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Afghan National Army soldiers on patrol with US Marines in Narang village, Kunar province, Afghanistan, 2005; photograph by Stephen Dupont from his book Generation AK: The Afghanistan Wars 1993–2012, to be published this month by Steidl


“The incoherence in American foreign policy has been growing for twenty-five years,” asserts Ian Bremmer. That’s a considerable overstatement, and from an expert in the field, but there is no question that, at home and abroad, American policies (from long before the current administration) evoke widespread angst, uncertainty, and criticism. Judging from a flurry of recent books, the most basic features of the US role abroad remain in question. How much should we try to do in rapidly changing circumstances? What are we actually able to do? How much should we spend abroad? Can’t a single principle be found to impose greater consistency on foreign policy?

Not only analysts and scholars are worried. I recently listened to a roomful of European leaders bemoan the lack of US commitment to NATO. Since the US accounts for twice as much of NATO members’ military spending (more than 70 percent) as all of its European members combined, this was a bit hard to fathom. Moreover, that commitment, and the lack of it in Europe, extends to the public. A recent poll of citizens of eight NATO countries by the Pew Research Center found that only in the US and Canada is a majority prepared to go to war if a NATO ally is attacked—that being the central requirement of the NATO treaty and the sine qua non of collective defense. So just why are Europeans worried about America?

In the Sunni Middle East fear of a US withdrawal is pervasive. Yet the US maintains dozens of bases and warships in and around the Persian Gulf—including major facilities and a substantial number of troops in Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. Operations are also based in Jordan and Turkey. CENTCOM, the US Central Command, in charge of this region, has been the United States’ largest geographic command for many years. Yet a visitor to the region constantly hears that the day America will suddenly lose interest and depart is just around the corner. And in East Asia, governments from US allies to Beijing wonder whether America intends to remain the dominant Pacific power, whether the famous but still largely invisible “pivot” is about containing China, and what it might eventually mean if ever made real.

Criticism by friends and allies is nothing new. In US foreign policy, there never was a golden age of coherence, or for that matter domestic consensus, even when containment of the Soviet Union could justify everything from going to Vietnam to going to the moon. In others’ eyes, Washington has always done too much or too little; been too pushy or failed to consult. That goes with the territory of being the world’s major power. Today’s anxieties, though, are on a different level. At least in the cold war no one doubted America’s central purpose. Today many are in doubt. But are the criticisms well founded? Or, on closer look, is US foreign policy, as Mark Twain said of Wagner’s music, better than it sounds?


Five profound transformations packed into the short span since the end of the cold war in 1991 have set the conditions that the US wrestles with today. At first, the end of that conflict and the seeming triumph of democracy produced a burst of activity at the United Nations. By 1994, seventeen international peacekeeping missions were underway—more in one year than in all of the preceding half-century. Unlike earlier missions between established states, most of these involved messy conflicts within a single state in places such as Rwanda, Georgia, and Haiti. Often there wasn’t a real peace to keep, and humanitarian crises were woven into political-military ones. Not surprisingly, the outcomes were unsatisfactory, and as their number and costs rose, Washington grew disenchanted. It wasn’t only peacekeeping that upset officials, but also a swarm of election-monitoring missions and of troublesome UN conferences (on the environment, social policy, women, etc.) with citizen activists playing major parts for the first time.

Increasingly annoyed, Washington demanded better performance and greater efficiency and tried to get it by first threatening to withhold and then withholding payment of its dues. By the mid-1990s, we were $1.2 billion in arrears to the UN, $200 million to the World Bank, $95 million to the Food and Agriculture Organization, and $40 million to the World Health Organization—all of them legal obligations. We owed another half-billion in voluntary pledges to regional development banks and the new Global Environment Facility. With the world’s richest nation setting such an example, others soon followed. Just a few years after multilateral diplomacy had seemed to be a central pillar of what President George H.W. Bush called the “new world order,” Washington had firmly turned its back and the UN teetered near bankruptcy.


Freed from the constraints of the cold war when military actions might end in a collision with the Soviet Union, the US turned more and more from diplomacy to its unparalleled military power. America has been engaged in conflict for nearly all of the past quarter-century, having undertaken nine military actions, including the two longest wars in its history. These two, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have also been by far the most expensive. Once engaged, the country was prepared to spend whatever seemed necessary, regardless of ballooning deficits. On top of the trillions spent on combat, the US has spent more on reconstruction in Afghanistan than it did on the Marshall Plan (compared in real dollars)—with precious little to show for it.

In The Right Way to Lose a War, Dominic Tierney rates the results of the major wars since 1945 as one success (the 1991 Gulf War), two draws (Korea and Afghanistan), and two losses (Vietnam and Iraq)—a pretty dismal record. The disappearance of conventional interstate war, he argues, came at the worst possible time—at the peak of American military power—tempting the US to involve itself in the kinds of wars for which its military doctrines, arms, and training are poorly suited. Too often these conflicts have been “a limited war for us, and total war for them. We have more power; they have more willpower.” Unfortunately, Tierney’s attempts to define what kinds of actions the US should undertake, and ways to pursue them, such as attempting to “reverse engineer victory” in advance, fall flat.

These years have also been the age of globalization, a continuing sea change brought about by rapid economic, political, and, especially, technological change, happening simultaneously. In his useful primer, Is the American Century Over?, Joseph Nye brings the latter vividly into focus by noting that if Moore’s law had applied to automobiles as well as to computing power, by 2000 a new car would have cost one one-thousandth of its 1970 price, or about fifteen to twenty dollars. But though globalization has been facilitated by technology, it is equally a set of institutional choices that were by no means inevitable.

Consider just a few of the major decisions of the 1990s: creation of the European Union and adoption of a common currency; transformation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), a set of rules, into the much more ambitious World Trade Organization with a far broader scope and membership; and, in a highly contentious step that would soon prove to be of enormous consequence, global agreement to transform the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty from a pact that would expire after twenty-five years to a permanent, global accord. These and other steps are major commitments to multinational problem-solving, involving significant concessions of national sovereignty.

By making borders porous to information, pollution, criminal activity, money, popular culture, foreign investment, and so on, globalization has made the job of national governments vastly harder. Security is harder to achieve and to maintain. Citizens know more about conditions elsewhere and make demands accordingly. Multinational corporations and financial institutions operate without much connection to the interests of their home country. And the demand for transnational problem-solving (though not the supply) keeps rising: climate change, cybersecurity, epidemics, and bank regulation, to name just a few, demand attention.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, and America’s subsequent Global War on Terror mark the beginning of the third transformation. September 11 tore away the sense of distance and difference that had shaped US history from the outset. Though the oceans had long since ceased to be the protection they once were, Americans still believed in the illusion. “Homeland security” is more than the profound changes in law, intelligence, government spending, and routines of daily life that it has imposed. It is the realization that the US is more like the rest of the world—vulnerable on its own territory—than it had been since 1812.

The pervasive sense of fear the September 11 attacks produced in the US made the invasion of Iraq possible. It is too soon to know the degree to which that war contributed to the Arab Awakening that followed. The events that spread from Tunisia to most of the Middle East were a reaction to decades of incompetent governance. But the upheavals of the Arab Awakening are now inseparable from sectarian and tribal conflicts that first erupted in Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s removal. In turn, Iran was enormously empowered by America’s defeat of the Iraqi dictator and of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Syria could become an ex-country; ISIS threatens to establish a religious caliphate from chunks of Syria, Iraq, and maybe elsewhere; the Kurds of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey may use the present chaos to achieve their dream of one or more Kurdish states; and the region as a whole, including places superficially at peace, is looking at Sunni–Shia conflict that will likely last a generation or more.


The post–cold war era has, as well, been defined by the accelerating growth of China, whose GDP has quintupled since 1990. As it grew by double digits, year after year, China was torn between its view of itself as a still poor and weak victim of past colonialism, and a growing sense of its burgeoning strength and unique economic achievements. Until Xi Jinping took power in 2012 the ambivalence was kept under a lid by continued fidelity to Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Xi has abandoned that restraint.

China may never want to overturn the world order from which it has profited so greatly, but it is no longer just a passive recipient of rules and arrangements made by the West. It is a rulemaker now, not just a ruletaker. After the US Congress refused for years to allow a long-overdue increase in China’s voting share at the IMF, China answered by announcing a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with itself the major funder. The US refused to join and then tried to block the new bank, failing miserably. Fifty-seven countries, including most of America’s allies, cofounded the AIIB in June 2015. Even when a Chinese initiative is constructive, Washington can’t quite accommodate itself to China’s new status.


Abbas/Magnum Photos

Sanaa, Yemen, 2007

Finally, Washington must contend with the aftermath of Russia’s sudden loss of its empire, its decision—at least for now—to turn away from a place for itself in the West, and the bitter feelings of aggrieved nationalism fed so effectively by President Putin’s propaganda machine. At the end of the cold war, two thirds of Russians saw America either as a friend (51 percent) or an ally (16 percent). Less than 2 percent saw it as hostile. Today, the US and NATO top the list of “Russia’s enemies” and 81 percent of Russians hold negative views of America.

Between these extremes, in Russian eyes, lies the history of NATO’s eastward expansion, particularly President George W. Bush’s urging that NATO should one day welcome Georgia and Ukraine, and the “color” revolutions in these two states and Kazakhstan that Russians (wrongly) saw as a US-inspired conspiracy against them. This same history includes US military actions over Kosovo and in Iraq. As significant has been Russia’s inability to address its own failings and move toward Western standards of living and the rule of law. Russians can see for themselves that their country is no longer a great power. But at least after Crimea and still in Ukraine, Putin has given them the satisfaction of seeing Russia once again a power to be reckoned with.


There is no principle that can provide strategic clarity or unity of purpose to these diverse challenges. The cold war was an aberration in having such a single goal: a filter through which every issue was passed before being considered on its own merits. Americans will have to learn to live without a replacement for containment—the sooner the better. But at least in theory, the US should be able to develop broad domestic agreement about what it can expect of itself abroad, what developments are its responsibility, and what kinds of things it should not attempt.

Defining such choices is Ian Bremmer’s laudable goal in Superpower. He describes three possible choices for America’s role—Indispensable, Moneyball, and Independent. The first is roughly the US’s current position; it is equally committed to advancing its security interests and its values—especially democracy and human rights—broadly around the world. “Moneyball foreign policy” is “a cold-blooded, interest-driven approach that redefines America’s role in the world in a way designed to maximize the return on the taxpayer’s investment.” Such an America would shed “burdens in favor of opportunities” and would “never go to war to defend a principle.” Independent America amounts to sweeping disengagement from the world with a drastic refocus on domestic priorities.

Unfortunately, too many errors and inconsistencies in how the choices are defined sap the book’s value. Bremmer writes that “the gap between US and Chinese defense spending grows wider in America’s favor every day.” Of course, the reverse is true, as a footnote reports. As evidence of supposed incoherence he asserts that Iran took as the lesson of the US invasion of Iraq that it had better “develop a nuclear weapon as quickly as possible.” In fact Iran’s nuclear weapons program began more than a decade earlier and in the opinion of US intelligence was actually suspended in 2003. The need to “rationalize military spending” by devoting more resources to “lighter, smarter weapons” needed to combat new threats is an element of the Independent America strategy, but would fit just as well with both of the others. A devastating critique of American exceptionalism is part of the Moneyball strategy, but could just as easily describe Independent America. And so on.

Bremmer’s own choice, for odd and largely unsupported reasons, is Independent America. He thinks, without in any way attempting to prove it, that our current foreign policy is “prohibitively expensive.” He asserts that the American people “don’t care” about most of what the US seeks to achieve abroad. The “significant damage” that would be done to relations with the likes of Japan, Israel, and Britain is acceptable, and China will find its own direction anyway. Whereas the Moneyball approach would demand “sacrificing our values,” somehow writing off the rest of the world is all right as Independent America would “find a brave new purpose for those values.” That purpose, neither brave nor particularly new, would be spending more at home, cutting taxes, and demonstrating to the rest of the world that our democracy is best by moving “beyond petty partisan fights…to forge…intelligent [legislative] compromises.” How that distant goal would emerge from international disengagement is unexplained. Least understandably to any newspaper reader, he concludes that “there may one day be greater demand…from others, for US international leadership. That day is not on the horizon.”

Restraint, by Barry Posen, ends in much the same place by an entirely different route. An MIT professor, Posen has written a tightly argued, impeccably sourced, and lucid case for a new American national security strategy. Though written by an expert for experts, it is an accessible read. No term is undefined, no assumption unspecified, and no assertion not carefully supported. Interestingly, he points out, I think correctly, that Democrats and Republicans, who seem to disagree on everything, have actually been united for decades in a consensus favoring an assertive foreign and security policy. In his view, that policy is “unnecessary, counterproductive, costly, and wasteful.” What divides the two parties is only their “attitudes toward international institutions. Democrats like them, Republicans do not.” He dubs this consensus Liberal Hegemony—hegemonic because it “builds on the great power advantage of the United States…and intends to preserve as much of that advantage as possible,” and liberal “because it aims to defend and promote…values associated with…the US…—including democratic governance within nation-states, individual rights, free markets, a free press, and the rule of law.”

Posen’s strategy would focus on just three limited goals: maintaining a balance of power in Eurasia, managing (not halting) nuclear proliferation, and going after terrorist groups “that choose the US as a target.” It would insist that US allies spend what is necessary to defend themselves and renounce aims that have proved unachievable, including “the coercive reform and political reorganization of other countries.” “Peoples must find their own way to democracy,” he reasonably observes. “The practice of democracy is inevitably tailored to the history of each people.”

There is a large overlap with Bremmer’s Indispensable America in Posen’s call for a drastically pared-back, realist security policy, and a strong echo of Tierney’s overreach argument too. But the conviction that the US should seek a liberal hegemony still dominates. On the campaign trail the only point of agreement you’ll hear among eighteen of the twenty candidates for president of both parties (excluding Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders) is that America “must lead.” Few Americans find anything jarring in politicians’ familiar rhetoric on America’s divine purpose; few can imagine how American lectures to non-Americans on how they must change this or that policy can sound like chalk on a blackboard.

Valerie Hudson and Patricia Leidl’s The Hillary Doctrine is a good example of where this kind of thinking leads. The supposed doctrine is a statement often made by Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state that “the subjugation of women is a direct threat to…the national security of our country.” “There is a one-to-one correspondence,” Hudson and Leidl repeatedly claim, “between countries of greatest concern to the United States and countries in which women are treated poorly.” Only a moment’s thought is needed to demolish this relationship. Russia, of great security concern, does not subjugate women. India is not a security threat but has terrible conditions for women, including arranged marriage for children, unequal education, prenatal sex selection, frequent rape, etc. Still, they argue, the status of women should be a core concern of US national security policy and justifies American demands for radical change in other countries and cultures.


What, then, should we make of US foreign policy? There are, first, good reasons why it is not as sharply defined as it once was. The world is moving, very fast, from a half-century of unusual stasis to something else—though exactly what is not yet clear. The discipline of the cold war that forced most states to choose sides and follow their leader is gone. The economic dominance the US once had is gone because Washington wisely used its influence to stimulate others’ growth. The US is still the sole military superpower, but with dangerous new vulnerabilities. Cyberattacks, the increase in Islamic terrorism, and the quickening spread of technology have diffused the capacity to do serious damage from great powers to weak and failing states and to nonstate actors.

Attitudes have changed more slowly. Being a lone superpower is harder, and harder for others to accept, than being one of two. Mistakes and overreaching that would be forgiven in a mortal conflict are not forgiven now. The triumphalism that followed the American victory in the cold war was short-lived in its acute form, but it lingers in outsized expectations on the part of both Americans and non-Americans of what the US can do and should do. Events everywhere in the world are taken as “tests” of American resolve that echo globally. An Iraqi politician, caught in the vicious morass that followed the invasion, with American soldiers dying at a steady pace, told me with absolute conviction: “You went to the moon. We know you could fix this if you wanted to.”

Today, the chaos in the Middle East, according to The Economist, “is trashing human rights and torching values that many, including this newspaper, look to America to defend.” Whether any foreign power can fix what is broken there, whether it is America’s responsibility to try, and if so, exactly why that is so are all questions that lack satisfactory answers. Three are most often offered: the US should take the lead because of American exceptionalism; due to fear (defeat threats abroad to prevent attacks at home); or because there is no one else. None of these can be expanded into a convincing foreign policy that assigns priorities but also says no to some things. Without such a frame, the sense that there are no limits on possible US action, rather than a genuine desire to turn inward, is what is leading analysts, I suspect, to call for a 180-degree reversal of the US policies of the past several decades.

Overuse of the military, which accounts for more than 90 percent of all US spending abroad, is also, in part, to blame. Twenty-five years in which there have been few months when US forces were not actively engaged somewhere has created a world that expects US interventions and encourages friends and allies to underspend on their own defense, enlarging the need for US help.

The original version of President Eisenhower’s admonition warned against the “military-industrial-congressional complex.” He had it right. The US could ease painful shortfalls in military pay and training and buy more security for less than it currently spends. It is not primarily the Pentagon that prevents this, but Congress. For all of the post–cold war era, under both political parties, we have tolerated enormous waste in the Pentagon budget and consistently underspent, in both money and effort, on all the other tools of foreign policy. The ratio of defense spending to all other foreign operations has stayed pretty constant at sixteen to one.

But the greatest bar to developing a more coherent foreign policy has been the deepening partisan polarization in Washington and the closely linked politicization of foreign policy. No one expects the Senate to be able to ratify an important treaty anymore. International efforts to reach binding agreements—on climate, for example—have to work around this restriction, an extraordinary weakness for the world’s leading power. Economically, as former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has wryly noted, when you have “one of our major parties opposed to…trade agreements and the other…resistant to funding international organizations, the United States will not be in a position to shape the global economic system.”

Ruled by the need to raise more and more money and crippled by Tea Party members for whom compromise is an evil, Congress has become increasingly paralyzed and unserious about deadly serious matters. The debate over the nuclear deal with Iran, more than any I can recall of comparable importance to the national interest, puts partisanship, politics (read campaign funding), and wildly inflated rhetoric over substance. The principal criticisms are not of the deal that has been reached, but of any deal. Opponents bristle at the charge that defeating the deal would make war more likely, but in fact, it is true.

The notion that the US could reject this deal and negotiate a stronger one is fanciful. Imagine the offer: “We (alone among our negotiating partners) have decided that the agreed-upon deal is unsatisfactory. Please return to the table where we will insist on tougher provisions.” That leaves only two possibilities—an Iran free of any limits or war.

A reminder from history is relevant here. In 2003, when the US had 150,000 soldiers across Iran’s border and Iran had just three hundred centrifuges, Washington insisted on a no-centrifuges deal and Iran walked away. Iran today has 19,000 centrifuges, vastly more technology, and is a few months from having enough fissile material for a bomb. By definition a compromise, the deal is not perfect. But compared to the available alternatives, it should not be a close call.

The tone and the misleading content of the debate could have a lasting impact. Iran will test the agreement in ways small and large. The deal’s successful implementation will demand constant, high-level, friendly attention from both the administration and Congress. An incumbent who had campaigned against it without restraint, or a Congress more intent on vilifying the deal than making it work (think Obamacare), could easily cause it to fail not in Tehran but in Washington.*

Scholars and experts can prompt some rethinking on where America’s limits should be drawn in a world drastically changed from the one that shaped our experience. Only elected officials can turn that into a national discussion of the interests and values the US wants to support and perhaps a new, shared sense of America’s national purpose abroad.