In the wake of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy underwent a profound transformation. Unrestrained by superpower competition, the United States' ambitions spilled over their former limits. Washington increased its military spending far faster than any of its rivals, expanded NATO, and started dispatching forces around the world on humanitarian missions while letting key allies drift away. These trends accelerated after 9/11, as the United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, ramped up its counterterrorism operations around the world, sped up its missile defense program, and set up new bases in distant lands.
Today, however, U.S. power has begun to wane. As other states rise in prominence, the United States' undisciplined spending habits and open-ended foreign policy commitments are catching up with the country. Spurred on by skyrocketing government debt and the emergence of the Tea Party movement, budget hawks are circling Washington. Before leaving office earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced cuts to the tune of $78 billion over the next five years, and the recent debt-ceiling deal could trigger another $350 billion in cuts from the defense budget over ten years. In addition to fiscal discipline, Washington appears to have rediscovered the virtues of multilateralism and a restrained foreign policy. It has narrowed its war aims in Afghanistan and Iraq, taken NATO expansion off its agenda, and let France and the United Kingdom lead the intervention in Libya.
But if U.S. policymakers have reduced the country's strategic commitments in response to a decline in its relative power, they have yet to fully embrace retrenchment as a policy and endorse deep spending cuts (especially to the military), redefine Washington's foreign policy priorities, and shift more of the United States' defense burdens onto its allies. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned that a cut in defense spending beyond the one agreed to in the debt-ceiling deal would be devastating. "It will weaken our national defense," he said. "It will undermine our ability to maintain
- Full website and iPad access
- Magazine issues
- New! Books from the Foreign Affairs Anthology Series