In recent months, a large army of pundits, academics, and other policy professionals have risen up to argue that Pres. Donald Trump’s foreign policy reflects an ill-informed and unsophisticated personal knowledge of global affairs. This is quite true; even at this early point, it appears near-certain that the current president will preside over a rich array of foreign policy debacles ranging from the comical to the tragic.
What all too few of Trump’s critics acknowledge, however, is that this is entirely in line with US strategic performance for nearly a quarter-century: Washington unwittingly has been crafting a bipartisan, slow-motion global policy disaster for years, and the results of its policy failures simply are becoming too difficult to ignore.
From the Clinton Administration to the present, American foreign policy has been driven largely by the self-flattering notion that the United States is the “indispensable country” charged with leading other, less enlightened states down the path to peace, prosperity, and proper governance. These three Administrations expressed such attitudes in myriad ways, but all drew from a deep well of hubris entirely unconnected to strategic reality. Defenders of the Obama Administration in particular might deny this charge, but, to take one small example, in his 2015 State of the Union Address, then-Pres. Obama grandly claimed, in reference to Putin’s seizure of Crimea that: “today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads: not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.” What good this purported resolve did for the Ukrainians was, and remains, mysterious—and many Ukrainian citizens continue to emigrate to Russia in search of relative peace and economic opportunity. In regard to the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, American “leadership” has not brought Ukraine basic political stability, much less victory. Indeed, although we may never know with certainty, it is quite possible that ham-handed American and European meddling in Ukrainian politics was the catalyst that convinced Putin to intervene militarily in Ukraine to begin with.
The illusion that the United States could act as an omnicompetent global organizer always was dangerously misguided, as it encouraged a hubris that has, directly and indirectly, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings and destroyed peace and stability for tens of millions more. The quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan are the two most obvious examples, but the subtler ones perhaps are more telling. By making war in the Balkans against Russian-backed Serbs who had not attacked or harmed the United States, the Clinton Administration poisoned the long-term US relationship with Russia’s government and population (and even, to a degree, with Orthodox Christians in many other countries). American insistence on NATO expansion was even more damaging, and Moscow interpreted this as an inherently unfriendly act because, by any reasonable standard, it was: a “friend” surely would not be inclined to use a period of Russian historical weakness to expand a potentially hostile military alliance to—and then beyond—the borders of the former Soviet Union. NATO expansion occurred yet again in June 2017, when the Trump Administration completed its predecessor’s efforts to bring tiny Montenegro into the NATO alliance. Washington continues to assert that NATO is a purely defensive alliance, yet one can see why Russians might be unconvinced; NATO has now conducted combat operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya but has yet to actually do so on its own soil.
Speaking dispassionately, given longstanding US policy preferences it would foolish for Russia to place any trust whatsoever in the good intentions of the United States. Essentially, the US government in recent years has “forgotten” that good relations with foreign great powers are fundamentally based on reciprocity. Ironically, this was understood well by most American presidents of the Cold War era, and from Nixon to George H.W. Bush, American administrations crafted a strategy that allowed for the thawing of relations during the détente era and, in due course, the essentially peaceful decline and fall of the Soviet Empire. In more recent years, although (indeed, probably because) Russia presents a vastly-diminished threat to the United States, American policy toward that country has had the subtlety of a sledgehammer thrown off a skyscraper, with predictable results.
In Libya, the Obama Administration—alongside the British and French in a NATO operation—intervened to overthrow Muamar Qaddafi and created a failed state in the process. Qaddafi was monstrous, but the casualness with which NATO overthrew a legally sovereign government was appalling: despite the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama Administration had no serious plan to bring peace and stability to Libya. That broken state’s long coastline now is a source for huge numbers of refugees, as well as for whatever criminals and jihadists wish to enter Europe undetected by joining an uncontrolled human wave.
Pres. Obama’s later policy toward Syria was much more cautious, and he did not surrender to the temptation to overthrow Assad directly—an action which likely would have led to a mass butchery of Syria’s religious minorities, such as the Alawites, Christians, and Druze. American “leadership” in regard to Syria, however, otherwise has been confused and feckless. In a truly impressive diplomatic feat, the United States managed to maneuver itself into such a warped position that then-candidate Hilary Clinton—at a point in the campaign where it was political experts almost universally assumed she would be the next president—promised to use US military power to create a no-fly zone in Syria. In addition to violating the letter of international law (which Washington has done so often over the last quarter century that such rule-breaking now is barely notable), this radical step ultimately could have resulted in Russian and American pilots engaging in air-to-air combat, despite the fact that both Moscow and Washington share many common goals in Syria. However, US diplomacy has degenerated so badly over recent decades that it now is prudent to assume that American policy not only will make cooperation with other powerful countries in resolving regional conflicts difficult or impossible but likely will turn them into global crises.
In the Pacific Rim, US strategic performance has been mediocre, albeit less egregious than it has been in the Greater Middle East and North Africa. Perhaps the most important current challenge to world order is adapting the global system to reflect China’s strikingly rapid economic and military rise in a healthy manner. Western, especially American, political and economic ideas and preferences shaped the present global systems laws, organizations, and other essential elements. Convincing Beijing to continue to accept the basic premises of that system would be a delicate process under the best of circumstances. As a rising power whose future behavior is difficult to predict, the comfortable and longstanding belief of many American policymakers that China must continue work to preserve the current international order because it fears instability appear increasingly hollow.
Instead, as China has grown more powerful, it has become increasingly willing to reject that order by, for example, pressing its claim to control almost the entirety of the South China Sea, regardless of the fact that this is, by any reasonable reading of history and the spirit of international maritime law, rather preposterous. That China’s leaders show no discernable embarrassment over this fact itself is a reflection of the degree of international disorder. After all, if Washington (and Moscow and, in its own peculiar fashion, Brussels) feel no need to show due caution and maturity in assessing the reasonableness of their foreign policy stances in a multipolar world whose major powers have radically different political philosophies and security needs, why should Beijing?
Of course, even if the United States were eminently reasonable, Moscow and Beijing, among others, might well remain intransigent. However, that currently is only a theoretical concern: the last US president who consistently paid reasonable deference to the interests of other major states left office in 1993. Moreover, the dispiriting record discussed above does not even address numerous other US strategic failings, such as its: tendency to treat Central American and Caribbean countries as little more than bit players in its futile war on narcotics; dysfunctional relationships with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, and, increasingly, numerous European Union countries; and failed effort to prevent North Korean nuclear acquisition which now have transformed into haphazard attempts to control a nuclear-armed rogue state.
The United States presently lacks the capability to act as the chief architect of international peace and order. Thus far, continuing (but rapidly diminishing) US military power has kept the illusion of a functioning order alive, but the grave instability undermining global security grows ever-worse. Brilliant though Washington may have been at crafting an international order in the 1940s, domestic and international circumstances now are radically different. At present, Washington’s self-image as the global guarantor of world order is close to the opposite of the truth: however unwittingly, no state has been a more effective agent of chaos over the last quarter century. Every year that it continues to cling to fantasies of unipolar leadership, the global situation grows more grave. If present trends are not reversed, a great power war probably will occur—the present “pseudo-international order” is being placed under ever more pressure, and when it breaks, it likely will do so very quickly and catastrophically.
Whatever its excesses, the Trump Administration’s actions are merely a symptom of the illness that has transformed the US government from the preeminent guardian of world order to a sower of global chaos. That illness long preceded the Trump Administration and, sadly, likely will endure after he leaves office. Escaping this cycle requires, first, a recognition that the 1990s “golden age” of US global dominance never will return: as long as they are in thrall to the “myth of indispensability,” American foreign policy elites will never see the world clearly. Having done this, they would be able to move to the next step of seriously discussing with other major powers—including ones, mostly importantly Russia and China, which presently have a poor relationship with the United States—how they might cooperate to create a global system suited to the conditions of this century.
Unfortunately, at present there is very little willingness within the US foreign policy elite to acknowledge how its past hubris brought about present disasters, much less to act on that knowledge. Rather than focusing obsessively on whatever Twitter tempest the current president may create on a given day, those who consider themselves thoughtful observers of US foreign policy should turn their attention to the “policy cancers” that have made such absurdities possible. Unless those are addressed, the US government will continue to stumble from one disaster to the next until it finally, inevitably meets the “big one,” whatever that may prove to be. At that point, it will be far too late to correct course—the Titanic will have met its iceberg.