Niall Ferguson, too, observes that “truly free trade, truly free capital flows and large‐scale migration across borders did not begin until the 1990s.”37 Earlier decades saw capital controls, fixed exchange rates, and periodic returns to tariff barriers. One major pillar of the postwar order was U.S. ally, democratic Japan. Under U.S. military protection, that same country instituted, in the words of Claremont McKenna College’s Leon Hollerman, “the most restrictive foreign trade and foreign‐exchange control system ever devised by a major free nation.”38 The long‐running competition with the Soviet Union moved the United States to deliberately encourage the economic growth of its Asian allies, but under the shield of a neomercantilist state. In other words, in identifying the U.S.-led order with market and trade liberalization, nostalgists historicize what are in fact a quite recent set of post‐1989 international arrangements. From this perspective, a liberal order did arrive, only it came later, in the age of post‐1989 unipolarity.
A Less‐Than‐Completely Liberal Trading Order
There is a more basic defect in recollections of the liberal order. During the postwar era, the United States persistently flouted liberal economic principles and imposed restrictive measures when it suited. Indeed, major powers have not historically risen through free trade and passive governments. Ascending powers have typically risen partly through the deliberate, visible, and intervening hand of an activist state.39 So too with America. All U.S. presidents have had to manage the tension between the commitment to the “Open Door” and the demand for industrial protection at home. The subsidy, the tariff, the quota, and the bilateral voluntary‐restriction agreement have remained part of America’s repertoire. As a recent study of global data by Gowling WLG reveals, the United States is a “long‐term and prolific proponent of protectionist policies,” and the world order it presides over is notably protectionist.40 Since the 2008 financial crisis, the United States has imposed tariffs worth $39 billion, while the world’s top 60 economies have adopted more than 7,000 protectionist trade measures worth more than $400 billion. The United States and the European Union both accounted for the highest number of protectionist measures, each exercising more than 1,000, with India a distant third at 400.41 America’s trade protectionism has the highest impact on other countries. Foreign farmers would be baffled by the claim that the old order embodied free trade, when the United States persistently granted agricultural subsidies and other mechanisms limiting foreign governments’ access to U.S. consumers.42
The reversion to protectionism has precedents from before the global financial crisis. Some of the most strident advocates of open markets and the dismantling of trade barriers have in practice done the opposite. One was President Ronald Reagan. Reagan had championed the cause of free trade as a foundation of progress and peace. Yet as president, he increased the proportion of imports subject to restrictions by 100 percent from 1980, as well as tightened quotas, introduced “voluntary restraint agreements” and new duties, raised tariffs, and strengthened the Export‐Import Bank in order to protect the recovery of U.S. industries, especially automotive, computer‐chip, and steel.43 Reagan justified these steps on the grounds that he was forcing economic competitors to trade freely. Regardless, his policies were a long way from Adam Smith.
President Clinton also championed free trade, in words and deeds. He drove through NAFTA, a free trade zone uniting North America’s three largest economies, and pushed for China’s admission to the WTO under “most favored nation” status. Yet under Clinton, rice subsidies that continued during his administration enabled U.S. growers to dump their product onto the markets of vulnerable rural countries such as Haiti, Ghana, and Indonesia at depressed prices. Clinton has since apologized to Haiti for the devastation that these arrangements inflicted on the country.44
President George W. Bush emulated Reagan rhetorically, invoking the principles of free trade and unfettered markets. Yet in 2002, he increased steel tariffs by 30 percent, only to back down 20 months later under threat of punitive countertariffs by the European Union, a protectionist bloc in its relations with many countries beyond its borders. Confronted with the prospect of economic meltdown in the crisis of 2008, Bush intervened in the market with strongly protectionist measures, including bailouts of major firms, claiming, “I have abandoned free‐market principles to save the free‐market system.”45 The reintroduction of protectionist measures today, then, is not such a sudden or radical departure as is sometimes claimed, though Trump’s open enthusiasm for a “trade war” does mark a difference. There is a defensible logic to the position that in order to practice free trade a country needs a viable economy to practice it with. Reagan and Bush’s contortions on the issue reflect the inherent difficulty of liberal projects, whose architects often feel impelled to compromise with illiberal pressures. A world where even the most avowed exponents of free trade continually resorted to protectionism, though arguably more free and liberal than what had gone before or than what might have prevailed otherwise, was still not the “flat” free‐market capitalist world we are being invited to be nostalgic for.
Nostalgists claim that one dividend of American hegemony has been the economic liberalization of the globe, or large parts of it. They could point, for example, to the transformation of China into a wealthy capitalist economy that has lifted its population out of “a dollar a day” poverty. But this liberalizing process is more conflicted than potted histories suggest. Beijing achieved rapid industrial revolution and the movement of its workforce from the field into the factory through authoritarian and illiberal measures: involuntary‐resettlement urbanization schemes, population control through forced abortion and compulsory sterilization, severe working conditions, repression of civil society, including trade unions, labor, and human‐rights activists, and internet surveillance, among other measures. The People’s Republic has consistently ranked low on the Freedom Index.46
A more direct application of U.S.-backed liberalism happened in Russia. After communist rule collapsed in 1991, at the urging and advice of the United States’ government and economists, Moscow embarked on a program of “shock therapy” to restructure Russia around the principle of market exchange, adopting accelerated privatization of state industries, deregulation, fiscal discipline, and the shedding of price controls. This experiment was a major effort in the project to enlarge the global liberal order at a rapid clip. It had the support of the leading institutions of global capitalism, the IMF, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury Department. Harvard academic Jeffrey Sachs, one of Russian liberalization’s architects from 1991 to 1993, set out the program’s logic in The Economist, a journal that champions the cause of the liberal world order. “To clean up the shambles left by communist mismanagement, Eastern Europe must take a swift, dramatic leap to private ownership and a market system. West Europeans must help it do so.”47 “Swift, dramatic leap,” a vast program grounded in classical liberal economics, took on the tempo and zeal of the revolutionary communism it aimed to replace. These rapid reforms replaced an oppressive and failed communist system. They did so at Washington’s continual insistence that Russia reform itself on “our conditions.” But the results on many measures were disastrous: capital flight and deep recession; slumping industrial production; malnutrition; the rise of criminality — a criminalized economy, in fact — intertwined with a corrupt oligarchy enjoying a concentration of wealth; and the decline of health care and an increased rate of premature deaths.48 As Nobel laureate and former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz observed, by eschewing the more gradualist path of Poland or China, the consequences of the program were profoundly illiberal.49 “Liberal order” visionaries are quick to give their ideas credit for the prosperity of nations from Western Europe to the Pacific Rim, finding causation in correlation. They deny such a direct link between their ideas and the problems of post‐Soviet Russia.50 Yet it is hard to accept that measures like sudden privatization and the rise of monopolies in a corrupt country were not related to asset stripping and capital flight or that “eliminating the housing and utilities subsidies that sustained tens of millions of impoverished families” did not play a major part in the social ruin that followed.51 Western technocrats, diplomats, and politicians were deeply implicated in the new order’s design.
The Hard Edge of the Liberal World Order
Lamentations for the end of the liberal order are also heard in the realm of “hard” security. The U.S. hegemon, nostalgists warn, is losing (or has lost) the political will to underwrite the international system through a commitment to permanent alliances and to intervene to bring order out of chaos. Part of the current intellectual confusion flows from the conflation of liberalism, which is supposedly peaceable, consensual, and benign, with the process of “world ordering.” It is here that defenders of the old order present their most misleadingly anodyne account of history. A review of the actual experience of the past 70 years suggests that the process of “world ordering” must at times be coercive. For all the attractions of American hegemony abroad, there has also been resistance and imposition.
To understand how the superpower met that resistance and imposed itself, we must go beyond the romanticized postwar moment of Trumanite internationalism in the late 1940s. Consider both ends of the chronology as it is usually presented, from 1945 until the recent past. Admirers trace the restructuring of international life in that first year to the visionary institution building that President Truman oversaw amid World War II, such as the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco and its main creation, the UN Charter. In this rendering, the founders conceived the liberal order through a collaborative process of institution building. The narrative is strikingly nonviolent.
In fact, to create the conditions for that visionary world making, the liberal order was conceived in blood. Only months later, the same U.S. president launched two atomic strikes on Imperial Japan, immolating and irradiating two of its cities after blockade, firebombing, and starvation had not broken its will. He did so to put down an adversary that had been brutally pursuing a rival vision for an Asian order of its own. In order to create an order, Washington swept aside a competitor by introducing a genocidal weapon into the world. There are powerful arguments that this was the “least bad” choice available.52 Tellingly, though, in panegyrics for a dying liberalism, the words “Hiroshima” and “Nagasaki” hardly appear.
If there were liberal principles that underpinned the UN as it was founded in 1945, they were at first self‐determination and sovereignty rather than democracy and human rights. The world order was hardly born “liberal” in the sense implied today: recall that two of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council were totalitarian communist states, and two of the democracies were managing colonial empires that they would not relinquish for decades. Then and now, modern liberalism is antithetical to the grave exertion of state power still practiced in 58 countries, the death penalty. To be sure, the birth of the post‐1945 world order did advance some liberal ideas broadly. The general norm against imperial aggression was one. This, however, was not strong enough to prevent or dislodge China’s seizure of Tibet, the bids of Turkey and Greece to grab Cyprus, Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, India’s occupation of Kashmir and annexation of Goa, Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, or indeed the Soviet Union’s occupation of Eastern Europe.
At the other end of the chronology, the present moment, consider that the U.S. hegemon has been waging a “war on terror” against Islamist jihadi groups since the 9/11 attacks of 2001. In pursuing the liberal cause of democratization as an antidote to terror, Washington entered the age of “enhanced interrogation” and preventive war. Now, with new weapons (drones) at hand, Washington conducts a sustained campaign of extrajudicial assassinations, often without the consent of host countries and without seeking formal permission or mandates. It has conducted renditions of suspected terrorists without trial. Reluctant to deal with live captives in indefinite detention, a more liberal president from 2009 increasingly avoided the dilemma by killing them. Meanwhile, whatever benefits it has wrought, American unipolarity was not peaceful or liberalizing for the unipolar power. The first two decades of the unipolar Pax Americana after 1989, which made up less than 10 percent of America’s history, generated 25 percent of the nation’s total time at war. That period is more bellicose by an order of magnitude than the preceding eras of bipolarity and multipolarity, in terms of frequency if not intensity.53 Whether in Iraq and Libya, or now with U.S. assistance to Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombardment of Yemen, this proclivity to continuous war making has not created a “liberal” condition of peaceful order. At home, there is a continuous state of alarm and vigilance, whereby “normality” is permanently suspended by an unending state of exception. This, combined with an encouraged state of paternalism where citizens are encouraged to be passive consumers of events, has helped weaken the checks and balances of the republican Constitution.54 Detention without trial, secret, warrantless surveillance, unauthorized wars, torture, covert “black sites” — these are not the obvious features of a robust liberal constitutional order. If large parts of the world have not accepted liberalism in major areas of civic life, neither has the United States.
Instead of a full reckoning with diplomatic history, nostalgists frame history around the positive creation of new architectures and schemes. Thus the Marshall Plan (1948–1961) figures centrally in America’s postwar historic mission, based on, as Benn Steil puts it, “the moral primacy of democratic government and free economic exchange.”55 This absolute, almost platonic account of the past has little room for other, less‐celebrated events from the same era, such as the British‐ and U.S.-backed overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, deposed despite his commitment to national independence and secular democracy. In this picture, the violence and compromises of hegemony, moral and strategic, almost vanish.
Nostalgia for the liberal order also overlooks the reality that it was enforced through coercion. In the same era, a defining episode in the postwar assertion of American hegemony was the Suez crisis of 1956. In that hinge event of the Anglo‐American relationship, the U.S. Sixth Fleet stalked and harassed British ships in the Mediterranean, fouling their radar and sonar, menacing them with aircraft and lighting them up at night with searchlights.56 With the British pound and oil supplies under pressure, President Dwight Eisenhower threatened Britain with the simple formula of “no ceasefire: no loans.” Patronage could be rapidly withdrawn, regardless of recent history, blood ties, or shared visions of Western‐enforced order. The United States enforced its interpretation of that order by targeting its ally’s vitals.57
Between those two moments in time, the United States practiced geopolitics ruthlessly. It partly did so in the course of its long security competition with the Soviet Union. Strikingly, the Cold War as it was actually conducted and lived — where two superpowers did not allow rules, sovereignty, multilateralism, and institutions to constrain them when the stakes were high — does not occupy a prominent place in the mytho‐history. Hardly anywhere in nostalgic reminiscences do there appear the numerous coups that were sponsored or supported by Washington. These interventions linked to the United States since 1945 may or may not have been defensible. They certainly violated one of the claimed core principles of “liberal,” “rules‐based” order, that of self‐determination.
The United States not only overthrew governments (sometimes democratically elected ones) — or attempted to — in Albania, Ghana, Guatemala, Greece, Cuba, Chile, Iran, El Salvador, Nicaragua, South Vietnam, Argentina, and Grenada. It also supported violently illiberal forces, from Islamist mujahideen in Afghanistan‐Pakistan and President Hosni Mubarak’s oppressive state in Egypt to the Indonesian Suharto regime and its death squads. A mainstay of U.S. hegemony in the Persian Gulf is its partnership with Saudi Arabia, an absolutist state that beheads apostates and survives by making concessions to Wahhabi theocrats. It is currently waging a brutal campaign against rebels in Yemen that, according to Amnesty International, includes attacks that are “indiscriminate, disproportionate or directed against civilians and civilian objects, including funeral gatherings, schools, markets, residential areas and civilian boats.”58 NATO allies on the European continent for decades included authoritarian Portugal and Greece. West Germany, the poster child of the liberal order, did not have elections during its first four years, and its proud social democracy retained officials who had been security elites in the Third Reich.59 Former Nazi mandarins stuffed the highest levels of government, including the Foreign Office and the Interior and Justice Ministries. Several former Nazi generals would later become senior commanders in the Bundeswehr. And in the 1948 Italian elections, the CIA helped ensure the electoral defeat of communists by funding anti‐communist parties, forging documents to discredit the Communist Party, and warning Italians that if they publicly supported the party they would be barred from entering the United States. For the sake of liberalism in the long term, the United States exercised its privileges. If the deliberate subversion of a democratic election abroad with “fake news,” bribes, and coercion represents the antithesis of liberal world order, as Trump’s critics now suggest, then Washington attacked that order in the period of its creation. Coups, partisan electoral interventions, the cooptation of illiberal actors, and the flouting of international law made American hegemony unexceptional.
In dismantling the power of old European colonial empires, the United States erected a form of domination that had an imperial quality of its own. Consider one of its more ambitious ventures in liberal ordering: the invasion and remaking of Iraq. The occupiers of Iraq regarded themselves as liberators. After invasion, though, the United States also projected power over Iraq’s interior governance in imperial fashion and with a liberal program, with all the tensions this implies. Director of the Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer applied a program of rapid liberalization not only through the well‐known de-Ba’athification and disbanding of the Iraqi Army, but through the order for “the full privatization of public enterprises, full ownership rights by foreign firms of Iraqi businesses, full repatriation of foreign profits … the opening of Iraq’s banks to foreign control, national treatment for foreign companies and … the elimination of nearly all trade barriers.”60 The United States continued to impose itself on Iraqi politics when it wanted, demanding and receiving the resignation of elected prime minister Ibrahim al‐Jaafari in May 2007. Intended to implant market democracy, these measures infringed the country’s sovereign democratic will. In other words, the liberators were freeing the Iraqis to conform with the occupier’s preferences.
It remains hard to have an empire without imperialism. Yet many visions of liberal order erase the historical process of imperialism, decentering, as Jeanne Morefield argues, “imperial violence while simultaneously positing the necessity of imperial action.”61 If liberalism at a basic level is an enlightenment project committed to liberty, equality, and limitations on state power, and if “world ordering” requires imperialist power projection, it is hard to fuse them without friction. Some may conclude from this historical record that, in the history of American hegemonic “world ordering,” liberalism was missing in action. On each occasion, critics have accused the United States of betraying its own liberal traditions in the pursuit of power. But it is hard to believe that a republic whose leaders so often and so intensely enunciate liberal principles is really driven by secret, amoral cynicism. A more troubling possibility should be considered. Liberalism is a powerful engine of American statecraft, but that statecraft often violates liberal principles. As a dogma of foreign policy, liberalism is jealous, intolerant, and messianic. Applied unchecked, it leads to its own illiberal opposite.62 The practitioners of rough geopolitics were not necessarily hypocrites. They often believed they were serving the ultimate cause of forging a liberal peace under American oversight but that to do so they had to accommodate illiberal allies and pitilessly destroy liberalism’s enemies. In this way, a superpower attempting to create a liberal order permits itself to employ unsentimental methods.
Thus in February 2017, David Petraeus could recall sincerely that “to protect freedom here at home, we adopted a foreign policy that sought to protect and, where possible, promote freedom abroad, along with human rights and rule of law,” invoking American values such as “political pluralism” and “a free and open society.”63 Yet as commander in Iraq, Petraeus sought to reverse that country’s implosion and salvage victory by compromising these standards. To that fight, he brought pragmatic, byzantine divide‐and‐exploit methods, paying for the defection of former Iraqi insurgents and working with Shia paramilitary units not known for their commitment to the Hague conventions. As director of the CIA, Petraeus advocated and implemented a campaign of “signature” drone strikes, whereby the assailant knowingly targets a group gathering — at a funeral for an al Qaeda member, for instance — because of their suspicious behavior and association, rather than through verified identification of the presence of individual persons. Such strikes, therefore, can also threaten noncombatants and the innocent.64 To bolster the struggling rebellion in Syria, Petraeus later in 2015 advocated luring away and recruiting “opportunistic” members of the jihadist Jabhat al‐Nusra, then formally affiliated with al Qaeda.65 This is not the place to arbitrate the wisdom and legitimacy of such measures. Dealing with conflicts in such places is a choice of agonies, and no doubt Petraeus and his peers regard themselves as guarding Americans while they sleep and trafficking with lesser evils to keep greater ones at bay. But note that a senior advocate of liberal order can also advocate measures that risk “crowd killing” and that involve enlistment of members of jihadi terrorist organizations and collaboration with sectarian governments. Champions of liberalism must somehow navigate their ideals through the illiberal demands of warfare.
Nostalgists for the liberal order also betray a shallow conception of their central idea, liberalism. They conflate liberalism with other desirable phenomena, like capitalism and democracy. They neglect the possibility of illiberal democracy, and illiberal capitalism. Majority democratic rule does not equate with, or necessarily produce, a liberal protection of individual rights such as the presumption of innocence or trial by jury, a liberal tolerance for opposition and dissent, or a constitutional order that separates powers and constrains government through an independent judiciary or a free press. Capitalism can also be illiberal, as the Chinese Communist Party demonstrates. One of America’s long‐term allies, Singapore, evolved as a supervised market democracy that curtailed the right to dissent. South Korea, an ally and protectorate within America’s Asian system, evolved first as a dictatorship under authoritarian founding fathers who were also modernizers, Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee. These authoritarians nurtured the chaebol business groups, Hyundai, Daewoo, and Samsung. Free markets took root first as highly protected markets under unfree political conditions. Such contradictions are absent from liberal‐order panegyrics.
As it is recalled, the “liberal order” embodies the permanent commitment of the United States to alliances and institutions without coercion. A broader historical perspective suggests, however, that Trump’s coercive treatment of allies is less of a break with the past than is often thought. In reality, the United States has often coerced allies with threats of abandonment and punishment.66 In 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles threatened Europe with an “agonizing reappraisal” of alliances. In 1973 and 1974, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger suspended intelligence and nuclear cooperation with Britain to punish noncooperation over a U.S.-initiated declaration of principles and the privacy of bilateral and UK‐European Economic Community discussions. The United States has used the threat of abandonment to persuade allies and clients to cancel their nuclear programs, including West Germany, Japan, and Taiwan, while threatening adversaries with sanctions or preventive war. The demand that European allies shoulder more of the burden of military expenditure has been a staple of U.S. diplomacy, from President Eisenhower to former secretary of defense Robert Gates. Despite Britain spending blood and treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq to support the war on terror and cement its standing in Washington, President Obama made a blunt threat that departing from the European Union would place the UK at the “back of the queue” when seeking a bilateral free trade agreement. Assured commitment to institutions and allies through only positive solidarity is a false memory. This underlines the pattern whereby Washington underwrites a liberal world order not by adhering to its principles but by stepping outside them, practicing punishment, threats, and bribes that it would not accept if directed at itself.
In “liberal order” litanies, another persistent claim is that the order was “rules‐based.” It was not. Rules exist, and flouting them can have costs. But at critical moments for strong states such as the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, rules proved to be slippery; they were invoked, stretched, arbitrarily altered, or ignored, as interest permitted. The unreality of nostalgic legalism was illustrated in the summer of 2016 by two adversaries who both at different times have appealed to “rules” as the arbiter of international order. China defied the unanimous ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which found against its territorial claims, and continued to expand into the South China Sea and seize disputed waters, islands, and shoals. At the same time, the United States appealed to China to respect the “legally binding” verdict yet had not even ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that it urged China to observe. From ignoring the International Court of Justice over the mining of Nicaraguan harbors in 1986 to bombing Serbia in 1999 without a UN mandate, the United States has infringed on the letter of international law when it has found that other interests or values were compelling. It exercised a vigilante’s privilege. So too did other major powers. For less powerful and emerging states, the writ of liberal order was often remote, as they “routed around” rules to pursue their interests. In this century, Africa, from the Great Lakes region to the Sudan, has seen millions butchered, displaced, and unavenged. The era may have involved greater degrees of “rule following” than earlier eras. But it was not “based” on the observation of rules, at least not for the major powers. To rebrand this fraught history of power politics as an era of rule‐bound civility is perverse. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in calling for the conservation, or restoration, of an order on the basis that it represents something better. In this case, though, the nostalgia rests on delusion — about what the world was and what it can be.
The Burden of Liberal Nostalgia
The debate around “liberal order” is consequential. Memories of what went before will condition the ability of the United States and its allies to navigate their way ahead. At issue here is neither the legitimacy of American power in the world nor many of its benefits. If there was to be a superpower emerging from the rubble of world war in midcentury, we should be grateful it was the United States, given the totalitarian alternatives on offer. Under America’s aegis, there were islands of liberty where prosperous markets and democracies grew. U.S. internationalism rebuilt Western Europe and East Asia and successfully contained Soviet communism. The central issue is whether this created a wider “liberal” system, and whether the actual historic process of world ordering can even be achieved by liberal means. The answer, in both cases, is no. Even at its zenith, America did not have the power to reorder the world so fundamentally. Its more ambitious efforts to do so generated illiberal as well as liberal results. The limits on power and knowledge are too strong for any world ordering to be so straightforward and benign.
How do we best explain these contradictions? The most accurate answer is not that the United States cynically preached liberalism while practicing realpolitik. Liberalism is an authentic and powerful engine of U.S. diplomacy. It is a pillar of the American diplomatic mind. But it was never all‐conquering. Long before Trump, large swaths of the globe (and of American statecraft) were unsubjugated by it. Today’s lamentations confuse two phenomena, liberal ideals and institutions on one hand and a hegemon’s world ordering on the other. To underwrite the order it promoted, the superpower exercised prerogatives in ways that cannot adequately be labelled “liberal,” implicitly claiming a privilege to do so. Except in atypical circumstances, large liberal projects require murky bargains. At worst they contain the seeds of their own unraveling, especially in the countries that become laboratories for the most doctrinaire attempts.
Endless recall of the “liberal order” is not only ahistorical. It is harmful. It damages the intellectual capacity to diagnose the failures of the recent past. It harms the effort to construct a workable design for the future. It impedes Washington from undertaking a needed reassessment of its grand strategy that has put the United States where it now is: struggling under the weight of spiraling debt, confronting multiplying foreign conflicts and domestic discord, and set on a collision course with rivals. Appeals to take up the burden, again, of spreading liberalism overseas presupposes the worldview of idealistic technocrats, confident in their capacity to reprogram the world despite growing evidence to the contrary. At a time when a sober reappraisal and some retrenchment is needed, both Trump and his critics undermine that task by peddling ahistorical reductionism. There is a better, non‐Trumpian critique to be made of a failing foreign policy consensus, and on behalf of an alternative order based on a wiser combination of restraint, deterrence, and power sharing.
A review of the United States’ current grand strategic situation suggests that a clear‐eyed stock taking is in order. Trump’s presidency doesn’t signify a general retrenchment of the United States and a retreat from international commitments. Under Trump, Washington’s growing commitments still exceed its power. The United States feels its capacity to impose order strained, even with the significant investments it already makes. As Richard Betts once suggested of the annual defense budget, half a trillion dollars is more than enough.67 It is in the size of the policy ambition relative to capabilities, rather than merely the size of those capabilities, where the dangerous imbalance lies. Despite his threats to overturn the old order, the power of the foreign policy establishment and its habitual ideas have steered Trump to quickly conform to the fundamentals of traditional U.S. grand strategy.68 He now aggressively reasserts U.S. primacy. If he poses a danger, it is not from abandonment but overreach. On its current course, the United States is prone to two forms of self‐inflicted wounds: self‐encirclement, whereby a state undermines its own security by provoking resistance and counterpower; and imperial overextension, whereby a state expands to the point where the costs outstrip the benefits.69
The United States is accumulating record deficits and growing, unsustainable debts. According to the Congressional Budget Office, federal debt will reach 150 percent of GDP by 2047.70 Because repayment obligations are the first, compulsory items in expenditure and because heavy fiscal burdens beyond a certain proportion of debt‐to‐GDP tend to choke economic growth,71 a growing debt load directly impedes the country’s ability to sustain its way of life alongside its extensive international commitments. U.S. grand strategy also gives Washington a proclivity to continuous wars that it chooses to fund through deficits. According to one estimate, U.S. wars from 2001 to 2016 had a budgetary cost of approximately $4.79 trillion, taking into account indirect costs such as interest on borrowing and through‐life care for veterans.72 Those wars have led to further geopolitical crises and demand for further commitment. Conflict‐induced anarchy in Iraq and Libya created footholds for the Islamic State and, by upsetting the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, opened the way to a Saudi‐Iran cold war that now implicates the United States.
The Trump administration has not reversed this imbalance but aggravated it. It has significantly increased the defense budget, while significantly reducing taxes. It has embarked on a deficit‐financed military buildup, a pattern that historically increases imbalances in the economy and triggers a “boom‐bust” cycle, and where overreaching wars (like Iraq) and financial meltdowns (like the global financial crisis) are linked.73 The final 2018 defense budget is expected to be 13 percent higher than that of 2017.74 The United States’ grand strategy of primacy saddles it with defense and national security expenditures that amount to over 68 percent of discretionary spending, taking into account the base budget and overseas contingency operations and support for veterans affairs, homeland security, and the nuclear weapons program.75
Meanwhile, the overall direction so far of President Trump’s foreign policy has been to multiply America’s security commitments and entanglements. The United States has implicated itself more deeply in the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf. Trump has intensified America’s confrontation with Iran by abandoning the multiparty settlement on Iran’s nuclear program. He has reinforced U.S. patronage of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, while hardening Washington’s alignment with Israel by recognizing Jerusalem as its capital. By November 2017, Trump had increased the number of troops and civilians working for the Department of Defense in the Middle East by 33 percent.76 At the time of writing, the status of America’s commitment in Syria is not clear, with the administration both promising to withdraw yet indicating it would stay to defeat the remnants of the Islamic State, and threatening to continue to punish Syria for chemical weapons use. He increased the U.S. commitment to the Afghanistan‐Pakistan theater. Lastly, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy openly acknowledges competition against “revisionist” powers Russia and China.77 And its Nuclear Posture Review expands the conditions under which the United States would threaten nuclear use and plans an increased arsenal of low‐yield nuclear bombs.78 Escalating rivalries are the likely result. Not only is this imbalance between power and commitments financially difficult to service. It also makes the country harder to govern. Recurrent clashes over federal budgets and the increasing tradeoffs between consumption, investment, and defense lead to periods of paralysis. We see a dangerous interaction between domestic discord and foreign policy failure.
These deteriorating circumstances make it imperative for Washington to conduct a cold reassessment of its grand strategy. It needs to ask what works and what doesn’t, to rank its interests into a hierarchy and distinguish what is vital from what is desirable, to assess what is achievable, and what costs and sacrifices it can bear. The growing demand on already scarce resources, from the mounting costs of defense to the current and future burdens of entitlements, means that it will be difficult for the superpower to increase its extraction of resources from its population base. For a reassessment to be realistic, the country must be able to consider retrenchment, burden shifting, the accommodation of potential rivals, and the limitation of commitments. History suggests strategies that bring a state’s power and commitments into balance and that can successfully prevent overstretch, insolvency, or exhaustion.79 To do this, decisionmakers can draw on an American tradition of prudential, realist thinking about aligning resources and goals. As Samuel P. Huntington summarized it, to address the gap between ambitions and capabilities, states can attempt