Reality Check

American Power in an Age of Constraints

Here’s to great power: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin in Tajikistan, June 2019 Sputnik Photo Agency

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

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