The Case for Collective Security

James F. Jeffrey

In his recent article “Biden’s Everything Doctrine” (April 22), Jeremy Shapiro correctly identifies serious inconsistencies in the new U.S. administration’s foreign policy. Washington now promises both a “foreign policy for the middle class” and engagement on seemingly every global problem. Many of Shapiro’s remedies—scaling back frantic interventions, making choices between values and allies, and withdrawing from Afghanistan—are sensible. But his piece fails to contend with a long-standing premise of U.S. foreign policy that has contributed to the contradiction he identifies.

Since the 1940s, American leadership abroad has not only protected narrow U.S. economic interests but also supported a basic collective security system designed to head off serious international threats—whether from violence in Gaza or tensions on the Korean Peninsula. By guaranteeing a basic set of global norms, advancing economic growth, and preventing major conflicts such as those that defined the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, this rules-based order has provided enormous benefits to the American people and to the world.

Collective security isn’t an abstract international relations theory: it is what U.S. diplomacy and defense policy have sought to uphold for generations. Policymakers and analysts can question whether those fundamentals are still valid, whether the United States can maintain the order it created, whether alternatives such as isolationism could work, or whether Washington has managed the order effectively. But they can hardly talk coherently about U.S. foreign policy without referring to collective security at all.

In failing to address this element of U.S. strategy, Shapiro advocates for policies without broader context. His proposals—downplaying Iran beyond the nuclear deal, for instance—all but rule out maintaining the global security order. He nods to U.S. participation “in multilateral organizations and international treaties” but fails to acknowledge that these institutions are embedded in a broader system that helps them avoid the fate of the League of Nations, which fell apart after failing to prevent the annexation of several of its own member states. The U.S.-backed security system, in contrast, is far more responsive: Washington remains engaged in nearly every serious threat to global order. That means, among other duties, deterring Moscow in the Baltics, maintaining a presence in the South China Sea, and leading the 80-member coalition against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).

The hard work of defending such institutions doesn’t enter into Shapiro’s calculations. He dismisses nearly all conflicts as peripheral, asserting that the middle class has no stake, for example, in “the struggle for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia.” Making such peripheral-or-not decisions, however, is damnably hard. Only two conflicts since 1945, the Cuban missile crisis and the September 11 terrorist attacks, directly affected the American people. But substitute an attack on Berlin or Bosnia with one on contemporary Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.-backed order is at stake. Without a response, such an attack on the kingdom would not only damage Washington’s credibility with its partners but also threaten the world oil trade and inflame religious sentiment—all significant threats to international security.

True, the Cold War is over, and, as Shapiro notes, the United States has run itself ragged putting out fires everywhere from Afghanistan to China and Russia. But the problem is not managing the global collective security system itself but rather specific mistakes that Washington has made along the way.

A return to cautious U.S. leadership can still involve international engagement.

After the Cold War, for instance, U.S. policymakers and the ecosystem around them (Shapiro’s “bubble”) assumed that the United States had to engage on every problem that arose. It was the moral thing to do. Global order had to reign everywhere or nowhere, and engagement would inevitably succeed because the U.S. model was naturally irresistible. But Washington’s ability, with soldiers, assistance funds, and moral persuasion, to effect transformational change abroad turned out to be limited. Whether it was shifting China’s and Russia’s worldviews or reimagining Iraq, the United States failed time and again.

Addressing this history of overreach isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor, however. A return to cautious leadership can still involve international engagement. Rhetoric notwithstanding, Team Biden seems to understand the need to strike this balance. Here, however, Shapiro raises the specter of declining relative U.S. power. But Washington and its allies in Asia, Europe, and North America (not to mention partners such as India and Turkey) add up to 30 percent of the world’s population and almost 60 percent of global GDP. Those same states also account for the vast majority of global defense spending and dominate a soft-power international monetary and trade architecture that Beijing and Moscow can only dream of.

By using its natural advantages wisely, keeping major military deployments limited to near-peer deterrence, working by and through partners when deploying troops, and focusing on allies with resources (Saudi Arabia and Egypt, yes; Myanmar or South Sudan, no), Washington can both maintain a global order and avoid overextension. This approach, rather than one that shoehorns every foreign policy decision into the rhetoric of job creation, will allow the United States to keep its people and the world safe and prosperous.

JAMES F. JEFFREY is Chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. He served as a Foreign Service Officer in seven U.S. administrations, most recently as Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.


Shapiro Replies

James Jeffrey’s insightful response to my recent article gets at the heart of contemporary debates in U.S. foreign policy. Once we finish clearing our throats over terms and definitions, Jeffrey and I agree on the central dilemma: Which U.S. interests are core, and which are peripheral? It is, as he colorfully notes, “damnably hard” to make this distinction across a wide range of global security issues.

We do differ, however, on which criteria U.S. policymakers should use to make that distinction. Jeffrey believes that the United States should devote its resources to any issue that threatens the U.S.-backed “global security order.” This means that Washington must, among many other things, deter Russia in Europe, balance against China in East Asia, contain Iran in the Persian Gulf, manage tensions on the Korean Peninsula, end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and fight the Islamic State (or ISIS) across the Middle East and Africa.

This seems to be a very elastic criterion that involves an intensely demanding set of requirements—all in the service of a nebulous security order that most other countries see as a vehicle for U.S. hegemony. As Robert Kagan, another advocate of this strategy, has noted, “a liberal world order, like any world order, is something that is imposed, and as much as we in the West might wish it to be imposed by superior virtue, it is generally imposed by superior power.” As China, Russia, Turkey, and many other countries increasingly push back against that imposition, defending the global security order will become ever more difficult. Already, that order seems rather dysfunctional.

The old Washington habit of defending the global security order is a gateway drug to rampant interventionism.

Jeffrey is sanguine, however, about the United States’ ability to impose this order in the face of domestic polarization, a rising China, a defiant Russia, a chronically unstable Middle East, and various human rights catastrophes around the world. The key, he notes, is avoiding the overextension that has plagued U.S. foreign policy for many decades. This is like telling alcoholics that they can go to a bar with their drinking buddies as long they don’t overindulge. It is theoretically possible, but experience implies that such an outcome is unlikely.

A better strategy is to avoid old triggers altogether. The old Washington habit of defending the global security order is, for a conflict-addicted nation, a gateway drug to rampant interventionism. Strict abstinence and the avoidance of temptation seem a better bet for both substance abusers and chronic overextenders.

My article proposes different criteria. In differentiating between core and peripheral interests, U.S. policymakers should listen to the American people about what matters to them. Leaders should, in turn, be able to explain to their constituents in clear terms how a U.S. foreign policy directly impacts what everyday people care about, rather than how it affects some global security order that barely exists. This formula is not primarily a question of job creation, as Jeffrey dismissively assumes. It is instead about connecting U.S. foreign policy to the issues that matter to the vast majority of Americans who don’t study the topic—immigration, climate change, technology, income inequality, and yes, jobs.

As presidential candidates of both parties have noticed, the public has become wary of experts who look back on decades of U.S. foreign policy mistakes and say, “Trust us to do better next time.” It is time for a new approach that recognizes that U.S. foreign policy should, first and foremost, serve the American people.

JEREMY SHAPIRO is Director of Research at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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