Excoriating Twenty Years of American Foreign Policy.

            Riffing on Edward Gibbon, Walter Russell Mead judges that “At the beginning of the 21st Century, the world seemed more peaceful and American power more solidly entrenched than ever before.”[1]  With the Soviet Union defeated and its empire dissolved, with the whole laughable idea of Communism discredited even in the eyes of leftist academics, the Western leaders tried to understand the new world.  Mead argues persuasively that American leaders believed that “traditional forms of great-power competition and balance-of-power diplomacy” had done their duty, had their day, and now could take up the rocker at some Old Soldiers’ Home,[2] to be wheeled-out only for July 4th celebrations.  America appeared the unchallenged and unchallengeable leader of the world, the “last man standing.”  So it would always remain. 

In place of the “long twilight struggle”[3] against aggressive tyrannies, other issues had to be addressed.  The nation-state, it was argued, served well for the solution of national problems.  New problems, however, were trans-national.  The climate know no borders.  If global warming continues unchecked, we may all fry like eggs.  Population and wealth imbalances between the Global North and the Global South spur large-scale migration that can test, even overwhelm, traditional national boundaries.  Western liberal ideals have always been universal in their claims.[4]  Now the duty of American foreign policy lay in seeing these rights extended to all peoples.[5]  Finally, the means to all these ends lay in the creation of ever more powerful international institutions and ever-more comprehensive international law. 

Then things blew up in the Middle East with the 9/11 attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Iranian assertiveness. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the invasions morphed into attempts at nation-building that merely set off gory civil wars between American clients and American opponents.  Then American leaders failed to act in any effective way against Vladimir Putin’s effort to resurrect Russian power in the former Soviet Empire.  On top of this, the same leaders grossly misjudged the future development of China.  They appear to have believed that China, could be integrated into an American-designed global economy as a willing partner.   

Mead sees in all of this a “disastrous mix of mission creep and strategic incompetence.”  He wants foreign policy elites to have a “road to Damascus” experience.  He wants them to turn back to great-power politics.  There is a lot of good sense in this analysis.  However, the Afghan and Iraq wars have been wound up with Americans now (hopefully) vaccinated against more nation-building.  Putin is one man, not a global movement, and nuclear weapons alone make Russia a serious power.  The truth is that both China and climate change are grave problems that demand global solutions.  Those solutions can be both great-power politics and international action. 


[1] Walter Russell Mead, “A Feckless Foreign Policy’s Legacy,” WSJ, 19 July 2022.  See Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I, Chapter One, “The Extent of the Empire in the Age of the Antonines,” Introduction. 

[2] Said home to be located in coastal South Carolina, close to excellent golf courses. 

[3] I know, at this point your cliché-o-meter is running wild.  Sorry.   

[4] “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,…”. 

[5] One very real blessing of our liberty has been the continual extension of rights to marginalized groups and in the expansion of the list of rights.  So I’m OK with flying the gay flag outside city hall.  Whether we should fly it over the US embassy in a conservative foreign country is another issue. 

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