WASHINGTON – American foreign policy has reached a historic inflection point, and here’s the surprise: It has very little to do with the all-consuming presidency and controversies of Donald Trump.
For roughly 25 years after the Cold War, one of the dominant themes of U.S. policy was the effort to globalize the liberal international order that had initially taken hold in the West after World War II. Washington hoped to accomplish this by integrating the system’s potential challengers — namely Russia and China — so deeply into it that they would no longer have any desire to disrupt it. The goal was, by means of economic and diplomatic inducement, to bring all the world’s major powers into a system in which they would be satisfied — and yet the United States and its values would still reign supreme.
This was a heady ambition, one that was based on the idea that Russia and China were heading irreversibly down the path of political and economic liberalization, and that they could eventually be induced to define their interests in a way compatible with America’s own.
Yet that project has now unmistakably reached a dead end. The new goal of U.S. strategy won’t be to integrate rival great powers into a truly global world order, but to defend the existing international system — successful yet incomplete as it is — against their depredations.
This conclusion may be difficult to accept, because it flies in the face of the enormous optimism that characterized the post-Cold War era. As the superpower contest ended, democracy and free markets were spreading like wildfire, walls were falling and geopolitical divisions were disappearing.
Even Russia and China — America’s longtime geopolitical rival and the next great power looming on the horizon — were showing interest in greater cooperation and integration with the U.S.-led international community. It seemed possible that the world was moving toward a single model of political and economic organization, and a single global system under American leadership.
Encouraging this outcome became a chief preoccupation of American policy. The U.S. sought to deepen diplomatic ties with Boris Yeltsin’s Russia and to encourage democratic and free-market reforms there, even as it hedged against potential Russian revanchism and European instability by expanding NATO to include the countries of the former Warsaw Pact.
Similarly, Washington pursued “comprehensive engagement” toward China, focused on integrating Beijing into the global economy and encouraging it to take a more active role in regional and international diplomacy. The theory of the case was that a richer China would eventually become a more democratic China, as the growth of the middle class produced pressures for political reform. America’s integration policy would simultaneously give Beijing an equity stake in the existing, U.S.-led liberal order and thereby deprive Chinese leaders of reasons for challenging it.
As President Bill Clinton’s administration described it, this approach was one of “seizing on the desire of both countries to participate in the global economy and global institutions, insisting that both accept the obligations as well as the benefits of integration.”
This strategy, which was summed up by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick in 2005 as the “responsible stakeholder” model, reflected an admirable aspiration to permanently leave behind the intense geopolitical and ideological competition of the 20th century. Yet, as has become increasingly clear over the last decade — first in Russia, and now in China — that approach was based on two assumptions that have not withstood the test of reality.
The first was that China and Russia were indeed moving inexorably toward Western-style economic and political liberalism. Russian reform ground to a halt in the late 1990s, amid economic crisis and political chaos. Over the next 15 years, Vladimir Putin gradually re-established a governing model of increasingly undisguised political authoritarianism and ever-closer collusion between the state and major business interests.
In China, economic growth and integration into the global economy did not lead inevitably to political liberalization. The ruling Communist Party instead used dizzying economic growth rates as a way of purchasing legitimacy and buying off dissent. In recent years, the Chinese political system has actually become more authoritarian, as the government has assiduously repressed human rights advocacy and independent political activism, and centralized power to a degree not seen in decades.
The second assumption was that these powers could be induced to define their own interests the way the U.S. wanted them to. The trouble here was that Russia and China were never willing fully to embrace the U.S.-led liberal order, which emphasized liberal ideas that were bound to seem threatening to dictatorial regimes — not to mention the expansion of NATO into Moscow’s former sphere of influence and the persistence of U.S. alliances and military forces all along China’s East Asia periphery. And so, as Beijing and Moscow obtained, or regained, the power to contest that order, they increasingly did so.
Russia has, over the past decade, sought to revise the post-Cold War settlement in Europe by force and intimidation, most notably through the invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Putin’s government has also worked to undermine key institutions of the liberal order such as NATO and the European Union, and it has aggressively meddled in the elections and domestic political affairs of Western states.
China, for its part, has been happy to reap the benefits of inclusion in the global economy, even as it has increasingly sought to dominate its maritime periphery, coerce and intimidate neighbors from Vietnam to Japan, and weaken U.S. alliances in the Asia-Pacific region.
American officials hoped that Moscow and Beijing might eventually become satisfied, status quo powers. Instead, as Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution has written, they are behaving in classic revisionist fashion.
The age of integration is thus over, in the sense that there is no realistic, near-term prospect of bringing either Russia or China into an American-led system. This does not mean, however, that America is destined for war with Russia and China, or even that it should seek fully to isolate either power.
For better or worse, U.S.-China trade remains vital to American prosperity and the health of the global economy; cooperation between Washington and Beijing — and even Washington and Moscow — is important to addressing international diplomatic challenges such as nuclear proliferation and climate change.
What this does mean, however, is that the U.S. needs to become both tougher and less ambitious in its approach to great-power relations and the international system. Less ambitious in the sense that it needs to set aside the notion that the liberal order will become truly global or encompass all the major powers anytime soon. And tougher in the sense of understanding that more strenuous efforts will be required to defend the existing order against the challenge that revisionist power represent.
This will require taking difficult but necessary steps, such as making the military investments needed to shore up U.S. power and deterrence in Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific, and developing capabilities needed to oppose Chinese coercion and Russian political subversion of their neighbors. It will require rallying old and new partners against the threat posed by Russian and Chinese expansionism. Above all, it will mean accepting that great-power relations are entering a period of greater danger and tension, and that a willingness to accept greater costs and risks will be the price of meeting the revisionist challenge and preserving American interests.
In short, the goal of achieving a fully integrated world is no longer achievable today. Successfully defending the existing international order that the U.S. has successfully constructed and led over the years will be challenge — and accomplishment — enough.
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
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