‘A Four-Star Dumpster Fire’: More on America’s Current Foreign Policy

Protestors light fires outside the U.S. embassy in Seoul, South Korea, in 2002. (Lee Jae Won / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In this item, I argued that America’s relationship with China really mattered, and was being disastrously screwed up. Then two readers said: Actually, the relationship with Europe, and with Canada and Mexico, matters more, and is more grievously in peril.

Here are three further entries in this cheery discussion. First, from a foreign-affairs writer now based in the United Kingdom:

I agree with everyone you have quoted, but they all miss the point: We have now picked a fight with every first and second division power centre in the world with the sole exception of India. Modi must be wondering why he has not been elected to the club. And we have simultaneously picked fights with a wide range of third division teams. With the exception of Israel.

George Washington warned against “foreign entanglements”. Surely he never imagined we would “entangle” ourselves with almost every type of foreigner at the same time.

Next, from reader Joseph E. Britt, in Wisconsin, who has a background in Republican politics and policy. He says I was right the first time, and that the screw-up with China is the one that matters most—because it is the one that might lead to actual war:

I'm afraid I need to push back on your correspondents who argue Trump is doing greater damage to our relations with traditional allies in Europe and elsewhere than he is with respect to China.

For me, the critical element is not what will happen, but what might happen. We cannot know the first; we can be aware of the second, of the possibilities in the future produced by decisions we make now.  Trump is surely doing damage to American relations with countries that have been our traditional friends and supports to American policy around the world.  The damage is serious, and it is being inflicted carelessly, frivolously—which makes it even worse.

It is not, however, likely to lead to war.

War is a real possibility in our future relations with China.

The internal politics of that country have produced a centralization of power crucially dependent on support of the Communist Party leadership by the Chinese military. It is the military driving a program of objective-free expansion into the South China Sea, a policy of showing China's power and subjugating its neighbors for the sake of being able to show China's ability to do this.

To this policy Trump has interposed no obstacle. The United States Navy, acting more or less on its own, has maintained the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) begun during the Obama administration. But these have limited value, against an adversary that has created permanent land bases to support a larger number of individually less capable ships. Against a united front of Indo-Pacific countries backed by the United States, China might find itself drifting into equilibrium—grating to the vanity of People's Liberation Army leaders, but safe and (more or less) stable. Against individual nations left to face China alone, with uncertain American support, the world will face a crapshoot.

You may have seen Secretary Mattis give a strong presentation to an Asian security conference over the weekend. Mattis was acute in his analysis, firm in his resolve; other nations in the region could rally to him, if they were sure he spoke for the United States Government. How can they be? Trump takes favors from his family from Beijing, and from financial institutions sponsored by the Chinese government. How can our Pacific allies be confident that in a moment of crisis America will stand with them and not with a Chinese state seeking to impose on them? And in the event of an unexpected crisis of the kind from which we have mercifully been spared up to now, how can anyone be sure how America will respond?

I think your initial instinct was correct. The United States was losing ground vis a vis China before Trump showed up, its efforts to facilitate China's peaceful inclusion in an international community compromised by America's long preoccupation with Southwest Asia.

Trump has made everything worse. China, determined to assert its power in the region but not sure what to do beyond that, now has the initiative. The United States isn't even close to being able to seize it back. We are headed toward a situation in which military actions could arise for reasons that in retrospect will look trivial. And if war does come, we might not win.

Finally for today, from a serving member of the military:

I'm a regular U.S. Army officer, meaning of course that my views do not necessarily reflect those of the DoD or U.S. government….

My bottom line up front on U.S. foreign policy: as Thucydides or Kissinger might have put it, it is currently a four-star dumpster fire.

From my foxhole, at least, it isn't worse than it looks because it looks extraordinarily bad. However, much like a lovely house I own in [one of the Plains states], when the foundations and framing are still solid, the right amount of capital and time can turn a ratty flophouse into a desirable property again.

That is not to be glib about the gravity of the situation, or to discount the amount of work that it would take to remedy it, but short of an actual nuclear winter, I believe the U.S. possesses sufficient weight in the world to continue to generate enough economic and moral capital that could be invested productively under future administrations.

* * *

What are the factors driving the current administration's decisions?…

The first assumption is that American power and resources are infinite or approaching it. But of course Clausewitz (and history) tells us the opposite—resources are vanishingly finite, even for the U.S., so they must be deployed carefully, guarded jealously, and built up among allies so that the greatest mass can be deployed at just the right moment against the right problem…

Another assumption is that, as the exceptional nation, the U.S. really is entitled to demand and get everything it wants, that all our adversaries and enemies must simply give up everything and be thankful that we allow them to continue to exist; it is a natural extension of the chauvinism found in some right-wing foreign policy thought, but about as realistic as putting an invincibility cheat code into a video game.

The last assumption is that military power solves everything, and is the only measure of strength in IR—forgetting that U.S. soft power started in earnest with Wilson's Fourteen Points and ran straight through rock music and Levis jeans to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

These underlying assumptions have mixed into a dangerous cocktail with POTUS' assumption that short-term wins are worth long-term failure, that foreign policy is exclusively a realm of theater, and, perhaps most egotistically, that the world naturally revolves around the whims of the U.S., which can then wall itself off but still call the tune….

* * *

As regards NATO and the EU: one of your correspondents wrote that our relationship with our European allies had been "irrevocably alienated and possibly destroyed."

Perhaps this is a feeling of despair in a dark moment—especially when the EU is creaking under the weight of its own contradictions, and its members probably weaker in the conventional sense than it has been since the end of the war—but I find it hyperbolic.

America has always had a "Mean Girls" sort of relationship with Europe; I just finished Rick Atkinson's The Guns At Last Light, and one of the salient points for me was how difficult it was, even in the truly existential darkness of the war, to keep everybody rowing in the same direction for their very survival. Tom Ricks paints very much the same picture, zoomed in on Churchill and FDR, in Churchill and Orwell. And it was not all that long ago that the U.S. invaded a certain Mesopotamian country and flew in the face of majority opinion among our allies, the U.K. being the notable exception among major European powers. Yet twelve years later, the U.S. was able to pull off a major international policy coup with the JCPOA, something unimaginable in the atmosphere of rancor of 2003 - 2004...

As regards our relationship with Mexico and Canada, [from personal experience with Canadian forces] I can tell you that for better and for worse, the damage to our security relationship is mostly limited to resigned and knowing half-grins between officers in the two militaries…. Yes, the façade and grounds of our foreign policy house are significantly weathered and unappealing, but barring a tsunami (and I mean this in the sense of a major shooting war directly with Russia or China), the structure will remain intact….

I feel U.S. foreign policy is suffering many self-inflicted wounds, while engaging in some very clumsy "discovery learning" about the multipolar, post-post-Cold War world. Some problems are just the natural terrain of a shifting topography, others painful unforced errors from a worldview at odds with reality. Yet despite all this, let's remind ourselves that we are not in the dark days of 1914 or 1939, and that much of the subsurface of our foreign policy is still intact, and that, yes, in two years there is likely to be a shift in U.S. foreign policy. The current U.S. administration only wants to play the hedgehog, but the realities of the world will eventually blunt all the spines; better to play the wily fox, even if it looks less imposing.