How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The foreign policy establishment has seen better days. During the Obama administration, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes derided it as “the Blob,” mocking its stodgy hawkishness. Then Republicans joined the chorus, with the Trump administration declaring war on mainstream foreign policy and national security professionals and the president dismissing critics as “the failed Washington elite looking to hold onto their power.” On this issue, moreover, even some of Trump’s harshest critics in the academy agree with him.
American foreign policy, they contend, has been controlled by a privileged cabal bent on serving its own interests rather than those of the nation at large; one that protects its turf by shutting out alternative ideas and excluding dissenting voices. The result has been three decades of dismal failure, with the United States squandering its post–Cold War advantages and careening from catastrophe to catastrophe. The key to getting things back on track, these critics charge, is to break the grip of the Blob.
The only problem with this argument is that every component of it is wrong. The foreign policy establishment is not a closed cabal, American statecraft has not been a giant failure, and scrapping professionalism for amateurism would be a disaster. In truth, the foreign policy establishment is an American strength rather than weakness. It is more open-minded and accountable than its critics allow. It acts as a storehouse of accumulated professional wisdom, providing intellectual ballast to the ship of state. On balance, the establishment’s practical track record has been impressive, with some well-known fiascos outweighed by many quiet successes. And the current administration’s foreign policy blunders—including in its response to the current pandemic—demonstrate what happens when the establishment’s experience and expertise are rejected. In short, the Blob is not the problem. It is the solution.
Blob theorists view the establishment as a club of like-minded elite insiders who control everything, take care of one another, and brush off challenges to conventional wisdom. In reality, the United States actually has a healthy marketplace of foreign policy ideas. Discussion over American foreign policy is loud, contentious, diverse, and generally pragmatic—and as a result, the nation gets the opportunity to learn from its mistakes, build on its successes, and improve its performance over time.
In both absolute and relative terms, the expert community dealing with foreign policy and national security in the United States is remarkably large and heterogeneous. Inside government, cadres of professionals make vast amounts of technocratic knowledge and institutional memory available to policymakers. Every department and agency with an international role has distinctive regional or functional expertise it can bring to bear. This in-house knowledge is complemented by an even larger and more diverse network of experts in the many hundreds of think tanks and contract research institutions that surround the government and offer views ranging from right to left, hawk to dove, free trader to protectionist, technocratic to ideological. Pick any policy issue and you can put together a lively debate with ease. Should the United States engage with China or contain it? Negotiate with Iran or squeeze it? Withdraw from the Middle East or redouble its efforts? Reasoned arguments on all sides are widely available, in any form you want—all supplied from within the supposedly monolithic establishment.
Discussion over foreign policy is loud, contentious, diverse, and generally pragmatic.
Moreover, unlike such communities in other leading powers, the American foreign policy establishment is connected to society rather than cut off from it, because the top several layers of U.S. national security bureaucracies are staffed by political appointees rather than civil servants. The Blob comprises government officials, outside experts, and many people who go back and forth between the two. Insiders know how government works and what is practical. Outsiders think independently. And in-and-outers bridge the gaps. Other countries simply do not have comparably large, diverse, permeable, expert communities that encourage vigorous debate over national policy—which is why, say, the caliber of U.S. debate about nuclear policy is more nuanced and better informed than in other nuclear powers, and which is why other countries would love to have such a Blob of their own.
The American foreign policy establishment, finally, is generally more pragmatic than ideological. It values prudence and security over novelty and creativity. It knows that thinking outside the box may be useful in testing policy assumptions, but the box is usually there for a reason, and so reflexively embracing the far-out option is dangerous. Its members have made many mistakes, individually and collectively, but several features of the system enforce accountability over time. Foreign policy failures, for example, are politically toxic and often spur positive change. The monumental intelligence failures that allowed the September 11 attacks to happen were followed by policy and institutional reforms that have helped prevent other mass-casualty terrorist attacks on U.S. targets for almost two decades. Early misjudgments in the Iraq war led to the adoption of a new counterinsurgency strategy that restored stability, at least for a while. The international economic imbalances and financial procedures that led to the 2008 global financial crisis were addressed by policies that contributed to a decade-long recovery.
Taken together, these virtues reinforce one another and help the United States tackle the countless national and global challenges that confront a superpower. Blob critics claim there are no meaningful arguments over U.S. foreign policy. But this is just not true. Intense disputes over the Korean War, the Vietnam War, détente and arms control, the opening to China, and policies in Central America and the Middle East were followed by battles over the Gulf War, NATO expansion, military interventions in Haiti, Somalia, and the Balkans, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—not to mention heated arguments over positions toward China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and other issues today. It is true that beneath all this controversy lies a relatively stable consensus on the value of power, alliances, and constructive global engagement. Most members of the establishment believe that global problems usually improve when the United States engages responsibly and worsen when the United States retreats. Yet that reflects not some nefarious groupthink but the wisdom of professional crowds, arrived at through painful trial and error over more than a century.
If the Blob is not a cabal, neither is its record one of dismal failure. Critics argue that the United States entered the 1990s in a position of great power and prestige and squandered that legacy through misguided wars and interventions, geopolitical hubris, and the aggressive pursuit of a global liberal order at the expense of the nation’s economic and security interests. But the story they tell doesn’t match what actually happened. American grand strategy did not change radically after the Cold War, because it was developed not just as a response to the Soviet challenge but to the foreign policy disasters of the 1930s and 1940s. After World War II, U.S. officials decided to maintain the nation’s primacy, thwart dangerous aggressors, and build a secure, prosperous international order in which the United States could thrive. After the Cold War, they decided to keep this strategy going, even in the absence of an immediate peer competitor.
From George H. W. Bush to Barack Obama, post–Cold War presidents worked hard to further the efforts their predecessors started, shaping an environment conducive to American interests and ideas. They promoted free trade and globalization, maintained and even expanded the country’s global network of alliances and military bases, policed the global commons, and tried to stabilize regional conflicts and promote human rights. Unchecked by great-power rivals, Washington did become more willing to use military force in the periphery on behalf of national ideals. But even then, it hardly ran amok in search of monsters to destroy, abstaining from interventions in Rwanda, the African Great Lakes, Sudan, the Caucasus, Ukraine, Myanmar, and other potential cases. The basic outlines of recent American strategy would be recognizable to officials stretching back generations, because its goal has remained constant: fostering a world guided by American leadership, rooted in American values, and protected by American power.
Have there been disappointments and even disasters along the way? Absolutely. Globalization and democratization were supposed to mellow China and Russia and help them fit easily into the U.S.-led order. That hasn’t worked out as well as hoped. North Korea went nuclear despite a series of U.S. presidents swearing they would never let it happen. Before 9/11, Washington didn’t take terrorism seriously enough; afterward, it became obsessed with stopping it at all costs. And far too many military interventions—from Somalia to Afghanistan, Iraq to Libya—have been misconceived and mishandled.
As serious as these failures were, however, they were no worse than those occurring during other periods in U.S. history. The quarter century after World War II saw the loss of China, the end of a nuclear monopoly, the erection of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, a bloody stalemate in Korea, a communist takeover in Cuba, and a catastrophic war in Vietnam. The following two decades witnessed the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, an energy crisis and OPEC oil embargo, anti-American revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua, a bungled intervention in Lebanon, dirty wars in Central America, the Iran-contra scandal, and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Some degree of failure, even tragedy, is inescapable in foreign policy. What matters most is not the presence of individual triumphs or disasters but the collective balance between them. From this perspective, the post–Cold War era looks significantly better, for set against the failures is a giant success—the emergence of a far more peaceful, prosperous, and liberal international system, with a prosperous and secure United States at its center.
Critics count the problems that have occurred but ignore the problems that have been avoided. There were plenty of ways the world could have gone haywire after 1989. Leading scholars, for example, foresaw a descent into vicious instability. Germany and Japan would turn hungry and revisionist again, security vacuums would emerge in Central Europe and East Asia, and nationalism, aggression, and nuclear proliferation would run rampant. “We will soon miss the Cold War,” John Mearsheimer predicted in 1990. “The prospect of major crises, even wars . . . is likely to increase dramatically.”
Critics count the problems that have occurred but ignore the problems that have been avoided.
Not quite. The long peace continued, as great-power relations remained relatively calm. German and Japanese revisionism never materialized—because those countries remained tightly embraced within a strong U.S. alliance system and a broader liberal international order. An outbreak of nationalism and ethnic aggression was contained in the Balkans. The countries of the former Warsaw Pact did not descend into chaos but embarked on political and economic reform, relaxing into a newly secure environment inside NATO. Asia did not collapse into vicious rivalries; under U.S. guidance, it continued its remarkable post-1979 stretch of peace as billions of people benefited from decades of sustained economic growth. The number of democracies in the world rose dramatically. Even nuclear proliferation has remained relatively limited, as Washington continued to provide security guarantees to allies so they would not pursue independent nuclear arsenals, orchestrated a campaign to secure loose nuclear materials, and punished rogue states that tried to buck the nonproliferation regime. In short, after 1989, the deep global engagement favored by the Blob kept the world moving forward on a generally positive track, rather than regressing to the historical mean of tyranny, depression, and war.
Yes, instability is returning in both Asia and Europe, globalization and democracy are currently in retreat, intense competitions with China and Russia loom, and the new coronavirus pandemic has reminded the world of the downsides of connectivity. But the return of great-power rivalry in recent years has been fueled less by U.S. overreach than by questions about its stamina. Had Washington followed the recommendations of the Blob’s critics and retrenched from its global commitments after 1989, rather than leaning into them, things would look even worse now. If the United States had pursued a strategy of offshore balancing, say, by winding down its overseas obligations, would it be sitting pretty now? It is hard to see how withdrawing from Europe in the 1990s or not expanding NATO would have encouraged less bullying from Moscow. More likely, it would simply have given a resurgent Russia greater freedom to reassert its influence. Pulling back from the Asia-Pacific region, similarly, would likely have undermined the United States’ ability to hedge against the negative consequences of China’s rise. And less engagement by Washington on a global liberal agenda in trade, politics, and human rights would not have improved the world or prepared it institutionally to handle global challenges, such as pandemics and climate change.
In retrospect, it is easy to identify specific policies and decisions one would want to change. It is harder to identify an alternative strategy that would have delivered clearly superior results—and that is the true standard by which real-world foreign policies deserve to be judged.
How about the critics’ third argument, that escaping the influence of the Blob would make American policy more effective and the country more secure? As it happens, a real-time test of that proposition has been running for over three years. The Trump administration has sidelined national security professionals, and professionalism, to a degree unprecedented in the modern era. The president has routinely disregarded the advice of apolitical career officials, accused them of disloyalty and even treason, and purged the top ranks of the administration of anybody unwilling to toe the official line of the day (whatever that may be). The results of this experiment are not encouraging. So far it has produced poor policy, poor execution, and poor outcomes.
Unforced errors are one of the hallmarks of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.
The administration launched an overdue effort to confront China on its trade practices, only to hobble the approach by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and starting simultaneous trade wars with American allies. It punished Russia for its territorial aggression and electoral sabotage, only to be undercut by the president’s embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin and by his personal vendettas relating to Ukraine. The president twice announced, and twice partially reversed, a decision to withdraw troops from Syria, thereby battering U.S. credibility without actually leaving the conflict. Thanks to diplomatic bungling and presidential credulity, North Korea is no more contained than it was three years ago, and Japan, South Korea, and the United States are all at odds. Because of arbitrary White House interference with military justice and other issues, civil-military relations have cratered. What links these cases is not ideology but competence—all involved basic mistakes that were pointed out by experts inside and outside government, only to be contemptuously ignored by the White House.
Purging expertise from U.S. foreign policy has already caused problems.
Even when the administration’s policy choices have been defensible in conception, they have often been botched in execution, due to a disregard for expert advice and a disdain for the details of implementation. The administration could have tried to remedy the defects of the Iran nuclear deal, for example, in a way that included European powers rather than alienating them. It could have increased pressure on Tehran with a plan for converting that pressure into lasting results. It could have gotten something in return for diplomatic concessions given to Israel and Saudi Arabia. And it could have reformed NAFTA without gratuitously harming relations with Canada and Mexico.
As for results, the current pandemic shows just what happens when national policy is driven by amateur improvisation rather than professional planning. Pandemics have been a known danger for decades, and the Blob has a suggested playbook for handling them—constant vigilance, early detection and monitoring, a unified national response in coordination with global partners, and much more. Coming into office, the Trump administration was fully briefed on the challenge—and chose to look the other way, downgrading the relevant technocrats and pushing for deep cuts in global health and disease programs. At the crucial early stages of the crisis, when a robust multilateral effort might have had maximum effect, the administration’s disorganization and denial left Washington on the sidelines. As the disease raced around the world and took hold in the United States, officials desperate to sound the alarm and begin preventive measures were silenced by a president unwilling to hear bad news. And once the direness of the medical situation was finally recognized, the administration tried to shift blame, going so far as to cut funding for the World Health Organization in the midst of the pandemic, simply in order to create a politically useful scapegoat.
The establishment makes mistakes, often big ones. But in its collective capacity, it learns from them and changes course—which is why the liberal international order has not only lasted for generations but deepened and broadened over time. Purging experience and disinterested expertise from U.S. foreign policy has already caused problems. The longer it continues, the worse things will get. And the more many will hope for the return of the Blob.
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