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Opinion | A Feckless American Foreign Policy’s Legacy

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America’s strategic pivot from the Middle East was a mistake, President Biden acknowledged on his recent swing through the region. Admitting that is a good thing; you can’t begin to fix a problem before acknowledging that you have one. Unfortunately, this “mistake” was only one part of the profound failure of American strategic culture that has taken this country and the world into an increasingly dark place. The question now is whether Mr. Biden and his team understand how much more needs to be done to get American foreign policy back on track.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the world seemed more peaceful and American power more solidly entrenched than ever before. Twenty-two years into the new century, Americans face the most threatening international environment since the darkest days of the Cold War. The war in Ukraine threatens the post-Cold War order in Europe. Iran is well on its way to a nuclear bomb, and China’s shadow looms larger than ever over Taiwan.

The record of American statecraft since 2000 has been, to put it mildly, unsatisfactory. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan involved immense human and economic costs even as Iranian power surged across the Middle East. America’s failure to enforce trade rules against China facilitated the rise of a hostile communist rival while undermining political support for free trade in both political parties. What posterity will likely regard as the Chamberlainesque responses of American presidents in both parties to Russia’s growing assertiveness allowed Vladimir Putin to rebuild the Kremlin’s power.

Today, China, Russia and Iran are deepening their mutual ties and doubling down on their assault on the U.S. and its alliances. Meanwhile, what some Washington circles still call the liberal world order looks more illiberal and less orderly every day. In the Middle East, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya are plagued by conflict and militias. In Asia, Sri Lanka has collapsed, and Myanmar’s civil war grows uglier and more intractable by the day. The threat from North Korea continues to grow. Europe may be facing its worst energy and economic crisis since the 1940s. Jihadist violence is raging across Africa as food price inflation and supply disruptions from the war in Ukraine leave millions vulnerable to famine and want.

China, Russia and Iran have problems of their own, and their continuing rise is by no means foreordained. But if world events continue on their present trajectory, our current decade could fall into chaos and conflict as destructive as the 20th century’s world wars. To stop the grim downhill slide, American foreign policy will have to change course.

One idea in particular is going to have to go. Following the Cold War, the American foreign-policy establishment embraced the tragically misguided belief that we could set aside traditional forms of great-power competition and balance-of-power diplomacy while focusing our efforts on “global issues” like human rights, climate change and the construction of an ever-stronger set of international institutions operating under an ever-more-pervasive system of international law.

That destructive consensus rested on two mistaken perceptions. The first was that America’s victory in the Cold War was final and America’s economic and military power plus our diplomatic prestige ensured our unchallengeable supremacy for decades.

The second was that the so-called rules-based world order we were using our power to build would be popular abroad and uncontroversial at home. The economic benefits of the free-market, free-trading world system were so great that no serious country abroad or political movement at home would be insane enough to challenge it. And the elegant international system was going to be so ethically beautiful and politically inspiring that countries all over the world would be irresistibly drawn into it.

The war in Afghanistan illustrates the feckless nature of two decades of American foreign policy. In Afghanistan, we expanded our objectives, and our war aims shifted from removing and punishing a government that sheltered the terrorists who engineered 9/11 to changing the culture and political system of a society very different from our own.

Unfortunately, in the midst of our inspiring campaigns of institution-building and civil-society promotion, we neglected one tiny detail: We never developed and implemented a military strategy capable of winning the war.

The same disastrous mix of mission creep and strategic incompetence that wrecked our Afghan policy threatens our global strategy today. Our plans for world order grow increasingly ambitious and elaborate even as the security underpinnings of that system become dangerously weak. Global issues are real, and hard power on its own is never enough. But if you don’t get the hard-power issues right, nothing else matters much.

Jimmy Carter lost the 1980 general election by a landslide to Ronald Reagan, so it’s difficult to understand why Joe Biden continues to follow the Carter ‘malaise’ playbook today. Bettman via Getty Images/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

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