American Foreign Policy after Iraq

What comes after Iraq? If President George W. Bush’s current troop “surge” fails to produce an outcome that can be called “victory,” what lessons will the United States draw for its future foreign policy? Will it turn inward, as it did after its defeat in Vietnam three decades ago? Will it turn from promoting democracy to a narrow realist view of its interests? Even while discussion in Washington is fixated on Iraq, a number of thoughtful foreign observers are asking these longer-term questions.

Analysts and pundits have often been mistaken about America’s position in the world. For example, two decades ago, the conventional wisdom was that the US was in decline. A decade later, with the Cold War’s end, the new conventional wisdom was that the world was a unipolar American hegemony. Some neo-conservative pundits drew the conclusion that the US was so powerful that it could decide what it thought was right, and others would have to follow. Charles Krauthammer celebrated this view as “the new unilateralism,” and it heavily influenced the Bush administration even before the attacks on September 11, 2001.

But the new unilateralism was based on a profound misunderstanding of the nature of power in world politics. Power is the ability to get the outcomes one wants. Whether the possession of resources will produce such outcomes depends upon the context. For example, a large, modern tank army is a powerful resource if a war is fought in a desert, but not if it is fought in a swamp – as America discovered in Vietnam. In the past, it was assumed that military power dominated most issues, but in today’s world, the contexts of power differ greatly.

I have likened the distribution of power in politics today as analogous to a three-dimensional chess game. On the top board – military relations among states – the world is, indeed, unipolar, and likely to remain that way for decades. But on the middle board of economic relations, the world is already multipolar, and the US cannot obtain the outcomes it wants without the cooperation of Europe, Japan, China, and others. And, on the bottom board of transnational issues outside the control of governments – including everything from climate change to pandemics to transnational terrorism – power is chaotically distributed, and it makes no sense at all to claim American hegemony.