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For the past three decades, as the United States stood at the pinnacle of global power, U.S. leaders framed their foreign policy around a single question: What should the United States seek to achieve in the world? Buoyed by their victory in the Cold War and freed of powerful adversaries abroad, successive U.S. administrations forged an ambitious agenda: spreading liberalism and Western influence around the world, integrating China into the global economy, and transforming the politics of the Middle East.
In setting these goals, Washington did, to some extent, factor in external constraints, such as the potential objections of important regional powers around the world. But for the most part, foreign policy debates focused on what a given measure might cost or on whether spreading Western institutions was desirable as a matter of principle. The interests of other countries, particularly adversaries, were secondary concerns.
This approach to foreign policy was misguided even at the peak of American power. As the endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Russian interventionism in eastern Europe have shown, adversaries with a fraction of the United States’ resources could find ways to resist U.S. efforts and impose high costs in the process. Today, Washington’s primacy mindset—its disregard for the core interests of potential adversaries—is even more counterproductive. With China on the rise, Russia defiant, and the United States’ liberal international coalition weakened from within, Washington faces a much more constrained environment. A foreign policy that neglects that fact will stymie cooperation and set the United States on a collision course with its rivals.
To avoid that outcome, U.S. foreign policy must adapt both in substance and in mindset. In the coming decades, the essential question will be a new one: What global aims can the country pursue that its allies can support and that its geopolitical rivals can accept? Taking this approach will open up possibilities for compromise with Beijing and Moscow and will help establish mutually acceptable, if imperfect, equilibriums around the globe.
To understand where U.S. foreign policy went wrong, compare the two pivotal moments when the United States reached the pinnacle of world power: once at the end of World War II and again at the end of the Cold War. In 1945, the country’s economic and military might was unmatched. The United States had emerged from the war as the only major power to have avoided both large-scale bombing and the occupation of its mainland. The country had lost an estimated 0.3 percent of its population in the war—compared with four percent for Japan, nine percent for Germany, and a staggering 14 percent for the Soviet Union. The U.S. economy accounted for nearly half of total world economic output. And of course, the United States was the only country that possessed the atomic bomb.
Given the United States’ dominant position, several American voices called for a muscular foreign policy to roll back Soviet influence and communist regimes in eastern Europe. But ultimately, U.S. leaders adopted a more restrained strategy: to help reestablish democracy and markets in western Europe, protect those countries from Soviet expansion, and limit Soviet influence around the globe. In the interest of preventing a war, that strategy, which came to be known as “containment,” sought to avoid steps that the Soviet Union would deem unacceptable, such as the elimination of communist buffer states in eastern Europe.
Containment was neither modest nor meek. During the brief postwar period of primacy and the decades of bipolarity that followed, the United States and its allies spread their influence and battled communism all over the world, often excessively, engaging in covert actions and bloody wars. Critically, however, the strategy respected core Soviet national interests, especially communist control of what the Soviets viewed as their “near abroad.” In the prescient vision of the diplomat George Kennan, the architect of containment, the United States would defeat Moscow by allowing the Soviet system to collapse from its own internal rot.
As Washington’s global influence wanes, the costs of primacy are rising.
The second U.S. experience with primacy played out differently. When the Soviet Union dissolved, the United States had the world’s largest economy, the most powerful military, and a roster of allies that included the world’s richest, most technologically advanced countries. At this unipolar moment, a few voices argued for a strategy of restraint, calling on the United States to husband its economic resources, focus on domestic challenges, and avoid stumbling into new conflicts. But Washington, unconstrained by the lack of any peer competitor, rejected this approach. Russia was on its knees; China was weak. And potential opponents of liberalism and free markets were chasing a dead-end cause. The “end of history” had arrived.
American leaders chose to promote the U.S.-led liberal international order. In concert with its allies, Washington steadily expanded core Western institutions, above all NATO and the European Union, into eastern Europe. As they did so, Washington and its partners debated the appropriate speed of expansion and the political and economic criteria that entrants into their order should meet. But they paid little heed to Russian concerns about Western encroachment, despite earlier pledges to the contrary. Russia, wrote the journalist Julia Ioffe, had become “a place to be mocked rather than feared”: not a great power any longer but “Upper Volta with missiles.” And after the 9/11 attacks, Washington embarked on a project not merely to destroy al Qaeda but also to transform the Middle East. Afghanistan and Iraq were just the first two targets; the goal was broader: regime change in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere.
Even at the peak of American power, it was unwise to disregard the core interests of potential adversaries. But 30 years after the end of the Cold War, Washington’s relative power has dramatically declined. In Russia and China, the United States now faces two emboldened rivals willing to push against what they see as American overreach. To make matters worse, a fierce populist backlash rejecting core tenets of the liberal international order has roiled both the United States and Europe. As a result, the unified and powerful bloc of Western democracies that once amplified U.S. influence across the globe has fractured, leaving Washington without a crucial source of support in its competition with great-power rivals. And as Washington’s global influence wanes, the costs of the primacy mindset are rising.
One source of geopolitical change is Russia. The country is in many ways an unlikely impediment to U.S. primacy. It is neither a thriving society nor a rising power. On the contrary, it is a country with an aging, shrinking population; it is rife with corruption; and it is almost totally reliant on oil revenues—hardly markers of innovation and growth. And yet Moscow has found clever and effective ways to push back against an international order that Russian President Vladimir Putin correctly views as hostile to his country’s interests. Through wars against Georgia and Ukraine, Russia has managed to not only halt those countries’ movements toward integration with the U.S.-backed order but also create divisions between Washington and its European allies. And by spreading disinformation via government-funded media outlets and bankrolling extremist European parties, Russia has exploited vulnerabilities in the open political systems of its adversaries and has sown polarization and division within their electorates.
As a result, Washington and Moscow are now locked in a dangerous cycle of escalation. The United States and Europe continue to expand their political and military influence into Russia’s near abroad. (Bosnia, Georgia, North Macedonia, and Ukraine all are queuing up for entry into NATO, for example.) Russia, in turn, has launched covert military interventions in Ukraine, carried out dramatic assassination attempts in the United Kingdom, and conducted political interference campaigns across the West.
To de-escalate this conflict, the two sides should strike a bargain: Western nonexpansion for Russian noninterference. The West would cease any further enlargement of NATO and the EU in eastern Europe. In return, Russia would agree to cease its campaign of domestic political interference. (The degree of U.S. government interference in Russia’s domestic politics is unclear, but Washington would also need to disavow such methods.)
Whatever the specifics of the deal, its goal would be mutual accommodation. Let the Russians come forth and list whatever they see as the most egregious Western encroachments on their interests—perhaps it is indeed the expansion of NATO and the EU, perhaps some other policy. Western governments can do the same, and the two sides can negotiate with the goal of removing the worst irritants. Such an understanding, even if it leaves both sides dissatisfied on the margins, would offer a clear path forward.
Critics might object that such a deal would be unenforceable given the difficulty, in an age of disinformation, of proving who carried out what political operation against whom. But during the Cold War, the two sides managed this problem and established rules of the game to limit each side’s espionage and covert actions against the other. If one side determined that the other had gone too far, it would retaliate, after which things would go back to normal. There is no reason why Washington and Moscow could not manage the same today. Nor would such an agreement require much trust, which is clearly lacking on both sides. Were Moscow to continue its policy of domestic political interference, Washington could initiate programs to destabilize Russia’s own domestic politics. Authoritarian regimes, always afraid of rivals at home, are at least as vulnerable to such outside interference as democracies are. And if the West reneges on its promises, Moscow can retaliate by ramping up its own information war.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to achieving such an agreement—even an informal one—is the reluctance of U.S. foreign policy leaders to acknowledge that Russia has valid national security interests in eastern Europe. But ignoring Russia’s concerns will not make them disappear. “It is totally unrealistic to think that the West can gain desired Russian restraint and cooperation,” wrote the former U.S. diplomat Leslie Gelb in 2015, “without dealing with Moscow as a great power that possesses real and legitimate interests.”
U.S. primacy has also come under strain from a rising China. In 1990, the country was a geopolitical afterthought: its economy was only six percent of the size of the U.S. economy; today, that figure is 63 percent. (Considering purchasing power parity adjustments to GDP, China has already surpassed the United States economically.) More important, China’s fast economic growth—which even after slowing down is nearly triple the rate of U.S. growth—means that unless some political catastrophe befalls China, the country will be the economic juggernaut of the twenty-first century.
China has also become a regional military power. Beijing has transformed the bloated, technologically backward military it fielded in 1990 into one with sophisticated capabilities for the types of missions that Chinese leaders care about most: coercing Taiwan and hindering U.S. military movements in East Asian waters. Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader in the 1980s, famously counseled his country to “hide your strength, bide your time.” Today, the country is done with hiding and biding. Instead, it has extended its reach in Asia by building two aircraft carriers, constructing and then militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea, and securing access to military bases across Asia and the Indian Ocean. As a result, China is on its way to becoming a peer competitor in a region where U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military power went unrivaled not long ago.
U.S. leaders should ask what they can realistically achieve without poisoning U.S.-Chinese relations.
U.S. foreign policy was relatively mindful of Beijing’s core interests even before China’s rise. In deference to Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan, the Nixon administration ended the U.S. alliance with the Republic of China (Taiwan), officially recognized that there was only “one China,” and normalized relations with Beijing. That policy was undermined by pushback from Congress and by continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which the Chinese say violate U.S.-Chinese bilateral agreements. Still, the “one China” policy has been the cornerstone of cooperative relations with Beijing from the last decades of the Cold War to the present.
Several other aspects of U.S. policy, however, antagonize Beijing. The United States’ policy of economic engagement with China, often cast as a benign effort to welcome the country into the global trade regime, also has a transformative logic. Its proponents have talked openly about their hopes that the policy would force China to reform its illiberal institutions, reduce its human rights violations, and create a new, wealthy elite that would reject the Chinese Communist Party’s grasp on power. Chinese observers have correctly considered a U.S. strategy endowed with such hopes to be a soft form of regime change.
The Chinese are also wary of U.S. alliances in the region, fearing that Washington’s decision to maintain Cold War alliances in Asia after 1990 was aimed at containing China. Resenting U.S. military dominance, the Chinese have seethed when U.S. military vessels have crossed into Chinese waters and airspace, or when the United States sailed two aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait in 1995, at a time of heightened tension between Taiwan and the mainland. More recently, as the United States has strengthened political and military ties with countries along the region’s major trade routes and along China’s borders (notably India and Vietnam), Chinese leaders have complained of encirclement.
Today, however, China can do much more than complain. As part of a sweeping overseas influence campaign, Beijing has interfered in the domestic politics of other countries (Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, for example), used economic pressure to punish countries that it deems hostile to China, and built the capabilities needed to challenge U.S. military superiority in East Asia. In an era in which U.S. political, economic, and military dominance in the region has declined, avoiding conflict and cooperating with Beijing will require respect for its core concerns. The two countries share many interests, regionally and globally. They both want a denuclearized North Korea and stability on the Korean Peninsula. The same goes for addressing climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and numerous other global problems. Washington and Beijing can make headway on such issues together, or they can have a hostile relationship. They cannot do both.
In a post-primacy era, U.S. leaders should ask what they can realistically achieve without poisoning U.S.-Chinese relations. Of course, the United States wants China to democratize and respect the human rights of its people. It also wants to see the Taiwan question resolved in a way that grants peace and autonomy to that thriving democratic society. But pushing for those goals would directly challenge core interests of the Chinese Communist Party. Doing so would stymie bilateral cooperation, threaten the United States’ relationship with partners in the region (who want to maintain stable relations with China), and risk war.
A deal with Beijing would center on a few central issues. One is the future of American alliances in the region. The United States’ relationships in East Asia are an important source of U.S. political and military power, so it would be unwise for Washington to sacrifice them for a rapprochement with China. But the United States can refrain from adding new allies and military partners, in particular along China’s borders. Establishing such relationships would ignore Beijing’s concerns in the same way Washington disregarded Moscow’s by extending NATO into the Baltics. And in Asia, the United States would be poking the eye of a rising, not a declining, power.
In exchange for these concessions, Washington could require Beijing to respect the status quo in Taiwan and in other territorial disputes. Out of concern for human rights and for geopolitical reasons, the United States does not want the Taiwan issue settled forcibly, nor does it want the region’s several island or border disputes to lead to violence that could spiral into a wider war. If Beijing were to agree but later stray from its commitments, Washington could use force if appropriate (for example, to defend its allies) or covertly intervene in Chinese domestic politics, calibrating its response based on the severity of China’s transgressions.
China may well be open to a deal of this kind. Chinese leaders routinely emphasize the need to avoid conflict with the United States and say they welcome a U.S. presence in the region, so long as the United States does not seek to contain China. Beijing also understands that U.S. disengagement would likely cause Japan to increase its military power and adopt a more assertive security policy—something China would prefer to avoid.
Détente with Washington would be the more prudent path for Beijing, because its leaders face pressing domestic problems, such as corruption, environmental degradation, and an insufficient social safety net. But China is a rising power flush with pride in its achievements and brimming with a sense of righteousness from the regime’s narrative about past national humiliations. Although the country has good reasons to take a deal, there is no guarantee that it will.
The challenges to American primacy do not end with its great-power rivals. U.S. power has also weakened from within. In the United States and among several of its core allies, large parts of the public have lost confidence in the liberal project that long animated Western foreign policy. The disillusion is in part a reaction to the twin forces of economic globalization and automation, which have decimated employment in manufacturing in the developed world. It is also reflected in growing opposition to immigration, which contributed to the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU, the rise of chauvinist parties across Europe, and the election of Donald Trump in the United States. In his 2017 inaugural address, Trump lamented the “American carnage” that he asserted the former presidents and assorted officials sitting in the gallery behind him had caused. Their policies, he said, had “enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry” and benefited other countries even as the United States’ own wealth, strength, and confidence had crumbled.
Trump’s political ascent, his disdain for U.S. allies, and his administration’s controversial policies—on matters such as trade, Syria, and Iran, for example—have all dismayed longtime U.S. partners. Doubts about the United States’ reliability as a military ally have grown. And allies across Asia and Europe, keen to maintain valuable economic relationships with China, have demurred to Washington’s more confrontational approach toward Beijing. With its voters overwhelmed by the burden of global leadership and its alliances fraying, the United States lacks the domestic and coalitional unity necessary to pursue a confrontational and costly foreign policy.
Some may dispute that so much has really changed. After all, many measures of national power (GDP per capita, total defense spending, and the metrics of economic innovation, to name just a few) suggest that the United States remains a geopolitical titan. And many people hope that perhaps after a brief dalliance with reckless chauvinism, democratic peoples around the world will decide they prefer the old, safer order.
The United States’ geopolitical vacation is over.
But this optimism is misguided. Opponents of the U.S.-led order around the world have discovered that they can resist U.S. influence even if they lag far behind the United States in aggregate power. Recall that the Soviet Union competed with the United States for more than four decades without ever having the equivalent of more than 40 percent of U.S. GDP. China already vastly exceeds that threshold. The United States’ great-power rivals have the added advantage of being able to apply their military and political resources close to home, whereas Washington must spread its capabilities across the world if it is to maintain its current status. Nor will the domestic backlash against the liberal order subside quickly. Even if voters decide to reject the most extreme and incompetent populist standard-bearers, the sources of their dissatisfaction will remain, and more effective leaders will arise to give voice to it.
Together, those shifts leave the United States little option but to adapt. For roughly 25 years, the United States’ all-surpassing power allowed the country to take a vacation from geopolitics. That Zeitgeist was captured by a senior adviser in the George W. Bush administration who, in a 2004 conversation with the writer Ron Suskind, scoffed at what he called “the reality-based community” for its judicious policy analyses of pros and cons. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” the official said. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
Because no other country had the power to mount a powerful resistance, U.S. leaders felt free to reimagine reality largely unconstrained by the objections of those who opposed the global liberal project. Scholars will debate the wisdom of the path they took—some arguing that, on balance, the United States’ project of liberal hegemony achieved many of its goals, others saying that the country squandered its power and expedited a return to multipolarity. Yet whatever the verdict, it is clear today that the United States’ geopolitical vacation is over and that a major course correction is due.
To some, such a change may feel like a traumatic revision, but it would in fact be a return to normalcy. For almost all countries throughout history, the essence of foreign policy has been to pursue pressing national interests in a world of constraints and competing powers. Indeed, this was the mindset of U.S. leaders during the Cold War, when they settled on a policy to compete intensely with the Soviet Union around the globe but to defer to its core interests near its borders. At the time, hawks disparaged containment as too accommodating or immoral. Now, Americans venerate containment as brilliant statecraft.
If the United States wants to avoid war and cooperate on matters of shared interests with powerful countries, its leaders need to shed the primacy mindset and combine their laudable ambition and creativity with a pragmatism appropriate to an era of great-power competition. The question is no longer what the United States wants to achieve. It is rather what the United States can achieve that an increasingly fractured coalition can support and that its rivals can live with.