Should the United States commit its unrivaled power to spreading democracy and cementing Washington’s leadership of the liberal international order that has provided decades of stability and security but has come under increasing strain in recent years? Or would U.S. interests be better served by less American intervention in world affairs—and, in particular, by less exertion of U.S. military force? Theorists and policymakers have argued over those questions for decades, especially since the end of the Cold War. During the past eight years, the Obama administration has changed the terms of the debate by pursuing a strategy of retrenchment. President Barack Obama has sought to reduce U.S. involvement overseas and has moved away from the interventionist strategy of preserving liberal hegemony, arguably shifting closer to something resembling “offshore balancing.” And President-elect Donald Trump could take U.S. foreign policy even further in that direction. That approach was recently advocated in this magazine by the political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who argued that “instead of policing the world,” Washington should “encourage other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, intervening itself only when necessary.”
Obama does not use the terms “retrenchment” or “offshore balancing” to describe his strategy. However, he has made it clear in interviews with journalists and in his public remarks that he believes he has initiated a historic shift in Washington’s engagement with the world, liberating his administration from the orthodoxy of a foreign policy establishment that is hobbled by groupthink (“the Blob,” as one of Obama’s closest advisers called it last year) and that has led the United States into a morass of financially and morally costly overcommitment.
Robert Lieber and Eliot Cohen are two eminent voices of that establishment. Both have recently published important books that assess Obama’s approach and find it wanting. Both land devastating blows against the president’s policies and the assumptions and ideas on which they are based. And both seek to persuade Americans to reconsider the advantages of more actively exercising U.S. power and military force. Lieber, a political scientist and professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University, takes aim at Obama’s belief that conciliation with U.S. adversaries would “produce a benign change in their policies” and Obama’s assumption that if the United States stepped back, its allies would step up and take more responsibility for the upkeep of the liberal order. In his illuminating book, Lieber relentlessly arrays evidence showing those premises to be faulty and concludes that as a result of Obama’s choices, the United States now faces “a far more dangerous and disorderly world,” in which the country’s adversaries are emboldened, its allies enfeebled, and its credibility in tatters. Retrenchment, Lieber convincingly argues, has proved costlier than sustained engagement.
Cohen is a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University and served as a high-level State Department official during the final two years of the George W. Bush administration. His more discursive but no less insightful book pushes back against another feature of Obama’s view of U.S. foreign policy: the president’s deep skepticism about the ability of U.S. military force to achieve meaningful or lasting political objectives. Cohen provides a clear-eyed review of the wars launched after the 9/11 attacks against the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Iraq and reaches a number of “dismal conclusions” regarding the flaws they revealed in U.S. strategy. But he also points out some less frequently acknowledged achievements of those wars, places the conflicts in the context of the long sweep of U.S. military history, and warns that Washington should not overlearn the lessons they offer. He goes on to detail the numerous and durable advantages the United States continues to enjoy over its adversaries and to explain why robust applications of “hard power” will remain vital to confronting the threats the United States will face in the decades to come: a growing rivalry with China, an aggrieved and assertive Russia, aggressive middle powers such as Iran, jihadist terrorism, and risks to the global commons, including cyberspace.
To judge from Trump’s campaign, the president-elect is less likely to adopt Lieber’s and Cohen’s policy prescriptions and more likely to retrench further: moving away from defense alliances and trade agreements, allowing China and Russia to increase their influence in their neighborhoods, disengaging from nation building, and scaling back efforts to influence the domestic policies of other countries. But presidents very often change direction once invested with the responsibility of governing: Obama, for example, wound up sticking with some of the Bush administration’s most controversial counterterrorism policies. Trump is notably nonideological and might wind up embracing a more interventionist approach if doing so seems to be a pragmatic choice.
Presidents very often change direction once invested with the responsibility of governing.
RETRENCHER IN CHIEF
Both Lieber and Cohen point to the long shadow cast by the Iraq war. When Obama first ran for president, in 2008, his early opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and his pledge to end the war quickly were the defining features of his national security platform. Those positions didn’t make all the difference in his 2008 general-election matchup against Senator John McCain, on whose campaign I worked; the financial crisis, for one, likely played a larger role. (Polling averages showed McCain leading in early September, prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers.) But Obama’s views on Iraq made a huge difference in the Democratic primary campaign earlier that year and helped him edge out then Senator Hillary Clinton, who had voted to authorize the invasion.
Once in office, Obama made it clear that his commitment to retrenchment extended much further. Time and again, he sought to limit or reduce U.S. involvement in conflicts overseas, even when circumstances changed in ways that led many—including some of his closest national security advisers—to advocate a more robust use of force. For instance, in 2012, as the Syrian civil war grew ever more brutal and threatened to destabilize the entire Middle East, some members of Obama’s team—including Secretary of State Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus—pushed to increase U.S. covert support for rebel groups fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But Obama demurred, skeptical that such efforts could make much difference and fearful of another Middle Eastern quagmire. In cases in which Obama did turn to military force, he was generally responding to resurgent threats rather than addressing new ones—for example, by increasing the number of U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan in 2009 and by conducting a campaign of air strikes against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) after the group seized territory in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. And in cases in which he did opt for military action when faced with a new threat, he declined to take the helm: in 2011, when NATO chose to intervene in Libya to prevent an impending massacre, Obama encouraged Washington’s European allies to take the lead.
Later that year, The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza quoted an unnamed Obama adviser describing this approach as “leading from behind.” That term rightly earned much derision but aptly summed up Obama’s preferred posture, on which the president elaborated at length in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, published in March 2016. Obama explained that he had tried to transfer more responsibility for regional security to U.S. allies and partners, reach agreements with adversaries that would eliminate potential sources of conflict, give precedence to diplomacy over military means, and “pivot” to Asia to check a rising China. Undergirding all these goals was a form of realism that emphasizes the limits of American power. As Obama put it:
I . . . believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.
Lieber faults the president for this kind of thinking, which has the effect of “narrowing the practical options” available to Washington by framing policy choices as “requiring either outright conciliation or war.” For example, Obama has caricatured critics of his Syria policy as either uninformed or proponents of a military campaign on the scale of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But when it comes to the Syrian civil war and other conflicts, interventionists have not claimed that U.S. power will be cost free or that it will guarantee a durable solution. Rather, they believe that declining to bring American force to bear can prove even more costly than acting—and even less likely to produce a good outcome.
Obama’s promise was that a more modest U.S. role in the world would lower the risk of terrorism by extracting the United States from places that tend to produce extremism, would strengthen U.S. allies by forcing them to fend for themselves more, and would foster a more self-regulating international order. But that is not how things turned out, as Lieber and Cohen both make clear. That is because retrenchment and offshore balancing can affect only the external actions of states. Such strategies do little to shape how foreign governments rule—which matters to the United States because in an intensely interconnected world, conflicts within states produce as much instability as conflicts among them. By retreating from the mission of advancing democracy and protecting individual rights elsewhere in the world, Obama made it more likely that misrule in other countries would make the United States less safe. Obama seems to believe that the lesson of Iraq and Libya is to never intervene, rather than to learn how to intervene better, as the United States did in northern Iraq after the Gulf War, in the Balkan wars in the 1990s, and in Colombia’s struggle against insurgents during the past two decades.
THE OFFSHORE ACCOUNT
It’s difficult to discern what lessons Trump believes Washington should learn from recent interventions, or how those experiences will influence his approach to the use of American power. Some observers have floated the possibility that Trump will push the United States even closer to full-fledged offshore balancing than Obama has. At times, Trump has suggested that he might reduce the U.S. commitment to NATO and make Washington’s cooperation with its allies more nakedly transactional, or that he might give Russia a freer hand in eastern Europe and Syria. The weaknesses of such an approach would become clear soon enough. In their pitch for offshore balancing, Mearsheimer and Walt noted that “today’s ‘global village’ . . . is more dangerous yet easier to manage” than the international system was in earlier eras. That is true, but today’s dangers are more manageable only because Washington has sustained a high level of commitment to the liberal order over many decades and has worked in close concert with its allies to manage threats as they have emerged.
Advocates for offshore balancing also claim that the strategy would be more cost effective than liberal hegemony. It’s true that under the status quo, Washington pays to maintain forward-deployed military forces and bankrolls the institutions of the liberal order. But offshore balancing would also incur major costs, by forcing Washington to respond quickly whenever problems arose. It takes a great deal of money and effort to quickly build up and deploy military forces, to recruit ad hoc allies, and to forge a common strategy.
There is no question that U.S. allies should do more to provide for their own security. But it’s not likely that they will see trouble coming and quickly respond. As Lieber shows, in crises as urgent and diverse as those that broke out in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s and in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine more recently, regional actors and international institutions failed to act in the absence of active and immediate American management. Cohen makes this point as well, arguing that when dealing with crises and emergent threats, “strategists should build in a large and explicit margin of error.” Liberal hegemony harnesses American power to do just that; offshore balancing, by contrast, would offer fewer buffers against surprise.
Finally, offshore balancing takes for granted that, left to their own devices, U.S. allies will always choose strategies that align with American interests. That, too, has not been borne out in recent years. As the United States has retrenched, it has not inspired U.S. allies to confidently push back against assertive challengers. They have appeased aggressors instead: think of the Philippines’ recent talk of accommodating China in the South China Sea, or the fraying of EU solidarity with Georgia and Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.
NO MORE MR. NICE GUY?
Even though the shortcomings of retrenchment and offshore balancing are clear, the concepts maintain a good deal of political appeal in the current populist moment. The American public seems to have soured on the idea of an active, interventionist foreign policy and has turned on the elites who have backed that vision for decades. But Cohen keeps the faith: he believes that in most cases, Washington has chosen perfectly good strategies but executed them badly. If liberal interventionists (among whom I count myself) want to win another hearing, we must take blame for the objectively bad outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq and admit, as Cohen forthrightly does, that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t just badly executed but also a bad idea.
Offshore balancing takes for granted that, left to their own devices, U.S. allies will always choose strategies that align with American interests.
We also must make a more persuasive forward-looking case. Surveys that YouGov conducted in 2013 and 2014 for Warriors and Citizens, a volume that I edited with Jim Mattis, showed that the American public remains surprisingly open to the kinds of specific policies that Lieber and Cohen advocate. But their support depends on elected leaders’ making a persuasive case that intervention is in the United States’ best interest and proposing plans that seem likely to solve the problems at hand.
Consider how Obama broached a plan to attack Syria in 2013 after the Assad regime used chemical weapons, crossing a “redline” that Obama had earlier laid down. Obama had been arguing for the prior two years that the United States should stay out of Syria and that military intervention would achieve little; now he was advocating what critics derided as “pinprick strikes,” which seemed wholly incommensurate with the threat he described and with the nature of the conflict in Syria. The president claimed his room to maneuver was constrained by public opposition. But he himself had helped encourage that opposition by casting doubt on the wisdom of intervening.
Trump should take heed of that dynamic. His campaign rhetoric suggested a desire to step back from existing alliances along with a preference for using military force in the form of so-called stand-off weapons, thus staying far from the field of battle, and mostly as a punitive tool, avoiding the messiness of long-term interventions. Once in office, however, Trump might find it better to frame his ideas differently in order to give himself more flexibility.
But even without changing how he talks about foreign policy, Trump will already enjoy some room to maneuver. His unwillingness to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign might allow Trump to cajole Russia away from provocative aggression; he can speak as a friend rather than as a scold. Meanwhile, his apparent desire to undo or renegotiate the nuclear agreement with Iran might make it easier for him to improve relations with Washington’s Middle Eastern allies—many of whom remain profoundly ambivalent about the deal. Trump could reassure U.S. allies rattled by his win by explaining that Washington trusts their judgment and will support their leadership on regional problems. He could praise the strength of U.S. allies in Europe rather than denigrate their abilities, as Obama has sometimes done. And Trump could increase defense spending by arguing that a stronger military will require less use of force.
Every new U.S. presidential administration presents an opportunity to reconsider foreign policy. The new president need not threaten the liberal international order in making some adjustments that would create more common ground with adversaries and others that would reassure allies. Only time will tell whether Trump will be able to find that balance.
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