My Weekly Reader 22 June 2022.

            What’s wrong with American foreign policy?  In a nut-shell, we won the Cold War.[1]  More exactly, the problems of American foreign policy stem from what we and others made of that victory.  Talk about “the End of History and the Last Man Standing,” and a “New World Order” reflected the unfocused, ungrounded optimism of the aftermath.  Capitalist democracy offered the one viable political form.  Where it did not yet exist, it soon would.  Economic and cultural globalization would triumph.  Where it did not yet exist, it would.  Material prosperity and cultural assimilation would shift the balance of international relations from conflict to cooperation.  Where it did not yet exist, it would.  This amounted to the creation of what the political scientist Stephen Walt calls “liberal hegemony.”[2] 

            The United States became the hegemon.  Yes, in 1989-1990, the United States managed the peaceful re-unification of Germany as the Soviet Union abandoned its empire in Eastern Europe.  Yes, in 1991, the United States led a coalition that ejected Iraq’s army from Kuwait and then stopped short of invading Iraq.  However, those punctuated the end of the Cold War era’s hard-earned lessons of self-restraint.[3] 

            Subsequently, in 1999, the United States allowed the expansion eastward of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); in 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban while in hot pursuit of Osama Bin Laden, but then chose to stay on in a prolonged effort at nation-building; in 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, setting off a gory civil war and anti-Western insurgency[4]; in 2011-2012, the United States took the part of street demonstrators against the traditional elites in the “Arab Spring”; in 2011, the United States provided the air power needed to bomb the government of Muammar Gaddafi out of power in Libya.  All the while, the United States espoused the cause of international human rights and democratic transitions in countries where the ruling elites rejected both.[5] 

            Inevitably, some countries began to push back.  The most obvious case has been that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  With NATO creeping ever-closer, Putin tried to disrupt Ukraine’s move toward the European Union and NATO.  When popular resistance blocked that effort, he seized the Crimea, fostered revolts among ethnic Russians in two “oblasts,” and now has gone to war.  Putin also meddled—in a minor way—in the 2016 American presidential election.  China, India, and a host of lesser countries have refused to comply with American-led sanctions. 

            Is there any reasonable policy to follow?  Walt advocates a return to George Kennan’s ideas.  At the dawn of the Cold War, Kennan argued that only a few critical areas needed to be defended from Communist aggression: Western Europe, Japan, the Americas.  The list has grown, but America’s range of action in recent decades has out-run its real means and needs. 


[1] The long concluding episode in the struggle against aggressive tyrannies from 1940 to 1990.  In this conflict, the United States and its allies opposed, first Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and second, the Soviet Union and Communist China.  Yes, we got our hands dirty in this struggle, but it was, I think, a fight worth making. 

[2] Steven M. Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (2018).  I want to thank my former student Hanna Shatuck for bringing this book to my attention years ago. 

[3] The defeat of George H. W. Bush by Bill Clinton had multiple causes.  Perhaps one of them was a desire to escape the burdens of the “hard and bitter peace.” 

[4] The invasion’s encouragement of Kurdish nationalism, turned a NATO ally, Turkey, into an American enemy. 

[5] Admittedly, most of this effort focused on smaller states.  China was another matter.