Perhaps without intending it, President Donald Trump is providing a valuable service to the country by forcing a debate on America’s grand strategy in the world. Trump’s United Nations General Assembly speech drew immediate attention because of the derisive laughter it aroused from some in the audience, but its significance lies in its evocation of the pre–World War II American tradition of unilateralism, with a nationalist flavor (“patriotism” instead of “globalism,” as he put it).
Although applied inconsistently, Trump’s main argument seems to be that national sovereignty is an absolute, sovereign nations make their own rules, alliances are transactional only, and values are irrelevant. Reactions to the speech were generally harsh (mine was, too). But like it or not, Trump won an election making similar arguments, and those who don’t like his worldview need to put up their own.
Happily, the past century of American foreign policy provides two tested alternatives to Trumpist unilateralism: realist internationalism rooted in alliances, and commitment to a rules-based international order that favors democracy. The former can provide a tactical framework for a steady foreign policy, but if pushed too far tends to falter in practice. The strategic ambition of the latter can be misapplied, but has supported some of the best American world leadership over the past 100 years.
Recently, Peter Beinart made a case for realist internationalism in The Atlantic. In his essay, he goes after Trump’s unilateralism and trashing of core American alliances. But his major complaint is with what he calls American overreach, including the assumption that the “unipolar” moment of unchallenged American power after the collapse of the Soviet Union can or should be sustained.
Beinart pushes a more modest foreign policy. So far, so good, but his specific prescription demonstrates the weakness of realism taken as a strategic doctrine: He suggests a spheres-of-influence system in which the great powers, including Russia, China, and the United States, each get their piece of the world and respect the others’ pieces. Russia gets eastern Europe, with Georgia and Ukraine both “neutral” (like Finland and Austria during the Cold War); China gets to occupy Taiwan and dominate Vietnam, and achieves recognition of its claims in the South and East China Seas; the U.S. gets the Western Hemisphere.
As an abstraction, spheres-of-influence arrangements have appealed to foreign-policy theorists for a long time (e.g. Henry Kissinger and Walter Lippmann, 20th-century America’s most important foreign-policy journalist, whom Beinart cites). In practice, they don’t work out so well. For one thing, they usually involve doing deals with dictators at the expense of other people. Quite apart from the moral problem, for that reason spheres of influence are not stable: History suggests that autocratic great powers will never be satisfied with wherever the line is drawn.
In addition, the millions of people subject to somebody else’s arrangement (the Poles in 1945 and the Ukrainians and Taiwanese) may not accept their allotted fate. Why should they? Communist rule in Poland and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and Russian domination in Ukraine until 2014, meant repression and poverty. Being in a Russian sphere of influence is not like being in the EU. It’s like being in the Soviet bloc. If given to Russia’s or China’s control, the people in subject nations are likely to revolt against the resultant miserable conditions. When they do, or when the security services start their roundups of independent thinkers, should the U.S. response be indifference, pursuant to its deal with China or Russia?
The U.S. was not willing to risk war against the Soviet Union when Moscow put down the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968, or when it pushed Poland’s government into imposing martial law in 1981. But war or nothing were not the only choices.
Starting in the Carter administration and much more under President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. supported democratic dissent in the Communist bloc, including Poland’s Solidarity trade union. Reagan especially was unwilling to accept the “realist” axiom that the U.S. should tacitly accept Moscow’s sphere of influence in the eastern half of Europe. With American support, the people of those countries overthrew communism and helped end the Cold War on American, Western, and democratic terms. Following the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the U.S. and its Western Allies welcomed the liberated nations of Central and Eastern Europe into NATO and the European Union, bringing 100 million people into an undivided Europe. (Thus they achieved America’s World War II objectives: to see the Atlantic Charter signed by Roosevelt and Churchill in 1941, which made no mention of spheres of influence either with Stalin or anybody else.)
American interests have been well served by a united Europe and the advance of democracy and prosperity on a continent that had generated two world wars and the Cold War. Whatever its differences with Europe, it’s not through Omaha Beach or Dresden that it has to solve them now.
Would the U.S. really have been better served after the fall of the Soviet Union by offering the newly free Europeans to a Russian sphere of influence as a consolation prize to Moscow for having lost the Cold War? By whose authority does the U.S. now offer Ukraine and Georgia? NATO membership for these countries is not a current issue. Nor would a no-NATO pledge—sometimes suggested by realists—buy Russia’s satisfaction. It was Russia’s objection to Ukraine signing a modest Association Agreement with the EU in 2013 that precipitated the demonstrations in Kiev. These led, in turn, to the overthrow of the pro-Russian government there.
Russia wants to control Ukraine and started a war to do so; Ukraine wants to control its own future and draw closer to European institutions. The U.S. should align itself with people seeking its friendship, aspiring to its values, and welcoming its leadership, not with the ambitions of Russia, which is its avowed adversary.
There is a second problem with offering to draw lines on the map: Your rivals might take them seriously. In 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously noted that the U.S. security perimeter in the Pacific ran to the east of the Korean Peninsula. Shortly thereafter, North Korea attacked and the Korean War was on. Drawing lines now could similarly communicate American acquiescence to Chinese aggression, or possibly encourage it, and suggest to other countries in Asia that they might also be traded away. American unreliability toward Taiwan and Vietnam would signal an American view that all of Southeast Asia belongs to China’s sphere.
Since at least 1900, the United States has sought an open Asia; it fought World War II in the Pacific to prevent Japan from dominating it. It should not lightly let itself be shut out now. A better form of realism in Asia might start with assembling American allies and friends in the region to help manage the rise of China, not calculating how to dispose of its friends to the loss of its interests.
The alternative to Trumpist unilateralism or spheres of influence is the American grand strategy—100 years old this year—of a rules-based, open world which favors democracy. Woodrow Wilson has been out of fashion for a long time, and his flaws (racism being the worst) are indefensible. But his Fourteen Points, presented in a speech in January 1918, laid out a first draft of American global leadership in what became known as the American Century.
Wilson’s plan challenged the British and French imperial model; welcomed Germany and Russia into the prospective new system, if they accepted its premises; and outlined a world order of open trade, mutual security, self-determination, and, in staggering self-confidence, an implicit American guarantee of the new arrangement. This was not misplaced idealism or charity. On the contrary, it was rooted in a canny assumption that American interests would best be served in an open, rules-based order in which Yankee ingenuity could flourish. American values and interests would advance together. The genius of the Fourteen Points is that American prosperity was tied to the success of other countries; the system was positive-sum, not zero-sum.
Wilson failed to put his plan into practice. He was too far ahead of his country and could not convince the British and French to sign on. But Franklin Roosevelt and every subsequent American president until now advanced variations of this vision and, despite the failures, blunders, and hypocrisies along the way, America and the world gained much. Since 1945, the world has seen the longest period of general peace between great powers since Roman times, widespread and deepening prosperity, and expansion of democracy.
For all its flaws, the achievements of the rules-based system, also known as the Free World system, looks pretty good measured by the competition: communism, fascism, or the nationalism of pre-1914 Europe.
This is not to minimize the challenges, whether from rejectionist powers like Russia or from ambitious and potentially aggressive China, or from economic stresses, environmental degradation, and climate change, or a host of other problems. A good idea for a global order won’t spare the U.S. the consequences of bad decisions—the Vietnam or Iraq Wars come to mind—nor is it automatic protection against overextension. The U.S. surely needs to re-craft institutions set up decades ago.
The principles of the rules-based order have nothing to say about the details of solutions to these and other problems. But that’s no reason to either alienate America’s friends, as Trump seems determined to do, or to abandon America’s values by drawing lines on a map. Realism is a necessary operational corrective. It is a bad guide to grand strategy.
America should build on what it has achieved in three generations of global leadership, working with those friends with whom it has achieved it. Not alone, but with its allies, America has the power still to resist Russian aggression, manage the rise of China, improve the global trading system, and tackle climate change and other long-term challenges. It should remember the virtues—the combination of principles, determination, and strength—through which it has achieved so much. As the saying used to go, that’s the American way.
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