This article is presented by renowned Orientalist Express contributor Stephen Howard.
It’s not too controversial to say that the United States’ position in the world isn’t the same as it was in the 1990s. Unipolarity, with all its boons and moral pitfalls, has slowly been eroded by the rise of other states such as China, India, and the many states of the European Union. Even second or third tier power states such as Russia and Iran are finding their power relation with the former hegemonic power of the United States more and more favorable as time progresses.
At the heart of this trend lies two related but distinct facts, and two unfortunate sets of circumstances. First, much of the world which was racked by devastation in WWII, the Cold War, and colonial oversight has begun to flower in the relative peace of the post Cold War world. Countries like China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and others are able to attain technology transfers ever faster due to globalization, and are able to reinvest the majority of the profits in themselves instead of paying outsized amounts to global powers. Because these technology transfers occur at a faster rate than new technology is able to be invented, countries with a lower technology base than other countries can advance at very fast rates, closing the relative gap between advanced economies and less developed countries.
Second, the “Rise of the Rest” has greatly strained American power due to the global nature of its strategy. The situation the US finds itself in is analogous to the board game Risk. Imagine the US has troops deployed across every continent. Each new set of turns, even if every other country only gets just one troop, the US would need to get hundreds of troops just to keep the balance of power the same. Given the fast-paced growth of other countries, the current global military stance is clearly not a sustainable one.
Third, the United States has for at least the last 20 years absolutely neglected its domestic sphere, allowing infrastructure to degrade, education to stagnate, and multiple other social ills to fester. These problems have led to great social unrest and a populist surge which is distinctly skeptical of any US involvement abroad, why should we invest trillions of dollars abroad on the military when we have bridges and academic scores collapsing at home? This skepticism isn’t purely social, either. The real power of the United States, while not diminishing, is not growing anywhere near as fast as it was in previous generations. Taking a look at the growth (or lack thereof) of real wages in the US, an acute concentration of wealth in just a few hands, and diminishing prospects for the new generations of Americans, it’s hard to imagine how the US can continue to project power into all regions across the globe with any sort of domestic consensus.
Finally, the global circumstance the US will find itself in coming years is one of growing antipathy towards any exertion of its power. This opprobrium wasn’t something preordained, but instead came about as a series of self-inflicted wounds which started during the Clinton administration, became greatly amplified during the Bush administration, became somewhat lessened during the Obama administration, and then turned to outright self-immolation during the Trump administration. Any residual trust that the United States had coming into the 2020’s has been wasted, and trust is not something that is easily, or quickly, regained.
For these reasons the United States needs to reevaluate its long-term strategy for dealing with the world. But what should that strategy be? Since 2013 authors have been struggling with what a new strategy should be, but with the current collapse of trust in the US from abroad, this change deserves to be debated and decided in the coming presidential election. In this article I will lay out three distinct arguments made by Richard Hass, Jennifer Lind et al, and Stephen Walt. This is not to state my position on which one we should pick, but instead to allow the average voter to educate themselves on the nuances between the candidates for the 2020 presidency. To be clear, none of these positions are distinctly Democrat or Republican, regardless of who advances them. Foreign policy is generally not a political blood sport, and anyone who tries to use foreign policy for that reason should be treated with great skepticism.
1) Liberal International Order Retrenchment and Restoration
RICHARD HASS, “FOREIGN POLICY BEGINS AT HOME”, 2013
The most conventional of the strategic realignments is the idea of a temporary retrenchment. Hass terms this as a “restoration”, meaning a short-term realignment of priorities to allow the United States to get back to advancing the Liberal International Order (LIO) on firmer footing.
This idea, as articulated by Richard Hass, is supported by three “pillars”. “First, [restoration] judges the world to be relatively unthreatening and makes the most of this situation.” While the strategic landscape has changed since 2013 (when the book was written), it has not changed so much that the United States now faces immediate existential threats. Restoration uses this relatively peaceful time to rebalance the resources of the United States away from foreign affairs and reinvests them into the domestic sphere. Thus, “The aim is to rebuild the foundation of [the US’s] strength to be in a better position to stave off potential strategic rivals…”.
The second pillar would “…eschew a foreign policy focus on the greater Middle East and any other more large-scale land wars for the purpose of remaking societies [and] instead…shape the behavior of the other principal powers. In addition, US attention and effort would be more broadly distributed (italics are mine)…” The point of this pillar is self-evident, and a direct response to the US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. No more social engineering of other states societies and no more quagmires, either of which could draw substantial US resources into while providing little to no real compensation for the effort. Instead the US would direct its efforts at changing how countries interact with other countries, presumably in the effort to better integrate all states into the LIO. Further, the US would draw off economics to use the opportunity costs not incurred by large scale action and find marginal benefit in smaller actions elsewhere across the world where opportunity exists.
“Third, restoration would…[place] less emphasis on military instruments and more on economic and diplomatic tools and capabilities.” This idea isn’t so controversial in the wake of the War on Terror. There is a broad acceptance in the diplomatic community that the singular focus on finding and killing the enemy regardless of the larger context of the killing can have egregious unintended consequences. Consider bombing a small town to kill a major Al Qaeda leader. Sure, the US achieves its immediate goal, but at the strategic cost of creating more enemies directly through innocent people who survived the bombing and indirectly through the media coup such a wanton act of violence creates.
Hass goes on to say “…the United States would continue to carry out an active foreign policy: to create or adapt international arrangements to manage the challenges and threats…” This should be considered an additional axiom that Hass didn’t believe would be controversial (and wasn’t at the time of his writing) regarding foreign policy but has subsequently become one. What he means is the US should be actively participating in international organizations and shaping these organizations to better fit the goals and aspirations of the United States.
Obviously, what Hass has in mind is less of a reconstruction of how the United States strategically interacts with the broader world than a rebuilding of US power, so it can better execute the original strategy of advancement of the LIO better. Simply stated, this strategy advocates active and broader US engagement across the world after important US economic and domestic security requirements have been met. The only true strategic changes which need to be made are 1) less reliance on military means and 2) less tunnel vision on intractable issues. The domestic rebalance is only the path used to get to the strategic changes.
2) A Realist Liberal Order
Jennifer Lind and William Wohlforth, “The Future of the Liberal Order is Conservative”, Foreign Affairs 2019
A second method of transforming US global strategy comes from the idea of treating the current core of the LIO as the extent of where the US should pursue its values, and anything after that as where it should pursue its interests. I.E., “It is time for Washington and its liberal allies to gird themselves for a prolonged period of competitive coexistence with illiberal great powers, time to shore up existing alliances rather than add new ones, and time to get out of the democracy-promotion business.” Lind and Wohlforth suggest setting aside “…revisionist projects in order to concentrate…attention and resources on managing great power rivalries.” And the liberalist outlook of the Liberal International Order is, in their estimation, one of the greatest revisionist projects going on today.
First, it’s worth examining what the fundamental difference between Hass and Lind/Wohlforth is. The essential difference between them is that Hass believes the US should take a liberal stance in the world, while Lind/Wohlforth believe the US stance (and that of its immediate allies) should be realist. Both theories (realism/liberalism) try to predict how states will act: while liberalism theorizes that a community of liberal democratic states working together will absolutely reduce conflict/shape state behavior by creating interdependence between all states, realism theorizes that states have rational goals and needs that, in the absence of powerful global enforcement mechanisms to make every country play by the rules, will dictate how they interact with each other.
Lind and Wohlforth don’t believe that the United States should adopt a completely realist position in the world, but instead a hybrid realist/liberal position which as stated treats everyone within the existing LIO under liberal rules and everyone outside of the LIO under realist rules. This somewhat awkward amalgamation of the two means key tenants of each will be deemphasized, such as democracy promotion in liberalism or abstaining from any long-term alliance in realism.
The reasoning behind this is similar to Hass’s, but with different premises. Instead of being in a world which is relatively secure, Lind and Wolforth see the leveling of power between countries as an immediate strategic threat which cannot be dealt with through democratic expansion. Instead they see expansion itself as one of the core weaknesses of the current LIO. They believe that as the order keeps trying to accommodate small states which have little ability to fend for themselves, the rest of the states in the LIO necessarily need to extend their protection further and end up overextending themselves especially in the face of near peer competitors like China or Russia. As they state, “At the very least, any prospective ally should bring more capabilities than costs…” I.e. a hard stop at Liberal Order promotion unless the scenario involved brings undeniable benefit without incurring the enmity of other near peer state actors.
A second reason to halt expansion of the LIO is that it creates strategic uncertainty due to the appearance of hegemonic intensions. This obscures the United States’ ability to know why certain countries act belligerent: “Restraining the order’s expansionist impulses would reveal how much of illiberal states’ current revisionism is defensive in nature and how much is driven by sheer ambition.” Basically, are they trying to exist peacefully and feel threatened by LIO expansion, or are those states hegemonic in their outlook themselves? For instance, is Russia acting aggressively in Ukraine because it feels threatened by constant NATO expansion toward its boarders, or is it doing it because it wants to control Ukraine regardless of what’s happening in the world? Because NATO expansion is progressing at a constant rate, it’s impossible to know for sure, and hence impossible to know what Russia’s intensions are.
Just like Hass, both Lind and Wohlforth believe “Greater conservatism would also help bolster the order against internal challenges.” The backlash against globalism and lack of domestic investment doesn’t only plague the United States. France, the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, and more countries which are in the “core” of the LIO have experienced significant protests in recent years and have destroyed several governing coalitions. Some states, such as Turkey, are experiencing the backlash so acutely that it is an open question whether they are even members of the LIO anymore. If the LIO is able to curb continuous expansionist tendencies, then more resources would be available for domestic or intra-alliance investment to address the pressing social/economic issues which existentially threaten it.
Finally, and importantly, “Conservatism today need not mean conservatism forever.” What they mean by this is that while the current circumstances dictate the course of action they propose, the axioms of this course may change in time. It might become advantageous in the future to continue to expand the LIO, and that option must be kept open. This is an important break with both realism and liberalism, as it suggests that the behavior of the LIO as a single entity should vary between liberalism and realism as facts on the ground predict. As both liberalism and realism are ways of interpreting facts, not proscribed solutions for fact patterns, this is still more evidence that Lind and Wohlforth’s article proposes a different type of foreign policy, not realist or liberal in nature. While new types of foreign policies can be revolutionary, they lack the intellectual framework to support them in the long term and need to be followed up on with rigorous study as to not allow events to get ahead of and determine what the policy will be and instead allow the policy to determine policy reactions to events.
3) Offshore Balancing
Stephen Walt, “THE HELL OF GOOD INTENTIONS”, 2018
Lastly, a completely realist transformative foreign policy would see the United States completely withdraw from active participation in the LIO and move to a stance of “offshore balancing”. Offshore balancing is a theoretical principle designed from the historical experiences of Britain/Great Britain/the UK which, in its current state, can only be used by the United States. Proponents of this theory believe that due to the stopping power of the two oceans which bracket the US and the fact that the United States only has two land boarder neighbors (both of whom are, at worst, feuding friends with the US), the US can completely withdraw militarily from the world and suffer no major consequences.
According to this strategy, “…only a few areas of the globe are of vital importance to US security or prosperity…” “For offshore balancers, the primary concern would be the rise of a local hegemon that dominated one of these regions [Western Hemisphere, Europe, Northeast Asia, Persian Gulf] in the same way that the United States now dominates the Western Hemisphere.” The reason for such fear of a local hegemon in any of these regions is because “Such a state…would have…the potential to project power and influence around the globe.” and hence threaten the latent power of the United States militarily, economically, or politically.
Further, according to Walt, the US would suffer no major consequences from this strategy due to the unique geostrategic location of the United States. As previously mentioned, the US is bracketed by two oceans and two friendly states. This, coupled with the might of the US Navy, means that very few challenges pose existential threats to the United States. Even the global economy would keep humming along due to the already globalized nature of the world economy and lack of hegemonic powers interested in disrupting this globalization. It is worth noting that the rise of a local hegemon would be a grave threat to the international economy as it currently exists and is just one more reason Walt would have the US oppose any foreign power about to gain that status.
This strategy is distinctly different from both previous strategies, as the first (Hass) calls for more involvement in every theater around the world and the second (Lind/Wohlforth) believes that the core of the existing order should be rehabilitated and defended. Walt explicitly calls for a military and to some extent political withdrawal from the globe and does not see the LIO as having any merit for the United States long term prospects.
The key for this to work is something that would probably be unpalatable to most Americans: the US would have to divest itself of all permanent alliances. The US wouldn’t concern itself if a country was attacked unless that aggressor was bent on, and likely to become, a hegemon in the region. Walt goes on to say that the only such country in the world today is China in Asia, and thus the US would need to confront the PRC before it becomes a hegemon.
As each of the previous strategies also emphasize, offshore balancing would “[reduce] the resources Washington must devote to defending distant regions and [allow] for greater investment and consumption at home.” Again, spend less abroad to spend more at home. Even if US forces had to be engaged abroad to defeat a potential hegemon, “…once the threat is gone, US military forces would go back over the horizon and not stay behind to meddle in local politics.”
Something that this strategy explicitly does not do is protect human rights. While Hass would definitely believe the US should promote human rights, and Lind/Wohlforth would have the US become a beacon on a hill to emulate without interfering in the broader world, Walt believes that internal state politics are just that – internal. This might ring nicely at first, but it should be remembered that even if this is necessary, it also means the US would not try to prevent genocide if the specter of such was to arise as long as it didn’t threaten the global balance of power.
While this paper only provides three examples of transformative foreign policy, it is easy to see how each could be changed slightly to encompass most of the views of foreign policy in the world. The vast majority of candidates for presidency for 2020 will have a policy which falls somewhere in this spectrum, and it behooves everyone to attempt to find where their preferred candidate falls. Use that knowledge to not only note where you agree with candidates or not, but also to find where those same candidates become explicitly inconsistent on issues, for instance, candidates who preach total non-interference in other states affairs while at the same time castigating the United States for engaging in diplomacy with countries with poor human rights.
These inconsistencies become weaknesses in the ability of the United States to execute a dedicated foreign policy, if not for the fact that US government officers are not sure of US policy than for the fact that other governments are unsure of US policy and therefore unable to execute their own policy without fear of upsetting the US. While some (weaker) states will take an approach of avoiding any issue that the US is equivocal on, other (stronger) states will use the grey area to walk right up to the edge of US national security and claim they had no idea that the US thought it was that big of an issue (or, even worse, actually not even know the US thought an issue was that important and therefore unintentionally bring the two states to the brink of diplomatic fisticuffs or worse).
The responsibility lies not only with our elected leaders to ensure this worst-case scenario does not come to pass, but also with the electorate. We decide what to pay attention to, which in turn decides what the candidates pay attention to and what they get questioned about. Transformative leadership, like that practiced by Abraham Lincoln, is rare at the best of times. We cannot count on elected officials to lead their constituents anymore – we must lead them.