The author is a senior fellow in the US Statecraft program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School.
The past year has been a time of redemption for the US national security establishment. Washington had closed 2021 reeling from its chaotic retreat from Afghanistan. Today, the global power of the United States seems vital again. The turmoil of “endless wars” gave way to a familiar sense of purpose: to repel the aggression of autocrats in Moscow and Beijing.
Some satisfaction is warranted. In Europe, President Joe Biden has achieved what few thought possible. After anticipating the Russian invasion and unifying the West, he enabled Ukraine to preserve its sovereignty and regain part of its territory, all without dragging NATO into a direct war with Russia.
But take a longer view, and the conventional wisdom begins to look suspect. Leaving Afghanistan freed America to focus on higher priorities. On the other hand, 2022 has aggravated all the strategic challenges. America’s allies should ask themselves if an overwhelmed superpower can come to their aid if needed.
The main source of problems is the free fall of US-China relations. Some in Washington entered 2022 hoping to ease tensions and make progress on common challenges. Instead, Xi Jinping proclaimed a “limitless” partnership with Vladimir Putin. The United States also went on the offensive. Presidential “blunders” vowing to defend Taiwan have irked Beijing, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei has sparked a cross-strait crisis.
Today, a war between the world’s two leading powers, while unlikely, is no less likely than a return to the Obama-era “commitment”. After Biden’s decision to cut off Chinese access to advanced semiconductors, US-China competition will remain fierce even if not catastrophic.
The need to invest more resources in Asia was one reason Biden pursued a “stable and predictable” relationship with Moscow upon taking office. So much for that. The invasion of Ukraine has made Russia America’s absolute adversary. Instead of encouraging Russian-Chinese divisions, the United States finds itself containing both powers at once.
This prospect disturbs American leaders less than it should. With the degradation of the Russian army in Ukraine, the United States could insist that Europe deliver a real turning: developing the ability to defend themselves by, say, the end of a second Biden term. Biden did the opposite. His administration has sent about 40,000 American troops to Europe in 2022 and has championed NATO expansion.
Meanwhile, North Korea remains nuclear and threatening. Pyongyang fired a record number of missiles in 2022, hurling some over Japan and into South Korean territorial waters. After a four-year hiatus, it resumed testing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking North America. China and Russia have for the first time vetoed a UN resolution aimed at tightening sanctions against North Korea for its missile tests. Washington’s toolbox is shrinking and Pyongyang’s nukes are here to stay.
To top it all off, efforts to restore the nuclear deal with Iran collapsed in 2022 – perhaps for good. US officials say President Ebrahim Raisi’s government simply does not want to join the deal. Biden could soon be faced with a daunting choice: allow an Iranian nuclear bomb or bomb Iran.
The post-Cold War world was not meant to be like this. In 1991, Pentagon planners argued that US global primacy would produce peace. By maintaining overwhelming military supremacy, America would deter potential rivals “even from aspiring to a greater regional or global role.” A single benevolent superpower – what Madeleine Albright has dubbed the “indispensable nation” – would suppress security competition, benefiting the world while keeping costs low for itself.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dealt a blow to this theory by showing that the United States could use power recklessly and cause instability. Now America’s adversaries have multiplied and grown in power. The burdens and dangers will continue to grow unless the United States makes difficult strategic adjustments.
It hardly means a withdrawal from the world. This means that the United States should combine withdrawal (from the Middle East) with shifting the burden (onto European allies) and seeking competitive coexistence (with China). The United States and its allies should aim for balances of power, not excessive power.
Washington may think its world leadership is back, but if it keeps trying to defend everything, America will end up defending nothing.