By: Stephen Wertheim, The New York Times.
Mr. Wertheim is a historian who writes about American foreign policy.
In the past several months, a meaningful debate has finally started to emerge over America’s role in the world. Politicians and analysts — left, right and center — are conceding that longstanding mistakes have brought the United States to an uncertain moment. Provoked by President Trump, they are concluding that the bipartisan consensus forged in the 1990s — in which the United States towered over the world and, at low cost, sought to remake it in America’s image — has failed and cannot be revived.
But the agreement ends there. Foreign policy hands are putting forward something like opposite diagnoses of America’s failure and opposite prescriptions for the future. One camp holds that the United States erred by coddling China and Russia, and urges a new competition against these great power rivals. The other camp, which says the United States has been too belligerent and ambitious around the world, counsels restraint, not another crusade against grand enemies.
Though still in formation, these camps are heading for a clash in the 2020 presidential race, if not in a straightforward way. Each has bipartisan backing. Each finds a little to like in Mr. Trump but rejects him as a member. And each is willing to pull back from wars in the Middle East. It’s this contest, not the sound and fury over “America First,” that is set to redefine America’s world role in the 21st century, during the rest of the Trump years and beyond.
The New Cold Warriors
Mr. Trump has consistently criticized American leaders for being too weak and too generous toward other countries, and none more than China. When he began his campaign in 2015, he decried China as a “bigger problem” than the Islamic State, denouncing Beijing’s trade practices alongside its military buildup. Now, a growing number of foreign policy experts, including centrists who deprecate the president, agree — and add Russia to the list of great power competitors.
In this view, the United States emerged from the Cold War with naïve hopes: It welcomed China into the World Trade Organization and Russia into the G-20 and expected them to liberalize their societies and conform to an American-led “world order.” Instead, China and Russia became more authoritarian and more assertive, shaping global politics against America’s wishes. As the latest National Security Strategy maintains, the United States assumed its power would be “unchallenged and self-sustaining” and “surrendered our advantages” as a result.
The Trump administration has led the way in confronting China, an agenda that transcends its internal fissures. Under Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who left the administration after denouncing the president’s worldview, the Pentagon oriented itself around the premise that “great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.” The administration increasingly treats China’s economic actions as national security threats. In the past several months, the United States has pushed its allies to block the Chinese tech giant Huawei from participating in their 5G wireless networks on the grounds that the Chinese state could use the company to conduct espionage. This move may mark a pivot toward the economic containment of China, with core North Atlantic and East Asian alliances of the Cold War reconstituted in opposition to Chinese economic and political power.
Pressuring China is one of Mr. Trump’s only policies to have gained bipartisan traction. Elizabeth Warren, eyeing 2020, accuses Russia and China of “working flat out to remake the global order” in their authoritarian image. Similarly, think-tankers who began the Trump presidency defending the “liberal international order” are changing tack. The Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright, for example, now writes off the Russo-Chinese “neo-authoritarian world,” urging America to lead the “free world” against it. The message is not far from that of Vice President Mike Pence, who in October blasted China as a crypto-totalitarian force committing aggression wherever it goes, even when it finances infrastructure in poor countries.
Despite the rhetoric, the most basic aims of great power competition remain to be defined, especially toward a rising China. Does the United States seek merely to modify Chinese conduct, or to block China’s ascent outright? How much economic separation from China do national security concerns warrant? The irony is that Mr. Trump himself, having ratcheted up tensions, may merely seek leverage toward a trade deal. He is disposed to regard no country as a permanent ally or permanent enemy. But America’s hardening line has bipartisan support and it won’t be easy to reverse.
At the same time, Mr. Trump has helped to incite a counter-movement. A trans-partisan coalition, aligning progressives and libertarians, is encouraged by the electoral success of his criticism of Middle East interventions, but seeks much greater restraint than the president has delivered. Those who advocate restraint believe the United States went wrong by expanding, not contracting, its global responsibilities after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Mr. Trump shares some of these inclinations. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he proclaimed in the State of the Union. He has pledged to pull most ground troops out of Syria and is pursuing negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. On the whole, though, most advocates of restraint find little to like in Mr. Trump’s militarized foreign policy. They see a president who has attempted to assert American dominance over the world, boosting the defense budget, escalating military interventions in the Middle East and Africa, and imposing new sanctions on Iran and now Venezuela.
Yet they also see an opportunity to constrain the United States’ military adventurism by opposing the war powers of an unprincipled and unstrategic commander in chief. On Feb. 13, antiwar forces scored a victory when the House voted to end military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. If the resolution passes the Senate, it will mark the first time Congress has invoked the 1973 War Powers Act in order to bind the president to remove American forces active in hostilities abroad.
The bill also offers a template for further withdrawals, according to its Senate sponsors, Democrat Chris Murphy, Independent Bernie Sanders and Republican Mike Lee. “Since 9/11, politicians have become far too comfortable with American military interventions all over the world,” they have written. The next step may be to repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, which successive presidents have used to justify almost unlimited warmaking in the greater Middle East.
Restraint is advancing on the left of the Democratic Party, but it’s not yet clear whether it can pierce the center as domestic proposals like Medicare for All have done. Calls to cut military spending, advanced by Mr. Sanders and House progressives, have not quite become a core principle of the progressive movement. And advocates of restraint tend to become less vocal and unified when they turn beyond the Middle East. The sponsor of the House’s Yemen resolution, Representative Ro Khanna, has distinguished himself by supporting diplomacy with North Korea and opposing regime change in Venezuela, but he stands apart. The restraint coalition would benefit from taking a similarly global view if it is to advance a comprehensive alternative to the status quo.
Does the future belong to great power competition or restraint? Partisans of each camp have good reason to feel the wind at their back. Decades of policy failure have converged with the daily eruptions of President Trump to throw open the question of what America’s place in the world should be.
What’s more, the two camps have not quite trained their sights on each other. That is partly because advocates of great power competition in the establishment remain obsessed with Mr. Trump, while advocates of restraint have been marginalized for so long that they need to pick their battles. One can even glimpse the outlines of a tacit bargain between them, breaking down geographically: As restrainers try to end wars in the Middle East, centrists pivot toward the Pacific, where the adversaries are larger but war less likely.
For now, savvy politicians can adopt both positions at once. Ms. Warren, for example, denounces Chinese and Russian behavior at the same time that she promises to remove troops from Afghanistan and “cut our bloated defense budget.” And Democrat-leaning experts not previously outraged by America’s Middle East entanglements now bemoan them as distractions. Before long, it will be only anti-Iran, pro-Israel hard-liners — members of the Trump administration and Democratic leadership included — who will strongly defend America’s posture in the region.
But the two sides disagree fundamentally, and Americans deserve a forthright debate between them after decades of stifling consensus. Advocates of great power competition, after all, will hardly accept cutting military spending even if all they seek is to maintain current levels of superiority over a rising China and an assertive Russia. Restrainers, for their part, might succeed spectacularly in the Middle East, only to find America embroiled in a new Cold War. To avoid being outflanked, they ought to amplify the potential for cooperation with China, a power that has successfully practiced its own form of restraint, refraining from war for the past 40 years.
In the upcoming election, battles within the parties may prove as consequential as the main fight between them. For if the last two years have shown anything, it is that America’s purpose in the world is deeply unsettled, and just might be poised for a major change.