Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The United States Needs to Get Serious

Washington isn’t behaving like a competent great power due to partisan gridlock, recycling of discredited ideas, and a lack of focus on real threats.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) talks to reporters  at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 4.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) talks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 4. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A great power with an ambitious global agenda should take the task of leadership seriously. It takes more than just spending money on the world’s most expensive military establishment; political leaders need to either know a lot about the world or listen carefully to people who do.

People with key foreign-policy responsibilities need to focus on what is in the U.S. national interest and not on personal enrichment. A serious global power would engage with allies and adversaries as needed, but it would be wary of letting foreign governments buy influence and would take supposed advice from self-serving foreign representatives with an appropriate level of skepticism. Its diplomats would be trained professionals with deep knowledge of the countries in which they were appointed rather than wealthy amateurs who happened to have donated a lot of money to a presidential campaign.

A serious great power would spend more time developing effective and coherent strategies than on debating what to call them. And a truly serious great power would hold people accountable and refrain from reappointing or paying much attention to former officials who had repeatedly failed to deliver and whose judgment had been deficient on more than one occasion.

A great power with an ambitious global agenda should take the task of leadership seriously. It takes more than just spending money on the world’s most expensive military establishment; political leaders need to either know a lot about the world or listen carefully to people who do.

People with key foreign-policy responsibilities need to focus on what is in the U.S. national interest and not on personal enrichment. A serious global power would engage with allies and adversaries as needed, but it would be wary of letting foreign governments buy influence and would take supposed advice from self-serving foreign representatives with an appropriate level of skepticism. Its diplomats would be trained professionals with deep knowledge of the countries in which they were appointed rather than wealthy amateurs who happened to have donated a lot of money to a presidential campaign.

A serious great power would spend more time developing effective and coherent strategies than on debating what to call them. And a truly serious great power would hold people accountable and refrain from reappointing or paying much attention to former officials who had repeatedly failed to deliver and whose judgment had been deficient on more than one occasion.

Perhaps most important of all, the political leadership of a serious great power would be good at seeing the big picture and distinguishing what is truly important from events that might be riveting or dramatic but ultimately trivial. Doing foreign policy would still be difficult even if this great power did all these things well, but it would have a decent chance of succeeding most of the time.

Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley seem to think U.S. foreign policy will be more effective if dozens of key positions remain unfilled—a problem the regimes they dislike most don’t face.

By these criteria, these days the United States seems to be in the throes of a deep bout of unseriousness. One day the country is supposedly menaced by “creeping sharia,” then it’s a supposed epidemic of dangerous gender-neutral bathrooms, followed by a wholly fictitious group of pizza-loving pedophiles, followed by lies about a stolen election and the supposed scourge of “critical race theory.” It’s funny how these bogeymen seem to come and go like clockwork. It’s almost as if some politicians and media organizations were actively trying to distract people from real problems and genuine malfeasance. What it isn’t, of course, is serious.

To be clear, there are thousands of professionals inside and outside of government who punch in and do their jobs every single day, but their efforts are often undermined by the unserious antics of others.

For example, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley seem to think U.S. foreign policy will be more effective if dozens of key positions remain unfilled—a problem the regimes they dislike most don’t face. Hawley has also demanded that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin resign before he’ll approve nominees, a stunt that his hometown newspaper condemned as “pure theatrics.”

Or consider that some local governments in regions where many constituents oppose vaccine and masking measures to combat COVID-19 are now actively working to weaken local public health agencies, thereby ensuring that the United States will be even less ready for the next pandemic than it was for this one. It’s as if the city of Chicago decided to abolish its fire department after Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started the conflagration that engulfed the city in 1871. Unless you think the health of Americans has nothing to do with the nation’s ability to remain at the pinnacle of power, this doesn’t sound like serious behavior to me.

This problem isn’t new: Unseriousness lay at the heart of the biggest foreign-policy blunders of recent decades. The 9/11 attacks were serious, but the U.S. response was anything but. The George W. Bush administration launched an ill-considered war against all terrorists “of global reach,” driven in part by the opportunity to enhance executive power (something Vice President Dick Cheney and his minions had wanted to do for decades) but also by worst-case estimates such as Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine” (i.e., if there’s a 1 percent chance of something bad happening, the United States should treat it as if it were a certainty).

Then they cooked up a war in Iraq based on a combination of fearmongering and pie-in-the-sky forecasts that the war would be quick and easy and pay for itself. Those who tried to insert a dose of reality into the campaign for war—such as Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki—were breezily dismissed. As usual, not taking a decision for war seriously had serious consequences. But need I remind you that the people who perpetrated this disaster are still held in high esteem by the political establishment and most of the media, and several later returned to government service in the Trump administration?

And when the Afghan component of the so-called war on terror came to its ignominious end, what happened? America’s top news outlets couldn’t wait to interview some of the leading architects of that failure so they could deny their own responsibility and pin the blame on someone else. A week ago, 60 Minutes was happy to give former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates the opportunity for a quick drive-by slap at the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw, in which Gates owned up only to his own responsibility for the ill-conceived U.S. effort to train the Afghan military “in our own image.”

I may have missed something, but how often has that illustrious news program interviewed people who turned out to have been right about Afghanistan all along, such as former Marine and State Department official Matthew Hoh or Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko?

Given nuclear weapons’ fearsome consequences, you’d think responsible officials would take them seriously, too. But you’d be wrong. A serious country would understand that repeatedly threatening states like Iran with regime change is only going to incentivize them to develop ways to deter the U.S. threat, including possibly a nuclear weapons capability of their own. If that’s something Washington would like to prevent, maybe the United States ought to stop trying to topple the clerical regime, and maybe it should have stuck with the nuclear deal that had previously blocked Iran’s path to the bomb.

Or consider the typically breathless response to new Chinese weapons programs. In addition to the recent hype about China’s predictable efforts to improve its relatively small nuclear arsenal (an effort that will still leave it with significantly fewer nukes than the United States or Russia), last week the Financial Times offered up a breathless story suggesting that China’s test of a supposedly hypersonic fractional orbital bombardment system was a critical strategic breakthrough.

Blake Hounshell of Politico promptly tweeted that the Chinese test might be a “Sputnik moment,” hawkish Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of the Armed Services Committee termed it a “call to action,” and even a mostly balanced story in Bloomberg News offered up an alarmist headline (“China’s Orbiting Missile Exploits Weakness in U.S. Defenses”) and quoted one expert referring to the test as a “game-changer.”

The problem with these hot takes, as the nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis pointed out here at Foreign Policy, is that the Chinese test just wasn’t that significant. At worst, it is part of a Chinese effort to evade U.S. missile defense capabilities, but missile defenses have never lived up to their hype (or expense). In particular, they could only protect the U.S. population from retaliation if the United States had struck first and eliminated most of an adversary’s capability (and probably not even then).

More importantly, America’s ability to deter a Chinese attack on the United States (or on key U.S. allies) is unaffected by the test (or by China’s ongoing buildup), and it certainly wasn’t grounds for a Sputnik-style panic. (To his credit, Politico’s Hounshell later retweeted informed comments that showed his initial response was ill-founded.)


If the United States got serious, what might it do differently?

First, leaders in both political parties would be doing a lot more to address the threat from climate change. The longer they wait the more they imperil humanity’s future, and the greater the costs of mitigation and adaptation are going to be. Looking back, citizens a few decades from now will likely marvel at how much we worried about things that ultimately didn’t matter and how little we focused on dangers that did.

Second, politicians and pundits would finally put the terrorism bogeyman in proper perspective. The danger from terrorism is not zero, and prudent efforts to keep it under control should continue. But it is not an existential threat unless Americans overreact to it in self-defeating ways. If more than 730,000 Americans’ deaths from COVID-19 in two years—compared to 549 from terrorist attacks in the 20 years since 9/11—don’t teach the United States to weigh different dangers more rationally, it’s just not being serious.

What major powers do at home usually matters more than what they do abroad.

Third, America’s political system needs to translate President Joe Biden’s “America is back” mantra into the quiet and largely unseen work of building and retaining influence within existing international institutions. Unlike the United States in recent years, China has devoted considerable effort to building influence within existing international institutions, because its leaders understand that the capacity to shape emerging global norms (including technical standards in key technology areas) can benefit Chinese firms and enhance overall Chinese influence. Note to Cruz and Hawley: You can’t compete in forums like the World Health Organization or the International Telecommunication Union if you don’t have a fully staffed set of qualified experts in place.

Fourth, politicians and government officials would recognize that the outcome of the intensifying rivalry with China will not be determined by whether Beijing succeeds in deploying a few exotic weapons systems, especially weapons that are unlikely to be used.

Instead, it will be determined by each country’s global market share; its ability to forge cooperative ties with other countries; its command of critical technologies with both military and civilian applications; the efficiency and effectiveness of its political institutions; the quality of its national infrastructure, including water supplies, electrical grids, interconnectivity, and transportation; and the education levels and human capital of its citizens, not to mention their physical and mental health. And here’s the bonus: Not only will such items determine how much influence the United States exerts abroad, but they will also determine the quality of life Americans enjoy at home. It’s a win-win proposition.

As I’ve argued before, what major powers do at home usually matters more than what they do abroad. So when I think about the United States’ current state of polarization, the anti-democratic and gridlock-inducing impact of the filibuster, the Republican Party’s continued flirtation with authoritarianism, and the toxic information environments that are fueling conspiracy theories and other flights from reason, that’s when I get truly worried. Seriously.

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

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