New eras in American foreign policy have begun in two different ways: suddenly and gradually. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, changed America’s role in the world in an instant. The events that turned the World War II alliance with the Soviet Union into the Cold-War confrontation that lasted for four decades, by contrast, took place over a period of several years.
The latest transformation has elements of both. The disintegration of the post-Cold War peace has been underway for the better part of a decade, since the great economic crisis of 2008, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2014 made the trend toward increased conflict in global affairs unmistakable. Now three ambitious powers—Russia in Europe, China in East Asia, and Iran in the Middle East—are actively seeking to revise the political landscapes in their respect regions, with the aims of making themselves stronger and the United States and its allies weaker.
Despite the palpable signs of a new, less tranquil world, however, the Western countries, including the United States, have been slow to recognize what has happened. Thomas Wright’s All Measures Short of War does recognize it, which is the book’s great virtue. As the author writes in his Introduction, “By 2016 the world had become much more nationalist and competitive.” His book addresses the consequences and the implications of this central fact of contemporary international life.
The responsibility for the latest transformation of international politics falls mainly, as Wright says, on the revisionist countries. It is they who have taken steps to overturn the international order in their home regions. They have employed a common approach to doing so. The name that Jakub Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell give to this approach in The Unquiet Frontier, their valuable assessment of the new international circumstances in which the United States finds itself, is “probes.” These are aggressive measures against “the frontiers of the rival power’s influence, where its interests are less pronounced, its power is at its farthest projection, and its political clout at its weakest.” Examples include the Russian assault on Ukraine, China’s assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea, and Iran’s extension of its influence by the use of proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Probes, Grygiel and Mitchell note, have three goals: to test the rival power—in each of the three current cases the United States; to avoid a direct military clash with that power; and “to achieve , if possible, a low-cost revision of the existing regional order.” To this point Russia, China and Iran have, on balance, accomplished these goals.
While placing the major responsibility for this new and less peaceful state of global affairs where it belongs, Wright misses the unintended but not insignificant contribution that the West in general and the United States in particular have made to the end of peace in Europe. The American decision to expand the Western military alliance, NATO, eastward to the borders of post-Soviet Russia violated a Russian understanding that this would not happen while excluding the new Russia from the principal European security organization. In combination with a number of other American initiatives that Russia opposed but could not block—withdrawing from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, for example, and going to war against Serbia—NATO expansion turned the Russian establishment against the West and convinced the Russian public that the United States was bent on isolating, weakening, and even ultimately destroying their country. Vladimir Putin exploited this sentiment to whip up support for his aggression against Ukraine and has used it to tighten his grip on power in Russia. He has put to his own political uses what he has asserted is an American assault on his country. The assertion is false, but the American government, beginning with NATO expansion, unwittingly provided all too plausible supporting evidence for it.
In the Middle East, Wright designates as the major problem for the rest of the world the chaos that has overtaken the region since the beginning of the ill-named Arab Spring in 2011, and recommends that America “play an active role in stabilizing” it. Unfortunate as the violence and disorder there are, however, the United States does not have the skill, the will, the resources or the patience to end them. Nor is it the foremost American interest in the Middle East to do so. That distinction belongs to the task of checking the Iranian bid for regional hegemony.
The United States has good reason to oppose not only Iran in the Middle East but also Russia in Europe and China in East Asia. As they advance, American power and influence will retreat, and with them the norms—democracy, free trade, national independence—that American power protects. It is a major theme of All Measures Short of War that America should oppose them. For the new world that their assertiveness has created he recommends an American strategy of “responsible competition.” (Since George F. Kennan coined the term “containment” at the outset of the Cold War, finding a label for a new foreign policy has become a widely shared aspiration of those who write about the subject. Here, however, the adjective is puzzling. Is there a constituency for “irresponsible competition?” And if there must be an adjective, why not “successful?”) In addition to the Herculean (and probably Sisyphean) task of stabilizing the Middle East, Wright recommends, to carry out his preferred strategy of competition, a variety of other policies, some more plausible than others.
Attempting any of them, however, has a precondition: creating or revitalizing broad, American-led coalitions to confront each of the three revisionist powers. The logic of coalitions applies in each case: pooling the resources of countries with a common adversary can help to tilt the balance of power in their favor. Moreover, the creation of coalitions in all three regions is, or at least seems, eminently feasible. All other countries in Europe oppose Russia’s designs. All the major countries in East Asia and most of them in the Middle East oppose those of China and Iran respectively. Yet neither the formation of such coalitions nor American leadership of them is assured.
Historically, all coalitions have suffered from the “free rider” problem: participating states invariably seek to enjoy the benefits, without paying the costs, of resisting a common adversary. That impulse has not disappeared in the twenty-first century. It is likely, in fact, to be all the more pronounced because most of America’s potential and actual allies in the three regions lack robust military forces of their own. The non-American members of NATO tend to be economically prosperous but militarily toothless. In East Asia, China dwarfs most of the other countries, Japan operates under post-World War II restrictions on the military forces it can deploy, and only the United States has the ships necessary to confront the Chinese at sea, where they are most aggressive. Finally, in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, the countries most committed to opposing Iran—largely the oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf—lack usable military power.
Each of the coalitions comes, moreover, with internal divisions. Europe’s economic difficulties and the contentious issue of accepting non-European refugees have put the southern and eastern members of the European Union at odds with the richer, more powerful countries of northern Europe, especially Germany. South Korea’s ill will toward Japan, dating back to its unhappy experience as a Japanese colony in the first half of the last century, persists. In the Middle East, some of the Sunni Arab countries see fundamentalist Islam as a threat while others, notably Turkey, regard it as an asset.
In Europe and East Asia, finally, most of America’s would-be coalition partners do business with the revisionist power and are leery of policies that might interfere with this commerce. The Europeans wish to continue to buy Russian energy, the East Asians to trade with China. This limits what they can be expected to do to confront the two revisionist powers.
Moreover, even if the Europeans, East Asians, and Middle Easterners managed to forge common cause by themselves, they would face Russia, China, and Iran respectively at a disadvantage without the active participation of the United States. Indeed, it is unlikely that the countries that the ambitions of the three revisionists threaten could form any effective coalition at all without American leadership.
Will such leadership be forthcoming? There are reasons for skepticism.
When the United states assumed a leading role in global affairs, at the end of 1941 and again in the second half of the 1940s, at the outset of World War II and the Cold War respectively, the American public felt directly menaced by powerful adversaries. Twenty-first-century Russia, China, and Iran may threaten regional American interests and American values, but none seems a candidate to attack the United States itself. This weakens the public’s incentive to support robust resistance to them, which is all the weaker because the distaste for foreign engagements generated by the disappointing and frustrating experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq persists.
In addition, an active foreign policy requires presidential leadership, and few signs of that have appeared. Barack Obama seemed more interested in ignoring the change in the character of international relations during his presidency than in shaping a new foreign policy to respond to it. Donald Trump’s rhetoric suggests that he recognizes that the world is a dangerous place, but he apparently does not consider Russia to be contributing to that danger while he evidently regards as the major threat emanating from East Asia not China’s assertions—contrary to international law—of sovereignty in most of the Western Pacific but rather that country’s mercantilist economic policies.
Foreign policy, finally, is inevitably the preserve of elites; and in this populist moment Americans harbor widespread suspicion of, and indeed hostility, to such people, who happen also to be the people who most outspokenly favor a policy of confronting Russia, China, and Iran and who would, perhaps not coincidentally, be in charge of carrying it out.
The future of American foreign policy is therefore unclear. What is clear is that, as Thomas Wright correctly says, America has a strategic choice to make: whether to commit the resources and run the risks required to confront the revisionist powers of Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. It is clear as well that that choice will not only determine the foreign policy of the United States for the next generation but also, because the United States looms so large in global affairs, it will shape the future of the rest of the world as well.