Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
The next administration will take the reins of American foreign policy in a world that is more complex than at any point in our modern history, including the twilight of the Cold War and the years that followed the 9/11 attacks. But it is also the case that despite the proliferation of threats and challenges—some old, some new—by almost any measure, we are stronger and more secure today than when President Barack Obama and I took office in January 2009. Because of our investments at home and engagement overseas, the United States is primed to remain the world’s preeminent power for decades to come. In more than 40 years of public service, I have never been more optimistic about America’s future—if only we continue to lead.
From the outset, our administration has been guided by the belief that the foundations of U.S. global leadership reside first and foremost in our dynamic economy, peerless military, and universal values. We have built on these core strengths by expanding and modernizing the United States’ unrivaled network of alliances and partnerships and embedding them within a wider international order of rules and institutions.
Having inherited a deep economic recession, our administration first sought to steer an economy in collapse through an arduous recovery. In doing so, we have reestablished our standing as the world’s strongest and most innovative major economy, undergirded by the rule of law, the finest research universities, and an unparalleled culture of entrepreneurship. Smart investments coupled with American ingenuity have also made the United States the epicenter of a global energy revolution, both in renewables and in fossil fuels.
And we are seeing the results of a revitalized economy—in sustained job growth, a shift from outsourcing to insourcing, and a renewed consensus that the United States is once again the best place for businesses to invest worldwide, with the consulting firm A. T. Kearney ranking it now four years running as the top destination for foreign direct investment.
This vibrant economy is essential to sustaining our unrivaled military. We continue to outpace our competitors, spending more on our overall defense than the next eight countries combined. We have the most capable ground forces in the history of the world and an unmatched ability to project naval and air power to any corner of the globe. And thanks in no small part to our efforts to bolster U.S. special operations forces, enhance our cyberspace and space capabilities, and invest in unmanned systems and other game-changing technologies, we’re well positioned to maintain our qualitative edge for years to come.
This is part of a layered defense that has only grown stronger with our laser focus on homeland security, making our borders safer, improving security and inspections at ports, and strengthening screening procedures at airports. Our intelligence and law enforcement professionals are coordinating at an unprecedented level among themselves and with partners around the world, foiling countless would-be attackers. And with U.S. assistance, our partners are now reciprocating by sharing more information, such as passenger records, enhancing security while protecting civil liberties.
This speaks to another reality: America’s greatest strength is not the example of our power but the power of our example. More than anything, it is our adherence to our values and our commitment to tolerance that sets us apart from other great powers. I have no doubt that future generations of Americans will be proud of the way we have doubled down over the last seven and a half years to uphold basic human dignity by banning torture, calling for a more enlightened immigration system, expanding opportunities for women, and defending the rights of the LGBT community at home and abroad.
This is not only the right thing to do; it is also the right strategy, because our commitment to defend what is best in us inspires others to stand with us. That’s vital, since our unrivaled network of allies and partners—from our core democratic alliances in Europe and Asia to our growing partnerships in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East—multiplies our ability to lead. It’s how we mobilize collective action to address just about every major challenge, from the Islamic State (or ISIS) to Ebola to climate change.
Equally critical has been our commitment to strengthening the open international system, embracing the time-tested approach that spurred America’s rise in the previous century. The United States built the basic architecture of the international order after the devastation of World War II, and it has served us and the world well ever since. That’s why we have invested so much energy to defend and extend the rules of the road, signing historic arms control and nonproliferation agreements and leading worldwide efforts to lock down nuclear materials, expand trade, protect the environment, and promote new norms to address emergent challenges at sea and in cyberspace.
As a result, no country is better positioned than the United States to lead in the twenty-first century. But it is worth remembering that our indispensable role in the world is not inevitable. If the next administration chooses to turn inward, it could very well squander the hard-earned progress we’ve made not just over the past seven and a half years but also over the past seven decades.
Although the next president will be confronted with innumerable issues, four tasks loom large: seizing transformative opportunities on both sides of the Pacific, managing relations with regional powers, leading the world to address complex transnational challenges, and defeating violent extremism.
The next president should deepen U.S. engagement with the most dynamic regions of the world by seizing possibilities on both sides of the Pacific, starting right here in the Western Hemisphere. Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean have an outsize impact on our domestic security and prosperity, and in the twenty-first century, the Western Hemisphere should figure prominently among our top foreign policy priorities.
We’re already seeing the returns of a renewed focus on the region. Because of the way President Obama and I have prioritized improving relations with our neighbors, including the opening to Cuba, the United States’ standing in the hemisphere has never been higher. The next administration should build on this momentum to strengthen the security and prosperity of people throughout the Americas. The table is set to deepen cooperation with Canada and Mexico, capitalize on renewed ties with Argentina, sustain unprecedented engagement with Central America, and expand our partnerships with regional leaders such as Brazil, Chile, and Colombia.
America’s greatest strength is not the example of our power but the power of our example.
Challenges surely remain, including undocumented immigration, drug trafficking, widespread corruption, and fragile democratic institutions, but today the region is defined more by opportunities than crises. The opportunities include the possibilities for stronger trade and investment, greater energy integration, and a more peaceful hemisphere in which the United States helps end long-running conflicts, as we have done in Colombia. Indeed, for the first time in history, it’s possible to imagine a hemisphere that is middle class, democratic, and secure from the northern reaches of Canada to the southern tip of Chile.
On the other side of the Pacific, we’ve recharged our engagement with Asia. The next administration will inherit treaty alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea that are the strongest they’ve ever been. It isn’t always easy to explain on a bumper sticker, but it’s common sense that the United States is wealthier and safer because the world’s advanced democracies are in our corner. It’s also true that being the principal security provider in Asia doesn’t come for free. But we should never underestimate the extraordinary economic costs to the American people if Asia devolved into conflict—something that is far more likely to occur in the absence of sustained U.S. leadership there.
The next administration will be charged with continuing to expand our network of relationships beyond our core alliances, building on the historic opportunities we’ve created to support the democratic transition in Burma (also called Myanmar), deepen ties with Vietnam, manage relations with China, expand the strategic partnership with India, and work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to advance a rules-based order.
And because Asia is home to half the world’s population and many of the world’s fastest-growing markets, we simply cannot afford to ignore the economic opportunities there. That’s why securing the Trans-Pacific Partnership remains a top priority for our administration. The 12 economies of the TPP account for 30 percent of global trade, 40 percent of global GDP, and 50 percent of projected global economic growth. Thanks to U.S. leadership, the deal includes provisions that will raise international standards for the protection of workers’ rights, the environment, and intellectual property. Absent these rules, the region will likely witness a race to the bottom in the form of weak, low-standard regional trade agreements that exclude the United States. This deal is as much about geopolitics as economics: when it comes to trade, maritime security in the South China Sea, or nuclear nonproliferation in Northeast Asia, the United States has to take the lead in writing and enforcing the rules of the road, or else we will leave a vacuum that our competitors will surely rush to fill.
Indeed, in nearly every part of the world, the United States contends with regional powers that have an enormous capacity to contribute to the international order—or to undermine it. Much will rest on how America chooses to lead.
Nowhere is this truer than in our relationship with China. The United States and China are the world’s two largest economies, so our fates are inescapably intertwined. President Obama and I have sought to define this relationship through enhanced cooperation and responsible competition. We have found common ground with Beijing and made historic progress to address such global challenges as climate change, pandemic disease, poverty, and nuclear proliferation. At the same time, we have stood firm on such issues as human rights, intellectual property, and freedom of navigation.
This balancing act will only grow more difficult in the context of China’s economic slowdown and the worrying steps Beijing is taking to reverse course on more than three decades of economic reform and opening up to the world. As a result, the next administration will have to steer a relationship with China that encompasses both breakthrough cooperation and, potentially, intensified competition. And sometimes, as when facing the mounting threat from North Korea, cooperation and competition with China will coexist. The notion that it will be all one or the other is shortsighted and self-defeating.
The same is true with regard to Russia, with which the United States should continue to pursue a policy that combines the urgent need for deterrence, on the one hand, with the prudent pursuit of tactical cooperation and strategic stability, on the other. Russia’s illegal attempt to annex Crimea and its continued aggression in eastern Ukraine violate foundational principles of the post–Cold War order: sovereignty and the inviolability of borders in Europe. In response, we have rallied our allies in Europe and elsewhere to impose real costs on Moscow, making clear that this pressure will continue until Russia upholds its commitments under the agreements reached in Minsk aimed at ending the conflict.
Meanwhile, the combination of our $3.4 billion European Reassurance Initiative and NATO’s new forward deployments in Poland and the Baltics will strengthen our European allies and provide a bulwark against further Russian aggression. For years, we’ve also encouraged Europe to spend more on defense and to diversify its energy supplies in order to reduce its susceptibility to coercion. Now we’re starting to see progress on these fronts. And the next administration should redouble the United States’ commitment to strengthening NATO and our partnership with the EU, even as London and Brussels negotiate their ongoing relationship.
Investing in the core institutions of the West does not require reverting back to simplistic Cold War thinking, however. The United States should remain open to cooperation with Russia where our interests overlap, as we demonstrated with the Iran nuclear deal, as well as with the New START agreement on nuclear weapons. It is also difficult to envision how the war in Syria will ultimately end without some modus vivendi between Washington and Moscow. And as new military technologies raise the stakes of miscalculation and escalation, we will need functional and stable channels with Russia to clearly communicate our intentions and maintain strategic stability.
There’s an appealing moral clarity in dividing the world into friend and foe. But in reality, progress in international affairs so often demands working with those with whom we do not see eye to eye. That’s why our administration seized the possibility to move beyond three decades of conflict with Iran to lock in a nuclear agreement. Tehran is neither a friend nor a partner. But our willingness to break taboos and engage the regime directly, combined with our success in mobilizing unprecedented international pressure on Iran to negotiate, peacefully removed one of the greatest threats to global security: the specter of Iran gaining a nuclear weapon.
Sometimes, cooperation and competition with China will coexist.
One year on, the deal speaks for itself: the agreement is working. Iran has verifiably removed two-thirds of its centrifuges, shipped out of the country 98 percent of its low-enriched uranium (enough for about ten nuclear weapons), removed the core of its plutonium reactor at Arak and filled it with cement, and provided international inspectors unprecedented access to its entire nuclear supply chain to ensure compliance. The deal blocks every pathway through which Iran might seek to develop nuclear weapons, while opening up the possibility for further engagement with Tehran down the road if the regime moderates its behavior. Tearing up the deal now, as some have proposed, would leave Iran’s nuclear program unconstrained, increase the threat to Israel and our partners in the Gulf, turn the international community against the United States, and sharply raise the prospect of another major war in the Middle East.
Critics of engagement should remember that the nuclear deal was never meant to resolve all our problems with Tehran. Engaging Iran need not come at the expense of our ironclad commitments to our allies and partners in the Middle East, including Israel. The United States has retained all the means necessary, including targeted sanctions, to hold Iran accountable for its ballistic missile activities, support for terrorism, and human rights violations, and we are committed to working with our allies and partners to push back against Iran’s destabilizing behavior.
Transnational threats such as pathogens, environmental disruptions, computer viruses, and malicious ideologies don’t respect borders. Even in simpler times, isolationism never offered more than a false sense of security. And now, more than ever, we cannot wall ourselves off from these dangers or sit back and wait for others to solve the world’s problems for us. As the columnist Thomas Friedman aptly wrote, “If you don’t visit a bad neighborhood, it might visit you.”
We’ve learned that true security requires finding solutions that span borders, as when we rallied the world to address the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014. In the face of a terrifying disease, we resisted hysterical calls for quarantines and travel bans and instead followed the science. We drew on all our strengths, from our military to our health-care and development professionals. And with tireless diplomacy, we brought the world along with us to provide urgent, coordinated assistance that ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
Beyond Ebola, we have made significant investments and built new partnerships to fight HIV/AIDS, turn the tide against malaria, and improve the health of women and children across Africa. And through our Global Health Security Agenda, a partnership between the United States and some 50 other countries that our administration launched in 2014, we are strengthening the capacity of vulnerable countries in Africa and around the world to combat future outbreaks. Improving health security represents just one facet of our growing relationship with Africa. Through such forums as the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and the Young African Leaders Initiative, we have engaged with African leaders on all levels, from heads of state to civil society, expanding and deepening partnerships that contribute to the continent’s increasingly bright future.
American leadership has also proved decisive in addressing climate change. Our administration’s landmark investments at home have tripled the amount of electricity we harness from the wind and increased our solar power 20-fold since 2008. We’ve put in place rules that will double the fuel efficiency of our cars by 2025, and we’ve set forth an unprecedented plan to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that our power plants emit. These are the most significant steps the United States has ever taken domestically to combat climate change, and because our actions proved that we take this threat seriously, we were able to rally other countries to make concrete commitments of their own—starting with China, the world’s leading emitter. That’s how we achieved last year’s historic Paris agreement to combat climate change.
At the same time, we’re working to increase the resilience of communities that are already being affected by rising temperatures and extreme weather, at home and around the world. We’re implementing strategies to address the increased risk of flooding in coastal communities and improving our national resilience in the face of long-term droughts. We’re also building climate considerations into all our efforts to promote sustainable development around the world, including aid programs such as Feed the Future, which supports climate-smart agriculture. Our $3 billion pledge to the UN’s Green Climate Fund will help the poorest and most vulnerable nations become more resilient to climate change. And through a bold initiative called Power Africa, we’ve set a goal of doubling access to electricity on the continent through clean and sustainable methods.
Through all these efforts, we’ve laid the groundwork to protect our planet. But the resulting opportunities can be seized only if the next president follows the science, recognizes the dangers of doing nothing, and musters the political will to address the threat.
Other transnational threats are only a keystroke away, whether it be state actors pilfering commercial or government data or North Korean, Iranian, or anonymous criminal hackers perpetrating cyberattacks against American companies. That is why we’ve fortified our cyberdefenses, expanded partnerships with the private sector and with other governments, authorized the Treasury Department to impose sanctions against malicious hackers, enhanced our technical and attributional capabilities, and worked to improve our ability to respond to and recover from cyberattacks.
Meanwhile, we have secured a number of important commitments from China on its actions online, including an agreement not to conduct cyber-enabled economic espionage for commercial gain, and a number of other states are following our lead and securing similar commitments of their own. We continue to support an open, transparent, and interoperable Internet as an engine of economic growth and civil society. Finally, we are building a growing coalition of like-minded states around a set of voluntary norms of responsible state behavior in peacetime, an important effort to enhance stability in cyberspace, which has been endorsed by leaders from a number of the most capable countries, including those of the G-7 and the G-20.
The next administration should pick up this baton and run with it, further refining principles to guide the digital revolution as part of a broader effort to shape new rules of the road for space, the sea, and the other critical domains that will define commerce and competition in the decades ahead.
Terrorism and violent extremism provide perhaps the most vexing example of a virulent transnational danger that demands sustained U.S. leadership. Al Qaeda, ISIS, and their offshoots represent real threats, and the attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul, and elsewhere have reminded us over and over again that terrorism can happen anywhere. At the same time, even amid a climate of fear and uncertainty, we must remember that terrorists cannot destroy the United States or our civilization. They are significant, but not existential, threats—and we should never underestimate the strength and resilience of the American people.
Terrorism must—and will—be defeated. But more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq has taught us some hard lessons about when and how to deploy military power to address this danger. Even as we have removed more than 165,000 U.S. troops from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, President Obama has never hesitated to use force to defend the American people when necessary. Just ask Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda’s top operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the leaders of al Qaeda’s affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, and more than 120 of ISIS’ top leaders and commanders. Our administration has not been hamstrung by an ideology of restraint, as our most vocal critics allege. Rather, we carefully consider the use of force because we understand the tremendous human costs and unforeseen consequences of war. We must ensure that when we do use force, it is effective. Accordingly, we have taken precise and proportional military actions, guided by a clear mission that advances U.S. interests. Whenever possible, we have acted alongside allies and partners so that they will share the burden and become invested in the mission’s success.
And perhaps most important, we have used force in a manner that is sustainable. We’ve learned in no uncertain terms that success on the battlefield will not endure if U.S. military involvement outpaces political developments on the ground or the ability of local partners to control their own territory. Lasting victory against al Qaeda and ISIS will therefore require viable indigenous forces to hold liberated areas, rebuild shattered communities, and govern effectively. That’s why we’ve worked with more than three dozen nations to train Afghan forces to hunt down al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. And that’s why we’ve invested so much in building a partnership with the Government of National Accord in Libya and with other African governments—from Nigeria to Somalia to Tunisia—to go after al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates.
In Iraq and Syria, we’ve built a 66-member coalition to train local forces, and we’ve provided afflicted communities with critical humanitarian and stabilization assistance. We’ve deployed special operations forces, and as of July 2016, our coalition has carried out more than 13,000 air strikes in support of local ground forces. With enhanced intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation, we have worked with our partners to improve their border security, reduce the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria by 50 percent, and strangle ISIS’ finances. The result: ISIS is losing. Over the past two years, the group has been under siege from western Iraq to northern Syria, losing approximately 50 percent of the populated territory it once held in Iraq and more than 20 percent in Syria. We’ve taken thousands of ISIS’ frontline fighters off the battlefield, and the group has lost a quarter of its overall manpower. Its morale is plummeting, and its hold over local populations is loosening.
Meanwhile, we’re working with the international community to provide billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to displaced people in Iraq and Syria and refugees across the region and billions more to stabilize and rebuild communities liberated from ISIS. To address the grievances that give such groups oxygen, we are engaged at the highest levels in Iraq to encourage greater political inclusivity and reconciliation across that country’s ethnosectarian divide. And we are aggressively pursuing a diplomatic settlement to produce a political transition in Syria—because not only is there no military solution to the conflict; there is also no way to end it so long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power.
It is worth recalling that what initially set ISIS apart in 2014 was the group’s attempt to carve out both a state and a self-described caliphate in the heart of the Arab world. This risked creating a territorial platform for attacks on the West. This is the threat we are systematically dismantling in Iraq and Syria, and the one we are making progress in undoing in Libya.
But even when ISIS’ would-be caliphate is destroyed, the jihadist challenge will continue. Other violent jihadist movements with localized agendas—some that are distinct from ISIS and others that have appropriated its brand—will likely continue to exploit ungoverned spaces and threaten stability in key countries. Boko Haram was a threat to Nigeria long before it renamed itself the Islamic State’s West African Province, for example, and it will still have to be addressed even if ISIS’ core is destroyed. More broadly, the Salafi jihadist ideology that underpins such groups does not require territory to radicalize lone wolves to carry out attacks like those in San Bernardino, Orlando, and Nice. And foreign fighters returning home from the front may continue to attempt attacks like those in Paris and Brussels.
Even when ISIS’ would-be caliphate is destroyed, the jihadist challenge will continue.
The next administration will have to continue to address this challenge in a smart, sustainable, and holistic manner. This will require the disciplined application of military force, alongside the best efforts of our intelligence and law enforcement communities, diplomats, and development professionals. It will require working with local partners and the international community to improve governance in fragile and failing states. And it will involve countering toxic ideologies online.
But this comprehensive campaign against violent extremism will succeed only if it is carried out in a manner that is consistent with our values and keeps the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims—the vast majority of whom reject Salafi jihadist views—on our side. We know that al Qaeda, ISIS, and their ilk want to manufacture a clash of civilizations in which Americans think of Muslims in us-versus-them terms. Last year, ISIS’ top leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, revealed the goal of his group’s attacks: “Compel the crusaders to actively destroy the gray zone themselves. Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices: either apostatize or emigrate to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution.”
We should never let these groups win by giving in to the religious war they want. This only raises the premium on adhering to our values and spurning the tactics of our enemies: torture, indiscriminate violence, and religious intolerance. Doing otherwise not only violates our values but also deeply damages our security.
The next administration will have a lot on its plate: uniting the Western Hemisphere, deepening our alliances and partnerships in Asia, managing complex relationships with regional powers, and addressing severe transnational challenges such as climate change and terrorism. But because of the actions we’ve taken and the boundless energy and resilience of the American people, I’ve never been more optimistic about our capacity to guide the international community to a more peaceful and prosperous future. It bears underscoring, however, that U.S. leadership has never sprung from some inherent American magic. Instead, we have earned it over and over again through hard work, discipline, and sacrifice.
There is simply too much at stake for the United States to draw back from our responsibilities now. The choices we make today will steer the future of our planet. In the face of enormous challenges and unprecedented opportunities, the world needs steady American leadership more than ever.