THIRTY YEARS ago, the quintessential neoconservative Jeane J. Kirkpatrick argued in The National Interest that the United States should now become “a normal country in a normal time.” The Cold War had been a special, aberrant case in the American experience, justifying an extraordinary level of global commitment and activity. However, in the entirely changed circumstances of the post-Cold War era, it was time for America to return to an earlier pattern of behavior based on a much more restricted view of the nation’s interests and commitments.
“Most of the international military obligations that we assumed were once important are now outdated. Our alliances should be alliances of equals, with equal risks, burdens and responsibilities,” argued Kirkpatrick, a former Democrat who had served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Reagan administration. “It is time to give up the dubious benefits of superpower status and become again an unusually, successful, open republic.” The American people were tired of the burdens of foreign policy and wanted a reordering of priorities in favor of discrimination abroad while attending to pressing domestic affairs.
Her position never enjoyed much popularity. There was not an immediate demobilization and no drastic scaling down of America’s military commitments across the globe. The strategic and mental habits formed during the four decades of the Cold War were very powerful. Indeed, other contributors to these pages and elsewhere argued that, having just won a great victory and become the world’s only genuine superpower, the United States should exploit what the prominent columnist Charles Krauthammer called the “unipolar moment.” The dangerous bipolar world of the Cold War had been replaced by a unipolar world in which the United States had no serious rivals. “American global leadership,” a “New American Century,” “indispensable nation,” “benign hegemony”—these became the new credos of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
Fast forward to 2020, and it is clear America has run aground. But it is in a crisis caused by forces that preceded Donald Trump. Wage stagnation, rising inequality, socio-economic dislocation caused by technological change and exacerbated by the 2008–09 financial crisis—all this had sharpened divisions between ordinary Americans and economic elites well before Trump arrived on the political scene. So did the polarization that grips Washington. In 2013, Robert Gates, former defense secretary to presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, warned that the greatest national security threat to the United States was “the two square miles that encompass the Capitol Building and the White House.”
Most of these woes are self-inflicted. Under presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, Washington led efforts to expand the NATO eastwards, which upset Russia’s strategic sensibilities and helped create a new cold war with Moscow. After the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the United States spent blood and treasure on fighting misbegotten wars in the Middle East where it had no vital interests. Meanwhile, America’s belief that democracy is an export commodity is no longer credible, if it ever was.
What now? How should the incoming President-elect Joe Biden approach the world, and America’s place in it? One impediment to clear thinking about U.S. foreign policy, as Kirkpatrick recognized thirty years ago, has been habit—seeing the world as it was, rather than as it is. Indeed, habit is one of the most powerful forces in human life, because it is such a labor-saving device, making it possible to dispense with thought. Lord Salisbury, prime minister and foreign minister of Great Britain when that nation was the most powerful on earth, once remarked: “The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.”
Today, we can see that error being committed in American foreign policy. The clearest example is the extent to which Russia—the heart of the old “evil empire” during the Cold War—is treated as a threat and dangerous enemy. Or, again, take the Persian Gulf where an energy-independent United States maintains a significant strategic presence.
Circumstances alter cases, and America should pull out of at least one outdated alliance that Kirkpatrick identified in 1990. In Europe, three decades since the collapse of Soviet Communism, the Biden administration should significantly reduce the U.S. military presence on the continent and turn NATO over to the Europeans. In the Persian Gulf, three decades since the liberation of Kuwait, America should stop taking sides in a broader Sunni-Shia security competition. Instead, it should play the Saudis and the Iranians off each other while significantly limiting its military engagements.
Asia, however, is different: the most consequential geopolitical development of the post-Cold War era has been the relentless rise of China, which has turned the unipolar world into a more complicated one that does not conform to American expectations. U.S. military force will be justified to contain China’s expansion in the region, especially given that U.S. allies are unable or unwilling to balance Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions on their own. In other words, Biden should do what Obama sought to do earlier last decade: pivot away from Europe and the Middle East and towards Asia.
Many Americans from both political persuasions continue to believe in the notion of global leadership and that a sense of modesty, restraint, limits, and discrimination—or realpolitik—is at odds with the American tradition and temperament. But as Kirkpatrick once observed: “We should reject utterly any claim that foreign policy is the special providence of special people – beyond the control of those who must pay its costs and bear its consequences.” That advice is as relevant today as it was three decades ago.
Tom Switzer is Executive Director of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and a presenter at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National. Image: Reuters.