It’s tempting to draw sweeping conclusions about what geopolitics will look like after the coronavirus pandemic. Some argue that we’re witnessing the last gasp of U.S. primacy, the equivalent of Britain’s 1956 “Suez moment.” Others argue that the United States, the main driver of the post–Cold War international order, is only temporarily incapacitated, with a president drunk at the wheel. Tomorrow, a more sober operator can swiftly restore its leadership.
There is a lot we don’t know yet about the virus or how it will reshape the international landscape. What we do know is that we have drifted into one of those rare periods of transition, with U.S. dominance in the rearview mirror and a more anarchic order looming dimly beyond. The moment resembles—in both its fragility and its geopolitical and technological dynamism—the era before World War I, which triggered two global military convulsions before statecraft finally caught up with the magnitude of the challenges. To navigate today’s complicated transition, the United States will need to move beyond the debate between retrenchment and restoration and imagine a more fundamental reinvention of its role in the world.
We have drifted into one of those rare periods of transition, with U.S. dominance in the rearview mirror and a more anarchic order looming dimly beyond.
The wreckage of the global pandemic surrounds us—with more than 650,000 people dead, the ranks of the hungry doubling, and the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression raging. Well before the coronavirus hit, however, the liberal international order built and led by the United States was becoming less liberal, less ordered, and less American. The pandemic has accelerated that trend and aggravated preexisting conditions.
With the United States and its allies reeling, distracted, and divided by the pandemic, China’s ambition to become the dominant player in Asia has grown, as has its desire to reshape international institutions and rules to suit its power and preferences. The pandemic has also magnified the insecurities of Chinese leadership, amplifying their worries about economic sluggishness and social discontent.
The result is greater domestic repression and an even more pugnacious brand of “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Chinese President Xi Jinping has cracked down hard on Hong Kong, flexed China’s military muscles across the Western Pacific, raised the temperature of border conflicts with India, and discarded the “hide and bide” strategy of his predecessors. Instead of a neat Thucydidean dynamic between rising and established powers, the behavior of China and the United States reflects an uneasy combination of ambition and vulnerability, each prone to bravado to mask gnawing uncertainties.
Always attuned to the weakness of others, President Vladimir Putin is losing sight of Russia’s own weakness. The collapse of the oil market and Putin’s mismanagement of the pandemic have made Russia’s one-dimensional economy and stagnant political system even more brittle. A potent counterpuncher, Putin still sees plenty of opportunities to disrupt and subvert rival countries—the kind of tactics that can help a declining power sustain its status. His margin for error, however, is shrinking.
Europe is caught between an assertive China, a revisionist Russia, an erratic United States, and its own political breakdowns—none more perplexing than Brexit. The drift in the transatlantic alliance is worsening: the United States is looking for Europe to do more with less say, and Europe fears that it will become the grass on which the great power elephants trample.
The pandemic has also intensified the Middle East’s disorder and dysfunction. Hardliners in both Tehran and Washington pose combatively at the foot of a dangerous escalatory ladder. Proxy wars in Yemen and Libya spin on. Syria remains a wreck, and Israel’s impending annexation of portions of the West Bank threatens to bury a two-state solution.
As the pandemic’s wave crests over developing countries, the world’s most fragile societies will become only more vulnerable. Latin America will grapple with the biggest economic decline in the region’s history. Africa—with its growing cities and daunting food, water, and health insecurities—faces greater risks than perhaps any other part of the world.
All of these challenges and uncertainties are further complicated by technological disruption and by ideological and economic competition. The pace of change has outstripped the capacity of faltering, inward-looking leaders to shape the rules of the road. False information spreads with the same alacrity as truth; infectious diseases move faster than treatments and cures. The same technologies that have unlocked so many human possibilities are now being used by authoritarian leaders to lock in citizens, surveil them, and repress them.
With the triumphalism of globalization long behind us, societies struggle with widening inequality and mercantilist impulses. Democracy has been in retreat for more than a decade, the compact between citizens and governments badly frayed. International institutions are beginning to break, paralyzed by too much bureaucracy, too little investment, and intense major power rivalry. Looming above it all is the forbidding menace of climate change, as our planet gradually suffocates on carbon emissions.
This moment screams for leadership to help forge a sense of order—an organizer to help navigate this complicated mess of challenges.
This moment screams for leadership to help forge a sense of order—an organizer to help navigate this complicated mess of challenges and stabilize geopolitical competition, and a mobilizer to help cope with the “problems without passports” that reach beyond the capacity of any one state and ensure at least some modest protections of global public goods.
But now, the United States is living through the worst intersection of man and moment in its history. For President Donald Trump, America First really means Trump first, America alone, and Americans on their own.
The post-pandemic future of the United States is not preordained. We still get a vote, and we still get to make some fateful choices. They are more complicated than those we faced at the end of the Cold War, when our undisputed primacy cushioned us from our mistakes and sustained our illusions. But today’s choices are even more consequential than those of thirty years ago.
The United States must choose from three broad strategic approaches: retrenchment, restoration, and reinvention. Each aspires to deliver on our interests and protect our values; where they differ is in their assessment of American priorities and influence and of the threats we face. Each is easy to caricature, but each deserves an honest look.
It’s not hard to persuade many Americans—struggling through the human and economic costs of the pandemic, pained by the open wounds of our racial divides, and doubtful about the power and promise of the American idea—to pull up our national drawbridges and retrench. Nor is it hard to make the case that the prevailing bipartisan foreign policy consensus fumbled the United States’ post–Cold War “unipolar moment,” leaving us overstretched overseas and underinvested at home.
Proponents of retrenchment argue that, for too long, friends and foes alike were glad to let the United States underwrite global security while they reaped the benefits. Europe could spend less on defense and more on social safety nets, China could focus on economic modernization, and the United States kept the peace.
The United States may be first among unequals for now, but the notion that its leaders can resurrect the era of uncontested American primacy, prevent China’s rise, or will its diplomatic relationships and tools into exactly their pre-Trump, prepandemic shapes is a mirage.
Retrenchment is easily distorted as a kind of nativist isolationism or pathological declinism. It is often portrayed as a call to throw overboard a sense of enlightened self-interest and focus at long last on the “self” part. The heart of the argument is far less radical: it’s about narrowing our concept of U.S. vital interests, sharply reducing global military deployments, shedding outdated alliances, and reining in our missionary zeal for democracy-building abroad. Retrenchment means jettisoning our arrogant dismissiveness of nationalism and sovereignty, and understanding that other powers will continue to pursue spheres of influence and defend them. And it means acknowledging that the United States can manage threats and adversaries more effectively than it can vanquish them.
The main risk in retrenchment lies in taking it too far or too fast. Any effort to disentangle the United States from the world comes with complicated downsides. Former president Barack Obama’s attempt to shift the terms of U.S. engagement in the Middle East offers an important caution. His thoughtful long game met the unsynchronized passions of the region’s short game, creating significant dislocations and doubts about American power.
There are bigger structural questions too. Even if the United States accepted its relative decline and shrank its external ambitions, where’s the rising ally to whom it can pass the baton, as the British did to the Americans after World War II? However sclerotic some of our alliances have become, how confident are American leaders that they can shape our fate better without them? Isn’t there a danger of the United States becoming an island power in a world inhospitable to islands—with China a more dominant presence on the Eurasian landmass, Russia a weakening accomplice, and Europe an isolated appendage?
And would a United States retrenching in hard power still be able to play the organizing role on issues like climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and global trade that no other country can play right now?
A case can be made that American diffidence, not hubris, is the original sin. Warts and all, U.S. global leadership ushered in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. We give it up at our peril. Retrenchers subscribe to the diplomat George Kennan’s view that the sooner the United States sheds its paternalistic altruism and becomes just another big country, the better off it will be. Restorationists believe that consigning the United States to such a role, in an otherwise rudderless world, would be a fatal mistake.
They argue that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States failed to take full advantage of its primacy. U.S. leaders naively enabled the rise of our future rivals, thinking they would be satisfied with a seat at our table rather than displacing us at its head. The United States slowed NATO’s expansion to pacify Russian anxieties—only to see an ever more revanchist Russia get back on its feet—and welcomed China into the World Trade Organization as a “responsible stakeholder” yet failed to hold it to account when it continued to behave irresponsibly, breaking the rules while the American middle class broke its back.
Despite our self-inflicted wounds, we still have the world’s strongest military, most influential economy, most expansive alliance system, and most potent soft power.
Restorationists argue that the United States suffers most not when it does too much but when it tries too little. They believe that U.S. leaders feared the uncertain slippery slope of intervention abroad far more than the certain waves of human tragedy that would flow absent American action. They see “leading from behind” as an oxymoron and think the United States failed to appreciate both how much emerging democracies depended on it and how methodically authoritarians would contest the democratic model.
The United States may no longer enjoy unrivaled dominance, but power differentials still lean significantly in our favor. Despite our self-inflicted wounds, we still have the world’s strongest military, most influential economy, most expansive alliance system, and most potent soft power.
Restorationists worry about the risk of overreaction to relative American decline. The contest with China is not another Cold War to avoid but one to fight with confidence and win. The United States should reject any return to a world of closed spheres of influence. It should be clear-eyed about the rise of techno-authoritarianism and push back hard with a new concert of democracies. And although we might need to rebalance our foreign policy tools and avoid the excesses of the post-9/11 era, the risks of slashing our defense budgets and our global military posture outweigh the rewards.
For critics, Saturday Night Live’s “More Cowbell” sketch—admittedly not your standard foreign policy analogy—embodies the restorationist view. To paraphrase the immortal words of the producer Bruce Dickinson: The world has a fever and the only prescription is more U.S. leadership, however discordant and self-involved we can sometimes be and however fatigued our bandmates might be with our prima donna act.
The promised cure, however, leaves many questions unanswered. Do the American people have the stomach and resources right now for a cosmic struggle with authoritarianism or unbounded competition with China? Are the maximalist aims sometimes thrown around in this debate necessary or achievable? How far are U.S. allies willing and able to join in common cause? Will a more assertive international posture accelerate or delay the renewal of the American middle class? Is restraint an invitation to disorder or the best defense against it?
There lies an alternative between breaking up the band and resigning ourselves to the perpetual din of the cowbell.
We live in a new reality: the United States can no longer dictate events as we sometimes believed we could. The Trump administration has done more damage to America’s values, image, and influence than any other administration in my lifetime. And our nation is more divided by political, racial, and economic tensions than it has been in generations. But even so, assuming we don’t keep digging the hole deeper for ourselves at home and abroad, the United States remains in a better position than any other major power to mobilize coalitions and navigate the geopolitical rapids of the twenty-first century.
We can’t afford to apply a more modest lipstick to an essentially restorationist strategy, or, alternatively, a bolder rhetorical gloss to retrenchment. We must reinvent the purpose and practice of American power, finding a balance between our ambition and our limitations.
Smart foreign policy begins at home, with a strong democracy, society, and economy.
First and foremost, U.S. foreign policy must support domestic renewal. Smart foreign policy begins at home, with a strong democracy, society, and economy. But it has to end there too—with more and better jobs, greater security, a better environment, and a more inclusive, just, and resilient society.
The well-being of the American middle class ought to be the engine that drives our foreign policy. We’re long overdue for a historic course correction at home. We need to push for more inclusive economic growth—growth that narrows gaps in income and health. Our actions abroad must further that goal rather than hamper it. Prioritizing the needs of American workers over the profits of corporations is essential. Leaders must do a far better job of ensuring that trade and investment deals reflect those imperatives.
That doesn’t mean the United States should turn its back on trade or global economic integration, however. Supply chains in some sectors with national security implications will require diversification and redundancy to make them sturdier, but policymakers shouldn’t disrupt global supply chains that benefit American consumers and fuel emerging markets. An improved economic approach might involve elements of industrial policy, focusing more government support on science, technology, education, and research. That ought to be complemented by reform of the United States’ broken immigration system.
A second priority for a reinvented foreign policy involves grand challenges—climate change, global health insecurity, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the revolution in technology. All of those problems directly affect the health, security, and prosperity of Americans. None of them can be solved by the United States on its own. All will require international cooperation despite intensifying strategic rivalry.
These challenges require a new multilateralism—a patchwork of arrangements, with coalitions of like-minded states at its core, which the United States is still better placed than any other country to assemble; a hard-nosed approach to reforming international institutions; and agile diplomacy to engage rivals on questions that cut across major power competition. Just as our forward military basing helped deal with threats to security during the Cold War, preventive diplomacy can help cushion our society against inevitable shocks and strengthen its resilience.
A third priority is the United States’ greatest geopolitical challenge: managing competition with China. In recent decades, undisciplined thinking led us to assume too much about the benefits of engaging with China. Today, undisciplined thinking of a different sort is causing us to assume too much about the feasibility of decoupling and containment—and about the inevitability of confrontation. Our tendency, as it was during the height of the Cold War, is to overhype the threat, overprove our hawkish bona fides, overmilitarize our approach, and reduce the political and diplomatic space required to manage great power competition.
Preventing China’s rise is beyond the United States’ capacity, and the two countries’ economies are too entangled to decouple.
Preventing China’s rise is beyond the United States’ capacity, and the two countries’ economies are too entangled to decouple. The United States can, however, shape the environment into which China rises, taking advantage of the web of allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific—from Japan and South Korea to a rising India—who worry about China’s ascendance. That will require working with them—and engaging Chinese leadership directly—to bound rivalry with Beijing, define the terms for coexistence, prevent competition from becoming a collision, and preserve space for cooperation on global challenges.
Everything rides on developing a strategy that reinforces—rather than trades against—these three interrelated priorities. China, obviously, is not the United States’ only geopolitical challenge—just by far the most important. We cannot ignore other regions where we have enduring interests: Europe remains a crucial partner and North America our natural strategic home base, despite the Trump administration’s rare diplomatic feat of alienating the Canadians. Nor can we ignore the inevitable crises at home and abroad that so often derail the neatest of strategies.
Armed with a clear sense of priorities, the next administration will have to reinvent U.S. alliances and partnerships and make some hard—and overdue—choices about America’s tools and terms of engagement around the world. And it will have to act with the discipline that so often eluded the United States during its lazy post–Cold War dominance.
If America First is again consigned to the scrap heap, we’ll still have demons to exorcise—our hubris, our imperiousness, our indiscipline, our intolerance, our inattention to our domestic health, and our fetish for military tools and disregard for diplomacy. But we’ll also still have a chance to summon our most exceptional national trait: our capacity for self-repair. And we’ll still have a chance to shape our future—before it gets shaped for us by other players and forces.
This essay is adapted from an article published by The Atlantic on July 14, 2020.
- William J. Burns