THE WORLD today is quite different from the one of thirty years ago, when The National Interest published its first issue. Since then, immensely important changes, both at home and abroad, have taken place that continue to confound American political elites.
Among the most significant was the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, a state which TNI’s founding editors described as “the single greatest threat to America’s interests,” saying it would “continue to [be] so for the foreseeable future.” Yet the USSR ceased to exist in 1991, just six years after the magazine’s start.
This is certainly not a reflection on The National Interest’s founding editors, Owen Harries and Robert Tucker, both of whom set a very high bar indeed for their successors. No one, including inside the Soviet Union itself, anticipated how and when it would fall—to use Ronald Reagan’s language—into the ash heap of history. Conventional wisdom on both the left and right was that the Soviet Union would remain a viable enterprise.
Despite the disintegration of America’s long-term superpower rival, more than two decades later the world remains perilous and unpredictable. In fact, in some ways today’s international environment is even more threatening than that of the late Cold War period—to begin with, Mikhail Gorbachev is not governing Russia. Or China, for that matter. At the same time, Europe is once again a theater for military confrontation, and the crisis in Ukraine is driving an emotionally charged rivalry over a country where Moscow sees threats to its essential interests.
More importantly, thirty years ago, both sides were prepared to live with the geopolitical status quo even if neither was fully satisfied with it. Contrary to conventional wisdom at the time, the Soviet Union had already passed its prime by 1985 and was increasingly on the defensive internationally. On the American side, notwithstanding then president Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric, Washington was not aggressively promoting regime change in the USSR.
Today, while there is legitimate debate about how far President Vladimir Putin is prepared to go in increasing Moscow’s influence in the post-Soviet space and the world arena, he and his associates regularly acknowledge their revisionist aspirations. While the Obama administration denies any intent to promote regime change in Russia, Putin and his colleagues have strong suspicions to the contrary. Indeed, he and many other leaders outside the West argue that by seeking to promote their values worldwide, the United States and its allies are themselves the revisionists and threaten both their nations’ interests and their legitimacy.
For its part, China, preoccupied primarily with stability, domestic reform and economic growth, was not yet a major geopolitical presence. That has changed. Today, Beijing is steadily expanding its military capabilities, regional assertiveness and geopolitical reach in ways both large and small that increasingly challenge the U.S.-led international order. Despite domestic and international setbacks, China is already the economic superpower that the Soviet Union never was. Great forces of history are working at cross-purposes on the Eurasian landmass.
The same holds true in the Middle East. Thirty years ago, Iraq and Iran, two of the region’s leading military powers, were locked in a deadly war that would end in a stalemate. Today, as the result of America’s imprudent military intervention, Iraq, now heavily influenced by Tehran, is battling the suicidal extremists of the Islamic State; Iran itself has emerged as a growing power and nuclear threshold state.
NEVERTHELESS, WHILE the international political and economic environments are vastly different today than when The National Interest first appeared, the fundamental objective of the magazine, defined by the original editors, remains appropriate. As the editors explained, “We find ourselves without a clear set of governing assumptions about foreign policy....There is much debate and uncertainty as we struggle to arrive at one.” As the editors saw it, “A principal aim of The National Interest [was] to stimulate and focus this discussion.”
Much remains to be done. The quality of America’s foreign-policy discussion has demonstrably deteriorated over the last thirty years. Debates are occurring, but serious conversation is far too often limited to experts inside and outside government who lack real political influence. The transmission belts to convey their analysis and insights to the public and to decision makers in the executive and legislative branches are weak and often ineffective. The result is that the debate over international affairs is now badly debased, particularly in Congress. The media, meanwhile, lacks the interest and the expertise (particularly in the digital space) to present vital issues to the American people. At the same time, despite a number of national-security setbacks—including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya—voters appear ready to delegate authority to political elites with few questions or constraints, perhaps because ordinary Americans see no direct negative impacts on their daily lives.
With victory in the Cold War and absent a rival superpower to limit and shape U.S. choices, America’s new foreign-policy establishment has adopted a simplistic, moralistic and triumphalist mind-set: foreign policy by bumper sticker. This mind-set abandons traditional foreign-policy analysis, which emphasizes establishing a hierarchy of priorities, making difficult decisions over trade-offs and considering the unintended consequences of U.S. actions. It also ignores the fact that America’s political system has consistently failed to sustain costly international interventions when vital national interests are not at stake. Prominent voices dismiss those raising such concerns as cynical realists, isolationists or, more recently, unpatriotic Putin apologists. Many tacitly accept this form of intimidation by interventionists who substitute chest-thumping for coherent and serious, historically grounded arguments.
In fairness, many officials in the Obama administration, as well as former officials in the George W. Bush administration, are well-informed, serious and (most importantly) results-oriented foreign-policy realists. The trouble is that, particularly at the senior level, officials face considerable pressure to judge U.S. policy options by their intentions, their appearances and their suitability for simple slogans rather than lasting results. Conversely, they have little need or opportunity to develop long-term strategies that place regional events into the context of fundamental U.S. interests.
As a practical matter, it is difficult to recall a nominee for any high-level national-security position who has failed to win Senate confirmation, or even encountered significant criticism, for advocating or implementing ill-fated interventions. In contrast, many nominees have endured withering criticism for purportedly “soft” stances on exercising American global leadership by force. An example of this was the confirmation hearings for Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2013. The hearings quickly devolved into a nearly Joseph McCarthy–like circus when Hagel’s earlier questioning of the Bush administration’s “surge” in Iraq was attacked as wrong-headed and unpatriotic. Equally damaging, the profound congressional foreign-policy debates of the Cold War era have given way to occasional skirmishes over important but strategically secondary issues like whether or not former secretary of state Hillary Clinton provided proper security for the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
Members of Congress generally ignore more fundamental questions, such as why the United States decided to overthrow a nasty tyrant like Muammar el-Qaddafi, who did not particularly threaten the United States, without even thinking about the likely aftermath of his ouster. Congress no longer seems to convene serious hearings on big issues in America’s relationship with Russia, the only country with the military capability to destroy the United States, or managing China’s rise as a global superpower, perhaps the central challenge confronting the United States in the twenty-first century. Hearings that do take place typically degenerate into partisan posturing over peripheral matters.
The underlying problem is that selecting witnesses (or, for that matter, television experts) who are willing both to speak their minds and to offer objective analysis has become increasingly difficult. Fox News has its experts and MSNBC theirs, but never the twain shall meet. One might expect that the explosion in the number of foreign-policy think tanks, advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations would produce a rich diversity of views, but it has instead fueled groupthink and competition to be, or appear to be, close to one political power center or another.
Moreover, think tanks are increasingly functioning as a revolving door for ambitious men and women who have just left government or are seeking to enter it. While practical policy experience is profoundly important, many of these putative scholars think about their future confirmation hearings at least as much as they think about the facts they are meant to assess. Like it or not, they also recognize that if they fail to subscribe to and repeat prevailing views, they will not be taken seriously and will be perceived as eccentric, unreliable voices in the wilderness.
On top of this, media coverage of world affairs has declined considerably in the post–Cold War period. American television networks and print media have far fewer foreign bureaus and reporters. Further, news programs rely heavily upon former officials and senior military officers, who generally do not express contrarian opinions, and their own nonexpert reporters. Public television has a couple of shows that allow more time for serious conversation and feature a broader spectrum of guests, but even there, guests face pressure to conform to prevailing narratives.
Debate can be even worse online. While the Internet makes these discussions far more democratic, the dramatic headlines and language necessary to get attention—and the ease with which debates become highly personal—discourage deliberate exchanges or nuance and privilege extravagant claims and nasty attacks. And while fashionable as a measure of impact, Twitter is an inherently poor vehicle for any serious conversation. What truly important issue can be distilled into 140 characters or fewer? Or, for that matter, into a fifteen-second sound bite?
IT IS disturbing that our ability to think and talk seriously about international affairs is deteriorating as the world is becoming more complex. With relations with China and Russia becoming more difficult and with other regional powers emerging, what could matter more? The shared assumption among neoconservatives and liberal interventionists about American unipolarity—that all it takes for U.S. power to reshape the world is the exercise of the necessary will—is ever more in conflict with the main forces at work in the international system today.
Seemingly oblivious to these forces, the interventionists continue to promote a collection of policies—regime change, top-down democratization, militarized nation building and counterinsurgency warfare—that have repeatedly failed. The result (in the Middle East in particular) is a generation of American intervention that has done more harm than good. But, ignoring Einstein’s well-worn doctrine that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again with the expectation of getting a different result, some in and out of the administration are now suggesting that U.S. warplanes should target not only Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria, but also the Assad regime if this becomes necessary to protect the “moderate” rebels. Few in the West are considering where this escalation could lead either in Syria or, if Moscow should view it as a precedent, in Ukraine.
Ironically, public reluctance to support a significant intervention is Syria is a direct consequence of the Iraq War and illustrates the extent to which prolonged, open-ended military commitments, absent victory, are inherently unsustainable in a democratic society. The “long, hard slog” in Iraq led directly to the Obama administration’s eagerness to withdraw prematurely and to its failure to enforce its own feckless red lines.
Anyone who claims that U.S. policy in the Middle East has been a success over the last fifteen years should define what a disaster would look like. Yet the very warrior intellectuals who were directly responsible for today’s state of affairs dominate the foreign-policy advisory groups of nearly all the Republican candidates. On the Democratic side, a key architect of President Obama’s foreign policy, Hillary Clinton, is, of course, her party’s presumed presidential candidate.
Most striking is that the triumphalists continue to dominate America’s foreign-policy discourse even as the United States faces a growing number of challenges. Though Islamist terrorism, particularly as manifested by the Islamic State, is attracting the greatest attention because of its graphic brutality and the memories of September 11, China’s rise likely represents the bigger long-term problem for the United States. Of course, China has its own weaknesses, and some even argue that in the absence of fundamental political reform, it may suffer the fate of the Soviet Union. But don’t count on it. Notwithstanding its ethnic and religious divisions, China is less prone to disintegration than the USSR. Its economy is far stronger than the Soviet Union’s was in the 1980s. And in Xi Jinping, it has a hard-nosed realist at the helm, not an inept, romantic Gorbachev-type.
As Henry Kissinger adroitly argues in his most recent book, the only safe assumption for U.S. foreign policy is that China will be a unique challenge in American history—a full-scale economic and military superpower with great nationalist pride and centuries of experience as the regional hegemon. Despite China’s limited ambitions for global leadership, at least for now, the last thing the United States can afford is to contribute to a geopolitical realignment in which Moscow plays second fiddle to Beijing and uses its strategic nuclear arsenal to compensate for China’s still-inferior nuclear capabilities.
Many in the United States and Europe are skeptical about the likelihood of a Chinese-Russian alliance. Indeed, vast differences in economic power, a long record of mutual animosity and divergent political cultures create strong barriers to a lasting alliance between Moscow and Beijing. However, all this is relevant only up to a certain point. If the Russian government perceives a threat to its very existence, it may accept a subordinate role to China, likely believing it to be short term.
As Kissinger observes in his interview in this issue, Russia is already moving in this direction “partly because we’ve given them no choice.” Moreover, in a striking departure from Nixon and Kissinger’s efforts to maintain better relations with Moscow and Beijing than either had with the other, the Obama administration is openly confronting each simultaneously. President Obama stated this unusually directly in making the case for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying that “if we don’t write the rules, China will write the rules out in that region.”
Unlike Washington, and each for its own reasons, Moscow and Beijing staunchly deny that their rapprochement is directed against anyone else. However, as Yan Xuetong, a well-connected Chinese expert, acknowledged to the Financial Times’ Kathrin Hille, it is “impossible” for the growing Chinese-Russian cooperation to “not influence the outside world.” China and Russia, acting as a magnet for forces of “the rest,” are already beginning to build a new economic infrastructure as a complement and eventually an alternative to the Western-controlled international financial system. Alternative security arrangements are in the embryonic stage, but history teaches us that if one alliance is not just predominant, but also assertively acting to expand its influence—as the Euro-Atlantic community is seen as doing today—someone somewhere is quite likely to build a balancing coalition.
The big question facing the United States at this critical junction, then, is whether we can pursue a mix of policies with China, with Russia or in the Middle East that amount to a coherent overall strategic approach. Put differently, if the United States is able to find a way to induce Moscow to collaborate in finding a settlement in Ukraine and then can establish an unappealing but strategically useful modus vivendi with Russia, and if it can also resist the temptation to become embroiled in sectarian wars in the Middle East and instead positions itself as an offshore balancer, then Washington may have the necessary focus and wherewithal to meet the challenges of a rising China.
There is a wide gap between the complex challenges America confronts in the world arena today and our wholly inadequate conversation about international affairs, which is in itself a profound challenge to U.S. national security. With the outcome of the 2016 election potentially turning on issues of American stewardship of global affairs, this gap has to be understood and addressed with both a sense of urgency and responsibility. As realists, we at The National Interest fully understand that no one publication or nongovernmental organization can single-handedly reverse the decline in the sophistication of the foreign-policy debate. In fact, even many working together are unlikely to do so. Yet as realists we also know that America is always at its best when faced with a true crisis; the pragmatic electorate then tunes in and develops a sense of personal stake in America’s conduct of foreign affairs.
The aspiration of The National Interest is to provide a platform for diverse, well-argued and well-informed points of view in order to keep the ship of sanity sailing through a turbulent sea of superficial, politicized and ideological rhetoric. By doing so, we hope both to inform and to build political support—among those with open minds and a sense of responsibility—for decision making based on the enlightened national interest. That was the mission of The National Interest when it was founded three decades ago; that is its purpose now.
Richard Burt is chairman of The National Interest’s Advisory Council and a former assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs and U.S. ambassador to Germany.
Dimitri K. Simes, publisher and CEO of The National Interest, is president of the Center for the National Interest.