the rights of political dissidents and minority groups in the Chinese mainland. The U.S. also occasionally launches “freedom of navigation” exercises in which a U.S. Navy ship travels close to a Chinese man-made island in the South China Sea. The U.S. does this in order to demonstrate that China does not own the waters close to these islands. China continues to claim ownership of these waters and objects to the “freedom of navigation” exercises. Another point of contention is Taiwan, which is a large island close to the Chinese mainland. In 1949 China experienced a Communist revolution that took control of most of Chinese territory. The new Communist government took control of the Chinese mainland, while the former government escaped to Taiwan, where they remain in control today. Today China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province, while the U.S. pressures China to stay out of Taiwan. As we look at all three of these contentious issues between the U.S. and China, we see a common element. Each issue is contesting something happening either inside China or geographically close to China. The contentions are not geographically close to the U.S. Thus, from the viewpoint of an impartial observer, China appears to be on the defensive in its relations with the U.S.

Of all the issues between the U.S. and China, Taiwan is the most serious. In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon made friends with the Chinese mainland government by giving diplomatic recognition to this government. Nixon conceded that Taiwan belonged to China. Today China insists that Taiwan will eventually be integrated into China. The U.S. insists that Taiwan must continue to have an independent government. Escalation of this disagreement may cause China to invade Taiwan. Let us look at a possible future scenario. Suppose the U.S. sends Taiwan a new weapons shipment that is a lot more potent than previous shipments. China may respond by invading Taiwan before yet more weapons shipments reduce the advantage of China over Taiwan. Taiwan is not strong enough to repel the invasion, unless U.S forces directly attack the Chinese invasion fleet. Therefore, the U.S may decide to strike Chinese ships, airplanes, and possibly even bases on the Chinese mainland using U.S. land-based bombers, aircraft launched from carriers, and missiles launched from ships. As this conventional war rages in the South China Sea, U.S. forces begin to prevail. China sees its invasion is failing to capture Taiwan. The Chinese navy is getting decimated. Therefore, China launches a nuclear strike that destroys an aircraft carrier battle group in the South China Sea. The conflict has gone nuclear and the U.S. President has to decide how to respond. Nuclear escalation does not serve American interests, but the President has to demonstrate American resolve with a counter-strike. So the President orders a nuclear strike equal to the Chinese strike. The two sides then negotiate an end to the war. In the settlement, the U.S. gives up Taiwan to China, because Taiwan is very valuable to Chinese security, but not really valuable at all to U.S. security. This scenario shows how a bad outcome can result from aggressive actions. U.S. interests will be best served by a careful approach that avoids excessive aggression.


We began by showing that U.S. policy is best guided by pragmatic analysis with U.S. security as the goal, rather than by dangerous moralistic passions. Americans naturally want policies that benefit America. We then presented pragmatic analyses of U.S. relations with Russia and China. We showed that the most aggressive policies toward Russia and China are unwise and dangerous. Aggressive actions can sometimes be necessary, but overall we should steer a more moderate course in dealing with major nuclear powers.