What if the U.S. isn't special?

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I've never been one to believe in happy endings.

Not that I always object to them in a movie or novel. In music, I definitely prefer a satisfying resolution at the end of a song or a symphony to a conclusion of crashing dissonance or irresolution. But a fulfilling end to a work of art is precisely that — a work of artifice, conjured in a mind, executed with intent, and brought to a moment of deliberate completion. The tidy tying up of a plot or the pleasing return to the tonic chord is a function of the human will to create a world more orderly than our own — one with a firmly defined beginning, middle, and end, and with internal movement that culminates in something beautiful.

Our own world — the real world — isn't like this. Not only does it not have many happy endings, it doesn't even have many endings, period. Wars start and they stop, usually with one side or another claiming victory. But the stream of moments goes on even in such cases. Every conclusion is a passing event in a longer story or the start of another chapter, with every day adding another sentence or page, and then another, onward toward an indeterminate horizon we never reach.

Every political actor, diplomat, and strategist starts thinking and acting in the world from a specific point in an endlessly unfolding story. That makes the work of the statesman precarious, uncertain, and often tragic — hemmed in by constraints she inherited and constantly confronting contingencies beyond her control. That held for those who guided Athens and Sparta through the Peloponnesian War 2,500 years ago just as it does for those preparing to lead Joe Biden's foreign policy team today. Every decision opens up a new path for a future that can never be fully known or grasped. The best of intentions can always end up in disaster. The choices are less often between good and evil as between bad and less bad.

I was led to reflect on these first principles of my thinking about foreign policy by reading two recent pieces by Peter Beinart — one a column in The New York Times, the other a personal reflection on that column published on Substack. The column ran under a headline that perfectly conveyed its argument: "Biden Wants America to Lead the World. It Shouldn't." The more informal essay was titled "How I changed my mind" and aimed to explain how Beinart came to think the United States has no business leading the world when he once believed very passionately that it should do precisely that.

I don't consider it especially wise or clarifying to formulate policy in terms of the United States leading or not leading the world. But neither do I share much at all with Beinart's approach to thinking about the issue. Back in the 1990s and the early 2000s, Beinart responded to the outcome of the Cold War, NATO's interventions in the Balkans, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks by concluding that America was uniquely righteous and worthy of global leadership — for our own good as well as the good of the world. But the Iraq War and other subsequent events have disabused him of this faith in the United States. Now he endorses Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1967 indictment of the country, according to which we are the world's greatest purveyor of violence and therefore unworthy of global leadership.

At no point in either piece does Beinart attempt to undertake — or even acknowledge the possibility of undertaking — an analysis of American foreign policy in terms other than moral judgment. First we were angels. Now we're devils. Where once Beinart cheered on America leading righteous crusade, now he seeks "atonement" for his sins and ours.

Where in all of this moralism is American power? Where are our interests and those of our allies, rivals, and opponents? They are nowhere to be found in Beinart's foreign policy thinking, except when American power and interests are implicitly presumed to line up perfectly with our always overriding moral obligations. The result is the formulation of strategy by platitude, as when Beinart suggests that the U.S. is duty-bound, not to lead our allies or the world, but to affirm "cooperation without dominance" and "partnership over leadership," producing a world of international amity and "solidarity."

That sounds nice, as all happy endings do.

But back in the real world, things are likely to unfold rather differently. That's because nations are guided by their interests, those interests often clash, and power (hard and soft, military and economic) is what counts.

Beinart is hardly alone in allowing moralism to muddy his thinking about the world. Indeed, nothing is more common in the United States. To some extent this has always been true, from the time of the Puritan landing on down through the Cold War. But it's been especially so since 1989, when the collapse of our superpower rival inspired providential reveries of a unipolar world led, largely unimpeded, by the U.S. and its allies.

George W. Bush gave voice to the implicit assumption of many in the foreign policy community when he asserted in his second inaugural address that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." That he used the formulation to defend the war he launched against Iraq in 2003 and Beinart implies the same thing about a very different, explicitly multilateral approach to the world illustrates the assumption's conceptual vacuousness. If we live in a world in which all good things go together, in which it isn't necessary to make trade-offs among our various vital interests and between those interests and the demands of our deepest moral beliefs, then whatever policy we're trying to rationalize will appear as fully and unproblematically justified.

Strangely, even those in Washington doing the most work to advance an alternative approach to foreign policy fall into a variation of the same moralistic trap. Those in the circle around The Quincy Institute are very effective at counterpunching against the reigning foreign policy consensus, which favors armed intervention around the world. In most cases I share their preference for greater military restraint in our dealings with other nations and regions of the world. But "restraint" can't be the orienting idea of a nation's foreign policy any more than it can be a substitute for doing the hard and necessary work of formulating a strategy for defending and advancing its interests. When you're the pre-eminent military power on the planet, pre-emptively announcing that your new watchword is "restraint" is tantamount to giving rivals and opponents an invitation to take bold, potentially destabilizing moves against you.

Any attempt to break out of the straightjacket of our own incorrigible self-regard will have to take account of one overarching reality, which is America's decline relative to rising powers. The unipolar moment is over. Multipolarity has returned. Geopolitical rivals to the United States are angling to become regional powers. Our ability to maintain predominance over vast swaths of the globe — the Americas and the Middle East and South Asia and East Asia — is waning along with our singular economic might. Where should we maintain forces and a willingness to fight potentially costly wars? Where might we rely instead on offshore balancing to maintain influence? In what regions, if any, would we be willing to step back to avoid conflicts that aren't in our interests? How should those interests be prioritized? What trade-offs are we willing to accept?

Those are the hard questions policymakers and informed citizens in the United States need to be asking and trying to answer. But such necessary thinking will be foreclosed so long as we continue to insist on America's specialness — our exceptional goodness no less than our exceptional badness.

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