Richard Haass wants you to be afraid:
The frightening gap between global challenges and the world’s responses, the increased prospects for major-power wars in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, and the growing potential for Iran to cause instability in the Middle East have come together to produce the most dangerous moment since World War II.
Sixty years ago, the world was on the precipice of nuclear catastrophe. The U.S. and Soviet Union came alarmingly close to fighting a war that would have meant the end of both countries and the ruin of the entire world. However dangerous conditions are today, they are nowhere close to the danger that the world faced then and in subsequent near-disasters. Right away, we know that Haass is exaggerating the danger to an absurd degree. If war between major powers is more likely today than it was fifteen or twenty years ago, that does not make it likely to happen unless all the major powers make a point of courting conflict with each other.
There are serious dangers in the world, but they can be managed and should not be blown out of proportion. Some of the worst dangers come from risking unnecessary escalation with nuclear-armed states, but many of our policymakers seem far too cavalier and some are oblivious to the risks that the U.S. is running with heightened tensions with both Russia and China. Haass has previously urged the U.S. to take actions that seem guaranteed to antagonize China over Taiwan, including an explicit security commitment that would practically invite an attack. He repeats his call for “strategic clarity” again later in the article. If the U.S. would avoid some of these dangers, its leaders would do well to ignore what Haass recommends.
Haass says that “Washington will have to prioritize establishing order,” but in light of our government’s track record over at least the last twenty years it is questionable whether the U.S. knows how to do that. As Haass acknowledges, the U.S. “squandered much of its post–Cold War inheritance, failing to translate its primacy into an enduring order,” so it is doubtful that the U.S. will have greater success in “establishing order” when its relative power has decreased. In any case, the priority should be to refrain from creating more disorder and instability than already exists, and that will require much greater discipline and restraint than our government has managed to exercise for a very long time.
The U.S. has spent decades destabilizing the Middle East by starting or joining unnecessary wars, and it could contribute to restoring some measure of stability by significantly reducing or eliminating its military footprint. Haass has other ideas, since he sees Iran’s nuclear program as a growing problem that will eventually lead to a new war. He writes: “It is thus more a question of when, not if, Iran makes enough progress to provoke an attack intended to prevent Tehran’s nuclear capability from reaching fruition.” He takes for granted that the U.S. and/or Israel will launch an aggressive war against Iran over its nuclear program after he has just been going on about the importance of “establishing order.” Suffice it to say that any “order” that permits the U.S. or one of its clients to launch illegal, preventive wars against other states is one that will be perceived as illegitimate by most other states. If the U.S. takes its own claims about international order and security seriously, it will need to rule out preventive war against Iran for starters.
If Haass’ argument doesn’t hold up very well, it is probably because it is based on some serious misinterpretations of the recent past. In cataloguing U.S. mistakes, Haass refers to “the Obama administration’s debilitating underreach in the Middle East and elsewhere,” which is a frankly bizarre way to describe U.S. foreign policy under Obama. Where did the U.S. underreach? How was it debilitating? Haass does not tell us, but presumably the “underreach” was that the U.S. did not intervene on as large a scale in as many places as Haass wanted. Regardless, calling it “underreach” is nonsense. He pairs Obama’s “underreach” with Bush’s “overreach,” as if there is a happy hegemonist Goldilocks option somewhere in between them, but this is just a lazy endorsement of the status quo.
Obama’s “underreach” involved growing involvement in the Syrian civil war, forcible regime change in Libya, a major troop surge in Afghanistan, the routinization and expansion of the drone war, backing for the Saudi coalition war on Yemen, and the war on ISIS. Those are just the most obvious examples of how frenetically activist the U.S. was in a few parts of the world during that time. The fact that Haass believes that this is “underreach” says a lot more about Haass’ unreasonable expectations of what the U.S. should be doing in the world than it does about Obama’s policies.
Haass’ preferred policies for Russia and China remain extremely ambitious. He says that the “principal focus of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia and China should not be to reshape their societies but to influence their foreign policy choices.” I suppose antagonizing and provoking other states is a form of influencing their foreign policy choices, but it is not likely to lead to good outcomes for the U.S. or anyone else. If Haass thinks that the U.S. has the means to “influence their foreign policy choices” in a way that makes those states more accommodating to U.S. preferences, I would refer him to the record of the last twenty years to see how badly this has backfired.
Rather than trying to pressure these states into changing their foreign policy choices, which is a fool’s errand, the U.S. would have more success by focusing on those issues where there are common interests. It would also be wise to stop picking fights with them over things that matter far more to them than they do to us. Their foreign policy choices are beyond our control or constructive influence, but our government could start making smarter choices than it has ben making in the past.
Throwing more money at the Pentagon is not a smart choice, but this is the one Haass recommends: “Security, therefore, will require Washington to increase defense spending by as much as one percent of GDP.” Haass would continue to have the U.S. trying to do everything. He makes no distinction between vital and peripheral interests and there is acknowledgment that there are some things that the U.S. can afford to stop doing. His answer is to grow the military budget without rethinking anything. Haass also says that “U.S. allies will need to take similar steps,” but we know that allies will feel no pressure to increase their military spending if the U.S. increases its own. The reality is that the U.S. will still be the one bearing most of the burden, and its burden seems likely to get heavier if Haass has anything to say about it.
The U.S. today is overstretched with too many commitments around the world, and it would benefit from a much less ambitious foreign policy than it has had for the last thirty years. Haass would not only have the U.S. take on an additional commitment that all but guarantees war with a major power, but he also shows no awareness that the U.S. needs to do less anywhere in the world. If the U.S. does as he suggests, it will face exhaustion and ruin sooner than later.