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America Can’t Win Great-Power Hardball

As other countries rise, global stability depends on the United States holding onto its moralism.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave a business leaders event in Beijing on Nov. 9. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave a business leaders event in Beijing on Nov. 9. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Liberal advocates of a multilateralist, rules-based, post-sovereign foreign policy have recently been having their noses ground in the grim fact of great power rivalry. Robert Kagan first called attention to renascent great-power politics a decade ago in “End of Dreams, Return of History,” with its blunt opening line, “The world has become normal again.” In the last few years, the realists — including Henry Kissinger in his 2014 book, World Order, Hal Brands, and Foreign Policy’s own Stephen M. Walt — have had a field day at the expense of idealists who, they said, had persuaded themselves that the end of history had arrived.

Well, last week we got a taste of old-fashioned great-power competition so harsh as to make even a realist yearn for the allegedly deluded days of former President Barack Obama. Saudi Arabia, evolving in a matter of months from a middle-sized power punching below its weight to a middle-sized power punching way above it, virtually declared war on its regional rival, Iran, as well as on small fry Lebanon, which it rather torturously held responsible for a missile launched at Riyadh by rebels in Yemen. At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping and American President Donald Trump made nice with each other — but they did so as classic interest-maximizing great powers, not as, respectively, the gatekeeper of the multilateral order and the most important aspirant for full membership, as the countries’ leaders had in years past.

With that special gift for clarity that comes from a complete lack of inhibition, and that thus more typically belongs to children than adults, Trump said in Beijing, “Who can blame a country for taking advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?” After all, isn’t “taking advantage” of other nations’ citizens on behalf of your own the whole point of being a great power?

It is. But for that very reason, the United States, with its missionary sense of its global role, has tried to reinvent the concept ever since reaching great-power status. A century ago, then-President Woodrow Wilson asked if the war then destroying Europe would end in a “just and secure peace” or merely “a new balance of power.” If the latter, he said, “who will guarantee, who can guarantee, the stable equilibrium of the new arrangement?”

We know how that noble experiment ended, of course: In the Treaty of Versailles, Britain, France, and Italy, the great-power winners of World War I, snatched up whatever colonial goodies they could and wrought their vengeance on Germany, the loser — leading, ultimately, to another war. Though he had predicted just such an outcome should Europe revert to the norm, Wilson came to be mocked for failing to grasp the irrepressible reality of power politics — the first in a long line of American naifs. It would be left to another, perhaps not so naive American president, after another devastating war, to establish a “liberal world order” that would provide incentives for major states to restrain their sovereign capacities.

In that order, of course, the United States ran the show. The unipolar moment could not last; and now, 70 years later, it’s plainly over. Not only rivals like Russia and China, but even alleged allies like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, no longer defer to the United States. Kagan was prescient; great powers and would-be great powers once again roam the earth. Nevertheless, the world has become “normal again” only if we believe that 19th-century patterns have reasserted themselves, and thus that we need to master the old rules of realpolitik — to “relearn Power Politics 101” and “play hardball with friends and foes alike,” as Walt put it.

What would that entail? Perhaps we could seek to forge a new version of the “concert of powers” European states established after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. But contemporary princes and their diplomatic emissaries can no longer run the world (though Kissinger, in World Order, strongly implies that we’d be better off if they could). More likely, since no one structure can be fitted over our turbulent moment, as most of the great-power analysts conclude, we will cooperate where possible with rivals like China and Russia and deter them, and any countries aligned with them, where necessary along with allies. That would be the new hardball.

But is that really the range of options? For the last century, the United States has been a great power in denial. Every president has gone to war solemnly swearing that the United States seeks only to promote peace and freedom, not to aggrandize itself as other states have always done. Yet American moralism, and even American hypocrisy, have served a profound purpose, providing a deeply appealing alternative model of what it means to be a great power. That is, after all, the meaning of “soft power.”

One way of understanding Obama’s foreign policy is that he sought to offer a model of post-hegemonic great-power status. The United States would listen rather than hector; convene others, rather inform them after the fact; carefully calibrate the costs of action; and even, at times, “lead from behind.” It was not a conspicuous success. But do we wish that he had defaulted to “normal”? In Destined for War, his new book on great-power rivalry, Harvard professor Graham Allison observes that in the era before Wilson, the United States set a dreadful example of rising-power behavior, fighting an unprovoked war against Spain and deploying its Navy to bludgeon weaker states into submission. America unbound — including American moralism unbound — was not a pretty sight.

But the United States under Donald Trump no longer cares to provide the model for great-power comportment. During Trump’s visit to Vietnam, a general, Le Van Cuong, made a telling comment to the New York Times: “China uses its money to buy off many leaders, but none of the countries that are its close allies, like North Korea, Pakistan, or Cambodia, have done well. Countries that are close to America have done much better.” The observation was elegiac, for the contrast has lost force. At the Asia summit in Vietnam, Trump described free trade as disaster for the United States and self-aggrandizement as the natural strategy of states. “There’s no place like home,” he reflected. Message to Vietnam: The strong do as they can, and the weak suffer as they must, as the original great-power theorist Thucydides put it.

Trump has not simply surrendered the American model of great-power behavior; he has actively encouraged and enabled the archaic model. The Obama administration chastised China for defying international law in the South China Sea; Trump has given China a pass on the subject, as he has given human rights offenders everywhere a pass. Trump, and perhaps his son-in-law Jared Kushner, have actively encouraged Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old heir apparent to the crown, to consolidate his own power both at home and abroad. An eager reader of the great-power playbook, Mohammed bin Salman seems to have drawn from Xi Jinping’s China, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey in devising his sweeping crackdown on rivals, whom he has nebulously accused of “corruption.”

All this is not to vindicate those who were caught looking beyond the Westphalian horizon. It’s clear in retrospect that Obama and his team, focused on the new class of “problems without borders” like global warming and nuclear nonproliferation, were taken by surprise by the intensity and intransigence of problems inside borders. Had Hillary Clinton been elected last year, she might have played the American hand with greater regard for traditional principles of statecraft than Obama did, and of course she would have done so far more deftly than has the oafish Trump.

Trump’s gross cynicism may have reminded even some realists of the merits of a values-based foreign policy; Walt has recently written that the belief that the United Stands for something “other than naked self-interest” has served it well in the past. It would, in fact, be a grave mistake for Washington to forsake its status, however hypocritical, as the role model for aspiring liberal great powers. While the United States can hardly decide who does and does not qualify for great-power status, it should have something to say about how such powers should act toward each other and lesser states. If we stay mum, or play hardball, we reinforce the message not just to the likes of Saudi Arabia, which needs no encouragement, but also to India and Mexico and South Africa and other democratic rising powers that they, too, should consider scorn for the principles of international law, and of the liberal rules-based system, among the privileges conferred by membership in the great-power club.

We don’t know how this new “normal” will work. But since the old normal ended badly, we should hope that it will look very different. It is profoundly in the interest of the United States to shape that difference.

About the Author

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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