This is a question that would not have been asked until recent years. But we have been witnessing a sea change in foreign policy as America has gradually but unmistakably been pulling back from its customary international role.
Current retrenchment in foreign policy has been driven not only by ideological considerations but also by public disillusionment with the results of long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as by complex policy dilemmas, the perceived intractability of regional problems, and economic and budgetary constraints. And it has been applauded by “realists” from both the academic and policy worlds.
In practice, of course, the retreat process has been uneven and more subtle in some areas and functions than in others. The United States has used force, including drone attacks against al-Qaeda and ISIS. It took part in air strikes against the Libyan regime of Kaddafi in 2011. It has returned advisers and air power to Iraq, slowed the drawdown of forces from Afghanistan, and undertaken limited air strikes and Special Forces operations in Syria.
Nonetheless, the Obama foreign policy has more often than not been one of disengagement, conciliation of adversaries, and aversion to the use of American power that itself has been affected by marked reductions in the size of the U.S. military. This approach has been adopted with the aim of reducing conflict, motivating local actors to counterbalance regional threats, encouraging the international community to “step up” in assuming the burdens of regional stability, protecting America’s own national interests, and promoting global order.
But the results of this policy indicate that it has failed to achieve its own objectives. As a consequence, we now face an ever more dangerous world with the rise of hostile powers, fanatical terrorist movements, and worsening regional conflicts in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Meanwhile, US allies have become uneasy and have sought to hedge their own security commitments, while senior military and intelligence leaders warn of increasing threats to America itself.
For three-quarters of a century, the United States was the world’s preeminent power. Its accomplishments, now surrounded by growing nostalgia, included victory in World War II, creating and sustaining the institutions of the postwar world order while guiding the recovery of Europe and Japan, Cold War leadership of the Atlantic Alliance while deterring and balancing against the Soviet Union, and active engagement in the post–Cold War world.
Notwithstanding speculation about how “history” had “ended” with the defeat of the Soviet Union, the quarter century since the end of the Cold War has seen changes that deeply affect international affairs and the environment in which America conducts foreign policy. Important among these has been a growing diffusion of power, in which major regional states have emerged as leading actors and in some cases as challengers to the United States and its allies and interests.
Globalization, economic growth, the massive expansion of trade, and the digital revolution have fostered these changes among others. The results have not only affected regional security but also the economies and societies of the traditional Western and liberal powers. As a result, the relative strength of America’s allies in Europe and Japan has ebbed, while rising powers, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), and others have taken on increased importance or even emerged as potential competitors of the United States.
For more than seven years, President Obama has repeatedly framed foreign policy as a stark choice between his preferred course of action and military conflict. Not only in confronting real-time problems in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, but in dealing with Iran, Russia, China, Cuba, and others, Obama policy rhetoric has greatly understated and undervalued the wide range of options between nonintervention and the use of force while downplaying the costs of inaction.
In practice, aversion to the use of power undercuts the effectiveness of diplomacy. It has been said that power without diplomacy is blind, but it is equally true that diplomacy not backed by power is impotent. Skillful integration of power and diplomacy, wielded with prudence and informed judgment strengthens deterrence, provides reassurance to allies, and can actually lessen the need for military action.
Moreover, in enhancing the credibility of U.S. commitments and signaling to potential adversaries, it reduces the risks of war by inadvertence where an adversary might otherwise dangerously underestimate American resolve.
The president elect Donald Trump who takes the oath of office next year will thus face a daunting task in reasserting leadership, deterring adversaries, and reassuring allies. Although robust involvement and leadership by the United States cannot be a sufficient condition for security and world order, the evidence suggests it is a necessary one.
President elect Donald Trump will also face a retrenchment has not yielded peace, stability, and global order, but instead has seen growing instability, intensifying civil wars, expanding territorial control by hostile groups, worsening threats from terrorism, gross human rights abuses, and surging floods of refugees. Not all of these would have been or are solvable by American actions, but inaction or ill-considered U.S. policies have, on balance, exacerbated these problems.
Donald Trump must heed these policy failures to understand why it is necessary to adopt a more robust world role, not only to serve America’s own national interests but also for reasons of regional and global order.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
International Affairs Expert