Retreat from Reliability
America's allies are worried and unsettled. So what else is new?
Editor’s note: This piece appears in the June 12 issue of The Weekly Standard.
Campaigning in a Munich beer tent on May 28, German chancellor Angela Merkel reflected upon Donald Trump’s blitz through Europe at the tail end of his first trip outside the United States. “The times when we could fully rely on others are kind of over,” she said. “We Europeans really need to take our fate into our own hands. . . . We have to fight for our own future, as Europeans, for our destiny.”
Merkel was reflecting on the antagonistic approach to multilateral trade regimes and the Paris climate change agreement Trump had displayed at the NATO summit in Brussels on May 25 and a subsequent meeting of the G7 in Italy. But the underlying message was more general and more disturbing: Our allies and adversaries are coming to the conclusion that the United States is no longer interested in leading the world. This can only end in calamity and conflict. The genius of the post-1945 Pax Americana is that it subsumed the destinies of any great and would-be great powers into our own. Whenever Germany and other Eurasian nations, even the most liberal ones, have tried to take destiny in their own hands, the result has been catastrophic.
You’d think Germans would be especially reluctant to return to anything like the multipolarity that made Middle Europe a battleground for a millennium. The original problem was German weakness; the German-speaking peoples were parceled out into hundreds of palatinates and principalities, prey to Habsburg, Bourbon, Romanov, or Napoleonic ambition. From unification in 1871 to Hitler’s fall in 1945, the problem was German strength. The distance from self-reliance to lebensraum was a short one, but Germany was simply repeating the bids for European domination launched in previous centuries by Spain and France; each was strong enough to believe it could become the dominant power but too weak to attain such a position. Imperial Japan made a similar bid for mastery in East Asia during the first half of the 20th century, with similar results.
These failures highlight the greatness of America’s achievement. Victory was won in World War II with a big boost from Great Britain and the Soviet Union—which paid by far the largest cost in blood in defeating Nazism. But it was the United States that sustained the effort through the Cold War and beyond, creating for the first time in history a comprehensive international order that provided security and created the conditions for historic rises in prosperity and liberty. For 70 years, much of the planet—certainly all of the “Free World”—has relied on the United States to guarantee that order. They can only look at our growing abdication of responsibility with dismay.
From Obama to Trump
Donald Trump is barging his way through a door opened by Barack Obama. The main difference between “America First” and “nation-building at home” is who gets the blame; Trump thinks the rest of the world isn’t good enough to warrant much American sacrifice where Obama acted as though America was not good enough for the world. Both philosophies have little interest in the messy business of policing the global commons.
Lest we forget, the original premise of Obama’s rise to national political stardom in 2002 was his stand against a “dumb war” in Iraq and the “cynical attempt” by neoconservatives “to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats.” While admitting that Saddam Hussein was a “bad guy,” Obama said he could live with him and his regime until, “in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.” He ran for the presidency promising to “end” the war in Iraq—meaning, really, to end American involvement. He moved slowly once in the White House, but well before his re-election bid, he could declare his mission accomplished. “Today I can report,” he announced in October 2011, “that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year.”
Even more telling was Obama’s handling of Afghanistan. Candidate Obama had contrasted the “good” war in Afghanistan against the “bad” war in Iraq, claiming that as president he would “make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be.” Yet through three extended “strategic reviews” of Afghan strategy over the course of 2009, Obama agonized about the need to send more troops. Perhaps not surprisingly, the result was incoherent. To begin with, he tried to split the difference between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, fatally matching high ambitions with restricted troop levels. Nor was he willing to undertake needed reforms in the Afghan government, thus undercutting American efforts from the start. And, fearing to “lose all the Democratic party” rather than the war itself, Obama promised that the “surge” of 30,000 extra troops he ordered would be brief, making sure to bring the troops home before election night 2012.
Obama’s faint heart was especially jarring to the former Soviet satellites that have joined NATO. Many of these Eastern European countries had been so anxious for American approbation that they had broken with Germany and France and sent troops to fight in Iraq. In the context of Obama’s Russia “reset” and the 2009 reneging on missile defense agreements with the Czech Republic and Poland, questions about American strategic reliability arose.
These became more vocal during Obama’s second term. The president had been overheard telling Russian president Dmitry Medvedev that he would enjoy greater latitude once he no longer had to face voters, but no one imagined that would mean “leading from behind” on Libya or turning away from the proclaimed “red line” in Syria. The Syria failure resonated globally. An Australian defense white paper went so far as to imagine the prospect of American regional decline. The Chinese were so encouraged they embarked on an aggressive program of dredging “islands” in the South China Sea to build military outposts.
The psychological effect of Obama’s policies exceeded their material import. No one failure did much to change the actual balance of power. The structures built over seven decades were resilient; allies had become dependent on them and adversaries sought only to undermine them at the margins, not supplant them. It was hoped and expected that the passing of Obama’s presidency might make for a return to normal.
Donald Trump doesn’t do normal. The purpose of his eight-day globetrot was to reassure allies unsettled by Obama. But even had Trump not blown up in Europe—berating our NATO allies for failing to meet defense budget pledges, claiming arrears for past U.S. military spending, and haranguing the Germans for their export-focused trade policies—his trip would have been a failure. Trump’s transactional approach to international affairs does nothing to calm our friends’ fears. The Saudis, for instance, were quite happy to pay up: inking a $110 billion arms-sales package, making a $40 billion investment in Trump’s “public-private” infrastructure plan, and, along with the United Arab Emirates, pledging $100 million to Ivanka Trump’s suggested World Bank fund for women entrepreneurs. But they know they’re renting for the short term with Trump and not investing in any long-term relationship with an American leader. Trump, for his part, hailed the arms deal as good for Saudi security and American jobs, and never mentioned U.S. national security.
In turning away from entangling alliances and overseas commitments, Trump and Obama tapped into a vein of U.S. public opinion. The 2016 primary season was littered with the corpses of traditional, peace-through-strength candidates, and not only on the Republican side. Hillary Clinton did all but “lose the Democratic Party” to Bernie Sanders. In retrospect it might be that the distaste for the Iraq war expressed symptoms of a disease deeper than simple opposition to “stupid” approaches to the Middle East. Trump, Obama, and their political bases share a visceral dislike of the foreign-policy establishment, the “blob” as Obama adviser Ben Rhodes described it. Barack Obama hoped, in pushing for further arms control measures and climate agreements, to transcend the creaky mechanisms that made up the “international system” of nation-states; Trump wants to pull it down and redevelop it in the name of American sovereignty.
The Coming Multipolarity
Thus we are well down the path toward a more competitive and “multipolar” world, one more prone to conflict.
Political scientists and historians of the “realist” school see the period between the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which concluded the Napoleonic wars, and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 as a successful multipolar arrangement. They tend to depict a Europe shepherded by wise statesmen striving to maintain a balance of power. But you have to squint hard to see it that way. The European great-power balance was wobbly by 1864, when the Prussians and Austrians snatched the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, and Saxe-Lauenburg from the Danes. Two years later, the Prussians turned on the Austrians and in the Seven Weeks’ War began the unification of the German states. In 1870, the new North German Federation invaded France and by January of 1871 had occupied Paris and declared a German Empire. The period was rife with colonial and proxy conflicts, too, perhaps most strikingly the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), with Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm goading the Russian Czar Nicholas to be the “savior of the white race” against the “yellow peril” in Asia, and the British backing the Japanese, who scored impressive victories on land and sea.
It isn’t hard to imagine the scramble for power, influence, and advantage that would follow the crumbling of the current international order. A rising China is likely to set the pace: Increasingly wealthy and militarily powerful, shamed by two centuries of European exploitation, and with Han nationalism supplanting Communist doctrine, Beijing has means and motive. But even if the United States were to grant China its own sphere of influence in maritime Southeast Asia, Japan would contest it. Indeed, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan is much farther down the road to strategic self-reliance than Merkel’s Germany or the EU, and is prepared to make military investments—perhaps even nuclear ones.
Vladimir Putin built his career as Russian leader around exploiting uncertainties about American commitment, beginning in Georgia in 2008 and continuing through Ukraine and the Baltic states. He saw an opportunity in Bashar al-Assad’s distress, a low-cost move that got Russia back at the table in the Middle East and put pressure on Europe. Meddling—or appearing to meddle—in the 2016 U.S. election has been a Powerball-sized win, too. Yet American leaders always seem ready for a “reset” that will make Putin a partner for stability.
This was Obama’s bet on Iran, too. There is an abiding school of thought in Washington that Iran is our natural partner in the Middle East, especially in contrast to the Saudi royal family and its strict Wahhabi views. But with the prospect of regional hegemony in sight and a military built around zealous sectarian militias and ballistic missiles, Tehran is far more likely to step up its anti-American efforts than become a contented partner. Trump, like Obama before him, has made the defeat of ISIS the first order of business for America in the Middle East, a fight in which Iran is our partner. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently announced a shift from “attrition tactics” to “annihilation.” If that mission is accomplished, will not Iran simply fill the power vacuum?
Western Europe has the most to lose in pursuing a path of self-reliance in place of American power. This is especially so in the wake of Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. History is again revealing: Absent the hand of an English “offshore balancer,” the continental balance of power has always been precarious. The problem will once again be weakness—both German and French. Europe is something akin to a geopolitical retirement home and thus very vulnerable to the bully on its borders.
The greatest costs of multipolarity will be measured in lost prosperity and lost liberty. Brookings Institution scholar Homi Kharas has estimated that the “global middle class” now numbers 3.2 billion—almost half the planet’s population. Perhaps not coincidentally, the acceleration of prosperity correlates strongly with the end of the Cold War; in 1985 the global middle class was only 1 billion people. There is also a similar correlation between American power and free governments, not least here at home. So, far from creating a repressive national security state, the period from 1945 onward has seen a steady expansion of civil and social liberties of all kinds—in matters of race, gender, sexual orientation, and more—in the United States.
Yet, to many Americans, the U.S. government is an increasingly unreliable partner, no longer an engine of progress and growth but a mechanism to fence out “losers” and “deplorables.” Wearying of burdens abroad, we tire of each other at home, seeking a separate rather than shared destiny. Barack Obama stoked an insidious form of identity politics in his eight years in office, and Donald Trump has taken that art form to a new level. Thanks to their efforts, identity politics are on the verge of supplanting the liberalism of the last 70 years on the international stage.
Thomas Donnelly is co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.