Never Again: Learning from America's Foreign Policy Failures

Learning from America's foreign policy failures


Never Again: Learning from America's Foreign Policy Failures, by Earl C. Ravenal, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978, 138 pp., $10.

A nation, according to conventional wisdom, learns only from its failures. The United States, according to Earl Ravenal, has learned such different lessons from its foreign policy failures that it risks repeating them. He identifies "five types of lessons for the future of American foreign policy":

• Instrumental. Improve weapons, tactics, intelligence and decision-making procedures.

• Proportional. Maintain policy of selective intervention based on more careful evaluation of relative priorities.

• Consequential. Maintain policy of selective intervention based on more careful evaluation of domestic consequences.

• Fundamental. Moral considerations should dominate, but a major change in US institutions may be necessary.

• Strategic. Reevaluate strategic objectives based on foreign and domestic constraints on US actions.

Most of this book consists of a critique of the first four lessons. It concludes with a brief, rather unsatisfactory, argument for a progressive devolution of US commitments. "Until we have found a new, obviously defensible security frontier."

Ravenal's most thoughtful criticism is directed against the proportional explanation of the failure in Vietnam. (Both the proportional and consequential explanations are essentially benefit/cost arguments. The proportional explanation is that the benefits of intervention were overestimated; the consequential argument is that the costs were underestimated.) According to this view, conditions in Vietnam were unique, and our actions were mistakes based on misinformation.

Ravenal, along with Gelb and Ellsberg, makes a convincing case that Vietnam was a failure but not a mistake, that sufficient information was available at each stage of the US escalation, and that—given the set of presumptions that still constitute foreign policy—the same actions would be repeated now. Moreover, the proportional and consequential arguments provide convenient explanations of prior failure but do not provide helpful lessons for future policy.

Ravenal correctly concludes that the instrumental lessons are insufficient (because they divert attention from the strategic issues) but, in my view, he dismisses these lessons too casually. He does not adequately treat the moral argument that both governments and individuals should be judged by the same moral standards, because he fails to recognize that both should be judged by a different moral standard in a lawless environment. The argument that Vietnam and, in general, an interventionist foreign policy is a functional imperative of capitalism is treated with deserved contempt.

Ravenal concludes with an argument for a reduction in economic interdependence and a progressive devolution of security commitments, based on a presumption against intervention. I share that presumption. Indeed, a consistent presumption against government intervention in both domestic and foreign affairs is the distinguishing characteristic of the libertarian position. For this reason, I found his concluding arguments to be very unsatisfactory. What foreign trade with which countries should be reduced? Which security commitments should be dropped? Ravenal neither addresses the hard choices raised by these prescriptions nor suggests a decision rule for making these choices. Those who share Ravenal's presumption against intervention but seek the development of a consistent foreign policy that is cognizant of the realities of domestic and foreign conditions, will have to look elsewhere.

William Niskanen is chief economist for a major US corporation. He has worked for defense-related think tanks and for the Department of Defense.