The perils of leaning forward
The controversy over Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has largely obscured what should have been an important initiative by the Obama administration. The president’s trip to Poland was one more step in what is going to be the central task of U.S. foreign policy over the next decade: deterring a great power challenge. The world today — for most countries, one that is stable, peaceful and open — rests on an order built by the United States that, since 1989, has not been challenged by any other major player. How to ensure that these conditions continue, even as new powers — such as China — rise and old ones — such as Russia — flex their muscles?
Russia’s actions in Ukraine are a serious challenge, and President Obama has responded seriously, enacting sanctions, rallying support in Western Europe and reassuring Eastern Europe. The president’s critics in Washington feel that this isn’t enough, that he is showing a dangerous weakness.
In a spirited essay in the New Republic, conservative writer Robert Kagan (who writes a monthly column for The Post) argues that Obama is forgetting the chief lesson of modern U.S. foreign policy. Instead of “leaning back,” he says, Washington needs a “pervasive forward involvement in the affairs of the world.”
One might think that a country with almost 60 treaty allies, hundreds of thousands of troops stationed around the world on dozens of bases and ongoing military operations against a variety of terrorist groups would fit this description. But it is not enough. Kagan’s model of a successful U.S. strategy is the Roosevelt-Truman administration as World War II ended. Even when new threats were unformed, it maintained massive military power and talked and acted tough. But he then notes what followed within a year or two — the Soviet Union challenged the United States around the globe, China turned communist and deeply anti-American, and North Korea invaded South Korea. All of the things that “leaning forward” was meant to deter happened anyway. Kagan’s main example undermines his central logic.
In the late 1940s, the United States was stronger than any country in modern history, with total economic supremacy, hundreds of thousands of troops still in Europe and Asia and credibility earned by waging two world wars. Yet, in a sense, it was unable to deter the Soviet Union or China or even North Korea. This is not to say that the Truman administration’s foreign policy is to be blamed — I admire Harry Truman greatly. Rather, I mean that in a complicated world, even if you have tremendous strength and act forcefully, stuff happens.
Today’s task is far more complicated. In World War II and the Cold War, the United States was trying to defeat entirely the great powers it was arrayed against. In the Cold War, the object of containment — as George Kennan argued from the start — was to constrain the Soviet Union such that communism would collapse under its own contradictions.
The goal today is to deter China from expanding while also attempting to integrate it into the global order. Even with Russia, the goal is not to force the collapse of the regime (which would not be replaced by a pro-Western liberal democracy) but rather to deter Moscow’s aggressive instincts and hope that it will evolve along a more cooperative line.
Imagine if the United States were to decide to combat China fully and frontally, building up its naval presence in the Pacific, creating new bases and adopting a more aggressive and forceful attitude. China would respond in a variety of ways — military, political and economic. This would alarm almost all the countries in the region — even those worried about Beijing’s assertiveness — because China is their largest trading partner and the key to their economic well-being. What they want from Washington is an emergency insurance policy, not a new Cold War.
Even with Russia: Although European countries have understood that Moscow needs to pay for its behavior in Ukraine, all want Russia as an economic partner. Their aim is to set a price for bad behavior but maintain economic and political bonds and hope that these grow over time. The challenge for Washington, then, is not simply deterrence but deterrence and integration — a sophisticated, complicated task but the right one.
Leaning forward sounds great, echoing Sheryl Sandberg’s mantra to “lean in.” But although that’s a powerful idea for women in the workplace, it is a simplistic guide for a superpower in a complex world.
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