In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union, a foreign-policy consensus evolved in Washington. We were told that the end of the Cold War not only marked the defeat of the United States’ leading competitor, but had also ushered in a new era in the history of international relations.
Since the end of World War II and for much of the second half of the 20th century, the order in the international system took the form of bipolarity, with the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, two states, or two military superpowers, that helped keep the global balance of power stable.
But once the Soviet Union was history, the bipolar world was no more, and we would be entering into the unipolar age. “The center of world power is the unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its Western allies,” asserted Charles Krauthammer, a leading Washington foreign-policy pundit, in an article in the influential Foreign Affairs magazine appropriately titled “The unipolar moment.”
America’s global military and economic primacy would cease to be challenged by any major global power. The United States would face no near-term rivals for global power and influence, and the defining feature of international politics would be American dominance that would allow the world’s only remaining superpower to help spread democracy like never before.
That conventional wisdom seemed to have guided all Republican and Democratic US presidents during the post-Cold War years, with each White House occupant trying to come up with his own strategy to allow the United States to maintain its dominant role and to establish order in the international system.
Republican president George H W Bush celebrated the rise of a New World Order under which there would be “no substitute for American leadership,” while Democratic president Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Madeline Albright insisted that the United States was “the Indispensable Nation” that saw “further than other countries into the future.”
But under Clinton and his successor in office, Republican president George W Bush, America’s role seemed to transcend traditional geo-strategic notions that assumed that Washington would help secure a stable global balance of power. The United States would also need to use its power to promote the process of globalization and advance its liberal-democratic philosophy worldwide, even through the use of its military force, the two presidents asserted.
And then, as Thomas Fingar, chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, declared at the end of 2008, “the Unipolar Moment [was] over”. A series of geo-strategic and geo-economic challenges to US power, including the military setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, the collapse of the US financial system and the ensuing Great Recession coupled with the dramatic economic and military rise of China and other Pacific Rim nations demonstrated that American global power and influence were waning and that an exhausted US would not be able to apply its power unilaterally to dictate international outcomes.
The recognition of the limits operating on US global power explains why the American electorate had chosen as its presidents, first, Democrat Barack Obama, and then Republican Donald Trump, who as candidates had promised to reduce America’s military commitments abroad and to reassess its global economic policies
The recognition of the limits operating on US global power explains why the American electorate had chosen as its presidents, first, Democrat Barack Obama, and then Republican Donald Trump, who as candidates had promised to reduce America’s military commitments abroad and to reassess its global economic policies.
But Obama’s re-examination of US global leadership never amounted to a major turnaround in strategy, particularly in terms of responding to the historic challenge from China. And he certainly did not raise doubts about the the post-Cold War consensus that the United States, the Indispensable Nation, had an obligation to sustain a New World Order, including the ambitious globalization project.
Instead, Obama proposed that in that context, Washington would use multilateral institutions to secure its goals in the military and economic spheres and would try to apply diplomacy to accommodate global challengers like China and Russia and rogue nations like Iran and North Korea. The Unipolar Moment may have been over, but Obama refrained from introducing a new global vision.
From that perspective, President Trump’s new National Security Strategy (NSS), which he introduced in an address in Washington on Monday, amounts to a clear break with the way his post-Cold War predecessors saw the international system and envisaged the US role in it.
In a way, as the Trump administration sees it, its duty is not to secure the foundations of an amorphous New World Order, or to promote its democratic values, or to advance free trade and investment. Instead, its obligation is first and foremost to protect US strategic and economic interests around the world by using its power and not necessarily through multilateral institutions. The interests of the American people override those of the Global Community.
President Trump’s vision is grounded in an old-fashioned realpolitik world view that dominated US foreign policy for most of the Cold War, which was centered on managing the global competition between great powers.
President Trump has pledged to use US power to contain and deter the two leading ‘revisionist powers’ that ‘want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests’ – China and Russia. The US would therefore embrace a combative stance
That vision of the international system is grounded in the assumption that global stability is achieved not through accommodation of competitors or by making concessions to rivals or by relying on international institutions and the application of international law. Only the threat of the use of military and economic power creates incentives for other players to reach diplomatic and trade deals with the United States. That is the most effective way to avert costly conflicts in the long run.
And now that “the great-power competition has returned,” as the NSS document puts it, President Trump has pledged to use US power to contain and deter the two leading “revisionist powers” that “want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests” – China and Russia.
The US would therefore embrace a combative stance that would challenge Beijing’s unfair economic practices and its attempts to exert control over islands and waterways in the South China Sea. And “the United States will no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating or economic aggression.”
The NSS document also describes China as a “strategic competitor” and rejects a central tenet of post-Cold War US foreign policy, that “engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.” For the most part, concludes the document, “this premise turned out to be false.”
While the new NSS document outlines all the policies that the Trump administration wants to avoid pursuing, and introduces a realpolitik-based vision, it refrains from presenting a coherent strategy that would replace the ones that have guided recent administrations.
More specifically, the NSS does not make clear what would be the basis for possible cooperation with Beijing and Moscow, while stating that these two powers “want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests.”
But why should Russian and Chinese efforts to establish spheres of influence in their own strategic back yards – or, for that matter, Iran’s assertiveness in the Middle East – be considered antithetical to US interests in a way that may require the American people to fight wars against those countries?
Indeed, at times it seems as though the Trump administration, very much like those that came before it, is still interested in maintaining US global primacy and that it has yet to find a way to move beyond the Unipolar Moment.