For 30 years, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has searched unsuccessfully for a purpose for its now unrivaled global power.  No other country (or combination of countries in the European Union) equals its combined military, economic, and political strength. Yet the United States has used this rare moment in history poorly, trying and discarding various rationales for a global role after experience has revealed their inutility or unpopularity. It first tried the all-encompassing role of “indispensable nation,” then the role of shaper and main pillar of a liberal world order, principal prosecutor of a global “war on terror,” protector and promoter of democratic governments (including regime change by force), and, finally, leader of the democratic side in a global contest between democratic and authoritarian governments. Throughout, Washington grew more and more reliant on the use of military power and, through lack of use, lost confidence in concerted diplomacy as a means of dealing with adversaries.

The existential threat of the Cold War had masked deep disagreements about the United States’ appropriate global posture. Ever since, debate has veered inconclusively between those who believe that U.S. interests are global and demand aggressive, often unilateral, leadership on most issues and those who argue for a narrower conception of the national interest and a more collaborative approach in pursuing it. The harder question of what constitute the core interests vital to national security also remains unanswered. Despite these divisions, Congress largely abandoned a serious voice on foreign policy, even on its constitutional responsibility to declare war. Other than on trade, the Senate managed to ratify only a single multilateral treaty in the last 25 years, rejecting many that were the United States’ own initiatives (such as the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty) or that embody U.S. values (the Protocol on Torture), aims (the Kyoto Protocol on climate), and even domestic legislation (restricting international trade in tobacco). 

There is now, perhaps, an opportunity to begin to end this impasse. Once attention shifts from tactical errors made in the closing weeks of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to the drifting purpose and self-delusion of the preceding 20 years, the shock of failure in America’s longest war may provide an open moment to reexamine the lengthy list of earlier interventions and to reconsider U.S. foreign policy in the post–Cold War era more broadly.


A first step toward such a reappraisal would be to recognize that what happened in Afghanistan matched past experience. In 2003, the political scientist Minxin Pei examined the record of U.S. military interventions made for the purpose of regime change. His measure of success was whether democracy existed ten years after the departure of U.S. forces. Out of 16 such efforts, he identified just four successes: Germany and Japan after World War II, highly developed countries that had surrendered after total war, and tiny Grenada and Panama, where the United States made quick interventions of less than a year.

The success stories shared several characteristics, including a strong national identity, high state capacity, a high degree of ethnic homogeneity, relative socioeconomic equality, and previous experience—however short—with effective rule of law. Deep ethnic and religious divisions were fatal, as was alignment with an unpopular ruling elite, especially if it was highly corrupt.

Pei published his study just as the United States was declaring the end of “major combat” in Afghanistan and the transition to “stabilization and reconstruction.” Just 8,000 U.S. soldiers were in Afghanistan at the time. What is clear now—and should have been even then—is that Afghanistan had none of the qualities that predicted success and all of those that presaged failure. Setting aside the special cases of Germany and Japan, and assuming that Afghanistan will not be a democracy ten years from now, the U.S. failure rate is 86 percent.

Democracy cannot be delivered by force—although the United States keeps trying.

Among the many lessons that should be drawn from this experience, three are overriding. First, among colonial and postcolonial intervenors, the United States is particularly bad about ignoring the history, culture, and values of the countries in which it intrudes. This is not a result of ignorance. The individuals with the relevant knowledge are simply usually not in the room when top-level policy is made. Routinely, history and culture are treated as background or context rather than as critical factors that will determine success or failure—as they unmistakably did in Afghanistan.

Second, what happened in Afghanistan was not caused by the lack of good intelligence.  Throughout history, the commonest form of intelligence failure has been the failure of civilian and military leaders to listen to what they don’t want to hear. At the outset of his presidency, Barack Obama commissioned a 60-day study to shape U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. In his memoir, he writes that the report “made one thing clear. Unless Pakistan stopped sheltering the Taliban, our efforts at long-term stability in Afghanistan were bound to fail.” U.S. intelligence agencies knew that the connections between Pakistan and the Taliban were deep and long-standing and that Pakistan was providing a safe haven for Taliban fighters and leadership. The conclusion should have been that the United States must somehow break that bond or cut its losses in nation building in Afghanistan. Instead, policymakers noted the problem, tried unsuccessfully to ameliorate it, and went ahead anyway.

The third lesson is one of process: U.S. policymakers cannot rely on the military to conclude that a mission is unachievable. The military’s core value is executing whatever mission it has been assigned. Its spirit is “can do.” Generals can identify difficulties in advance, but once a mission is underway, they will insist that things are getting better or that they will improve given more money, time, weaponry, and troops. The military will not question the validity of the mission. This means that a president who recognizes that the country has undertaken something it cannot achieve will at some point have to “reject the advice of his generals.” Americans should recognize and reward the rare moral courage President Joe Biden exercised in doing so—something three presidents before him failed to summon.

It is also worth noting that the United States has a habit of wildly exaggerating the consequences of its failures. In the last few weeks, there has been talk of “the end of empire,” a “return to isolationism,” and huge gains accruing to Russia and China (which may instead be saddled with the fallout from a continuing civil war in Afghanistan, growing opium production, and rising Islamic extremism). Similar talk, with far greater reason, greeted the end of the Vietnam War. Yet 15 years later, the United States won the Cold War and dominated the world. 


Setting aside such grim predictions, then, what might a different U.S. approach to foreign policy entail? A first step should be a hard look at the notion of American exceptionalism.  Domestically, high income inequality, flat or declining intergenerational mobility, deeply polarized politics, racial division, rampant embrace of conspiracy theories, diminished civic duty, and even a question mark beside the sine qua non of democracy—the peaceful transition of power through elections—together make the “power of our example,” to use Biden’s phrase, dubious at best.

The U.S. record of international leadership is questionable as well. Since the mid-1990s, when the United States began to withhold its legally obligated dues to the United Nations and then to other international agencies, its foreign policies have, on balance, arguably weakened the world’s capacity to solve global problems. Among the agreements the United States has rejected since the end of the Cold War, in addition to examples cited above, are the Law of the Sea Treaty, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, and the International Criminal Court. Most of the rest of the world approved them. It has also refused to ratify treaties protecting genetic resources, restricting trade in conventional arms, banning persistent organic pollutants and cluster bombs, and protecting persons with disabilities. In the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency alone, it rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, withdrew from (and then renegotiated) the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Paris climate accord, and the Iran nuclear deal. Major international agreements such as the latter two must now be designed to avoid formal treaty confirmation since the world knows the United States cannot deliver Senate ratification. If this is exceptionalism, a globalized, interdependent world needs less of it.

To that end, the United States should reconsider several long-standing practices. One is the belief that shunning another country—refusing to formally recognize it or talk to its representatives—is a useful form of leadership. To the contrary, there is clear evidence—from Cuba, Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—that this practice mostly harms the United States, crippling diplomacy where it is needed most, draining the modicum of trust required for bridging differences, and necessitating that the most difficult and delicate negotiations be turned over to a middleman. Overreliance on sanctions, especially unilateral sanctions, is similarly unhelpful and should be drastically cut back.

Washington also needs to recognize the degree to which its own policies, spending, and rhetoric have fostered the belief that the only meaningful form of U.S. engagement abroad is a military commitment. Twenty-five years of near-constant U.S. military operations has conditioned the world to expect American interventions, to measure U.S. seriousness by them, and, among friends and allies, to underspend on their own defense. During both Democratic and Republican administrations, members of Congress have lavished funding on the Pentagon, tolerating enormous waste in return for dollars spent in their states and districts. At the same time, Congress has chronically underfunded the State Department and other nondefense foreign operations. As the defense budget has swelled, the gap has become grotesque. In the fiscal years 2019 and 2020, Trump’s budget proposals sought increases in defense spending that were larger than the entire State Department and foreign operations budget—which it still sought to reduce.

The United States should take a hard look at the notion of American exceptionalism.

This funding disparity translates into a huge disparity in human capital and operational strength—one that is compounded by a political patronage system that routinely puts ambassadorial posts into the hands of completely unqualified donors. Often, the lack of resources elsewhere forces the Pentagon to undertake humanitarian and governance duties for which it is ill suited and generally the most expensive option.

Finally, Washington’s policies on democracy promotion need a thorough reappraisal. Far too often, the United States acts as though democracy is, in the words of former U.S. Ambassador Chas Freeman, the “default political system.” To the contrary, it is the most demanding of political systems, requiring a literate, relatively cohesive population and a bedrock of institutions that can take a century or more to build. Laying a foundation for it can require a commitment of many decades, as the United Kingdom made in India and the United States made in South Korea. But countries that would welcome a lengthy foreign occupation are extremely rare in today’s world, if they exist at all. And domestic U.S. support for such commitments will only be sustained where the country’s core strategic interests are unmistakable. Criticizing the decision to end the war in Afghanistan for its lack of “strategic patience” misses the point that the American public had long grasped: there was no strategic interest in the war Washington was prosecuting. It should not be necessary to add that democracy cannot be delivered by force—although the United States keeps trying.

The belief, evidently held by the Biden administration, that democracy is under generalized attack from authoritarianism also needs to be rethought. Dividing the world along this line greatly reduces the chance that the major global problems—nonproliferation, climate change, global health, cybercrime, and financial stability—can be successfully tackled. There are simply too many authoritarian states whose active cooperation will be necessary. It is also vital that Washington be able to distinguish self-interest in another country from an ideological crusade, particularly with regard to U.S. policy toward China. Mistaking the Chinese Communist Party’s determination to strengthen its position at home and in its region for a global ambition to destroy democracy could prove truly disastrous, raising the likelihood of a war over Taiwan that would be catastrophic for all.

These changes do not add up to a new foreign policy doctrine. Given the pace and scope of recent global change and the depth of American political polarization, it is doubtful whether such an advance is currently possible. Moreover, some of the needed shifts are not within the power of the United States to make. It will be some time, for example, before other countries see an American choice not to intervene abroad or to draw down a foreign troop presence as something other than disengagement or retreat.

Still, these shifts would amount to a dramatic alteration in U.S. practice since the end of the Cold War. America would no longer see itself as “the cop walking a global beat,” as neoconservatives would have it, nor would it shrink its core interests to defense against threats from China and Russia, as some realists have proposed. These changes would lead to a policy rebalanced between military and nonmilitary instruments; more restrained in the launching of military interventions and wiser in their execution; more cognizant of the need for and the potential of multilateral instruments; less prone to unilateral—often self-defeating—actions; and more sensible in its attitude toward democracy elsewhere. They would mean, in short, an end to the tatters of hegemony to which the United States has been clinging.

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  • JESSICA T. MATHEWS is a Distinguished Fellow and former President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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