The Way We Were

Just 20 years ago the United States was a beloved superpower with a solid economy and faced virtually no hostile threats. But that’s all gone to hell.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Is the world is going to hell in a handbasket? There’s the Islamic State (IS), of course, which the United States is now going to "degrade and ultimately destroy" (or so we’re told). But there’s also Ukraine, Libya, Boko Haram, Ebola, another EU recession, trouble in the Caucasus, and continued political wrangling in Baghdad and Kabul. Oh, and the Boston Red Sox are 23 games out of first place.

Perceptions that things are falling apart are due in part to the usual threat-mongering woven into the DNA of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, which tends to portray every crisis du jour as unique, imminent, looming, and potentially deadly. The pervasive sense of doom and gloom also reflects the normal human tendency to focus on events that are dramatic, vivid, and destructive, even when these events are isolated outliers rather than part of a genuine trend. Sadly, fires, earthquakes, plane crashes, and beheadings attract more attention than slow and steady improvements in health, income, education, or overall well-being.

Nonetheless, there is a real sense that things aren’t going so great right now, and that perception is confirmed if we take a somewhat longer view. In fact, America’s foreign-policy performance over the past 20 years is depressing to contemplate, and it’s important to understand why.

Look where the United States was in 1993. Communism had been vanquished, Saddam Hussein was out of Kuwait and fully contained, and the United States faced no hostile states of any consequence. American prestige was at an all-time high and the Israelis and Palestinians were signing the Oslo Accords. Open markets and democratic institutions were spreading and a new World Trade Organization was preparing to foster further liberalization of the world economy. Some people thought we’d reached the "End of History" and Thomas Friedman was busy congratulating America for inventing "DOScapital 6.0." The future was so bright, we had to wear shades.

Fast forward to 2014. Great-power rivalry is back, even if the level of competition has yet to reach the intensity of the Cold War or other turbulent periods in world history. The peace process in the Middle East is kaput, and most states in that region are either pariahs, politically stagnant, or convulsed by civil war. At this point, it is not outlandish to imagine a substantial redrawing of several Middle East borders and/or the emergence of several new states, along with an intensifying struggle for Palestinian civil rights inside Greater Israel. The EU is still on economic life support, the United Kingdom may lose Scotland, Ukraine is torn between East and West, and Islamic extremists are operating from Nigeria to Pakistan and beyond. Pakistan (!) and North Korea (!!) have joined the nuclear club in the past 20 years, and there are growing disputes over territorial claims and navigation rights in the waters adjacent to a rising China.

As sure as a sunrise, the GOP wants to pin the blame for a lot of these problems on President Obama. Neoconservatives like Robert Kagan — who cannot seem to find enough quagmires to dive into — also blame the American people for being less enthusiastic about fighting foolish wars than he is. But in fairness, there are several reasons why things have gone so poorly over the past two decades, and plenty of blame to go around.

Let’s start by acknowledging that many of today’s troubles are based in part on local developments for which Washington is not directly responsible. The United States has played an indirect role in China’s rise, for example, but Beijing’s ascendancy is mostly due to its having abandoned Maoism and let the talents and energy of the Chinese people emerge. U.S. policy has something to do with the upheavals of the "Arab Spring" (see below), but it is also a product of demography, the dysfunctions of Arab authoritarianism, and contingent local events (such as a punishing drought in Syria). The assertiveness and independence displayed by countries such as Brazil, Turkey, and India in recent years reflect their own national trajectories and are for the most part not a response to what the United States has done or is doing. And the European Union’s economic and institutional travails are largely of its own making, even if the financial panic that began in America helped trigger the eurozone crisis. And the GOP hasn’t blamed U.S. President Barack Obama for the Scottish referendum — at least not so far — though I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried.

In short, some of the problems that dominate today’s headlines are partly due to local forces for which neither Clinton, Bush, nor Obama are directly responsible. But many of them also reflect specific foreign-policy blunders made by one or more U.S. leaders, and the travails of 2014 are in many ways a delayed reaction to two decades of bad policy choices.

One obvious blunder was Bill Clinton’s impulsive decision to expand NATO back in the 1990s, and the subsequent efforts to continue that process without any clear limit. U.S. and European leaders believed spreading democracy and extending U.S. security guarantees as far as they could go would create an expanding sphere of peace-loving pro-American democracies, thereby guaranteeing peace in Europe in perpetuity. Because many of these new members were weak and difficult to defend, adding them to NATO increased its defense obligations but did not make the alliance stronger or more capable. But no matter, because advocates of expansion assumed these new commitments would never have to be honored. And that hope rested on the assumption that Russia would remain weak, or be governed by incompetent drunks like Boris Yeltsin, and that Moscow would passively accept the extension of U.S. influence — and ballistic missile defenses! — right up to Russia’s border.

Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of great-power politics would have known that this act of liberal hubris was sowing the seeds of future trouble, and a few wise observers tried to point this out. But the chorus of Western triumphalists drowned out and marginalized the voices of those who opposed expansion in the 1990s. Alas, as we first observed during the Russian-Georgian War of 2008 and are now seeing in Ukraine, however, the naïve assumptions that drove U.S. and European decision-making proved woefully false. The result is a simmering crisis between Russia and the West, significant economic costs for Europe, and further damage to Ukraine itself.

But make no mistake: Today’s Russia isn’t a new peer competitor, Vladimir Putin is not the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, and it is not 1939. At best, Russia is a regional spoiler whose influence barely extends beyond its "near abroad." But Russia does have some high cards to play in these areas, mostly because it cares more about these issues than Washington or Brussels does. If the United States had understood the risks of repeatedly humiliating Russia and stuck with the "Partnership for Peace" initiative instead of the holy grail of NATO expansion, it would have a more positive relationship with Moscow today and nearly everyone would be better off.

Similarly, although local conditions and initiatives are obviously important, the mosaic of misery in the Middle East owes much to chronic U.S. mismanagement as well. The recent record of failure begins with President Clinton: /by forcing the United States to keep large ground and air forces on the Arabian Peninsula, the strategy of "dual containment" that he adopted in 1993 helped inspire the emergence of al Qaeda and focus Osama bin Laden’s attention on the United States. America’s relentlessly confrontational and intransigent policy toward Iran was equally counterproductive, and helps explain why that country had zero centrifuges in operation in 2000 but has over 10,000 spinning today. The 1993 Oslo Accords also gave Clinton a golden opportunity to end the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all. But instead of being effective and evenhanded mediators, Clinton and his team acted like "Israel’s lawyer," blew their chance, and made things worse.

Clinton squandered opportunities and sowed the seeds of future trouble, but President George W. Bush’s blunders were in a class by themselves. His fateful decision to invade Iraq in 2003 created a failed state and is the main reason we now face problems from groups like IS. Bush’s own efforts at Middle East peacemaking were tepid at best — the 2003 "Roadmap" led nowhere and Condi Rice’s halfhearted summit at Annapolis merely confirmed that the United States was neither serious nor effective. Moreover, the Bush team’s various blunders kept empowering extremists. Bush backed Israel’s ill-conceived assault on Lebanon in 2006, a misguided war that left Hezbollah stronger and more influential. Bush & Co. also insisted on holding Palestinian elections and then refused to accept the results when Hamas won. And then White House aide Elliot Abrams backed a harebrained scheme to have Fatah topple Hamas’s forces in Gaza. The plot backfired when Hamas won the contest, ousted Fatah, and established sole control there. If these things hadn’t really happened, it would be hard to believe that any group of policymakers could be so consistently inept.

Yet Barack Obama has done no better. He gave an inspiring speech in Cairo early in his first term, but it’s been consistently downhill from there. His own efforts at Middle East peacemaking — including Secretary of State John Kerry’s last quixotic attempt — were mostly acts of futility, and the two-state solution that U.S. leaders have consistently favored is farther away than ever. Obama’s "on-again, off-again" approach to the turmoil in Egypt angered many Egyptians and made a farce of U.S. claims to be committed to democratic transformation. Indeed, this supposedly "progressive" administration couldn’t even call an obvious military coup by its right name or take effective action to halt a brutal crackdown in Egypt. U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya toppled an odious dictator but created another failed state, and Obama’s growing reliance on drone strokes and targeted killings did nothing to rehabilitate the U.S. image in the Arab and Islamic world. Remarkably, by 2011 that image was even lower than it had been under Bush. And this "death from above" approach is now the blueprint for a new war in Iraq and Syria.

The third theme in this litany of failure has been a tendency to approach diplomacy as if it required little more than stating the U.S. position and outlining the penalties for refusal. Confident in their own power and rectitude (and insulated from failure by America’s secure position in the Western hemisphere), U.S. leaders have been reluctant to negotiate with acknowledged adversaries and slow to recognize that effective diplomacy requires something more than stating red lines, issuing demands, and imposing sanctions. In most international disputes, even much weaker powers retain some capacity to resist and some ability to impose costs, and even a very powerful country like the United States rarely gets everything it wants.

Yet U.S. diplomats have often behaved as if complete capitulation was the only outcome they would accept. The United States demanded Iran dismantle its enrichment program in toto and refused to negotiate directly with Iran for years, even as Tehran was busily expanding its nuclear infrastructure. Obama got serious about direct talks in his second term and there’s been some genuine give-and-take since then, but the flexibility shown recently came very late in the process and Congress remains a serious stumbling block to any deal. Similarly, trying to convince the Palestinians to accept whatever one-sided arrangement their Israeli counterparts have on offer remains the default U.S. approach to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The U.S. response to the crisis in Ukraine shows a similar pattern: Washington has been good at ramping up sanctions, bolstering NATO, and issuing demands, but there’s little sign U.S. diplomats realize that ending the crisis may require a genuine compromise (i.e., a deal that gave Russia some of what it wants).

Realists know perpetual peace is an illusion and that solutions to today’s problems often sow the seeds of future trouble. Yet the current items in America’s foreign-policy "inbox" are for the most part not the unintended consequences of past success; they are the entirely predictable results of previous errors. In many ways, what we are seeing today is a direct backlash against the various sins of omission and commission that took place during the post-Cold War "unipolar moment." It is Barack Obama’s misfortune to be president when these various chickens have come home to roost, but he also bears some responsibility for not making them better and in some cases making them worse.

Most disturbing of all, the only lesson the U.S. foreign-policy establishment seems to have drawn from the past 20 years is "no boots on the ground" (or at least no more than a handful). That’s a useful guideline for some contexts (but not all), and sticking to even that modest lesson is proving to be difficult. And until there’s a more fundamental reappraisal of U.S. interests and capabilities — to wit, what does America need to be safe and prosperous and which tools can best achieve those ends? — the United States will keep making the same mistakes.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.