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Commentary

Leaning forward is dangerous in a complex world

The controversy over 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 American 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 U.S. 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, like Russia, flex their muscles?

Russia’s actions in Ukraine are a serious challenge and President Barack Obama has responded to them 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, the conservative writer Robert Kagan argues that Obama is forgetting the chief lesson of modern American foreign policy. Instead of “leaning back,” Washington needs a “pervasive forward involvement in the affairs of the world,” he says.

One might think that a country with almost 60 treaty allies, hundreds of thousands of troops stationed around the world, dozens of bases, and ongoing military operations against terrorist groups would fit this description. But it is not enough. Kagan’s model of a successful American 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 Kagan then notes, seemingly unaware of its implications, what followed in the later years of the Truman administration – the Soviet Union challenged America around the globe, China turned communist and deeply anti-American, and North Korea invaded South Korea. All the things 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 had ever been in modern history, with total economic supremacy, hundreds of thousands of troops still in Europe and Asia and credibility it had earned by waging two world wars. Yet, 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 – but rather that in a complicated world, even if you have tremendous strength and act forcefully, stuff happens.

Today’s task is far more complicated than previous ones. In the past – 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 enough that communism would collapse of its own contradictions.

The goal today is to deter China from expansion 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 over time 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 countries in the region – even the ones worried today 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, while European countries have understood that Moscow needs to pay a price 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 as it does Sheryl Sandberg’s famous mantra to lean in. But while that’s a powerful and inspirational idea for women in the workplace, it is a simplistic, dangerous guide for a superpower in a complex world.

Fareed Zakaria is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 07, 2014, on page 7.

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Summary

The world today – for most countries, one that is stable, peaceful, and open – rests on an order built by the U.S. that, since 1989, has not been challenged by any other major player.

Even when new threats were unformed, it maintained massive military power and talked and acted tough.

In the late 1940s, the United States was stronger than any country had ever been in modern history, with total economic supremacy, hundreds of thousands of troops still in Europe and Asia and credibility it had earned by waging two world wars.

This is not to say that the Truman administration's foreign policy is to be blamed – I admire Harry Truman greatly – but rather that in a complicated world, even if you have tremendous strength and act forcefully, stuff happens.

While that's a powerful and inspirational idea for women in the workplace, it is a simplistic, dangerous guide for a superpower in a complex world.


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