I had the privilege of taking a course with Arne Westad this past term on major power shifts in world history, beginning with the destruction of ancient Greece’s city-state system in the Peloponnesian War. The last event we considered was the collapse of the Soviet Union. For our second essay assignment, Professor Westad gave us a choice of nine prompts. I chose the last one—“Did the United States win the Cold War?”—in part because I thought the answer was self-evident: of course the United States prevailed. It is the world’s foremost power, after all; it inhabits a safer world, contrary to widespread perception; and there is no coherent alternative to the liberal world order that it has sustained and promulgated for some three quarters of a century.
I increasingly wonder, however, if I answered in haste. A quarter century after the Cold War’s conclusion, there are at least two reasons why it may be useful to consider, if not an idly contrarian case, a more measured response to Professor Westad’s question: first, the growing risk of strategic indiscipline; and second, the potential for an accelerated erosion of the liberal world order America had hoped to secure for posterity with the Soviet Union’s defeat.
The Increasing Difficulty of Achieving Strategic Focus
With the disappearance of the Soviet threat, the United States lost what the late James Schlesinger dubbed, in January 1992, “the magnetic north for calibrating its foreign policy”; on the other hand, it inherited an extraordinary margin of preeminence. Even with developments in the interregnum, whether “the rise of the rest” or the growing sway of nonstate actors, it retains an unrivaled freedom of maneuver. Duke University’s Hal Brands contends that because the United States is “able to do so much in the world, there is a near-constant temptation for it to do more—to accumulate new commitments and responsibilities, to label additional interests as ‘vital’ to the nation’s well-being.”
Two phenomena of recent years compound America’s quest to proceed with strategic clarity. First, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have enabled short-lived but potent digital mobilizations around a particular issue. Today the focus may be Turko-Russian relations; tomorrow, the collapse of Aleppo; the next day, Chinese construction in the South China Sea; the following day, North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship; the day after, the atrocities of Boko Haram. On balance, though, there is little alignment between the objects of online concern and longer-term considerations about the appropriate weighting of America’s strategic equities. As the organizing power of social media grows, so, too, will the likelihood that policymakers will be pilloried if they do not frame the day’s disturbance as the foremost imperative—and formulate policy accordingly.
Unfortunately, though, foreign policy loses its potential for coherence when the pressure to act supersedes the rationale for action. I expressed concerns about this “do something now” doctrine in early 2014 when the Obama administration was coming under pressure to push back more forcefully against Russian incursions into Crimea, and I find myself even more concerned about its ramifications today. Social media does not simply reward action over restraint; it also favors immediate impressions over considered analysis. Following the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, for example, countless observers likened it immediately to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 and warned that we may be on the cusp of a third world war. Commentaries that questioned the validity of the comparison—as well as the instinct to analogize—received little attention. Richard Fontaine and Vance Serchuk note that “[p]arallels from the past too often are put forward less to focus debate and discussion than to shut them down.”
The second reason it is becoming harder for the United States to find strategic focus is the rate of change in world order and its constituent regional orders. A longstanding set of arrangements in the Middle East has collapsed, and a stable replacement will likely take generations to emerge; a constellation of forces is weakening the pillars of cohesion in Europe; and strategic mistrust between the United States and China is introducing ever-greater instability in the Asia-Pacific. Amid such upheaval, some observers argue that the United States has no choice but to be equally engaged in all three of the aforementioned theaters; the world’s superpower must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. But the accumulation of complexity does not obviate the necessity for choice; it increases it. While the prescriptive case for according central strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific remains sound, enthusiasm for it among the public and the commentariat has waned.
The United States has a range of interests in the Middle East: among them, minimizing disruptions to the flow of petroleum, containing the spread of the Islamic State and ensuring Iran’s continued adherence to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But given how little it has to show for its interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, or for its broader attempt to reconfigure the Middle East, it should resist the impulse to increase its military involvement in that region—especially considering how much more complex the Middle East’s dynamics are today than they were in the aftermath of September 11, 2011. Aaron Miller and Richard Sokolsky observe that, “[i]f the past 25 years of U.S. foreign policy demonstrates anything, it is the limits of America’s power to pursue transformational change in a cruel and recalcitrant world.”