America’s Novice Approach to World Affairs

Although the United States remains the world’s sole superpower, this preeminent status is beginning to count for a lot less than it used to, as other nations — rivals and allies alike — begin to quickly catch up.

Our recent (though far from unprecedented) embrace of nationalism and populism is only hastening this relative decline, as Mark R. Kennedy argues in Foreign Policy. In a globalized world, even the greatest powers still need friends and allies, and our increasingly blustering attitude towards the rest of the world risks weakening the foreign ties on which we depend for economic and national security.

Kennedy’s article aptly analogized U.S. foreign policy vis-a-vis its principal rivals, Russia and China, in the following way:

In geopolitics, Russia is playing chess. China is playing Go, a game that focuses not on a decisive clash of forces like in chess does, but on strategic encirclement through subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage. The United States must strengthen its alliances to avoid a Russian checkmate and keep China from encircling a dominant sphere of influence.

In the context of a global chess match, America’s queen has always been NATO. Our rook or castle in the West has long been the United Kingdom, and in the East, Japan. Canada and Mexico are America’s bishops, nestling us in a safe neighborhood. Australia, India, South Korea, and Turkey have historically, like knights in chess, extended America’s reach.

Putin’s chess moves seek to retain popular support by convincing his own people that the West is out to get them, as he and his friends line their pockets with Russia’s wealth. Putin’s queen is Iran. For both Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria has been a pawn.

[…]

An “America first” policy risks leaving America alone, as important allies question America’s commitment and carefully weigh the attractiveness of switching or splitting their allegiances. The United States would be far better off if it followed the path of Tesla by focusing on enhancing mutual interests with others as the best path to truly keep America first.

I recommend reading the whole article, although the excerpt summed it up the best for me. Americans have taken their alliances for granted, and think the rest of the world is not worth the time and effort to engage with; we view domestic interests as mutually exclusive with, rather than heavily dependent on, international relations.

The Russians are shrewd and resourceful; they know how to play a weak hand well, as has been their M.O. for centuries as a great power. The Chinese have over 5,000 years of heritage and history, for most of that time being the pinnacle of political, economic, cultural, scientific, and military achievement. They have a wellspring of experience, resources, and drive to be a major player in world affairs once more — and unlike the U.S. as of late, they seem far more keen to build up multilateral institutions and strengthen ties across the world.

In the community of nations — just as in the community of individuals — how you carry yourself and build relationships is crucial to success and survival. The contradiction at the heart of America First — the nationalistic and isolationist idea that underpins our neglect of foreign policy — is that it purports to make the U.S. a stronger and more secure power without the sort of diplomacy and international engagement required of great powers in the first place.

Like it or not, we live in a globalized world and face globalized problems, be they terrorism, economic crises, or climate change. We are interdependent on everything from economic resources to intelligence to scientific research. Cultivating alliances is not about singing kumbaya with everyone and anyone: it is about a sober and pragmatic realization of our strategic aims.

That is something even cynical realpolitik types should appreciate — which is why everyone from the Founding Fathers to the national security apparatus (hardly idealists) supports a strong State Department and foreign affairs. To go back to the initial analogy, we simply cannot forfeit this game of global affairs. The world will still present its challenges and problems for which we need solutions. Rivals will still go on playing at our expense. The days of insularity died centuries ago with the advent of international migration and commerce. One wonders where we go from here.

What are your thoughts?

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