Is America Overextending Itself?

The case for U.S. restraint in Ukraine, Taiwan, and beyond.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
The Taiwanese navy launches a U.S.-made missile
The Taiwanese navy launches a U.S.-made missile
A Taiwanese navy frigate launches a U.S.-made Standard missile during a drill near Yilan county, Taiwan, on July 26. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

Exactly a year after the United States withdrew its forces from Afghanistan—ending its longest war—Washington is once again playing an important role in two major arenas. The first is Ukraine, where continued U.S. military support maintains Kyiv’s chances of repelling Moscow’s advances. The second is more of a cold war, in which the United States is increasingly focused on containing China’s rise and influence. How should America conduct its foreign policy in this new environment? The classic debate in international relations tends to pit hawks against doves—in other words, a debate over whether to conduct a more muscular and proactive policy, or a more restrained one that shuns long-term entanglements. As part of FP LiveForeign Policy’s forum for live journalism, I spoke with the historian Stephen Wertheim last week, who makes the case for American restraint. Wertheim is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy. Foreign Policy subscribers can watch the full discussion here. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript. 

Foreign Policy: How would you characterize the Biden administration’s foreign policy?

Stephen Wertheim: When [the administration] came into office, it proclaimed, “America is back,” which tried to herald the return of a more traditional U.S. foreign policy, prior to what it wanted to portray as the interruption of the Trump years. But then it did something somewhat surprising. It withdrew from Afghanistan, and President [Joe] Biden rejected the very idea of forever war, ordered a force posture review, and seemed intent on rightsizing—which seemed to mean downsizing—the U.S. military posture. The administration even pursued what it called a “stable and predictable relationship” with Russia, which is now hard to even remember in light of events in Ukraine, trying to effectuate a kind of pivot to Asia that had been long talked about but not quite achieved.

Exactly a year after the United States withdrew its forces from Afghanistan—ending its longest war—Washington is once again playing an important role in two major arenas. The first is Ukraine, where continued U.S. military support maintains Kyiv’s chances of repelling Moscow’s advances. The second is more of a cold war, in which the United States is increasingly focused on containing China’s rise and influence. How should America conduct its foreign policy in this new environment? The classic debate in international relations tends to pit hawks against doves—in other words, a debate over whether to conduct a more muscular and proactive policy, or a more restrained one that shuns long-term entanglements. As part of FP LiveForeign Policy’s forum for live journalism, I spoke with the historian Stephen Wertheim last week, who makes the case for American restraint. Wertheim is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy. Foreign Policy subscribers can watch the full discussion here. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript. 

Foreign Policy: How would you characterize the Biden administration’s foreign policy?

Stephen Wertheim: When [the administration] came into office, it proclaimed, “America is back,” which tried to herald the return of a more traditional U.S. foreign policy, prior to what it wanted to portray as the interruption of the Trump years. But then it did something somewhat surprising. It withdrew from Afghanistan, and President [Joe] Biden rejected the very idea of forever war, ordered a force posture review, and seemed intent on rightsizing—which seemed to mean downsizing—the U.S. military posture. The administration even pursued what it called a “stable and predictable relationship” with Russia, which is now hard to even remember in light of events in Ukraine, trying to effectuate a kind of pivot to Asia that had been long talked about but not quite achieved.

Since then, its plans have gone awry, as symbolized by the rewriting of the still unreleased National Security Strategy. The administration, even before the war in Ukraine, was beginning to pivot back toward a more traditional view after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the war in Ukraine has obviously caused the United States to take considerable risks to try to ensure a strategic defeat for Vladimir Putin. It’s reenergized NATO but also caused the United States to increase its manpower in Europe, extend alliance commitments to Finland and Sweden, all while tensions with China are escalating.

I think what we’re seeing now is a picture of a very similar foreign policy to what the United States had under [President Donald] Trump as well as prior to Trump, but now updated for increasing great-power tensions, which puts the United States in a difficult spot going forward.

FP: Explain why you believe it’s counterproductive to frame the war in Ukraine as a grand battle between democracy and autocracy. And instead why you’ve written, we should think of it more in terms of sovereignty.

SW: In the first Gulf War, the George H.W. Bush administration was able to assemble a wide international coalition in defense of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kuwait by appealing to something that all countries have in common, which is their interest in preserving sovereignty. And most countries want to preserve the fundamental rules of the international system, of the U.N. Charter that prohibit the use of force without authorization by the U.N. Security Council or for purposes other than self-defense. I think we’ve seen that there is a widespread recognition that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine does violate those fundamental rules of the game. So, the potential to assemble a very broad coalition was there, and you might look at the coalition that’s imposed these almost unprecedented sanctions against Russia and credit the Biden administration for the coalition they were able to assemble. But, on the other hand, you could ask, why isn’t that coalition larger?

FP: That coalition also excludes much of the global south. If you add up the populations of India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and all the other countries that didn’t support the sanctions, you’re looking at more than half of the population of the world.

SW: Exactly, so we’re looking at a coalition that takes us right back to the Cold War. It’s really the global north, Cold War West that that has joined in these sanctions on Russia.

I think when a lot of countries hear that what’s at stake in the war in Ukraine for the United States and the West is a defense of democracy against autocracy, they hear that they are being asked to join a kind of endless struggle, because autocracy isn’t going to go away in Russia anytime soon. Many countries around the world are not democracies, and, for that matter, Ukraine was widely recognized to be—if it was a democracy—a deeply flawed one prior to the invasion.

It would be wise for the administration to downgrade its appeals or its framing of the war as a struggle between democracy and autocracy, and to center the point on the defense of sovereignty.

FP: Expand on this other notion of the risks that the current approach to the war in Ukraine could lead to a broader cold war.

SW: The direction in which we seem to be heading is on one level a continuation of U.S. global primacy. But on another level, it’s something qualitatively different where the United States faces real risks of a great-power conflict for the perpetual future. And not only that, the United States has put itself in the position to lead the defense of Europe or the defense of Asia against a great-power competitor. This is really quite different from the kind of threat environment and the reasons the United States embraced global dominance in the past.

Well, now we’re shifting into a quite different scenario. The United States faces a significant challenge from China, where the Taiwan issue has become the center of that in our politics. Simultaneously, the United States is really exposed to this risk that Russia will pose a threat to Eastern Europe, to countries close to Russia, and Russia is a nuclear peer to the United States.

So, I’m very concerned about the overextension of U.S. power at this point. In particular, I think the U.S. role in Europe is not really justified, because Europeans have enormous latent power that they could mobilize to take the lead in deterring Russia. But if the United States proves to be willing to do all that, then Europe doesn’t really have the incentive to take responsibility for the defense of its own continent.

FP: Stephen, since you’re sort of solidly in the restraint camp, what is your comeback when people make the case that the world needs America to be a policeman or a moral authority, a country that centers its human rights in its engagement with the world? What is the restrainer’s perspective on that?

SW: Part of me wants to say that I agree with a lot of that, I just don’t think that the pursuit of primacy, of military dominance, has turned the United States into the envy of the world, or inspiring people, or has been good for human rights, if you look at the security partnership the U.S. has in the Middle East and elsewhere.

FP: What should America’s role be in Ukraine? Do you think Washington is doing too much?

SW: I’m concerned where Washington’s role in the war is heading. I do think that the United States should have imposed sanctions to punish Russia for the war, should have thoroughly denounced the war and rallied as wide a coalition as possible to support Ukraine. I think the sanctions, though, were kind of an overkill, and sanctioning the Russian Central Bank for example—it was just very hard to see the theory that said that sanctions were more likely to have a positive effect on Russian behavior, in other words, to get Russia to stop the war. I do worry that that we’ve sort of gotten ourselves into this escalatory dynamic that ultimately isn’t necessarily going to have good results in Ukraine in the long term.

FP: If you add China to the picture, there’s this other future cold war clearly brewing. Attitudes in America toward China have really changed over the last decade or so. How do you see the U.S. debate on engaging with China? And where do you think we’re going wrong?

SW: Well, I’m extremely concerned about the U.S.-China relationship and the U.S. politics surrounding it. On one level there has been a very sensible reevaluation of China’s role in the world that corresponds to increasingly assertive, sometimes aggressive actions that China has taken—whether it’s militarily in the South China Sea, across the Taiwan Strait, or economically through the practice of economic coercion, which I actually think we should do more to combat.

However, when I look at the U.S. side, I see the United States as having leapt from the so-called engagement strategy to containment. In other words, engagement was always a kind of regime-change strategy. The idea was that the United States would be fine with coexisting with China and engaging in a great amount of trade with China, so long as China came to look more like the United States, more like a liberal democracy, and fulfilled our expectations internationally, accepted U.S. leadership, etc. Well, that hasn’t happened. And so, noting the increasing scale of Chinese power, the United States beginning under the Trump administration moved essentially to a containment approach, saying, we have to get tough with China and view the expansion of Chinese power and influence as a significant threat to the United States.

I think that we passed over another option, which is mutual coexistence, being clear-eyed that China has its own system that we don’t approve of, and we’re going to continue to object to Chinese human rights abuses like the large-scale ones in Xinjiang, but we also are going to clearly signal to China that we can coexist. We don’t seek to change the Chinese regime, and not all aspects of Chinese power run counter to U.S. interests in the world, and some things are also not worth antagonizing China over, because when you have the world’s two leading powers, there’s a risk of great-power war.

FP: If you had to recommend a set of course corrections on America’s China policy, what would those be?

SW: The first thing would be to end American overcommitment elsewhere in the world in a military sense. We should be making good on what is a pretty bipartisan agreement that the United States doesn’t have vital interests implicated in the Middle East and should draw down its alliance and security partnerships there. Likewise, in Europe, we should be effectuating a transition to European leadership of European defense.

Vis-à-vis China, the question is: How do we get to detente without something like the Cuban missile crisis? One absolutely central issue is that the erosion of the status quo around the Taiwan Strait has to be arrested, or some kind of new arrangement has to be worked out. But I still think it would be a lot easier to go back and make much more clear that the United States continues to follow the “One China” policy as it has been practiced for decades, and maintains genuine strategic ambiguity surrounding whether it would in fact defend Taiwan. We have to be careful not to put Chinese leaders in a position where they believe that it’s now or never for them to act in Taiwan.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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