02/12/2013 02:10 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

What's With Our Foreign Policy?

Tonight's State of the Union address will focus on domestic issues. This is understandable, as we've got plenty of problems at home that we can address and over which we have some measure of control, political deadlock not withstanding. The other reason to concentrate on issues at home is that we're experiencing a time in history when our influence elsewhere is not what it was. This is not likely to change in the near future.

There are two salient reasons. One is the pressure on our resources. We don't really make much available in foreign aid, and what we provide tends to disappear down sinkholes because of lousy management at USAID and the Department of State. On the military side, we need to recover from two long wars, and the growing likelihood of sequestration isn't going to make that easier.

A second reason is a lack of focus on what we're trying to accomplish in the world. If we're looking for security for ourselves, bring everyone home and put them on the borders. If it's free access to shipping lanes, build a bigger, smarter Navy. If it's protection of allies, extend the nuclear umbrella. Instead of focusing on an endpoint, we announce a new direction, and then sort of sit back and wait to see what happens.

Look at the "pivot" to the western Pacific. Right off the bat, the North Koreans thumbed their collective nose at that by detonating their largest nuclear device to date. Because China, which has the most to lose from a collapse of the North Korean state, will do nothing substantive, we'll have no influence on the fallout from this latest provocation.

North Korea is a cautionary tale. We have friends and enemies, and a bunch of nations in between. They care less and less about what we think, but are happy to buddy up if there's something to be gained. But there isn't as much there as there used to be.

The goings-on within the president's national security team are one reason. The last round of Libya hearings showed that there have been splits between the president and a faction consisting of the Secretaries of Defense and State, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The most prominent concerned Syria, with the president eschewing more than minimal involvement, while the faction favored arming Syrian insurgents bent on toppling the Assad administration. The president, who naturally won the debate, appears to be taking a minimalist approach to foreign engagement in general. This is understandable because the force needs to recover from two overlong wars, and because sequestration is staring the Defense Department in the face. It also makes sense of the appointment of Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense. Despite Hagel's horrific performance at his confirmation hearing, he uses the same prism as the president to look at the world, and gives the impression of not being one to resist presidential directives.

A second reason for our declining ability to influence events is that the world has come to realize that American power has limits. We crush anyone in a one-on-one standup fight, but we cannot take on the world, at least not with a few hundred thousand riflemen who would be called upon over and over to compel local miscreants to accede to our wishes. Drone strikes at $70,000 per Hellfire missile to kill fungible, dime-a-dozen insurgent leaders are not a solution to a terrorist problem that has existed since the beginning of history, and has had participation by every country that ever hefted a sword.

We need endpoints. Former Secretary of Defense Bill Gates said that he hated the term "exit strategy." Too bad. Without such strategies, one is left with just the engagement -- endless fighting until exhaustion sets in with accomplishment having little resemblance to desired outcome.

We need time to refit our armed forces, and to deal with whatever consequences accrue from the ongoing budget silliness on Capitol Hill. Readiness and training are already suffering, even without the loss of funds to sequestration that would make remedies virtually impossible in the near term. The Navy is an ideal example of the problems we're facing. It has a current, unanticipated bill of over $1 billion just due to accidents and an arson fire. Such problems are only likely to spread and intensify without the money to keep those in uniform practiced and sharp.

In the meantime, we need to decide just what we want out of the world situation. Free trade and a little peace sound good. This would mean tough negotiations on tariffs and trade restrictions. It would mean positioning forces to deal with concrete problems such as western Pacific piracy. It would mean readying expeditionary forces to respond to real threats to national interests, such as containing radical Islamism, rather than trying to obliterate it. It would mean more engagement in Africa, before China steals everything from the world's richest continent.

What we will not be able to do is to guarantee human rights around the world, nor will we be able to effect regime change wherever we don't like how things are going. Even some issues that look critical to our interests may be beyond our ability to control. Iran's nuclear program may be an example.

We need to take a break and work on fixing little things. If we can accomplish them, they may not turn out to be so small after all.