Historically, America’s leaders have faced inflection points on determining what our role in the world would be. After the moral binge of Woodrow Wilson’s mission to fight the war to end all wars and to make the world safe for democracy, the Senate rejected American membership in the League of Nations and the Harding administration favored a return to normalcy. Internationally, that meant again turning inward. Leadership on the world stage was not part of the American tradition of foreign policy, even though Harding’s Secretary of State, Charles Evan Hughes, sought to reduce arms competition and the risk of war internationally by hosting the Washington Naval Conference on disarmament. He understood he had limited means of coercion but sought to use moral suasion in a collective setting to create pressures to reduce a naval arms race—and while real limitations among the leading powers were achieved, there were no enforcement mechanisms and by the 1930’s no one was respecting these or other limits.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt aimed to correct the failure of collective security after the First World War with the creation of the United Nations and the Four Powers—the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and China—providing the policing role. Here was a vision of the United States playing a new role in the world, but one in which we would work with others through international institutions to provide security, prevent protectionism, and promote economic development. Harry Truman, faced with a collapsing Europe, a Soviet threat, and an America that was the dominant economic power on the globe, explained that the United States must lead. This was a turning point for America. We would now assume a very different posture internationally and for the first time define a broad set of responsibilities globally. We had the means, and through the Marshal Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the founding of NATO, a security pact with Japan, the Bretton Woods financial institutions, and the formation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Truman administration would lead and shape a rules-based system to counter the Soviets in the Cold War.

American power and its network of alliances, regional partners, and international financial institutions—and the inherent contradictions within the Soviet Union and its bloc—eventually led to the collapse of the USSR. The Cold War world had been a bipolar one. Suddenly, the world seemed to be unipolar. The United States had no rivals: Russia was in a state of transformation, upheaval, and loss of identity, and China was preoccupied with generating domestic economic development and wealth and saw the US-dominated system as facilitating its growth. Our leadership internationally not only seemed validated but also offered us the opportunity to spread our values. “Enlargement” and the expansion of NATO became objectives of the Clinton administration; President Bush’s “freedom agenda” in response to the scourge of terrorism sought to deny terrorists the breeding grounds they needed.

But over-reach, the high, unrelenting costs of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the economic collapse of 2008-9 combined to raise basic questions about America’s role in the world and the excessive burdens we were bearing. While Barack Obama was an internationalist and believed that U.S. leadership was still needed to shape the global agenda, he was mindful of the very real limits on our power and the high costs of interventions. Donald Trump, however, challenged the very idea of American leadership on the world stage. It was not just his slogan of America First that seemed to turn the clock back to the period before the assumption of U.S. leadership and responsibilities internationally; it was that he doubted the benefits of alliances—for him, we bore an unfair burden and assumed obligations that could also prove costly. His is a world not of values but of transactions and short-term gain. It is a world in which international institutions can only constrain us, and in which national sovereignty, not globalism, should govern every decision.

With his defeat, it might be easy to dismiss his view of the world, one in which his policies too often produced not America First but America Alone. But his instincts are rooted in a long-established strand of the American tradition of foreign policy, and it would be a mistake to dismiss the factors that produced him and led to basic questions about our role in the world during the Obama administration.

So once again we are at a point in which we need to define our role in the world, including what we may be called on to do to ensure that basic norms or rules will govern relations among states. President-elect Biden has a clear orientation. He sees the need for American leadership lest we face a far more dangerous “Hobbesian” world of every nation for itself. Note his words: “The world does not organize itself. For 70 years, the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents alike, played the leading role in writing the rules, forging agreements, and animating collective security and prosperity.” As he added, “either someone takes our place or no one will and there is chaos.”

Biden instinctively is an internationalist who sees the dangers of retrenchment and the loss of American leadership. But there are real constraints on the US playing the role it did during and after the Cold War. The international and domestic landscapes are fundamentally different.

Constraints on America Playing Its Role Internationally

Internationally, we are not facing a bipolar or unipolar world but what some are calling “a non-polar” world. Power is more diffuse (militarily and economically), and we are now contending with rivals (China and Russia) who are not willing to play by our rules and are trying to impose their own.

Both have become far more assertive in their neighborhoods and beyond with little concern for traditional norms. To name but a few of their actions, China is ignoring international law and continues its land reclamation projects in the South China Sea; cracks down on Hong Kong, removing even the semblance of autonomy; carries out threatening military maneuvers close to Taiwan; provokes skirmishes on the border with India; and has interned in re-education camps a million Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. For its part, Russia, directly and indirectly, supports the separatists in eastern Ukraine; militarily intervenes in Syria and Libya (tilting the military balances without being able to end the wars); seeks to disrupt elections here and in Europe; and uses dangerous nerve agents like Novichok to poison domestic critics and former Russian spies who have sought refuge overseas.  

But we are not only facing great power rivals who challenge norms. Is today’s Turkey an ally or a rogue state? As Turkey’s economy declines, President Erdogan has become far more aggressive in the region and his near abroad—using his own military, along with proxies and mercenaries, in northern Iraq, northern Syria, Libya, the eastern Mediterranean, Somalia, and Azerbaijan. He both competes with the Russians and acquires advanced weapons like the S-400 from them. He offers passports for members of the military wing of Hamas, hardly an act designed to promote stability. And, he aims to achieve dominance among Sunni Muslims internationally—something that given China’s treatment of the Uighurs may yet trigger tensions in their relationship. 

Of course, there are true rogue states like Iran and North Korea and there are also non-state actors like Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and ISIS that by definition defy or resist international rules. (There are also corporate non-state actors who collect data, shape preferences, affect privacy, and often seem beyond the control of state actors.)

In short, we are now contending with a very different reality internationally in which others will not be inclined simply to follow the American lead, especially before the US re-establishes some degree of credibility. If that were not enough, we are not out of our “forever” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—and all this creates an understandable impulse to focus on our domestic, rather than international, needs. That impulse won’t be lessened by COVID-19, its economic implications, and the likelihood that we won’t have a widely available vaccine before the mid-to-late spring of 2021.

Domestic fatigue and its relationship to the lack of a domestic consensus on America’s role in the world will surely be another constraint on the Biden impulse to restore American leadership internationally.  Wrestling with America’s role in the world and offering prescriptions for it has become almost a cottage industry. But there does seem to be a consensus on the need for America to change its approach. Put simply, we need a new concept or framework to guide us in a world where America remains strong but is one among a number of powers.

Different Concepts for America’s Role in the World

President Trump offered his concept, America First. But its fundamental rejection of international institutions and alliances could not have been a worse fit for dealing with a pandemic. With no one having immunities and borders offering no safety, COVID-19 demanded a well-coordinated international response. A common approach, with common standards and practices, agreed-upon rules on travel and trade, and collaboration on developing anti-viral treatments and a vaccine that could be distributed even to the poorest, most vulnerable states was not simply desirable, it was necessary.

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