“Rarely,” the New York Times observed this July, “has a president been confronted with so many seemingly disparate foreign policy crises all at once.” Some of these crises, like the ascent of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are bloody and fast-moving. Others, like the civil war in Syria, are grisly, protracted, and slow-moving. Others are grinding along sufficiently slowly that they feel less like crises than enduring foreign-policy challenges: consider the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program, which Graham Allison likens to “a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion,” and China’s quiet but purposeful campaign to settle its maritime disputes, which will likely play out over several decades.
It is safe to assume that much of the foreign-policy debate between the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees in 2016 will center on how the United States should adjust its foreign policy in response to these crises. Some observers contend that the Obama administration was unwise to reorient America’s strategic focus toward the Asia-Pacific; in light of recent developments, particularly those of this year, they believe the U.S. must accord comparable priority to constraining the potential for future Russian revanchism and preventing terrorist outfits from consolidating their influence amid the disintegration of the Middle Eastern and North African order. Other observers retort that the U.S. should continue to prioritize the rebalance, noting that the Asia-Pacific’s centrality to the global economic and military balances is poised to rise indefinitely.
This debate about the distribution of America’s strategic equities is critical. Its prescriptive value will be limited, however, unless it is accompanied by—or, better yet, subordinated to—a more fundamental discussion of America’s role in the evolving world order. The clearer America’s understanding of that role is, the more discriminating the United States can be in appraising how significantly a given crisis threatens its central objectives in the world. The less clear that understanding is, the more likely it will be to pursue a foreign policy that simply proceeds in accordance with the crises of the day: firefighting is a compelling alibi, after all, when one is struggling to define the focus of one’s foreign policy. Unfortunately, however, unless the crises of the day neatly align with the tectonic shifts in world order (the latter of which should be a central determinant of U.S. strategy), a crisis-driven foreign policy will inevitably succumb to disorientation and exhaustion.
In its simplest conception, a discussion about America’s role can be distilled down to three questions: What objectives does it seek to achieve in world affairs? What objectives does it have the operational capacity to achieve? And what objectives lie at the intersection of those two sets? Henry Kissinger proposes the following questions in the conclusion of World Order:
What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? The answer defines the minimum condition of the survival of the society.
What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort? These goals define the minimum objectives of the national strategy.
What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance? This defines the outer limits of the country’s strategic aspirations as part of a global system.
What should we not engage in, even if urged by a multilateral group or an alliance? This defines the limiting condition of the American participation in world order.
Above all, what is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? What applications depend in part on circumstance?
While crises will inevitably shape the answers to these questions, their transience, as well as the haphazardness with which they occur, prevent them from offering enduring guidance about U.S. foreign policy.
There are several other factors that complicate America’s efforts to determine its world role, beginning with the gap between its operational capacity and its perceived imperatives. Economic weakness at home—comprising sluggish growth, high unemployment, and growing debt, among other phenomena—limits the potential scope of America’s engagement around the world. Moreover, notwithstanding its support for air strikes to counter ISIL’s territorial gains, the American public remains, on balance, reluctant to pursue a proactive foreign policy: according to a report this June by the Pew Research Center, only 35 percent of Americans think “it’s best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs.” On the other hand, as the number of crises that challenge U.S. national interests grows, so does the pressure—from policymakers and observers at home and in allied countries—for the United States to be more engaged (the certainty with which it is argued that the U.S. should “do something,” it should be noted, often belies the absence of guidance on what the U.S. is actually to do).
A second factor is the absence of an overarching threat. Testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in early 1993, James Woolsey famously observed that “we have slain a large dragon [the Soviet Union], but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways the dragon was easier to keep track of.” Most observers would agree that the number and variety of snakes have grown in the intervening two decades: consider, for example, the economic damage an individual or small organization can inflict via cyberspace. Still, it is hard to construe any of those snakes as an existential challenge. What about the rise of China, America’s putative superpower replacement? The International Monetary Fund estimates that its economy has overtaken America’s at purchasing power parity, and a range of respected organizations forecast that its defense spending could eclipse America’s well before the middle of the century. The Economist contends, moreover, that China is “not just challenging the existing world order. Slowly, messily, and apparently with no clear end in view, it is building a new one.”
Even if one concurs with this assessment, however, China is not an adversary. An increasingly formidable competitor? Yes. A growing rival in some respects? Yes. The only country that could credibly emerge as a peer competitor of the United States along current trend lines? Yes. But one need not indulge any illusions about China’s internal politics or strategic interests to appreciate that neither China’s dissolution nor terminal Chinese decline would advance U.S. national interests; rather, those phenomena would deal a blow to America’s fragile economic recovery, thereby further limiting its ability to engage abroad.
That reality is a third complicating factor. While Republican and Democratic presidents alike struggled to implement containment over nearly half a century, they agreed that that policy should culminate in the Soviet Union’s defeat. There is no such consensus about the goal of America’s policy towards China. As China’s comprehensive national power grows, it will become harder for the United States to maintain an equilibrium between the competitive dynamics that are intrinsic to their relationship and the collaborative ones that must be sustained for world order to progress. There is no self-evident way for the United States to reconcile its own narrative of exceptionalism with China’s. Nor, moreover, is there any clear way of concretizing a “new model” of great-power relations between two countries when neither one has any experience with or inclination towards sustaining world order in partnership with a possible equivalent.
A fourth factor is the potential for a vacuum in world order. Because no country or coalition besides the United States is either able or willing to replace it as the principal guarantor, some observers fear that U.S. abdication—whether deliberate or involuntary—would yield chaos. Richard Haass warns in the new issue of Foreign Affairs that “with U.S. hegemony waning but no successor waiting to pick up the baton, the likeliest future is one in which the current international system gives way to a disorderly one with a larger number of power centers acting with increasing autonomy, paying less heed to U.S. interests and preferences.” There are, of course, prominent dissenters: Ian Buruma and Barry Posen, for example, argue that it is simplistic and self-serving for the United States to posit a dichotomy between a world in which it plays the preponderant role in sustaining order and one that devolves into anarchy. Still, few observers are itching to test whether a world without a clear anchor can be equally peaceful and prosperous. While the United States may be tempted to preempt a vacuum by playing its current role indefinitely, that course also entails considerable risks: it could enervate the U.S. economy and encourage America’s allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific to continue free-riding off of it. An exhausted United States and a network of U.S. allies that are unprepared to provide for their own security hardly provide an stable foundation for a new world order.
The United States may not be able to develop a grand strategy; indeed, in a world of ever-increasing complexity, perhaps the mere desire to attain one is quixotic. It is certain, however, that U.S. foreign policy will grow more incoherent the longer it postpones a candid discussion on its role in the world.