Instead, America First offered a go-it-alone approach with every nation for itself—an approach that failed the test of the pandemic even as it ignored the reality that in, at least, the medical-scientific community the sharing of data and collaboration between labs took place naturally across the globe. Still, in the absence of U.S. leadership, the international community was not mobilized to deal with a common danger and international institutions such as the World Health Organization were found wanting.
Ironically, some of Trump’s critics shared with him the view that our approach to the world has been based on fundamentally flawed assumptions. They may have rejected America First in a narrow sense, but they saw the United States as too willing to use force, too inclined to think in “hegemonic” terms, and too indifferent to inequalities generated by globalization. These so-called “restrainers”—from Bernie Sanders on the left to Rand Paul on the right—might differ on issues of humanitarian assistance, the role of government, and international institutions, but they share the view that America’s pursuit of hegemony is to blame for much of the world’s disorder. In their eyes, if only the US would demilitarize its foreign policy and dramatically cut back on its military presence and base structure overseas, the world would be a far more stable place. What is striking about this group is that they are essentially blind to the aggression of predatory powers: the actions of China, Russia, and even Iran are seen as largely defensive and a reaction to the insecurity our military presence provokes. Great power ambition—or regional dominance in the case of all three—apparently doesn’t exist. History and their behaviors suggest otherwise.
Others who see danger in our over-reach and the inability to sustain our posture internationally fall into two different categories: there are those who advocate the concept of “spheres of influence” and there are those whose framework is “off-shoring balancing.” The former fear that the rise of China and Russia’s need for stature on the world stage will increasingly risk great power conflict unless we recognize their respective spheres of influence. Such spheres would, they argue, satisfy the Chinese and Russian psychological and perceived security needs and would, therefore, yield stability comparable to that which existed during the Cold War. Unfortunately, the spheres of influence approach would mean Chinese and Russian dominance of the regions near them and submission of the states and peoples to their dictates. While that itself might produce resistance in these areas, there is also the question of the definition of the spheres’ precise dimensions: are they really static and not expanding? Won’t the boundaries of the spheres constantly be tested and produce points of friction and potential conflict?
As for the offshore balancers, they want to cut back on our extensive military presence overseas and have our allies and partners carry the main burden of their security and defense. Yes, cost and sustainability guide the offshore balancers but so, too, does their view that our military presence is what tempts us to intervene far too much. They see the value of preventing a hegemonic power from gaining dominance in Europe or Asia (or the Middle East), but believe we don’t need most of our current overseas bases and we can intervene at the exact moments when our allies or partners can no longer handle threats. Maybe, but power projection requires real logistic support, ongoing training with local forces, and bases that are compatible and allow interoperability. Moreover, withdrawal from US bases inevitably will also send a political and psychological message that our allies and partners are much more on their own. No doubt, some are likely to believe that they will not be able to count on us in the crunch, and may, therefore, feel driven to find ways to accommodate the very hegemonic powers the off-shore balancers want to contain.
All these conceptual approaches are motivated by the feeling that the United States has been over-stretched, carried too much of the burden internationally, intervened far too much militarily with high costs and dubious results—and our allies and partners free-loaded, failing to pay their fair share or assume the major responsibility for their own security. All are right, at least, to a certain extent.
But what they miss is that American leadership is still needed unless we want to face a world that, as Biden observed, is far more chaotic or even hostile to our values and interests. In one way or another each of these concepts involves American retrenchment, and what we have already seen is that when the US withdraws, vacuums are created, and those vacuums are inevitably filled by the worse forces. Yes, the war in Iraq was a terrible mistake, but fearing another Iraq led us to resist more limited steps that might have contained a horrendous conflict in Syria that has resulted in more than 600,000 dead, 11 million displaced, refugee flows to Europe that helped to produce Brexit and the growth of Right-wing populists, tolerance of war crimes, and the emergence of ISIS. The threat posed by ISIS drew us back in. The irony is that in the process of combating the ISIS caliphate we hit on a model that can be used in the future: we had a local partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which was ready to bear the brunt of the fighting but needed logistic, intelligence, and air support from us. We provided that support and the SDF succeeded in rooting out ISIS on the ground while losing over 11,000 of its forces. We did lose six of our special forces, but ISIS was defeated (not destroyed) and it was a victory led by a local partner willing and able to fight for itself.
A Different Framework for America’s Role in the World
So, what is the right framework for our role in the world: one that prevents vacuums from forming, that is sustainable politically, militarily, and economically, and secures our interests and our values? Henry Kissinger has said: “What is new about the emerging world order is that for the first time the United States can neither withdraw from the world nor dominate it.” Given that, and given the diversity and diffusion of power, we need a mix of two concepts—Kissinger’s balance of power approach and a liberal, rules-based order. The former recognizes the role of hard power in balancing international rivals like China and Russia and regional rogue states like Iran. The balance of power has always been based on the principle of equilibrium or offsetting power with power and fostering deterrence as a way of setting limits without going to war. In doing so, it established certain rules of the game. It is driven by interests, not values—though, of course, preventing or limiting war is a value.
A liberal, rules-based system places far greater emphasis on values. It is rooted in free societies with free media, a free and fair trading system, support for human rights, and alliances of democratic states all working with international institutions. We have a stake in preserving this system—whose creation we spearheaded in the aftermath of World War II—because it reflects our values and our foreign policy will be easier to sustain when it reflects our basic values.
One way to describe the mix of the balance of power with a liberal international order is to think of hard power and soft power. Both are essential. In a world of only hard power our interests might be respected but we will attract few to follow us or join with us as we define objectives. If we rely only on soft power, we may be a model for others and others will be drawn to our objectives, but few will think they can count on us. Few will expose themselves by joining with us and sharing the burdens of defense. Soft power must always be backed by hard power, but the application of hard power is made far more credible and legitimate because of our soft power.
During the Trump years, the American brand suffered mightily. We walked away from our values, and the image of our incompetence, especially on COVID-19, also damaged the American model. A Biden administration must be able to re-establish our soft power by standing for something and by showing it can achieve what it sets out to do. Values and competence matter. But so do reliability and the credibility to stand by allies and partners and meet their security needs when called on to do so.
All this means that the incoming Biden administration will have its work cut out for it to re-establish the appeal of America even as it makes clear it will assume again a leadership role internationally. Of course, there is no American leadership role on the outside if we cannot put our own house in order on the inside, meaning we must be strong at home if we are going to be strong abroad. As such, for the Biden administration to put into practice this hybrid model of the balance of power and a liberal rules-based system internationally, and to be orchestrating at its center a network of alliances and partnerships, it will need to act both domestically and internationally.