What Comes After the Forever Wars
An era of U.S. grand strategy is now ending. Here’s what should come next.
By bringing the United States’ pointless military campaign in Afghanistan to a close, U.S. President Joe Biden has delivered on his desire to end the “forever wars.” But as Steven Cook pointed out in Foreign Policy last week, the phrase “ending forever wars” offers little guidance for how the United States should now approach key national security issues. To do that, the country needs to draw the right lessons from disappointments of the past 20-plus years and identify the principles and goals that should guide foreign- and national security policy from this point forward.
The wars that are finally coming to a close resulted from the unipolar era’s odd combination of hubris and alarm. On the one hand, U.S. elites were supremely confident: They believed liberal democracy was the wave of the future and the United States’ unmatched military power could be a powerful tool for promoting it. Because they saw U.S. primacy as a benevolent condition that would be good for Americans and nearly everyone else, they assumed other states would support Washington’s efforts to expand a liberal global order. A few countries might have other ideas, of course, but they were seen as too weak to resist the United States’ well-intentioned campaign and destined to fall in line eventually. Even after the 2007 to 2009 financial crisis, U.S. elites also tended to see globalization as a wholly positive development with hardly any negative effects.
But on the other hand, and especially after Sept. 11, these same elites regarded international terrorism and several weak rogue states as existential threats, and they concluded these opponents had to be eliminated via sanctions, regime change, nation-building, targeted killings, drone strikes, and other applications of U.S. power. It was this peculiar marriage of supreme confidence and exaggerated fears that led to the unnecessary, protracted, and ultimately unsuccessful wars of the unipolar era.
The policies these beliefs encouraged accelerated the decline of U.S. primacy and the reemergence of a multipolar world. Authoritarian regimes proved to be surprisingly resilient while democracy has been in retreat worldwide for more than a decade and is increasingly imperiled in the United States itself. Opponents of U.S. primacy were able to thwart its efforts to expand the liberal world order, aided in no small part by its inability to reverse course and extract itself from costly quagmires. Globalization did produce many benefits, but it also hastened China’s emergence as a peer competitor and eventually triggered a powerful populist backlash. International terrorism turned out to be far less dangerous than U.S. leaders had claimed—especially when compared to violence by right-wing domestic extremists or the nearly 575,000 Americans killed by COVID-19—but also more difficult to eradicate.
The past two decades are also a reminder of the problems that ensue when military power is used for the wrong purposes. The United States’ vast military establishment is still very effective at protecting the U.S. homeland and deterring large-scale aggression in areas where the United States has clear strategic interests. It is not very good at running other countries and remaking them in its image. The U.S. Defense Department’s refusal to acknowledge this was part of the problem, but most of the blame lies with politicians who gave them this impossible job. Social engineering in foreign countries is exceptionally difficult—no great power has ever been very good at it—and military force is a blunt instrument that is unsuitable for such a subtle and inherently political task.
Biden’s decision to end the war in Afghanistan suggests he understands these lessons, but tempering the tendency to meddle will become harder once memories of Iraq and Afghanistan begin to fade. As the recent Afghanistan Study Group report revealed, the desire to manage other countries’ internal politics—and the belief it can do so effectively—remains deeply engrained in the United States’ foreign-policy establishment. It is vitally important to resist that instinct because the United States has far more urgent and important tasks to address.
The most urgent task is getting past the pandemic, but the most important task is addressing climate change. The potential havoc that an additional three or four degree rise in global temperatures will produce—flooded coastlines, tens of millions of displaced persons, whole regions uninhabitable due to heat and humidity, trillions of dollars of lost wealth—would make the problems the foreign-policy community has been fretting about for the past 25 years seem trivial. It is therefore encouraging to see the Biden administration put this mission front and center. Recognizing the danger is only the first step, however, and an effective national and global response is still some distance away.
The other critical issue is China, of course, and balancing the desire to compete with China while cooperating on some issues will be a constant challenge. In purely geopolitical terms, China is the most serious competitor the United States has faced since it became a great power at the end of the 19th century. The two world wars were difficult, to be sure, but the United States entered both wars relatively late, and its allies did most of the fighting and dying in them. The Soviet Union was a capable rival, and the Cold War had its share of dangerous and tragic episodes. But the Soviet economy was always far weaker than the United States’, and U.S. allies were wealthier than theirs and still capable of significant military contributions. Victory in these contests may not have been inevitable, but the odds were stacked in the United States’ favor.
By contrast, a modernizing China is a more formidable opponent. It has more than three times the U.S. population, and its increasingly sophisticated economy will soon be larger than the United States’. It has few allies at present, but it does have a useful partnership with Russia (the third pole in today’s multipolar world) and growing ties with a few other countries. Moreover, having lots of allies is not necessarily an asset if most of them are weak, hard to control, and difficult to defend. China is a major force in the world economy and increasingly influential in many global institutions. It has plenty of liabilities too, but it is far from a pushover and unlikely to implode the way the Soviet Union did or suddenly decide to embrace liberal democracy.
To be clear: The danger is not that China is going to expand throughout Eurasia, conquer North America, or impose Chinse Community Party-style, one-party capitalism on 333 million innocent and unsuspecting Americans. (If one-party rule ever comes to this country, it seems more likely to emerge from the Republican Party’s declining commitment to democracy and its continued fealty to strongman wannabes like former U.S. President Donald Trump.) The real danger is China will gradually acquire greater influence over the rules that shape global politics and economics, thereby placing the United States at a permanent disadvantage.
In my view, the outcome of this contest will be determined more by what these two powerful countries do at home than by what either country does abroad. But as the United States’ recent missteps remind us, foreign-policy choices can still matter. Will Washington and Beijing continue to compete to see who can lose influence faster or can Biden and his team chart a course that restores some of the influence the United States once enjoyed?
The first step is to work with others to keep China from establishing a dominant position in East Asia, from which it could more easily project power and influence around the world. This goal does not require the United States to dominate the region itself; it requires only a balancing coalition that is sufficiently capable at preventing China from intimidating its neighbors and forcing them to accept a subordinate role. Maintaining a balancing coalition in Asia will not be easy, however, because the vast distances involved will tempt Asian states to pass the buck, and each will want to preserve their economic ties with China even as they align more closely with the United States. Relations between some key U.S. partners (such as South Korea and Japan) are delicate at best, further complicating the balancing process. For the United States, therefore, effective regional diplomacy will be at least as important as maintaining a credible military presence.
Yet the United States must also cooperate with China on matters like climate change, nuclear security, trade, global health preparations, and other critical issues. This balancing act will not be easy either, and the surest way to screw it up is to treat Sino-American relations as a life-or-death struggle between two alternative models of capitalism and to make toppling of the Chinese Communist Party its ultimate objective. Not only is that outcome unlikely to occur, but pursuing it would give Beijing little reason to work with the United States and every reason to use its growing wealth and power to its detriment. As one might expect, the loudest voices behind this zero-sum approach are self-promoting ideologues like former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose record of failure in office provides ample reason to disregard his advice now. Unfortunately, this Manichean worldview is not entirely absent within the Biden administration, as revealed by Biden’s description of the competition as “a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”
Instead of an all-out ideological crusade, the United States should group relations with China into three distinct categories. The first category involves issues where its interests overlap strongly. Here, the two countries can agree either on positive steps to take together or on harmful or dangerous acts that each agrees to forego. Examples of the latter would be “beggar-thy-neighbor” trade policies or active efforts to interfere in each other’s domestic affairs. A second category would be “areas of mutual adjustment,” where each side might agree to alter policies that harm the other in exchange for reciprocal concessions. Arms control and trade arrangements are among the many areas where this sort of give and take might occur. Finally, when mutual adjustment proves impossible (as will often be the case), each side will defend its interests independently. Ideally, such independent actions should be proportional to potential harm and designed to protect one’s own interests but not escalate the conflict further.
This approach resembles the idea of “managed strategic competition” laid out by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and the realist in me recognizes that maintaining such norms of restraint will not be easy for either country. But the alternative is likely to be worse, and making clear the United States seeks to keep the Sino-American rivalry within limits would also improve its standing with many third parties that are likely to distance themselves from whichever great power they see as most responsible for conflict.
What about the rest of the world? NATO won’t be of much use vis-à-vis China, at least not in a military sense. Some experts say Europe cannot even defend itself without substantial U.S. help; if that is really the case (and it might not be), then its potential military contribution in East Asia is barely worth considering. More importantly, it’s not at all clear that Europe has much interest in balancing China despite growing concerns about Beijing’s power and intentions. Support from some of the United States’ European partners may be of value on climate, digital standards, trade arrangements, or development assistance, but Europe’s most important contribution would be to take responsibility for its own defense and let the United States focus more on Asia.
As competition with China intensifies, the case for lowering the temperature with Moscow becomes stronger. This is just Geopolitics 101: In a multipolar world, encouraging the other poles to combine against you is just plain dumb. Unwinding the current parlous state of U.S.-Russian relations cannot be done overnight, and the United States is unlikely to become partners anytime soon. But a less acrimonious and paranoid relationship would be in Europe’s interest, Russia’s interest, and yes, the United States’ interest too. Demonizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia is easy to do and has become a popular sport inside Washington, in part because some of Russia’s actions are deeply objectionable. But the United States’ present attitude of self-righteous indignation ignores its own contributions to the deterioration of relations and does little to advance U.S. interests now.
As for the arena where the “forever wars” were waged—the Greater Middle East—here the United States should return to the balance-of-power policy it followed from 1945 until the 1991 Gulf War. It had interests and commitments in the region throughout this period, but it kept U.S. air and ground forces—including the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force—out of the region and played local powers off against one another instead. The United States’ military presence increased dramatically after 1991 and especially after the Sept. 11 attacks, but inserting a lot of military power into the region did not enable Washington to pacify the region or control its political evolution.
A corollary to this prescription is the United States should have normal relations with all countries in the Middle East, instead of “special” relationships with some of them and no relations with others. At this point, none of the United States’ traditional Middle East partners—Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc.—deserve unconditional U.S. support because each has repeatedly acted in ways that are contrary to U.S. interests or are at odds with its professed political values. This outdated approach—largely an artifact of historical legacies and the continued influence of domestic and foreign lobbies—is also utterly self-defeating. China, Russia, the European powers, and most of Asia and Africa have diplomatic relations with everyone in the region, but the United States doesn’t. If Beijing can trade, invest, and negotiate with Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, why can’t the United States? Talking to everyone would also encourage these countries to be more attentive to Washington’s wishes instead of enabling some of them to take U.S. support and protection for granted.
Finally, the United States should get out of the business of regime change and stay out. The U.S. military has demonstrated it can topple some weak regimes with relative ease, but it has also proven it is incapable of creating effective political institutions to replace the ones it has dismantled. Lots of practice did not make perfect, and the United States is no better at this Sisyphean task than it was when it started. Fortunately, U.S. security and prosperity do not depend on overturning weak governments and leaving failed states in its wake. Removing this objective from its foreign-policy toolkit is long overdue.
Alert readers will recognize these prescriptions are consistent with my realist outlook and the broad idea of foreign-policy restraint, but they do not imply abandoning U.S. commitment to democracy and other liberal values. On the contrary, this approach seeks to preserve these values and let others adopt them once they are convinced these principles are preferable to what they currently have. Instead of trying to impose liberal values on others according to the United States’ preferred timetable—an approach that contributed to the erosion of democracy in the United States—the country should set an example that other societies will want to emulate, suitably tailored to their own traditions and circumstances.
To sum up: Ending the current “forever wars” is not enough. Putting them in the past for good requires understanding how they came about and why they failed and then developing a positive agenda for U.S. foreign policy that internalizes these lessons and recognizes what U.S. power can and cannot achieve. I don’t know if Biden and his team understand this yet or if they will be able to overcome the entrenched orthodoxies, interest group pressure, and blobbish conformity that has hamstrung U.S. foreign policy for the past 20-plus years. But if a pandemic, a powerful new peer competitor, a looming environmental crisis, a series of failed wars, and deep domestic divisions do not signal the need for a substantial course change, what will?
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.