America Needs the Muhammad Ali Doctrine

When in doubt, Washington's foreign-policy strategy should be to rope-a-dope.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Sonny Liston lies out for the count after being KO'd in the first round of his return title fight by world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali,  Lewiston, Maine, May 25, 1965. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Sonny Liston lies out for the count after being KO'd in the first round of his return title fight by world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, Lewiston, Maine, May 25, 1965. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It’s tempting to spend all one’s time commenting on the acrid stench emanating from the Trump administration—which increasingly seems like something out of a Carl Hiaasen novel—but I’m going to resist the urge and focus on grand strategy instead. Last week, I wrote about the foreign-policy elite’s tendency to view influence as an end in itself, instead of seeing it simply as a means to accomplish some desired state of affairs. This week, I want to suggest that giving up influence and sticking somebody else with a costly burden can sometimes be the epitome of strategic wisdom.

My inspiration here is the late Muhammad Ali, and his famous fight against George Foreman in Zaire in October 1974 (aka the Rumble in the Jungle). Foreman was a fearsome rival, undefeated in 40 professional bouts (having won 37 of them by knockout). He was bigger, stronger, and younger than Ali, and he had taken apart “Smokin’” Joe Frazier in an earlier title fight, knocking him out in the second round. Prior to his matchup with Ali, oddsmakers made him a 4-1 favorite.

What did Ali do? As boxing fans all know, Ali devised a clever strategy: the “rope-a-dope.” Instead of fighting Foreman head-to-head or trying to dance around him in the 80 degree heat, Ali lay against the ropes and covered up, letting Foreman gradually punch himself out trying to find some vulnerable body part he could hit. Foreman wilted after a few rounds, and Ali came off the ropes to knock him out in the eighth.

What does this episode have to do with foreign policy? Consider the Cold War. During that long contest, the United States often used a rope-a-dope strategy against the Soviet Union, although not quite as consistently as Ali did against Foreman. By the mid-1950s, Washington had allied itself with most of the world’s major industrial powers, and the resulting coalition vastly outstripped the Soviet Union and its weak (and in some cases, rebellious) allies in productive capacity, military power, wealth, public legitimacy, and overall well-being. Moscow did manage to recruit a number of quasi-Marxist or socialist regimes in the developing world, but these states were not much of an asset. The United States had Germany, Japan, France, Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc., on its side. The Soviets had Cuba; the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen; the Marxist regimes in Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and Angola; and Arab socialists such as Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and the Baath regimes in Iraq and Syria.

The United States did various things to undermine these arrangements, but it generally spent less trying to undermine Soviet clients than Moscow did propping them up. America’s allies were always stronger and more stable than theirs (among other things, Moscow’s Middle East clients kept losing wars), and the outmatched Soviet economy was unable to give its various clients the support they needed. The coup de grâce, of course, was the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which bled the USSR even more and hastened its collapse. Like George Foreman, the Soviet Union had punched itself out by fighting ruinous wars and supporting client states that were more of a burden than an asset.

The United States did a bit of this too, of course—most notably in Vietnam—but its economy was significantly stronger, and most of its allies added to U.S. strength instead of subtracting from it. Playing rope-a-dope against the USSR was a smart strategy from an American perspective and played no small part in its Cold War triumph.

Since then, however, it is the United States that has forgotten the lesson that Ali taught Foreman.

Has any country ever spent as much money, time, and effort fighting to control places as irrelevant to the long-term balance of power as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, or Yemen, not to mention its recent actions in Libya and in various parts of sub-Saharan Africa? The United States has little to show for these efforts—in some cases, indeed, things have gotten worse—even as infrastructure back home keeps decaying, social problems multiply, and political divisions inside the country deepen. It’s worth remembering that this sort of response is precisely what Osama bin Laden hoped to provoke by attacking the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. He probably underestimated America’s fragility, but there’s little doubt that the reaction to 9/11 did more harm to the United States than the attacks themselves.

Meanwhile, while the United States has been squandering wealth and attention in distant lands, China has been following the playbook that America used in its earlier rise to world power: stay out of trouble abroad and build a world-class economy at home. Beijing still faces many challenges—as Michael Beckley makes clear in a terrific new book—but it has maximized its prospects by not trying to run the world and by not trying to do nation-building in places that are far from China both geographically and politically.

The lesson, in short, is that great powers can often advance their own interests and long-term power position by letting rivals take on high-cost, low-benefit projects that distract and divert them and drain their resources. In short, they do the rope-a-dope, or what John Mearsheimer calls a “bait and bleed” strategy, trying to lure rivals into costly and unwinnable conflicts while they remain aloof. This strategy only works if the rival falls for it, however, and doesn’t figure out it’s being played.

These insights suggest several lessons for America’s situation today. First and foremost, U.S. leaders need to remember that it is usually not a great accomplishment when they end up with the responsibility for solving some intractable international problem, no matter how much they like being the center of attention and having lots to do. That’s not an argument for disengagement, mind you, just a reminder that not every problem requires a solution that is “made in America” and especially when the problem at hand is of far greater concern to others than it is to the United States.

Second, Russia’s interventions in Syria and Ukraine were not great victories, even if Moscow did accomplish some of its goals in both cases. Neither involvement was cheap, and the costs are likely to mount for some time. I’d rather see President Vladimir Putin spending resources he doesn’t have trying to fix things in both countries than see Washington pour in good money after bad.

Third, Americans need not panic over China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, although it would be prudent to keep an eye on it. Beijing could easily benefit from the improved transportation links and from greater access to countries in Central Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Europe, but the initiative is also generating some degree of local concern and resentment and could easily embroil it in the messy internal politics of some of these states. As I’ve written before, China and the United States are likely to compete for influence in a number of places over the next few decades. If Americans are smart, however, they will think very carefully about which areas are essential and which are not, and avoid deep entanglements in quagmires that drain power and wealth without conferring compensating benefits.

“Float like a butterfly,” in short, but retain the ability to “sting like a bee.”

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