Realist critics of post–Cold War U.S. foreign policy tend to attribute policies of which they disapprove to naïve idealism or utopianism. This may seem plausible, in light of the utopian rationalizations invoked by defenders of NATO expansion (“expanding the circle of market democracies”), the war in Iraq (“the global democratic revolution”) and regime change in Libya (“the responsibility to protect”). But these rationalizations for public consumption are not necessarily the actual rationales.
America’s bipartisan foreign-policy establishment treats as an article of faith the belief that the existence of the American bloc is in the national interest. From this axiom it follows that anything that strengthens the American bloc is in the national interest as well. The bloc may expand, if possible; in any event, it must not be allowed to shrink.
While the interests of the America-centered bloc are identical with the long-term interests of the United States, so this logic goes, in the short term it may be necessary to sacrifice narrowly national American interests to the imperatives of bloc maintenance. If preserving the multinational bloc requires sacrifices on the part of the American people, so be it. If some American soldiers must die demonstrating U.S. credibility to weak client states, thereby preventing some or all of the other protectorates from losing faith in America as a security guarantor, then the price is worth it, from this perspective. If some American businesses and industries must be sacrificed, in order to bribe foreign countries into joining or remaining in the bloc by means of one-sided access for their exporters to U.S. markets, then the sacrifice should be made. What is good for the American bloc is good for America.
THE TRANSACTIONAL nationalism of Donald Trump horrifies the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment, because it suggests the president does not realize that bloc maintenance is not merely one of several goals, but the overriding objective, of U.S. strategy. From the elite perspective, asking whether Americans are getting their money’s worth by protecting Japan, South Korea and rich NATO allies is tantamount to asking for a cost-benefit analysis of federal-government protection of the American South or West Coast. Most members of the foreign-policy elite can no more conceive of South Korea or Poland outside of the U.S. military bloc than they can conceive of Virginia or California outside of the United States of America. Their alarm may be premature, because Trump appears more interested in pressuring American allies to contribute more to U.S.-led alliances than in dissolving them.
Like their American counterparts, the foreign-policy establishments in European nations are not dominated by Bismarckian realists, coldly calculating on a day-to-day basis whether the costs of membership in NATO and EU outweigh the benefits, from the point of view of national interests, narrowly defined. In the campaign that culminated in the vote for Brexit last summer, it was the outsider populists who made arguments in favor of the British (or English) national interests. The British elite was almost entirely opposed. Sometimes they argued on pragmatic grounds that the cost of Brexit would be disastrously high. But it was clear that being part of the European Union, like being part of a trans-Atlantic Euro-American system, was a major part of their personal and professional identities. For most elite Britons, a British departure from the EU could only be thought of as a joke or a nightmare.
The mystery that puzzled Rip Van Winkle in our fable is solved, then. The Soviet threat may have been the original stimulus to the formation of NATO and, indirectly, of an integrated Europe. But the trans-Atlantic Euro-American bloc is so integrated, so held together by ties of military cooperation, economic interdependence and shared values, and so fundamental to the personal identity of elites on both sides of the Atlantic that it endures even in the absence of a credible Russian superpower threat, to which Putin’s limited revisionism cannot be compared.
In other regions, like East, Central and South Asia and the Persian Gulf, there is less deep transnational integration and more traditional arm’s-length alliances. And there is nothing like the common, crusading ideology of Marxism-Leninism in the former Communist bloc or the dominant, if not universal, left-liberal variant of democracy in the contemporary European Union. It is in Asia, rather than in the North Atlantic, that something like the traditional realist account of transactional national diplomacy based on calculations of discrete state interests can still be found.
But even there, in the heartland of twenty-first-century realpolitik, conventional American realists are likely to be refuted. The reason is that the offshore-balancing strategy favored by many realists, with the United States as the “holder of the balance” among multiple great powers, is likely to be rendered irrelevant by the long-term growth of Chinese wealth and power and its consequent regional hegemony.
One alternative to shifting balances of power is provided by more or less fixed geographic spheres of influence. Spheres of influence are disliked by both realists and idealists, including neoconservatives and hawkish neoliberals. But this is a relatively recent development in American history. Before the world wars, the United States channeled the Monroe Doctrine and identified its own sphere of influence. The Open Door doctrine promoted by the United States and Britain more than a century ago was compatible with European and Japanese spheres of influence within the territory of a then powerless and divided China. Although Franklin Roosevelt seems to have envisioned his “Four Policemen”—the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and China—policing their regions after World War II, the Cold War quickly became a contest among rival liberal and Communist visions for the loyalties of postcolonial nations and the “captive nations” of Soviet-controlled Europe. In practice, of course, the United States and USSR defended their spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Central America. But the idea that the weak neighbors of a regional great power or superpower should defer to the local hegemon fell out of favor. Indeed, in November 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry declared, “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”
One interpretation of this would be that the historic Monroe Doctrine had lost its relevance in the post–Cold War period, in which the United States asserted its exclusive sphere of influence as the world’s only superpower, not only in the Americas but also in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and every other region. Today, however, America’s project of converting hegemony within its Cold War bloc into universal hegemony—turning the entire planet into a single sphere of influence, as it were—has collapsed thanks to Chinese and Russian resistance and the war-weariness of the American public. But the U.S. foreign-policy establishment refuses to acknowledge the failure of America’s recent bid for global hegemony, pretending instead that the so-called “liberal world order” is under unjustified assault by China, Russia and perhaps Iran. Because China and Russia are engaged in moderate pushback against the American bloc in Asia and Europe, they are supposed to be threats to liberalism, the rule of law and global democracy. Meanwhile, America’s illiberal and antidemocratic allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, responsible for promoting Salafist jihadist proxies in Syria and elsewhere, are supposed to be understood as states that uphold the liberal world order. This is just propaganda, of a particularly Orwellian kind. What the bipartisan U.S. foreign-policy elite and its allies abroad call the liberal world order is nothing more than the contemporary American bloc, like the “Free World” of the Cold War.
THE CURRENT conflicts with China and Russia are not bumps on the road to U.S. global hegemony but barricades. There is not the slightest chance that Chinese and Russian regimes, of any character, no matter how liberal or democratic, will ever accept as legitimate a permanent U.S. military presence along their borders. Because the stakes are too low for the American public to support risking wars with either great power, the most likely long-term outcomes are either the neutralization of contested interstitial areas like Ukraine and the South China Sea, or the laying down of new, militarized tripwires in these areas like the Iron Curtain of the Cold War.
In either case, the nightmare scenario invoked as a warning by proponents of global hegemony—the division of the world among regional blocs and spheres of influence—will have come to pass. There would be neither enduring, widely accepted U.S. global military hegemony nor a rule-governed global free market. Instead, there would be, at least in the short run, a version of the world envisioned by Burnham and Orwell: an American-led “Oceania,” a Chinese “Eastasia” bloc of some kind, and a Russia-centered “Eurasia” much smaller and weaker than the former USSR. Over time, India might join the United States and China as a leading military and economic power, perhaps as the center of its own bloc—let us call it “Southasia.” Populist nationalism within Europe will doom any attempt to turn the continent into a centralized, independent bloc capable of acting as a unit in world affairs. Instead, Europe may remain a U.S. protectorate, drift into neutrality or, in the worst-case scenario, become a “shatterbelt” for which external powers once again compete.