The Future of U.S. Global Leadership
The central premise of the foreign policy establishment has long been that only the United States can lead the free world. But that assumption increasingly looks imperiled, most recently by the pandemic. What would foreign policy look like without it?
June 15, 2020
Jun 15, 2020
15 Min read time
The assumption that only the United States can lead the free world increasingly looks imperiled, most recently by the COVID-19 pandemic. What would foreign policy look like without it?
Harvard University Press, $27.95 (cloth)
A funny thing happened at the end of the Cold War. The U.S. alliance system, the web of tight geopolitical relationships U.S. strategists had forged to wage the long Cold War, just carried on as before. The opposing alliance, the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, shattered like glass even before the Soviet Union itself disintegrated. But, contrary to the prediction of many academics at the time, NATO, the United States–Japan alliance, and a hodgepodge of other more and less formal arrangements persisted even though their original rationale faded into oblivion.
NATO and its kin spent the next generation on the institutional equivalent of an Eat, Pray, Love journey, continually searching for a sense of meaning and purpose. NATO passed the 1990s expanding and promoting democratization in Eastern Europe, the 2000s fighting a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and providing military training in Iraq, and even tried its hand at regime change in Libya in 2011. “Whither NATO?” became a conference title, then a cliché, and ultimately a New Yorker cartoon.
As we approach the 2020 election, our U.S. foreign policy debate is caught between the solipsistic stupidities of the Trumpians and the tired nostalgia of the Washington foreign policy establishment.
Despite constant searching, U.S. alliances never found a true purpose in this period to replace their original Cold War vocation. Alliance proponents engaged in a continual struggle to justify their existence to an American public that was usually apathetic and occasionally hostile to the promise to protect allies that most of the public could not locate on a map.
Nonetheless, the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s devotion to alliances never wavered in the post–Cold War period. U.S. political leaders fought over how much to expand NATO and over how to get greater allied contributions to alliance missions and spending, but no mainstream politician or influential Washington thinktank seriously questioned their utility, even though their principal rationale had suddenly disappeared. Throughout this period no matter what foreign policy question you asked—How do we promote democratization? How do we fight terrorism? How do we prevent genocide?—part of the answer was always: with U.S. alliances.
Mira Rapp-Hooper’s new book Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Perils of America’s Alliances continues this tradition of unwavering support. She presents a vigorous historical defense of the U.S. alliance system since 1945 that demonstrates how useful alliances have been, even after their vision quest began in 1989. It is a compelling case, but within Washington policy circles this is an idea almost without an enemy. Rapp-Hooper mounts this defense of a very conventional idea mostly in response to the conspiratorial ravings of one man: the one who happens to be the president of the United States.
• • •
The Trumpian Challenge
Donald Trump’s accession to the presidency in 2017 represents the first serious political challenge to the role of alliances in the U.S. foreign policy after the end of the Cold War. During his campaign Trump frequently claimed that NATO and the Japan alliance were sucker deals for the United States. “We are protecting [NATO members], giving them military protection and other things,” Trump declared at a 2016 campaign rally, “and they’re ripping off the United States.” Various cranky academics in ivory towers had for years made similar (although much more sophisticated arguments) about the downsides of the U.S. alliance structure, but they had never moved the political needle.
Throughout the post–Cold War period, no matter what foreign policy question you asked—How do we promote democratization? How do we fight terrorism? How do we prevent genocide?—part of the answer was always: with U.S. alliances.
Trump’s understanding of U.S. foreign policy, the role of U.S. alliances, and most any other foreign policy concept was weak, bordering on puerile. But, unlike the academics, he had clearly tapped into a deep well of public discontent with U.S. foreign policy. Ironically, his political challenge to the alliance system came just as it found a new problem to which it could be the solution. With the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia, the U.S. alliance system looks set to return to its roots and describe a clear, comprehensible mission. U.S. alliances can once again serve as the principal tool through which the United States exercises global leadership in an epic struggle against an ideological foe. The foe has transformed itself from a communist bloc led by Russia and supported by China to an authoritarian bloc led by China and supported by Russia, but the basic concept remains the same.
For the last three plus years the political struggle over alliances has played out mostly within the Trump administration. It pits Trumpian true believers, who have little respect for the storied history of alliances, against the remnant of the Republican U.S. foreign policy establishment that managed to get key positions in the executive branch. The establishment types managed to make the idea of an alliance-based global struggle with China and Russia the centerpiece of the administration’s National Security Strategy released in December 2017. But Trump himself immediately undermined the concept by celebrating his close relationship with Vladimir Putin and attacking U.S. allies in the press conference introducing the strategy.
Trump has continued to take such potshots at U.S. allies and alliances throughout his presidency. “Europe treats us worse than China,” Trump complained in 2019, comparing America’s closest democratic allies unfavorably to its greatest authoritarian foe. “European nations were set up in order to take advantage of the United States.” Perhaps more importantly, the president is slowly but surely weeding out what remains of the establishment, or really any independent thought at all, as he prepares for a second term. The prospect for the U.S. alliance structure in that future is not bright.
• • •
Enter the Democrats
Of course, a second term for Trump is far from guaranteed. Meanwhile, his intellectual purge of the Republican Party means that Democrats have now become the guardians of foreign policy orthodoxy in Washington; anti-Trump Republican foreign policy thinkers have either defected to the Democrats or quietly faded into political irrelevance.
The idea that only the United States can lead the free world and that without active U.S. leadership the world will descend into geopolitical chaos and tyranny has been the central premise of the U.S. foreign policy establishment since 1945.
A Biden administration will of course seek to draw a strong contrast with the often-iconoclastic foreign policy of the Trump administration. But in doing so, Biden’s campaign rhetoric has not challenged the central premise of the 2017 national security strategy that the United States is locked in a global geopolitical competition with China and Russia. Rather, it critiques the Trump administration’s inconsistent and incompetent approach to that struggle, his curious love affair with Putin and other authoritarian leaders, and his constant denigration of U.S. allies and alliances. Biden’s return to orthodoxy will thus need to include a forceful re-invigoration of the U.S. alliance system.
Shields of the Republic provides a learned rationale and blueprint for that reinvigoration of alliances. Rapp-Hooper takes on directly and convincingly the Trumpian critique that alliances are not worth the investment and have led the nation to fight other people’s battles for them. “Those who prefer to bet on an alliance-free future,” she concludes, “do so on the basis of error: they forget America’s quietly impressive alliance record, they fear forms of abandonment and entanglement that are not borne out in practice, and they fail to recognize that the manifest challenges of a new era cannot be borne alone.” She also maps out how that same alliance system could adapt itself for the next global struggle with the authoritarian powers of China and Russia:
The alliance system needs new strategic logics that address competitive coercion, as practiced in different ways and for different reasons by China and Russia, as well as military defense and deterrence. Allies need to redistribute some of the burdens of security partnership, to better take advantage of U.S. partners’ competencies and to reflect today’s global distribution of power.
Rapp-Hooper seems well placed to guide this return to alliance orthodoxy. In 2016 she was the Hillary Clinton campaign’s Asia policy coordinator and is now advising the Biden campaign. She is also a senior fellow at that distinguished pillar of the establishment, the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as at Yale Law School. Her acknowledgments section attests to her connections to the very highest echelons of U.S. foreign policy thought and practice. Her deep erudition, crisp prose style, and innate brilliance shine through on most every page.
The 9/11 attacks, the war in Iraq, the global financial crisis, the resurgence of Russia, the rise of China, the populist backlash against globalization, and now a global pandemic have all strengthened a seemingly inexorable trend toward a relative decline in U.S. power.
All this biography is worth mentioning because it seems to have shaped the thrust of the book, which reads at times more like a job application to the blob than an effort to wrestle with the deeper complexities of U.S. foreign policy. It begins with Trump’s damaging critique of alliances and explicitly sets out to restore luster to the orthodox notion of alliances that prevailed in the halcyon days of the Cold War. From the perspective of providing support for the next Democratic administration’s foreign policy this makes perfect sense; from an analytical perspective, though, it seems odd.
Alliances are neither inherently good nor bad. Whether specific alliances are a good idea depends a lot on what you want to do with them. If you have decided you need to fight a new Cold War with China or Russia (or both) then a tight network of alliances will likely be quite useful, as they were during the Cold War. If you want to avoid such a struggle, then building alliances up to the doorstep of Russia and China probably only signals that you are coming to get them, as the expansion of U.S. alliances did during the post–Cold War period. As Rapp-Hooper notes, “alliances are means with which to accomplish strategic ends, not objectives in themselves—they cannot usefully remain static as American strategy transforms.”
• • •
A Return to Leadership
But beyond enlarging, U.S. alliances have largely remained static. Rapp-Hooper proposes that they basically continue with small adaptations relative to the massive changes in the world. Looking a little deeper, one can see that this is because broadly static strategy underlies Rapp-Hooper’s broad defense of alliances. Alliances support a U.S. foreign policy that the democratic foreign policy establishment generally takes for granted: U.S. global leadership.
A lot has changed since the end of the Cold War. The 9/11 attacks, the war in Iraq, the global financial crisis, the resurgence of Russia, the rise of China, the populist backlash against globalization, and now a global pandemic have all strengthened a seemingly inexorable trend toward a relative decline in U.S. power. To a certain extent, such a decline was inevitable, even if the particular path has often been a surprise. The unipolar moment after the fall of the Soviet Union could not last; new powers were bound to rise, and now they have.
Once an alliance is created, you must defend it and therefore need to constantly expand your military infrastructure and even the alliance itself. America’s alliances have become, in the jargon of the Pentagon, a self-licking ice cream cone.
But amidst all this tumultuous change, one idea has served as a rock of stability in an otherwise chaotic world: U.S. foreign policy professionals continue to prescribe a strategy of U.S. global leadership exercised through a broad and ever-expanding network of alliances. The idea that only the United States can lead the free world and that without active U.S. leadership the world will descend into geopolitical chaos and tyranny has been the central premise of the U.S. foreign policy establishment since 1945. Trump’s greatest foreign policy sin, in this view, is his abdication of global leadership in favor of more parochial interests at home. Lest that point be lost, Biden titled his foreign policy manifesto, “Why America must lead again.” Leadership was the strategy for the Cold War after 1945; it was the means to manage the unipolar moment and enlarge the sphere of democracies in the 1990s; it was the mechanism to fight the global war on terror in the 2000s and 2010s; and now it is the way to manage a new geopolitical competition with authoritarian powers.
America’s network of alliances play a key role in maintaining U.S. global leadership. It is not just that U.S.-led alliances encourage close ties and even dependence from allies; it is that alliances create their own logic that helps justify ever greater U.S. engagement on the global stage. Once an alliance is created, you must defend it and therefore need to constantly expand your military infrastructure and even the alliance itself. To do otherwise is to leave allies exposed and risk losing the credibility that holds the whole system of leadership together. As Rapp-Hooper emphasizes in the post–Cold War context, “by anchoring itself to overseas commitments, Washington could make a case for its leadership in a world that no longer seemed to need traditional collective defense.” Opposing powers naturally feel threatened by these developments and escalate their efforts to challenge or even break up U.S. alliances, reigniting the whole cycle again.
This phenomenon of alliance creep helps explain why the United States now finds itself with the challenging task of defending such far away and strategically valueless allies as Estonia and Montenegro. The existence of those commitments also explains why the American public is told that to abandon countries they have never heard of would be to threaten global stability and U.S. security. America’s alliances have become, in the jargon of the Pentagon, a self-licking ice cream cone.
• • •
Change so that things can stay the same
This strange consistency of the global leadership strategy cries out for a similarly consistent explanation. It is an iron law of democratic politics that any vast spending program, no matter its origin or purpose, will spawn powerful interests that will forcefully support its continuation. Over the course of the long Cold War, the United States had naturally built up an enormous military, industrial, and intellectual complex to support and run its global foreign policy.
It is an iron law of democratic politics that any vast spending program, no matter its origin or purpose, will spawn powerful interests that will forcefully support its continuation.
President Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell address had warned of a military-industrial complex that would seek to lock the United States into ever higher military spending. But what emerged from the Cold War was more than that: a self-replicating class of powerful institutions and people whose education, outlook, and financial interests all told them that America’s continued global leadership and its associated alliance structure was necessary for both global stability and U.S. security.
This class never constituted a cabal, trying to distort U.S. policy for their advantage. To the contrary, in my experience both inside and outside of government, they are patriots who genuinely believe in the virtues of America’s global role. Nonetheless, over time, interests tend to form identities—you tend to believe something if your next meal (or your next job) depends on it. The U.S. foreign policy elites very identity tied them to the continuation of a policy that supported their interests as a class: an activist foreign policy of U.S. global leadership. Dissenters were essentially apostates, banned from the church of government or even condemned to the hell of academia.
This intellectual hegemony seems to have constrained Rapp-Hooper and focused her attention on how to reform alliances so that they can support U.S. leadership rather than questioning the overall approach. Rapp-Hooper astutely notes the dilemma: “the United States will not be able simply to return to its role as a global alliance leader. Instead, persistent domestic economic and political factors,as well as complex global power shifts, will impose constraints on U.S. alliance leadership.” But for her project, the question is “how the United States attempts to recover leadership and on what terms,” not whether it should make the attempt.
U.S. alliances might well have an important role in a new foreign policy, but that role would begin from a recognition that U.S. global leadership is no longer possible or desirable.
Beyond Shields of the Republic, this conventional approach has spawned an entire genre of work from U.S. foreign policy insiders that looks upon a world that is daily changing—geopolitically, technologically, and even climatically—beyond almost all recognition and asks: How, amid such dramatic change, can we preserve the foreign policy we already have? Of course, they universally aver, U.S. strategy must adjust to the rise of China, the digital revolution, the climate crisis and now the pandemic. But even such epochal events must not fundamentally challenge the assumptions of U.S. leadership. Yes, some things may have to change, but only in order for them to stay the same.
The result, as we approach the 2020 election, is a U.S. foreign policy debate that is caught between the solipsistic stupidities of the Trumpians and the tired nostalgia of the Washington foreign policy establishment. Biden’s approach has the overwhelming virtue of coherence, and his team has the advantage of competent and honest professionals. But Trump’s approach did at least begin with an appreciation that the burdens of global leadership had become unbearable and that the U.S. public increasingly wants a foreign policy focused more on needs at home. U.S. alliances might well have an important role in such a foreign policy, but that role would begin from a recognition that U.S. global leadership is no longer possible or desirable. For all of the many virtues of this book, one wishes that Rapp-Hooper had turned her keen mind to describing that policy in innovative ways rather than providing yet another plan for sustaining U.S. leadership.
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June 15, 2020
15 Min read time