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Renegotiating America’s Role in the World: Avoiding the British Precedent


- August 20th, 2018
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After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Great Britain pursued a grand strategy of primacy, based on the concept of what Robert Gilpin has called “hegemonic stability.” For nearly a century, Britain provided an international “public good,” underwriting the security upon which global stability, interdependence and prosperity depend.

By balancing power on the European continent, enforcing freedom of navigation, and supporting free trade, Britain was able to maintain an uneasy peace—disturbed only by the Crimean War and the Wars of German Unification. But by the end of the 19th century, Great Britain had become a “weary titan.” In many respects, Albion was the victim of its own success.

Having prevented general war in Europe for nearly a century, many opinion leaders in Great Britain came to believe that peace was the natural condition of the world and that war could be prevented by adhering to what is today called liberal internationalism. The burden of defense was too high. Who needed a large Royal Navy when peace was at hand?

Moving on from Siren Song of Liberal Internationalism
Much of the British response was shaped by the fact that its hegemonic position had become more expensive as its relative share of the global wealth declined. Britain had benefited economically from free trade at a time when most states in the international system pursued mercantilist economic policies. This economic benefit created a comparative advantage that helped offset the cost of subsidizing peace in the international order. Although Britain was the primary bill payer for maintaining a free trading system, it was also the primary beneficiary of such a system.

It was also the case that the opportunity cost of policing its imperial frontiers was rising, hampering the ability of Britain to check the rise of a major state competitor, mainly Germany. As Britain learned from 1914-1918, success in the former does not guarantee success in the latter.

From the end of World War II to the beginning of the Obama Administration, the United States, like Britain before it, pursued a grand strategy of primacy in an effort to sustain a liberal world order. It ensured access to the “global commons”—especially freedom of navigation, which is essential to the prosperity arising from free trade and commerce—and airspace. It deterred the behavior of potential aggressors in the international system. It was willing to confront aggressors in the “contested zone,” the littorals of Eurasia.

But unlike his predecessors from both parties since World War II, President Obama chose to pursue an approach to international relations that relegated the United States to the status of just “one among many.”  He firmly rejected the idea of American exceptionalism and the status of the United States as the “indispensable nation” providing the “public good” of security. He made a conscious decision to dial back American power based on the expectation that others would step forward to maintain peace and security. Of course, they did not do so and our enemies exploited the situation.

This was a radical shift and a dangerous one that has led to a more turbulent world and an increased likelihood of war by miscalculation in the future. China became more aggressive; Russia threatened the peace of Europe. By acting on the claim that he was elected to end wars, not to start them—as if wars were ends in themselves, not means—President Obama aided and abetted the rise of ISIS after his decision to withdraw completely from Iraq. And his nuclear agreement with Iran made a mockery of the decades-long U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy. More importantly, the agreement was just another aspect of President Obama’s campaign to cede the Middle East to Iran.

When Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for president, his statements led many—including myself—to believe he would continue Obama’s retreat as president. Trump’s campaign rhetoric suggested he had no coherent view of U.S. foreign policy, other than the gauzy commitment to “making America great again” and “America first.” Among other things, Trump criticized America’s overseas commitments, including the ongoing effort in Afghanistan; called into question the value of NATO; and argued the United States was being undone by its adherence to free trade. But in practice, Trump’s national-security strategy has been far more coherent than the incoherent global retreat embraced by the Obama Administration.

Now it is doubtful that Trump has studied the decline of British power or has reflected on its lessons for America today. But he seems intuitively to have recognized that the problems besetting Britain in the latter part of the 19th century were similar to those that face the United States today. He seems to have realized that if indeed geopolitical and economic conditions have changed, then the terms of the relationship between America and the rest of the world must be revamped.

Trump’s Foreign Policy is No Obama-style Retreat from the World
I previously identified several pillars of an emerging “Trump Doctrine”: First, there is what Walter Russell Mead has called a “healthy nationalism,” neither ethnic nor racial but civic in nature, based on the belief that the purpose of American power is to advance the interests of American citizens, not to create some abstract “global good,” or corporatist globalism divorced from patriotism or national interest.

Second—a corollary of the first—a state-centric view of international politics, one that approaches international institutions and “global governance” with great skepticism. Of course it is in the interest of the United States to cooperate with others within this international system, but such cooperation depends on reciprocity. This is especially important in the areas of trade and alliances. In principle, free trade is good for countries in the international system but for too long, the United States has pursued trade agreements that have not favored the United States. The principle of reciprocity is necessary to redress this imbalance.

Third, armed diplomacy. For too long, American policymakers have treated force and diplomacy as an either-or proposition. But understood properly, force and diplomacy are two sides of the same coin. As Frederick the Great observed, diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments. The threat of force increases the leverage of diplomats. The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea is a case in point.

Fourth, prioritizing economic growth and leveraging the new geopolitics of energy. The Trump Administration has moved expeditiously to lift regulations that hamper U.S. domestic productivity across the board, but especially in the area of energy production.

As Colin Dueck has argued, Trump’s approach to foreign policy has featured actions on four fronts: pressuring adversaries over security issues; pressuring adversaries over commercial issues; pressuring allies over security issues; and pressuring allies over commercial issues. This approach is not without its risks but it constitutes a recognition that the terms of the post-war global order need to be renegotiated.

If Russians Wanted a Puppet, Trump Would Have Been a Bad Bet
Of course when it comes to foreign policy and national security, the most serious charge against Trump is that he is somehow a “Manchurian Candidate,” advancing Russian interests to the detriment of our own. Indeed, some who should know better even accuse him of treason. But if Putin thought he was getting a puppet, he seems to have miscalculated.

Cui bono? The United States has increased defense spending, pulled out of the dreadful Iran deal, armed the Ukrainian opposition to Putin, bombed Syrian chemical-weapons sites, constructed ballistic missile defense (BMD) sites in Poland; browbeaten NATO to spend more on defense while actually deploying U.S. forces into NATO bases in Central Europe; killed Russian mercenaries in Syria, and expanded sanctions against Russia and especially Putin’s inner circles.

Meanwhile the Trump Administration has enforced penalties against U.S. and foreign companies that violate those sanctions, as well as expelled Russian diplomats. Most importantly from a geopolitical standpoint, he has unleashed American energy production, which hurts the Russian economy. These steps are all much tougher and impose much more cost on Russia than anything Obama did, or Hillary Clinton might have done.

Russian Decline in the Service of American and Western Ascendancy over China
But there is another issue here. Russia is a declining power, especially in demographic and economic terms. Putin may be playing a weak hand well, but it is still a weak hand. Russia’s weakness opens up the possibility of a U.S.-Russian alignment against the real threat to America’s position in the world: China. To paraphrase the 19th century British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, “the United States has no eternal friends, the United States has no perpetual enemies, the United States has only eternal and perpetual interests.”

Trump’s approach to Russia is part of a necessary restructuring of America’s relationship with the rest of the world. As in the case of Great Britain in the 19th century, America’s hegemonic position has become more expensive as its relative share of the global wealth has declined. And again as in the case of Great Britain, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate that the opportunity cost of policing our “frontiers” has risen, hampering our ability to check the rise of a major state competitor, especially China. Trump intuitively recognizes this reality and has sought to renegotiate America’s global bargain.

I share with many friends and colleagues a visceral distaste for much of President Trump’s rhetoric. I am put off by his unfiltered Twitter musings. I am offended at times by his public vulgarity. But if we look at his actions instead of his words, the picture changes for the better. In a famous essay, Isaiah Berlin once reflected on the difference between the fox and the hedgehog: the former knows many things while the latter knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was the quintessential hedgehog. It seems to be the case that Trump is a fox. We will have to see if Trump’s fox knows enough of the right things to adapt American foreign policy to a changing geopolitical landscape.

Photo Credit: Andrew Cabellero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

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