Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
MIND THE GAP
The United States is in the midst of a polarized and bruising debate about the nature and scope of its engagement with the world. The current reassessment is only the latest of many; ever since the United States' rise as a global power, its leaders and citizens have regularly scrutinized the costs and benefits of foreign ambition. In 1943, Walter Lippmann offered a classic formulation of the issue. "In foreign relations," Lippmann wrote, "as in all other relations, a policy has been formed only when commitments and power have been brought into balance.... The nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes."
Although Lippmann was mindful of the economic costs of global engagement, his primary concern was the political "solvency" of U.S. foreign policy, not the adequacy of the United States' material resources. He lamented the divisive partisanship that had so often prevented the United States from finding "a settled and generally accepted foreign policy." "This is a danger to the Republic," he warned. "For when a people is divided within itself about the conduct of its foreign relations, it is unable to agree on the determination of its true interest. It is unable to prepare adequately for war or to safeguard successfully its peace.... The spectacle of this great nation which does not know its own mind is as humiliating as it is dangerous." Lippmann's worries would prove unfounded; in the face of World War II and the onset of the Cold War, the bitter partisanship of the past gave way to a broad consensus on foreign policy that was to last for the next five decades.
Today, however, Lippmann's concern with political solvency is more relevant than ever. After the demise of the Soviet Union, the shock of September 11, and the failures of the Iraq war, Republicans and Democrats share less common ground on the fundamental purposes of U.S. power than at any other time since World War II. A critical gap has opened up between the United States' global commitments and its political appetite for sustaining them. As made clear by the collision between President George W. Bush and the Democratic Congress over what to do in Iraq, the country's bipartisan consensus on foreign policy has collapsed. If left unattended, the political foundations of U.S. statecraft will continue to disintegrate, exposing the country to the dangers of an erratic and incoherent foreign policy.
The presidential candidate who understands the urgency and gravity of striking a new balance between the United States' purposes and its political means is poised to reap a double reward. He or she would likely attract strong popular support; as in the 2006 midterm elections, in the 2008 election the war in Iraq and the conduct of U.S. foreign policy are set to be decisive issues. That candidate, if elected, would also enhance U.S. security by crafting a new grand strategy that is politically sustainable, thereby steadying a global community that continues to look to the United States for leadership.
Formulating a politically solvent strategy will require scaling back U.S. commitments, bringing them into line with diminishing means. At the same time, it will be necessary to stabilize the nation's foreign policy by shoring up public support for a new vision of the United States' global responsibilities. Solvency is the path to security; it is far better for the United States to arrive at a more discriminating grand strategy that enjoys domestic backing than to continue drifting toward an intractable polarization that would be as dangerous as it would be humiliating.
FINDING THE WATER'S EDGE
For Americans who lived through the bipartisan consensus of the Cold War era, the current political warfare over foreign policy seems to be a dramatic aberration. To be sure, Bush has been a polarizing president, in no small part due to the controversial invasion of Iraq and the troubled occupation that has followed. But in fact, today's partisan wrangling over foreign policy is the historical norm; it is the bipartisanship of the Cold War that was the anomaly.
Soon after the republic's founding, political parties formed to help overcome the obstacles that federalism, the separation of powers, and sectionalism put in the way of effective statecraft. With them came partisanship. During the nation's early decades, the main line of partisan competition ran along the North-South divide, pitting the Hamiltonian Federalists of the Northeast against the Jeffersonian Republicans of the South. The two parties disagreed on matters of grand strategy -- specifically whether the United States should lean toward Great Britain or France -- as well as on matters of political economy.
The Federalists worried that the new republic might fail if it found itself in a conflict with the British; they therefore favored tilting toward Great Britain rather than extending the alliance with France that was struck during the American Revolution. On economic matters, the Federalists defended the interests of the North's aspiring entrepreneurs, arguing for tariffs to protect the region's infant industries. The Republicans, however, continued to lean toward France, hoping to balance Great Britain's power by supporting its main European rival. And as champions of the interests of the nation's farmers, the Republicans clamored for free trade and westward expansion. At George Washington's behest, the two parties found common ground on the need to avoid "entangling alliances," but they agreed on little else.
Partisan passions cooled with the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and an era of solvency in the conduct of the nation's foreign affairs ensued. The collapse of the Federalist Party and the revival of an economy no longer disrupted by war ushered in what one Boston newspaper called "an Era of Good Feelings." For the first time, the United States enjoyed a sustained period of political consensus. Meanwhile, the peace preserved by the Concert of Europe, coupled with the tentative rapprochement with London that followed the War of 1812, made it possible for the nation's elected officials, starting with James Monroe, to turn their energies to the demands of "internal improvement." Americans focused on the consolidation and westward expansion of the union, limiting the nation's reach to what was sustainable politically and militarily.
This consensus was upended in 1846, when James Polk took the country to war against Mexico in the name of "manifest destiny." The Democrats -- the southern heirs to Jefferson's Republicans -- championed seizing Mexican territory and saw the war as an opportunity to strengthen their hold on the levers of national power. Fearing exactly that, the northeastern Whigs -- the forerunners to modern Republicans -- waged a rear-guard battle, challenging the legitimacy of Polk's land grab and the rise of southern "slave power." Polk's war, the United States' first war of choice, unleashed a new round of partisan struggle, aggravating the sectional tensions that would ultimately result in the Civil War.
An uneasy domestic calm set in after the Civil War, but it was soon brought to an end by divisions over the United States' aspirations to great-power status. Over the course of the 1890s, the United States built a world-class battle fleet, acquired foreign lands, and secured foreign markets. Republican efforts to catapult the United States into the front ranks, however, reopened sectional wounds and invited strong Democratic resistance. The Republicans prevailed due to their monopoly on power, but their geopolitical ambitions soon proved politically unsustainable. Starting with the Spanish-American War, the United States engaged in what Lippmann called "deficit diplomacy": its international commitments exceeded the public's willingness to bear the requisite burdens.
After the turn of the century, U.S. foreign policy lurched incoherently between stark alternatives. Theodore Roosevelt's imperialist adventure in the Philippines quickly outstripped the country's appetite for foreign ambition. William Taft tried "dollar diplomacy," preferring to pursue Washington's objectives abroad through what he called "peaceful and economic" means. But he triggered the ire of Democrats who viewed his strategy as little more than capitulation to the interests of big business. Woodrow Wilson embraced "collective security" and the League of Nations, investing in institutionalized partnerships that would ease the costs of the United States' deepening engagement with the world. But the Senate, virtually paralyzed by partisan rancor, would have none of it. As Henry Cabot Lodge, one of the League of Nations' staunchest opponents in the Senate, quipped, "I never expected to hate anyone in politics with the hatred I feel towards Wilson." By the interwar period, political stalemate had set in. Americans shunned both the assertive use of U.S. power and institutionalized multilateralism, instead preferring the illusory safety of isolationism advocated by Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.
One of Franklin Roosevelt's greatest achievements was overcoming this political divide and steering the United States toward a new era of bipartisanship. With World War II as a backdrop, he built a broad coalition of Democrats and Republicans behind liberal internationalism. The new course entailed a commitment to both power and partnership: the United States would project its military strength to preserve stability, but whenever possible it would exercise leadership through consensus and multilateral partnership rather than unilateral initiative. This domestic compact, although weakened by political struggles over the Vietnam War, lasted to the end of the Cold War.
The nature of the geopolitical threat facing the United States helped Roosevelt and his successors sustain this liberal internationalist compact. Washington needed allies to prevent the domination of Eurasia by a hostile power. The strategic exigencies of World War II and the Cold War also instilled discipline, encouraging Democrats and Republicans alike to unite around a common foreign policy. When partisan passions flared, as they did over the Korean War and the Vietnam War, they were contained by the imperatives of super-power rivalry.
The steadiness of bipartisan cooperation on foreign policy was the product not just of strategic necessity but also of changes in the nation's political landscape. Regional divides had moderated, with the North and the South forming a political alliance for the first time in U.S. history. Anticommunism made it politically treacherous to stray too far to the left, and the public's worries about nuclear Armageddon reined in the right. The post-World War II economic boom eased the socioeconomic divides of the New Deal era, closing the ideological distance between Democrats and Republicans and making it easier to fashion a consensus behind free trade. Prosperity and affluence helped nurture the United States' political center, which served as the foundation for the liberal internationalism that lasted a half century.
A NATION REDIVIDED
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the collapse of bipartisanship and liberal internationalism did not start with George W. Bush. Bipartisanship dropped sharply following the end of the Cold War, reaching a post-World War II low after the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994. Repeated clashes over foreign policy between the Clinton administration and Congress marked the hollowing out of the bipartisan center that had been liberal internationalism's political base. The Bush administration then dismantled what remained of the moderate center, ensuring that today's partisan divide is every bit as wide as the interwar schism that haunted Lippmann. Democratic and Republican lawmakers now hold very different views on foreign policy. On the most basic questions of U.S. grand strategy -- the sources and purposes of U.S. power, the use of force, the role of international institutions -- representatives of the two parties are on different planets.
Most Republicans in Congress contend that U.S. power depends mainly on the possession and use of military might, and they view institutionalized cooperation primarily as an impediment. They staunchly back the Bush administration's ongoing effort to pacify Iraq. When the new Congress took its first votes on the Iraq war in the beginning of this year, only 17 of the 201 Republicans in the House crossed party lines to oppose the recent surge in U.S. troops. In the Senate, only two Republicans joined the Democrats to approve a resolution calling for a timetable for withdrawal. In contrast, most Democrats maintain that U.S. power depends more on persuasion than coercion and needs to be exercised multilaterally. They want out of Iraq: 95 percent of House and Senate Democrats have voted to withdraw U.S. troops in 2008. With the Republicans opting for the use of force and the Democrats for international cooperation, the bipartisan compact between power and partnership -- the formula that brought liberal internationalism to life -- has come undone.
To be sure, the Republican Party is still home to a few committed multilateralists, such as Senators Richard Lugar (of Indiana) and Chuck Hagel (of Nebraska). But they are isolated within their own ranks. And some Democrats, especially those eyeing the presidency, are keen to demonstrate their resolve on matters of national defense. But the party leaders are being pushed to the left by increasingly powerful party activists. The ideological overlap between the two parties is thus minimal, and the areas of concord are superficial at best. Most Republicans and Democrats still believe that the United States has global responsibilities, but there is little agreement on how to match means and ends. And on the central question of power versus partnership, the two parties are moving in opposite directions -- with the growing gap evident among the public as well as political elites.
In a March 2007 Pew Research Center poll, over 70 percent of Republican voters maintained that "the best way to ensure peace is through military strength." Only 40 percent of Democratic voters shared that view. A similar poll conducted in 1999 revealed the same partisan split, making clear that the divide is not just about Bush's foreign policy but also about the broader purposes of U.S. power. The Iraq war has clearly widened and deepened ideological differences over the relative e/cacy of force and diplomacy. One CNN poll recorded that after four years of occupying Iraq, only 24 percent of Republicans oppose the war, compared with more than 90 percent of Democrats. As for exporting American ideals, a June 2006 German Marshall Fund study found that only 35 percent of Democrats believed the United States should "help establish democracy in other countries," compared with 64 percent of Republicans. Similarly, a December 2006 CBS News poll found that two-thirds of Democrats believed the United States should "mind its own business internationally," whereas only one-third of Republicans held that view.
Fueled by these ideological divides, partisanship has engulfed Washington. According to one widely used index (Voteview), Congress today is more politically fractious and polarized than at any time in the last hundred years. After Democrats gained a majority in Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, many observers predicted that having one party control the White House and the other Congress would foster cooperation, as it often has in the past. Instead, the political rancor has only intensified. The White House, despite its initial pledge to work with the opposition, has continued its strident ways, dismissing the Democrats' call for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq as a "game of charades." Just after capturing the House and the Senate, the Democrats also promised to reach across the aisle. But as soon as the 110th Congress opened, they gave Republicans a taste of their own medicine by preventing the minority party from amending legislation during the initial flurry of lawmaking.
The sources of this return to partisan rancor are international as well as domestic. Abroad, the demise of the Soviet Union and the absence of a new peer competitor have loosened Cold War discipline, leaving the country's foreign policy more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of party politics. The threat posed by international terrorism has proved too elusive and sporadic to act as the new unifier. Meanwhile, the United States' deepening integration into the world economy is producing growing disparities in wealth among Americans, creating new socioeconomic cleavages and eroding support for free trade.
Within the United States, the political conditions that once encouraged centrism have weakened. Regional tensions are making a comeback; "red" America and "blue" America disagree about what the nature of the country's engagement in the world should be as well as about domestic issues such as abortion, gun control, and taxes. Moderates are in ever shorter supply, resulting in the thinning out of what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., aptly labeled "the vital center." Congressional redistricting, the proliferation of highly partisan media outlets, and the growing power of the Internet as a source of campaign financing and partisan mobilization have all contributed to the erosion of the center. A generational change has taken its toll, too. Almost 85 percent of the House was first elected in 1988 or after. The "greatest generation" is fast retiring from political life, taking with it decades of civic-minded service.
With the presidential campaign now building up to full speed and the domestic landscape already deeply etched along regional and ideological lines, the partisan confrontation is poised to intensify -- a recipe for political stalemate at home and failed leadership abroad.
In the early twentieth century, deep partisan divisions produced unpredictable and dangerous swings in U.S. foreign policy and ultimately led to isolation from the world. A similar dynamic is unfolding at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The assertive unilateralism of the Bush administration is proving politically unsustainable. Eyeing the 2008 elections, the Democrats are readying ambitious plans to breathe new life into international institutions. But they, too, will find their preferred grand strategy politically unsustainable. The Republican Party, virtually bereft of its moderates after the 2006 elections, has little patience for cooperative multilateralism -- and will gladly deploy its power in the Senate to block any programmatic effort to bind Washington to international agreements and institutions. Especially amid the domestic acrimony spawned by the war in Iraq, partisanship and stalemate at home could once again obstruct U.S. statecraft, perhaps even provoking an unsteady retreat from abroad.
The U.S. electorate already appears to be heading in that direction. According to the December 2006 CBS News poll, 52 percent of all Americans thought the United States "should mind its own business internationally." Even in the midst of impassioned opposition to the Vietnam War, only 36 percent of Americans held such a view. Inward-looking attitudes are especially pronounced among younger Americans: 72 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds do not believe that the United States should take the lead in solving global crises. If Washington continues to pursue a grand strategy that exceeds its political means, isolationist sentiment among Americans is sure to grow.
The United States needs to pursue a new grand strategy that is politically solvent. In today's polarized landscape, with Democrats wanting less power projection and Republicans fewer international partnerships, restoring solvency means bringing U.S. commitments back in line with political means. Finding a new domestic equilibrium that guarantees responsible U.S. leadership in the world requires a strategy that is as judicious and selective as it is purposeful.
First, a solvent strategy would entail sharing more burdens with other states. Great powers have regularly closed the gap between resources and commitments by devolving strategic ties to local actors. The United States should use its power and good offices to catalyze greater self-reliance in various regions, as it has done in Europe. Washington should build on existing regional bodies by, for example, encouraging the Gulf Cooperation Council to deepen defense cooperation on the Arabian Peninsula, helping the African Union expand its capabilities, and supporting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' efforts to build an East Asian security forum. Washington should urge the European Union to forge a more collective approach to security policy and assume greater defense burdens. The United States also ought to deepen its ties to emerging regional powers, such as Brazil, China, India, and Nigeria. Washington would then be able to better influence their behavior so that it complements rather than hinders U.S. objectives.
Second, where the war on terrorism is concerned, U.S. strategy should be to target terrorists rather than to call for regime change. This would mean focusing military efforts on destroying terrorist cells and networks while using political and economic tools to address the long-term sources of instability in the Middle East. Recognizing that reform in the Arab world will be slow in coming, Washington should pursue policies that patiently support economic development, respect for human rights, and religious and political pluralism. It should also fashion working partnerships with countries prepared to fight extremism. Pursuing regime change and radical visions of transforming the Middle East will only backfire and continue to overextend U.S. military power and political will.
Third, the United States must rebuild its hard power. To do so, Congress must allocate the funds necessary to redress the devastating effect of the Iraq war on the readiness, equipment, and morale of the U.S. armed forces. The Pentagon should also husband its resources by consolidating its 750 overseas bases. Although the United States must maintain the ability to project power on a global basis, it can reduce the drain on manpower by downsizing its forward presence and relying more heavily on prepositioned assets and personnel based in the United States.
Fourth, the United States should restrain adversaries through engagement, as many great powers in the past have frequently done. In the nineteenth century, Otto von Bismarck adeptly adjusted Germany's relations with Europe's major states to ensure that his country would not face a countervailing coalition. At the turn of the twentieth century, the United Kingdom successfully engaged the United States and Japan, dramatically reducing the costs of its overseas empire and enabling it to focus on dangers closer to home. In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon's opening to China substantially lightened the burden of Cold War competition. Washington should pursue similar strategies today, using shrewd diplomacy to dampen strategic competition with China, Iran, and other potential rivals. Should U.S. efforts be reciprocated, they promise to yield the substantial benefits that accompany rapprochement. If Washington is rebuffed, it can be sure to remain on guard and thereby avoid the risk of strategic exposure.
The fifth component of this grand strategy should be greater energy independence. The United States' oil addiction is dramatically constricting its geopolitical flexibility; playing guardian of the Persian Gulf entails onerous strategic commitments and awkward political alignments. Furthermore, high oil prices are encouraging producers such as Iran, Russia, and Venezuela to challenge U.S. interests. The United States must reduce its dependence on oil by investing in the development of alternative fuels and adopting a federally mandated effort to make cars more efficient.
Finally, the United States should favor pragmatic partnerships over the formalized international institutions of the Cold War era. To be sure, international collaboration continues to be in the United States' national interest. In some areas -- fighting climate change, facilitating international development, liberalizing international trade -- institutionalized cooperation is likely to endure, if not deepen. It is already clear, however, that congressional support for the fixed alliances and robust institutions that were created after World War II is quickly waning. Grand visions of a global alliance of democracies need to be tempered by political reality. Informal groupings, such as the "contact group" for the Balkans, the Quartet, the participants in the six-party talks on North Korea, and the EU-3/U.S. coalition working to rein in Iran's nuclear program, are rapidly becoming the most effective vehicles for diplomacy. In a polarized climate, less is more: pragmatic teamwork, flexible concerts, and task-specific coalitions must become the staples of a new brand of U.S. statecraft.
Far from being isolationist, this strategy of judicious retrenchment would guard against isolationist tendencies. In contrast, pursuing a foreign policy of excessive and unsustainable ambition would risk a political backlash that could produce precisely the turn inward that neither the United States nor the world can afford. The United States must find a stable middle ground between doing too much and doing too little.
BREAK ON THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE
Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson once claimed that 80 percent of the job of foreign policy was "management of your domestic ability to have a policy." He may have exaggerated, but he expressed an enduring truth: good policy requires good politics. Bringing ends and means back into balance would help restore the confidence of the American public in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. But implementing a strategic adjustment will require dampening polarization and building a stable consensus behind it. As Roosevelt demonstrated during World War II, sound leadership and tireless public diplomacy are prerequisites for fashioning bipartisan cooperation on foreign policy.
The next president will have to take advantage of the discrete areas in which Democrats and Republicans can find common purpose. Logrolling may be necessary to circumvent gridlock and facilitate agreement. Evangelicals on the right and social progressives on the left can close ranks on climate change, human rights, and international development. Democrats might support free trade if Republicans are willing to invest in worker retraining programs. The desire of big business to preserve access to low-wage labor may be consistent with the interests of pro-immigration constituencies; building a bridge between the two groups would reconcile corporate interests in the North with immigrant interests in the Southwest. Democrats who support multilateralism on principle can team up with Republicans who support institutions as vehicles for sharing global burdens. Although these and other political bargains will not restore the bipartisan consensus of the Cold War era, they will certainly help build political support for a new, albeit more modest, grand strategy.
So will more efforts to reach across the congressional aisle. Roosevelt overcame the Republicans' opposition to liberal internationalism by reaching out to them, appointing prominent Republicans to key international commissions and working closely with Wendell Willkie, the candidate he defeated in the 1940 election, to combat isolationism. The next administration should follow suit, appointing pragmatic members of the opposition to important foreign policy posts and establishing a high-level, bipartisan panel to provide regular and timely input into policy deliberations. Form will be as important as substance as U.S. leaders search for a grand strategy that not only meets the country's geopolitical needs but also restores political solvency at home.