“Our nation is fraught with divisions that currently appear too severe to overcome. We hate each other. We cannot come to an agreement on the most basic requirements of government. We have become inward-looking, focused on our own internal conflicts, too busy to worry about the wider world.”
We are in a tumultuous period in US foreign and national security policy. We face serious challenges to our power and position in the international order. Throughout the world, there appears to be a realignment of alliances and power structures, some of which present opportunities for the US, but many of which threaten and weaken our position. These challenges are a combination of the natural rise of other power centers such as China and the apparent accelerated abdication of US influence under the Trump administration. Are we witnessing the end of America as the leading world power? Is this a natural, inevitable realignment or something that can be prevented?
Let’s take a look at where we stand.
The most significant long-term challenge to US power remains China. China’s economy continues to grow and is set to overtake the US economy as the largest in the world. This gives China great influence throughout the world. We see many companies, and even nations, take a careful attitude toward China so as not to offend it—most recently, Mercedes-Benz apologized to China when they included a quote from the Dalai Lama in an ad.
The most significant long-term challenge to US power remains China.
We even see growing Chinese influence in western universities, where pro-Beijing groups drown out all others and force many to take a line favorable to China. Its Belt and Road initiative is expanding from Asia to Latin America and the Artic, almost encircling the US. China is the new leader in globalization, filling the void wherever the US steps aside.
China’s military is becoming more technologically sophisticated, testing rail guns and hypersonic missies, deploying aircraft carriers and stealth aircraft, and expanding overseas. It is modernizing its organizational structure and tactics to be more flexible, deployable, and ready to win a modern war. China now has a military base in Djibouti, naval access to Pakistan, is discussing building a base in Afghanistan—the list goes on.
More nations are now buying Chinese weapons; we even have Chinese military trainers in Qatar, the location of one of our principal military bases in the Middle East. It has studied the US military in detail, developing weapons and tactics to offset US military advantages in order to enable it to counter our power.
In the Pacific, our allies are losing faith in the US. A recent Gallup poll showed that Asians are uncertain about US commitment to the region, viewing the US as an untrustworthy ally. Australia is moving slowly toward China, though they (alongside Japan and South Korea, our three most reliable allies in the region) still rely on US military power for their ultimate security. But how long will that last? The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) has moved on without US participation, showing that the US is no longer critical to the Pacific’s well-being.
The success of our efforts in North Korea remain to be seen. North Korea has nuclear weapons and long range missiles and is now working to marry the two. It is very likely that they will accomplish this in the near term. The US has been able to put in place severe sanctions, but both China and Russia violate these sanctions and provide a lifeline to Pyongyang. US threats against North Korea serve the purpose of putting pressure on the regime, but if these threats prove empty, we lose significant credibility. If we follow through with these threats, we are likely to experience a major war in Asia that could pull China and Russia into the fray. That would be a major failure for US policy. We might be rapidly forcing ourselves into a no-win situation in regards to North Korea.
Russia is moving toward being the predominant player in the Middle East.
The Middle East is an even bigger mess. The problems for the US began long ago with the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and continued under the Obama administration and its contentious relationship with regional autocrats. Our problems have accelerated under Trump.
Russia is moving toward being the predominant player in the Middle East. They are not there yet, but they are certainly gaining. They are driving events in Syria, where they have been able to save their client Assad, and are the principle player in peace talks being held in Sochi, Russia, while the US is an observer. Russia now has permanent military bases in Syria, enabling it to project power throughout the region. They have developed a working relationship with Iran and Turkey, further expanding their influence. This is demonstrated by the number of times the Israeli prime minister has travelled to Russia to seek its support in curbing Iran and Hezbollah activities in Syria and Lebanon. Clearly Israel sees Russia as a key player in the region.
The Saudi king’s visit to Moscow was a major event and acknowledgement of Russia’s growing role in the region. We see Egypt moving closer to Russia as well, buying Russian weapons and giving Russia access to its air bases, mostly to allow Russia to support groups in Libya. Russia is even influential within OPEC, though it is not a member, having hammered out an accord with the oil producers’ organization to curb output in order to stabilize prices. Russia has been very effective in using its diplomatic, military, economic, and intelligence abilities to expand its power and influence.
Our position as a neutral mediator in the Israel-Palestine conflict is no more. We are viewed as totally pro-Israel and that our Middle East policy is run out of Jerusalem. Our objectivity is gone. While the Palestinian position has also eroded as a result of shifting priorities among Middle East states (maybe regional pressure will force them back to the negotiating table), there is a smaller chance that we will be able to help resolve this thorniest of regional issues. Someone else might step up, but not us.
Turkey, a NATO ally, has also become a national security problem for the US. Turkey’s interests in Syria and the Middle East as a whole have become less and less aligned with those of the US and more in keeping with its efforts to reimagine the Ottoman Empire and move toward becoming a regional power. Many of its actions, such as moving against the Kurds in Syria, are directly contrary to US interests. There are growing anti-US attitudes in Turkey, fanned by the now-authoritarian government in Ankara. We are coming closer to losing Turkey every day.
South Asia is no better. We are locked in an endless conflict in Afghanistan, consuming US lives and resources with no solution on the horizon. Russia is even dealing with the Taliban, possibly providing them with military assistance. Relations with Pakistan are at rock bottom, which will impact our ability to prosecute the war in Afghanistan, and it moves closer into the orbit of China as a result of their perception of the US as an unreliable ally.
Our allies? We have done much to weaken relations with friends who have stood by our side for decades. The current administration views Europe as an economic competitor, threatening unspecified economic action against those countries while casting doubt as to whether we will stand by our treaty commitments to NATO. NATO now looks to France and Germany for leadership rather than the US. We threaten South Korea with punitive tariffs just when we need them the most to help neutralize the North Korean threat.
All these problems are partly the result of, or compounded by, our relative absence on the world stage. We have weakened the State Department to a dangerous level. Our diplomats represent US interests in over one hundred countries, spread out through over three hundred embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions throughout the world.
Day in and day out they protect US interests and promote US influence in economic, military, and political arenas. They are at the forefront of US power. Yet we have proposed debilitating cuts, destroyed morale, left numerous positions vacant, and ignored their expertise. On top of this, they are led by the weakest and least competent secretary of state in memory.
We need an actual policy in the Middle East, focusing on containing Iran, limiting Russian influence, and promoting stability and economic integration, not solely counterterrorism.
Our ability to protect and project US policy has declined as a result. Our foreign policy and national security are in the hands of amateurs and ideologues (with some exceptions, such as DOD), rather than professionals.
Our nation is fraught with divisions that currently appear too severe to overcome. We hate each other. We cannot come to an agreement on the most basic requirements of government. We have become inward-looking, focused on our own internal conflicts, too busy to worry about the wider world. We view the negatives of world leadership as outweighing the benefits. We have outsourced foreign and national security policy to the military. No disrespect to the military, but their mission is fighting and winning wars, not diplomacy. Using the military for everything takes away from their primary mission and tasks them with something they are not trained for.
We need a robust State Department to conduct foreign policy. We need to be at every international conference and event in order to push our interests and ensure we come out on top. We need to build alliances and international organizations that promote our values and interests. We need to engage, not retreat. We need a strong, modern military focused on winning the next war and preparing to defeat peer competitors as a backup to diplomacy.
We need an actual policy in the Middle East, focusing on containing Iran, limiting Russian influence, and promoting stability and economic integration, not solely counterterrorism. We need a Pacific policy, forging an understanding among Asian nations to counter Chinese expansion and influence while promoting economic integration. These policies should clearly outline our objectives and the definition of success. Unpredictability is a tactic, not a strategy. We need a vibrant NATO to counter the threat from Russia. That also includes ensuring that NATO countries live up to their commitments on military spending.
We should consider whether to pull out of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. We have given up all pretense of objectivity and can no longer be an honest broker. It is a thankless job—let someone else handle it. There is a realignment occurring between Israel and her Arab neighbors, driven in large part by Iran’s efforts at expansion. We should concentrate on that in order to build a coalition to contain Iranian power. We need to consider the future of Turkey. It is now ruled by an autocrat with delusions of grandeur. Turkey wants to expand its influence and power in the region. Does this come at the expense of others (Israel, Egypt)? Do we write Turkey off as a lost cause or try to salvage it and bring it back into the fold?
These are some of the many questions we need to deal with. This administration should focus on bringing US leadership back, not abrogating that leadership to others.