Today’s world presents a seemingly endless array of challenges: a more powerful and assertive China, novel threats from cyberspace, a rising tide of refugees, resurgent xenophobia, persistent strands of violent extremism, climate change, and many more. But the more complex the global environment, the more Washington needs clear thinking about its vital interests and foreign policy priorities. Above all, a successful U.S. grand strategy must identify where the United States should be prepared to wage war, and for what purposes.
For all the talk of how U.S. foreign policy and the country’s place in the world will never be the same after the presidency of Donald Trump, the best strategic road map for the United States is a familiar one. Realism—the hard-nosed approach to foreign policy that guided the country throughout most of the twentieth century and drove its rise to great power—remains the best option. A quarter century ago, after the Cold War ended, foreign policy elites abandoned realism in favor of an unrealistic grand strategy—liberal hegemony—that has weakened the country and caused considerable harm at home and abroad. To get back on track, Washington should return to the realism and restraint that served it so well in the past.
If Washington rediscovered realism, the United States would seek to preserve the security and prosperity of the American people and to protect the core value of liberty in the United States. Policymakers would recognize the importance of military strength but also take into account the country’s favorable geographic position, and they would counsel restraint in the use of force. The United States would embrace a strategy of “offshore balancing” and abstain from crusades to remake the world in its image, concentrating instead on maintaining the balance of power in a few key regions. Where possible, Washington would encourage foreign powers to take on the primary burden for their own defense, and it would commit to defend only those areas where the United States has vital interests and where its power is still essential. Diplomacy would return to its rightful place, and Americans would promote their values abroad primarily by demonstrating democracy’s virtues at home.
IF IT AIN’T BROKE…
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the United States was weak, leaders from George Washington to William McKinley mostly avoided foreign entanglements and concentrated on building power domestically, expanding the country’s reach across North America and eventually expelling the European great powers from the Western Hemisphere. In the first half of the twentieth century, U.S. presidents such as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt used the country’s newfound strength to restore the balance of power in strategically critical regions outside the Western Hemisphere. But they let other great powers do most of the heavy lifting, and thus the United States emerged relatively unscathed—and stronger than ever—from the world wars that devastated Asia and Europe.
Letting other states shoulder the burden was not possible during the Cold War, so the United States stepped up and led the alliances that contained the Soviet Union. American leaders paid lip service to democracy promotion, human rights, and other idealistic concerns, but U.S. policy was realist at its core. Through the Bretton Woods system and its successors, the United States also helped foster a more open world economy, balancing economic growth against the need for financial stability, national autonomy, and domestic legitimacy. Put simply, for most of U.S. history, American leaders were acutely sensitive to the balance of power, passed the buck when they could, and took on difficult missions when necessary.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States found itself, as the former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft put it in 1998, “standing alone at the height of power . . . with the rarest opportunity to shape the world,” U.S. leaders rejected the realism that had worked well for decades and tried to remake global politics in accordance with American values. A new strategy—liberal hegemony—sought to spread democracy and open markets across the globe. That goal is the common thread linking President Bill Clinton’s policy of “engagement and enlargement,” President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda,” and President Barack Obama’s embrace of the Arab revolts of 2010–11 and his declaration that “there is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny.” Such thinking won broad support from both political parties, the federal bureaucracies that deal with international affairs, and most of the think tanks, lobbies, and media figures that constitute the foreign policy establishment.
At bottom, liberal hegemony is a highly revisionist strategy. Instead of working to maintain favorable balances of power in a few areas of vital interest, the United States sought to transform regimes all over the world and recruit new members into the economic and security institutions it dominated. The results were dismal: failed wars, financial crises, staggering inequality, frayed alliances, and emboldened adversaries.