America Isn’t as Powerful as It Thinks It Is
The era of unilateralism is over—and Washington is the last to realize it.
Just how powerful is the United States? Is it still the unipolar power, able to impose its will on adversaries, allies, and neutrals, and force them—however reluctantly—to go along with policies they think are foolish, dangerous, or simply contrary to their interests? Or are there clear and significant limits to U.S. power, suggesting that it should be more selective and strategic in setting goals and pursuing them?
The Trump administration has embraced the first position, especially since John Bolton became White House national security advisor and Mike Pompeo took over as secretary of state. Whatever President Donald Trump’s initial instincts may have been, their arrival marked a return to the unilateralist, take-no-prisoners approach to foreign policy that characterized George W. Bush’s first term as president, when Vice President Dick Cheney and the neoconservatives held sway. A key feature of that earlier period was the assumption that the United States was so powerful that it could go it alone on many issues and that other states could be cowed into submission by demonstrations of U.S. power and resolve. As a senior advisor to Bush (reportedly Karl Rove) told the journalist Ron Suskind: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Compromises and coalition-building were for wimps and appeasers; as Cheney himself reportedly said in 2003: “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.”
The Bush-Cheney approach produced a string of failures, but the same unilateral arrogance lives on in the Trump administration. It is evident in Trump’s decision to threaten (or in some cases, to actually begin) trade wars not just with China but with many of America’s economic partners. It was part and parcel of the impulsive decisions to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership and leave the Paris climate accord. It is the basis of the administration’s “take it or leave it” approach to diplomacy with North Korea and Iran, wherein Washington announces unrealistic demands and then ratchets up sanctions in the hope that the targets will capitulate and give the United States everything it wants, even though this approach to both countries has repeatedly failed in the past. It is even more obvious in the recent decision to impose secondary sanctions on states that are still buying Iranian oil, a move that threatens to drive up oil prices and damage U.S. relations with China, India, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, and others. It is almost certainly true of the so-called peace plan that nepotist-in-chief Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, keeps promising to reveal, a proposal likely to make Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, and other fans of the concept of Greater Israel happy but won’t advance the cause of peace in the slightest. A similar faith in America’s vast ability to control outcomes can also be seen in the premature recognition of Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela and the strident U.S. demands that “Maduro must go.” However desirable that outcome would be, it would be nice if we had some idea how to bring it about.
The underlying assumption behind all of these policies is that U.S. pressure—you know, what Pompeo likes to call “swagger”—will eventually force acknowledged adversaries to do whatever it is the United States demands of them, and that other states won’t find ways to evade, obstruct, divert, dilute, hedge, hinder, or otherwise negate what Washington is trying to do. It assumes we are still dwelling in the unipolar moment and that all that matters is the will to use the power at America’s disposal.
Perhaps most important, this approach denies that there are any real trade-offs between any of these objectives. If the United States is really all-powerful, then sanctioning China over oil purchases from Iran won’t have any impact on the trade talks that are now underway with Beijing, and Turkey won’t respond to the same pressure by moving closer to Russia. It further assumes that America’s NATO allies are so desperate to keep the U.S. military in Europe that they will accept repeated humiliations and follow the U.S. lead against China, despite the growing evidence that this is not the case. It sees no downsides to going all-in with Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf, and it sees little risk should relations with Iran or others escalate to war.
To be fair, it is not hard to understand why hawks think they can get away with this approach to foreign policy, at least in the short term. Despite many recent missteps, the United States is still very powerful. Its active assistance is still something that some other states want, and its “focused enmity” is something no state can completely ignore. The United States is still a vast and valuable market, the dollar remains the world’s main reserve currency, and the ability to cut other states or financial institutions off from the infrastructure of global finance gives Washington unusual leverage. Many U.S. allies are accustomed to deferring to Washington and are understandably reluctant to do anything that might encourage the United States to withdraw support. Trump and company can also count on the support of authoritarian soul mates in the European right (including the present rulers in Poland and Hungary), as well as America’s morally compromised allies in the Middle East. Plus, most Americans don’t care all that much about foreign policy and are usually willing to go along with whatever the executive branch is doing, provided that it doesn’t prove too costly or embarrassing.
Nonetheless, there are even more potent reasons why this bullying approach has produced no major foreign-policy successes so far and is unlikely to yield significant success in the future. First of all, even much weaker states are loath to succumb to blackmail, for one very good reason: Once you’ve shown you can be coerced, there may be no end to subsequent demands. Moreover, when the United States insists on complete capitulation (i.e., by calling for total North Korean disarmament or regime change in Iran), it gives the target state zero incentive to comply. And given Trump’s amply demonstrated dishonesty and fickle approach to diplomacy, why would any foreign leader believe any assurances he (or Pompeo) might give? Put all this together, and you have a perfect recipe for “no deal.”
Second, bullying nearly everyone makes it much harder construct powerful coalitions whose support can enhance America’s diplomatic leverage. This problem is perhaps most apparent in the administration’s haphazard approach to economic diplomacy with China. By leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership and picking trade fights with other key partners, the administration missed an opportunity to organize a broad coalition of industrial powers united by a desire to get China to reform its own economic practices. Trump’s trade team may still get some sort of deal with Beijing, but it won’t be as good as what they could have achieved with a more sophisticated and cooperative effort.
Much the same lesson applies to Iran. The Trump administration deliberately set out to kill the Iran nuclear deal, and it did it in plain sight. It is so focused on this goal that it is even willing to punish the other signatories in a vain attempt to get Iran to say uncle. Tehran has continued to abide by the terms of the agreement despite Washington’s reneging on the deal, but its patience is probably not infinite, especially when the administration has made it clear that regime change is its real objective. Should Iran eventually restart its nuclear weapons program—which has been in abeyance for more than a decade—the rest of the world is not going to suddenly line up behind the United States and support more forceful action. Why? Because everyone knows that it was the United States—not Iran—that killed the deal, and there won’t be a ton of sympathy for America when it starts bleating about Iran’s response. America’s Middle East clients will no doubt be happy if Washington decides to fight another war on their behalf, but don’t count on a lot of help from them or from anyone else.
Third, other states don’t like being beholden to the whims of others, and especially when others behave selfishly, erratically, and with ill-disguised contempt for others’ interests. Not surprisingly, therefore, other states are starting to develop workarounds designed to limit U.S. leverage, most notably by designing financial arrangements outside the network of institutions that Washington has been using to coerce allies and adversaries into compliance. As Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman recently wrote in FP, “instead of leading states and businesses to minimize contact with the targets of U.S. sanctions,” the Trump administration’s strong-arm tactics “may lead states and businesses to minimize their contact with the U.S.-led global financial system and to start to construct their own workarounds. Over time, those workarounds might even begin to accumulate into an effective alternative system.”
Lastly, being a bully encourages adversaries to join forces out of their own self-interest, while giving potential allies more reason to keep their distance. It is no accident that Russia and China continue to move closer together—even though they are not natural allies, and a smarter U.S. approach could give Moscow reasons to distance itself from Beijing—and America’s same bullying impulses are going to push states like Iran even closer to them. Bolton and those of his ilk will probably come up with some trite new moniker for this group—“Axis of Evil” and “Troika of Tyranny” are taken, so perhaps “Triad of Troublemakers” or “Coalition of Chaos”—ignoring the fact that their own policies have helped push these powers together.
What we are witnessing, therefore, is a real-world test of two competing visions of contemporary geopolitics. One version sees U.S. power as essentially undiminished and believes that a combination of material capabilities, favorable geography, and entrenched institutional capabilities will allow it to pursue an ambitious and revisionist foreign policy at little cost and with a high probability of success. The second version—to which I subscribe—sees the United States as very powerful and in a privileged position (for various reasons) but also believes there are limits to U.S. power and that it is necessary to set priorities, minimize trade-offs when possible, and collaborate with others on many issues. It also assumes that others cannot be browbeaten into abject capitulation and that effective and durable international agreements require a degree of mutual compromise, even with adversaries.
The United States tested Version #1 from 2001 to 2004, and the results were a near-total failure. I realize that trying to replicate past results is important to scientific progress, but does America really need to repeat this particular experiment again?
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.