8 April 2018



In this era of disruption, the accelerating pace of change is propelling the world towards a historic inflection point. The liberal international order is in crisis, as geopolitics has returned with a vengeance. Not since the end of the Cold War have we faced a more complex and daunting set of foreign policy challenges — including the resurgence of great power competition with Russia and China, a 30 Years War engulfing the Middle East, the rise of populist movements across the West, the persistence of the terrorist threat, and the economic and social challenges created by inequality and the uncertain future of globalization.

Alarmingly, the United States today fundamentally lacks a comprehensive strategy to deal with the transformative forces surging across the globe. The approach taken across multiple administrations has been largely tactical and reactive, and focused on the urgent rather than the important. Simply put, our leaders can’t see the forest for the trees. What is needed is a new, whole of government approach that bridges our partisan political divide and responds to the challenges of the moment. To do this, however, it is vital for America to draw from its own best traditions and rediscover the lost art of statecraft.

Such an approach must begin with a critical appraisal both of today’s global environment and the American response to it. Though the strategic imperative could scarcely be more pressing, too often the tyranny of the inbox crowds out the mindshare necessary for truly innovative thinking. Policymakers must change course. As a first step, we can begin by stepping back and asking ourselves: What problem are we trying to solve?

The Middle East is a case in point. Still absorbing the reverberations from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the arbitrary Sykes-Picot borders are proving untenable in numerous corners of the region. While the full significance of the upheaval now taking place will take decades to be understood, some things are apparent. For starters, American leaders need to recognize that our power to dictate the internal evolution of foreign societies is limited. The truth is that democracy is about more than elections, and liberal institutions do not emerge overnight. At the same time, history teaches us that American inaction can have consequences that are as grave as U.S. action. In the meantime, the lack of a comprehensive strategy for the broader region that links means to ends is apparent from the deserts of Libya to the mountains of Afghanistan. While there is no military solution to the conflicts roiling this region and we must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past, it is past time for Washington to redouble our efforts to stabilize the Middle East. This, in turn, requires that we set priorities. All too often in this part of the world, it seems, we are playing checkers while our adversaries are playing chess.

The same is true for Russia. The deterioration in the West’s relationship with the Kremlin has deep historical roots. To understand Putin, it is necessary not just to read Marx and Lenin, but also Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Bulgakov, Chekhov, Kropotkin, Babel, Turgenev, and Gorky. Americans need to recognize that Russia is not going to become like us anytime soon and that we do not possess the same values. Yet at the same time, it would be naïve not to hold open the door for an improved relationship based on the critical interests we do share. In charting this path, solidarity with our transatlantic allies must be our starting point. That was the foundation for our victory in the Cold War, and while there are important differences between that era and our own, some of its lessons remain as relevant as ever.

Even as we develop strategic approaches to the Middle East, Russia, and Europe, American policymakers must not neglect the extraordinary challenges— and equally extraordinary opportunities — posed by a rising Asia. It is now obvious that China is going to be a competitor, not just a partner, but one with which we are deeply intertwined. The stakes could not be higher as the dynamic between Washington and Beijing will determine the fate of what is likely to be the most important relationship of the 21st century. Other evolving centers of power will also prove deeply influential, including old allies like Japan, South Korea, and Australia, as well as new partners like India, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Ultimately, there is no reason that Asia cannot be big enough for everyone — keeping in mind that, at the end of the day, the business of Asia is business. But that interdependency shouldn’t obscure the hard truth that this is a region where America has been falling behind. It is time therefore for Washington to increase its engagement across Asia, including by reexamining the potential for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Law of the Sea Treaty — keeping in mind that there is a reason why the Chinese character for “danger” also means “opportunity.”

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