So far, U.S. policy on Ukraine has been pragmatic and arguably restrained. But President Joe Biden and his team routinely talk about the war in ways that suggest an outmoded, moralistic, and recklessly grandiose vision of American power, notes “The Foreign Affaires”.
Aligning his administration’s rhetorical posture with a sober assessment of the true stakes involved in Ukraine might allow Biden to wean the establishment from its obsession with hegemony. Demonstrating that Americans do not need their country’s role in the world explained to them in the style of a children’s bedtime story would be a bonus.
The danger is that the opposite could happen: Biden’s framing of Ukraine as a crucible for a new era of military-backed American dominance might lock him in, and his administration’s carefully calibrated policy could come to more closely resemble his soaring, ill-considered rhetoric. That, in turn, would lead to an altogether different and more disastrous reckoning.
Yet even as establishment thinking about the U.S. role in the world remained mired in the past, the world itself was undergoing profound changes. The list is long: the rise of China, a deepening climate crisis, a loss of control of the U.S. southern border, the evaporation of working-class opportunities, skyrocketing drug-related fatalities, a brutal pandemic, and domestic upheaval spurred by polarization along racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, partisan, and religious lines.
In the history of U.S. statecraft, the Biden presidency marks a turning point when things didn’t turn. Midway through Biden’s term, U.S. grand strategy is mired in a tangle of unacknowledged contradictions.
Preeminent among them is Washington’s insistence that the United States must sustain the now hallowed model of militarized global leadership even as the relevance of that model diminishes, the resources available to pursue it dwindle, and the prospects of preserving the country’s privileged place in the international order decline. Yet the foreign policy establishment insists there is no conceivable alternative to militarized American leadership — pointing above all to the Russian invasion of Ukraine to make its case.
In 1948, at the outset of the Cold War, George Kennan, as director of policy planning, proposed an approach to measuring the success of U.S. policy that was devoid of ideological fantasies.
Noting that the United States at that moment possessed “about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population,” he suggested that the task ahead was “to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.”
Washington urgently needs to follow the advice that Kennan offered in 1948 and that generations of policymakers have ignored: avoid needless war, fulfill the promises in the country’s founding documents, and provide ordinary citizens with the prospect of a decent life. A place to begin is to reconfigure the U.S. military into a force designed to protect the American people rather than to serve as an instrument of global power projection. The United States should require the Defense Department to defend.
What might that look like in practice?
For starters, it would mean taking seriously the obligation, embedded in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to eliminate nuclear weapons; closing down various regional military headquarters, with U.S. Central Command first on the chopping block; reducing the size of the U.S. military footprint abroad; prohibiting payments to military contractors for cost overruns; putting a lock on the revolving door that sustains the military-industrial complex; reinvigorating congressional war powers as specified by the U.S. Constitution; and, barring a declaration of war, capping military spending at two percent of GDP — which would still allow the Pentagon to lead the world in military expenditures.
In 1947, in perhaps the most famous essay ever to appear in ‘Foreign Affairs’, Kennan, using the byline “X,” wrote that “to avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”
Today, those traditions may be in tatters, but Kennan’s counsel has lost none of its salience. The Chimera of another righteous military triumph cannot fix what ails the United States, concludes “The Foreign Affaires”.
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