The United States today finds itself strategically adrift. The Trump administration’s penchant for bluster and grandstanding, the absence of coherent and consistent policy direction, and the perpetual churning of senior officials all testify to a condition of dangerous disarray. Add to that the reluctance or inability of the Congress to offer anything approximating meaningful oversight and you have a circumstance not seen since Vietnam nearly destroyed the postwar tradition of American statecraft.
Yet to hold Trump responsible for this crisis is to misconstrue the problem. In a fundamental sense, his presidency represents an apotheosis. An approach to policy conceived by Trump’s several predecessors in the aftermath of the Cold War has failed. That failure is irrevocable, even if that fact has yet to sink in with more than a few political insiders. In the ungainly person of Donald Trump, the chickens have come home to roost.
Future scholars will enshrine the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the presidential election of November 2016 as the era of imagined US global primacy. History itself had seemingly conferred on America the status of “sole superpower,” called upon to transform the world in its own image.
Leaders of both political parties repeatedly affirmed this cosmic claim. Examples are legion, but in 1998 Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said it best. “If we have to use force,” she declared, “it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”
From our present vantage point, Albright’s pomposity invites derision. Yet her remark captures the essence of a worldview then pervading official Washington. Members of the media echoed this assertion of duty and prerogative, especially when urging US authorities to redress some far-off injustice or atrocity, whether in East Africa, the Balkans, or a similarly distant land of marginal importance to the United States. Corporate leaders, especially those with a stake in the sprawling military-industrial complex, concurred. Global primacy linked to military activism was good for business. Ordinary Americans found little reason to object. Chanting “We’re number one!” was great fun.
Only by keeping in mind this expectation of primacy can we decipher the linkages between such sundry post-Cold War undertakings as creating the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, deregulating banking, enlarging NATO, framing the response to 9/11 as a global war of indeterminate duration, conjuring up an “axis of evil” to justify pursuit of a Freedom Agenda, expanding the empire of American bases abroad, adding Africa and cyberspace to the existing panoply of US military commands, and, of course, intervening in various countries (some more than once) with or without prior congressional assent. Properly understood, all of these are of a piece: neoliberalism plus neo-militarism plus neo-imperialism formed a template meant to keep the United States “number one” in perpetuity.
Yet policy particulars matter less than the three overarching themes to which these various initiatives gave collective expression. The first of those themes was hubris, neatly articulated by George W. Bush in his West Point speech of 2002 when, with all the certainty of a devout Marxist, he proclaimed the existence of “a single surviving model of human progress.” America itself embodied that model, the American way of life describing the future of humanity. So believed the younger Bush. So believed his father and Bill Clinton and even, albeit with caveats, Barack Obama. After the Cold War, an exalted conception of America’s historical role and responsibilities had become a precondition to being elected president.
The second theme was military omnipotence. Over and over again, since the end of the Cold War, Americans have been told that theirs is the greatest military in the entire world, the greatest in recorded history, the greatest since God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Military greatness, we have been propagandized to believe, is the ultimate manifestation of national greatness. If ever there was a self-evident truth to add to those specified in the Declaration of Independence, this apparently is it. President Trump’s grandiose Fourth of July celebration of the armed forces merely paid tribute to this widely shared conviction.
The third theme was a belief that the present defines the future. The history unfolding in the aftermath of what Francis Fukuyama famously called “the end of history” was sure to follow a fixed trajectory. Few members of the foreign policy elite possessed the imagination to consider the possibility of history veering in an altogether different direction that might undermine American preeminence.
Acting on these dubious themes during the quarter-century following the Cold War resulted in war, rivers of red ink, horrendous trade deficits, massive economic inequality, and more war, thereby creating the conditions that vaulted Donald Trump to the presidency.
A half-century ago Richard Nixon worried about the United States becoming a “pitiful, helpless giant.” Today, the United States may be neither pitiful nor helpless, but it is plainly confused and deeply divided, with many citizens baffled that the preeminence deemed rightly theirs when the Cold War ended is now slipping away. In 2016, the baffled voted for Trump; in 2020, they may well do so again.
The presidential campaign now getting underway presents an opportunity to confront this post-Cold War pattern of failure and disappointment. While foreign policy alone won’t determine who wins the Democratic nomination or eventually the White House, any candidate offering a plausible alternative to neoliberalism, neo-militarism, and neo-imperialism stands to receive a sympathetic hearing.
Granted, promoting honest consideration of such an alternative approach won’t be easy. The foreign policy establishment will fiercely resist any effort to curtail its influence. Yet change is imperative.
After all, the unipolar moment, if it ever existed, has ended. The emerging order of the 21st century will be fluid, complex, and messy. While it may be premature to specify the precise pecking order of status and clout, no one nation will be able to call the shots – not China and not the United States. Global hegemony is a mirage.
Similarly, military dominion is probably unachievable and is certainly unaffordable. The Pentagon’s emphasis on “power projection” since the end of the Cold War has cost the United States dearly in blood and treasure while producing few positive outcomes. The exertions, travails, and sacrifices of US troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan have yielded this overarching lesson: Armed force is more effective when used to deter and defend than in pursuit of regime change or nation-building.
Finally, geopolitics, which centers on ordering competition between nations, is destined to take a backseat to planetary politics, centered on collaboration to address common threats. Reigning precepts of American global leadership will have to adjust accordingly. Rather than exporting their way of life with its insatiable appetite for consumption and propensity for waste, Americans will find themselves obliged to modify that way of life, emphasizing sustainability and then persuading others to do likewise.
The implications of basing US policy on these alternative themes are immense. Among other things, the canonical lessons of World War II and the Cold War, above all the tendency to equate compromise with so-called appeasement, will no longer apply. A radical commitment to dialogue should become a signature of American statecraft, with force once more a last resort. Ostentatious threats of violence, with “all options” seemingly always “on the table,” should cease.
In the near term, what might the application of this alternative approach imply? In the Middle East, where the grotesque misuse of American power has fostered widespread instability, the United States should lower its military profile. America’s proper role in regional disputes there, for example between Saudi Arabia and Iran, ought to be that of honest broker, not participant. In East Asia, where allowing US-China relations to devolve into a new Cold War will revive the danger of war on an apocalyptic scale, US policy should focus on affirming common interests, combating climate change not least among them.
Diplomacy is hard. It requires persistence and flexibility along with clarity of purpose. Yet at this juncture, can anyone, apart perhaps from the present national security advisor and a remnant of neoconservatives, possibly fancy that war is easy?
In his famous 1821 Independence Day address, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams warned Americans against going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Doing so, he said, would plunge the United States “beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”
Almost two centuries ago, Adams anticipated the situation in which the United States finds itself today. Yet extrication is possible: Policies based on prudence, realism, and restraint will allow the United States to engage the world on terms of its own choosing, while once more upholding freedom’s true standard.
Andrew Bacevich is cofounder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.