Earlier this month, in a piece for ConservativeHome on foreign and defence policy, I came to the following conclusion:

“Instead of trying to change the rest of the world, the West must change itself – becoming more resilient, more efficient and less exposed to those who hate us.”

On reflection, I think I should have gone a bit further – not only should we stop trying to change the world, we should also try to stop others from doing the same. In other words, the West’s default strategy should be one of stabilisation, not transformation.

It’s an argument that’s made by Francis Fukuyama in an article for the American Interest. His particular focus is on how best to deal with ISIS:  

“While we need to contain ISIS, we also need to recognize that it does not pose anything close to an existential threat to the interests of the United States or other democratic countries…”

“The primary target of ISIS is not foreign democracies, but Shiites in Iraq, Syria, and other parts of the greater Middle East. It is part of a spreading sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, a war that has been fed by support from Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

Therefore what might seem to be a simple issue – i.e. the need to destroy a particularly obvious enemy – is rather more complicated. Anything that the West does against ISIS will be amplified by the tangled connections to the wider regional conflict. The approach we take to the specific problem will, whether we like it or not, become the approach we take to the general problem.

That is why we need to think very carefully before trying to do anything more ambitious than containing particular threats:

“The starting point for a sensible policy rests on the realization that the U.S. and other democratic countries have no reason to favor one religious sect over another in the Sunni-Shiite war. None of the major players shares significant values with democracies in the developed world; both sides have been guilty of fomenting terrorism and destabilizing their neighbors.” 

International polling shows that public opinion is hostile to the West across most of the region – including our supposed ‘allies’ like Egypt and Turkey; but even if some or all of the Middle Eastern nations were desperate for us to settle their conflicts for them, experience has surely taught us to exercise a greater degree of self-doubt:

“…if there was any lesson to be drawn from the American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is that no one in Washington or any other outside capital has the wisdom to construct a stable and just political order in the Middle East any time in the near future.”

If we act at all, it must be within a rigorous assessment of our interests and capabilities. While the folly of trying to remake the Middle East in our image is evidently not in our interest and beyond our capability, we have shown ourselves able to check the ambitions of other would-be hegemons:

“…the outside world does have… an interest in keeping the conflict from spilling over into other countries, and in protecting innocent people from butchery to the extent we can. This implies that our optimal policy should be one of containment. That is, the U.S. and its friends should use airpower and military assistance to ensure that no one group, whether ISIS or the Assad regime, gets so strong that it can impose its will on the region.”

Fukuyama argues that there is a precedent for this policy of “offshore balancing” – i.e. traditional British foreign policy:

“Britain had no permanent friends or enemies, and would throw its weight against whichever great power looked like it was going to dominate the continent. Over the centuries, it opposed Spain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and the Soviet Union; up until the World Wars in the 20th century, it was very reluctant to put troops on the ground and influenced events primarily through naval power and economic policies.”

Obviously we’re in no position to go it alone on such a policy in the 21st century. But the nations of the West, if they act in concert, could make it work. Instead of seeking to force through positive change, the more modest goal of impeding negative change is more likely to inspire unified action.