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I’m normally leery of the pervasive threat inflation that tends to dominate discussions of foreign policy. Because the United States is so strong and in such a favorable geopolitical location, pundits and policymakers have to pretend the sky is falling to justify bigger military budgets and convince the public to keep meddling in distant lands. And whether the threat is falling dominos, “creeping Sharia,” the “axis of evil,” or even “violent extremism,” the actual threat these faraway dangers pose is usually exaggerated.
Right now, however, we’re at a moment when I think genuine concern is warranted. This is not to say that we’re on the brink of a major war, let alone a global clash of great powers. But flammable material is accumulating and it is hard to have high confidence in the political leadership in several key countries (including here in the United States). We would all do well to take stock of the global order: Is the world more secure than it was a year ago? Specifically, is the risk of war increasing or decreasing? Is the danger of a serious economic crisis higher or lower? Are the institutional arrangements and norms that help smooth and resolve conflicts of interest and enhance the prospects for international cooperation more or less robust than they were in June 2016?
With apologies to the late Sergio Leone, I’d group recent global developments under three headings: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Before descending into fatalistic depression — we’ll get to that soon enough — let’s start with the upside. Despite all the worrisome headlines and a recent slight uptick, the level of conflict between human beings is still at historic lows, and the likelihood that you will die a violent death is vastly lower than it was at nearly all other moments in human history. Nor have the number of low-level conflicts increased significantly over the past year or so, even if one takes the deteriorating situation in the Middle East into account. Although the Islamic State and other terrorist groups have been able to direct or inspire terrorist attacks in more places, the actual risk from terrorism remain relatively low outside active conflict zones such as Syria or Iraq, especially when compared with more prosaic and familiar hazards. Even now, the odds that a European or American will be harmed in a terrorist attack are vanishingly small.
Such encouraging trends are no guarantee of continued tranquility, of course, and one could even argue that complacency could make a spiral into war more likely. But we should still be grateful the world is more peaceful than it was in earlier eras and try to draw the right lessons from that observation. At a minimum, the major powers haven’t fought each other directly for over 70 years, and making sure that continues to be the case remains a critical task.
There are other encouraging straws in the wind as well. For the moment, voters in France, the Netherlands, and Austria have rejected the xenophobic nationalism of politicians like Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, and instead embraced the more inclusive and forward-looking visions of leaders like Emmanuel Macron. The Islamic State’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” is now headed for the dustbin of history, and while this won’t eliminate the problem of violent extremism, it is a useful step forward. The peace agreement ending Colombia’s long civil war is holding — at least so far — and the war in Ukraine has settled down into a mostly frozen conflict that seems unlikely to escalate. Moreover, Russia’s continued efforts to manipulate or influence domestic politics in nearby democracies may be backfiring, while Russia’s own long-term power potential continues to decline and popular protests there are increasing. The EU is in its fifth straight year of economic recovery, despite of the uncertainties surrounding the Brexit process, and European, American, and Japanese publics are increasingly upbeat about economic issues. And (fingers crossed), so far U.S. President Donald Trump hasn’t done much to trigger a trade war (though he still might). I wouldn’t say the glass is half-full, but at least it’s not completely empty.
That’s the good news. If you’re looking for things to worry about, alas, one doesn’t have to look far.
In Asia, North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities in defiance of global opinion (surprise, surprise), and Trump’s naive hope that China would ignore its own interests and somehow persuade Pyongyang to do what Trump wanted has been exposed as the pipe dream it always was. But this leaves the United States and its Asian allies with no attractive options, and only the “least-bad” choice of reengaging with a country that just killed a U.S. citizen over an alleged purloined poster. Islamist movements appear to be gaining strength in Indonesia and threatening that country’s prior atmosphere of tolerance, and the Philippine government’s wars on drugs and terrorism are wreaking a fearsome human cost with little to show for it. And Trump’s bromance with Chinese President Xi Jinping has done nothing to slow Beijing’s efforts to alter the territorial status quo in the South China Sea. All things considered, it’s hard to see conditions in Asia as safer now than they were a year ago.
The same gloomy conclusion applies to the Middle East, only more so. The Islamic State may soon be a thing of the past — at least in terms of holding territory — but the exceedingly complex, multifaceted, and interrelated conflicts in Yemen, Syria/Iraq, and between Qatar and Saudi Arabia create much more potential for trouble than was present back in 2016. The impending defeat of the Islamic State has intensified its opponents’ efforts to control its former territory, with outside powers ramping up their involvement while diplomatic efforts languish. U.S. military involvement has risen steadily — with scant input from Congress or the American public — and U.S. aircraft recently shot down Iranian drones and a Syrian fighter plane. The latter act prompted Moscow to issue a direct warning against further U.S. attacks and to suspend the communications channel created to minimize the risk of an inadvertent clash between U.S. and Russian forces. And to make matters worse, an emboldened Saudi Arabia is continuing its brutal military campaign in Yemen while simultaneously trying to force neighboring Qatar to silence Al Jazeera, sever its contacts with Iran, and basically accept Saudi predominance. Maybe you can see a silver lining in all these developments, but I can’t. The worst case for the United States would be involvement in another big Middle East war arising “from sheer incompetence and incoherence rather than by design,” as Jim Lobe and Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio put it.
Meanwhile, it’s “déjà vu all over again” in Afghanistan, with the United States about to reverse Barack Obama’s drawdown and send more troops back into an unwinnable war. Exactly why this step is in America’s national interest remains unclear, and at least nobody is trying to pretend that this decision (which Trump has delegated to Secretary of Defense James Mattis) is going to produce anything that might be termed “victory.” Instead, in a disturbing echo of the Indochina war, the United States is operating a new version of the “stalemate machine,” doing just enough to not lose. We know we can’t win; at this point we can’t break even, yet neither Democrats nor Republicans will let us out of the game.
Last but not least, the institutional underpinnings of the present international system continue to fray. The importance of such institutions is sometimes exaggerated, but even hard-nosed realists understand that strong institutions can facilitate cooperation among like-minded states and lend greater predictability to important international relationships. NATO is intact but weaker than it was a year ago, and doubts about the U.S. role in Asia have been rising following Trump’s renunciation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his erratic responses to events in Korea and the Philippines. Instead of being able to count on help from close allies in most circumstances, today the United States faces a Germany whose leader wants Europe to “chart its own course,” and a Canada whose foreign minister says “International relationships that had seemed immutable for 70 years are being called into question,” adding that America’s decisions are forcing Canada “to set our own clear and sovereign course.” Such sentiments are not a sign of the apocalypse, but they do not herald easier ties between the United States and its most important neighbors and allies.
These developments would be worrisome enough if we had a surplus of gifted and farsighted strategists at the helm of the world’s major powers, the modern-day equivalents of Franklin Roosevelt, George Marshall, Konrad Adenauer, or Charles de Gaulle. Heck, at this point I’d take Maggie Thatcher, Zbigniew Brzezinski, James Baker, Jacques Chirac, and any number of past leaders who made some big mistakes but also got a number of big things right and did not enter public service largely either to fleece the public or to gratify their own egos.
What do we see instead? In the United Kingdom, two successive prime ministers have inexplicably committed remarkably maladroit acts of self-defenestration. The first was David Cameron, who ended his political career by pledging to hold a referendum on leaving the European Union (which he opposed) and then losing. The second is Theresa May, who called a snap election earlier this month that cost her party its Parliamentary majority. France has gone from the “bling-bling” of Nicolas Sarkozy to the hapless Francois Hollande and is now betting on the as-yet untried Macron. Italy hasn’t had effective political leadership since — oh, I don’t know, Garibaldi? Recep Erdogan in Turkey has proven to be extremely adept at consolidating power and extremely bad at actually running the country, and there are equally depressing examples of incompetent leadership in Brazil, Afghanistan, Poland, and throughout the Middle East.
But the United States is determined not to be beaten in this competition of political incompetence. If the consequences were not potentially so dire, the Trump administration’s collective ineptitude would be a great source of comic relief. I’m not talking about controversial policy decisions about which reasonable people might disagree (such as the pros and cons of giving regional military commanders greater authority over operations in their respective areas), I’m talking about foreign-policy actions that seem inspired more by the Keystone Cops or Three Stooges than by Clausewitz, Kennan, or Sun Tzu.
Indeed, only six months into Trump’s presidency, it’s becoming hard to keep track of all the squirm-inducing moments. There was the brief sage of Trump’s initial national security advisor, Mike Flynn, who lasted in his job a mere 25 days, or the appointment of self-styled “terrorism expert” Sebastian Gorka. There was Trump’s bizarre speech at CIA headquarters the day after he was inaugurated, in which he rambled on about the crowd size at his inauguration ceremony and complained about media coverage. There was the “armada” he said was heading toward North Korea when it was actually steaming in the opposite direction, and his on-again, off-again, on-again attitude toward NATO and Article 5. There were the press releases, tweets, and announcements that misspelled the names of foreign leaders and the mini-crisis that erupted when Trump announced South Korea should pay for the THAAD missile-defense system that the U.S. had insisted be deployed there. (National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster had to call his South Korean counterpart and walk that one back, but the damage had already been done.) And then there’s Trump’s weird decision to gut the State Department (apparently with the full support of his secretary of state) and to assign sensitive diplomatic tasks to his son-in-law, despite the latter’s complete lack of foreign-policy experience and checkered business career. And don’t even get me started about Trump & Co.’s handling of relations with Russia and Kushner’s amateurish attempts to create some sort of backchannel to Moscow. With a record like this to defend, it’s no wonder the White House is trying to keep the press and the public in the dark about what it’s doing.
Why does any of this matter? Because the greatest achievements of U.S. foreign policy since World War II has been its ability, when it chose, to keep wars from breaking out or to end them quickly when they did occur. As I’ve explained before, a peaceful world is very much in the U.S. national interest, given how secure and well-off the United States already is. The combination of military strength and skilled diplomacy helped keep the peace in Europe and in much of Asia throughout the Cold War, and often (but not always) played a stabilizing role in the Middle East. It required not just credible military power, but also politicians who understood how the world worked and what the interests of others were, had a clear sense of America’s own interests, and were sufficiently consistent that others could count on them to do what they had promised.
By contrast, America’s biggest foreign-policy failures occurred when U.S. leaders started wars on our own (Iraq, 2003), escalated them for no good reason (Vietnam, 1965), or turned a blind eye to simmering conflicts and missed opportunities for peace (Korea in 1950 and the Middle East in 1966-67, 1971-72, and 1982). And many of these errors arose from impulsive and ignorant leaders who knew relatively little about the situations they were trying to manage.
Today, the United States isn’t disengaging from world affairs or adopting a new and well-thought out grand strategy, such as offshore balancing, but it is hardly acting as a clear or consistent defender of peace and the status quo. On the contrary, Washington is still trying to determine the future fate of Afghanistan, still hoping for regime change in several countries it doesn’t like, encouraging its proxies in the Middle East to escalate their local quarrels, and using increasing levels of military power to try to solve problems — such as terrorism and insurgency — whose roots are essentially political. The United States has pretty much abandoned its role as a potential mediator in lots of potential hotspots, and it would be naive to expect all of these conflicts will to simmer down on their own.
If the past 25 years have taught us anything, it is that few foreign-policy problems can be solved simply by blowing things up. The United States is still unsurpassed at that sort of thing, but the real challenge is devising political solutions to conflicts once the guns have fallen silent. We’ve been singularly bad at this in recent decades, and Trump’s disdain for diplomacy and efforts to gut the State Department will just impair us even more.
The result is looking like the worst of both worlds: The United States is still engaged in most of the world’s trouble spots, but the ship of state is now being steered by an inexperienced skipper lacking accurate charts, an able crew, or even a clear destination. I don’t know about you, but that situation doesn’t make me feel safer, either.
Photo credit: BARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images