No matter how often the slogan “America is back” is repeated by the administration, the evidence too frequently points in the opposite direction.
Take the Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s eastern border as an example. While the presence of more than 100,000 Russian troops is “very seriously concerning” according to the Pentagon, it has prompted no U.S. response beyond handwringing. Instead, the White House suggests, per last week’s call between President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the two leaders might meet soon at a bilateral summit.
If Alexei Navalny dies in a Russian penal colony, we are promised by press secretary Jen Psaki that the Kremlin “will be held accountable by the international community.” The promise would ring hollow even if it did not coincide with new evidence showing that Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU, was behind the 2014 attack against a Czech ammunition depot, which killed two; or with the announcement that Putin will be joining the White House’s virtual climate summit today.
True, the Biden administration imposed new sanctions on seven Russian officials and 14 organizations last month over Navalny’s imprisonment. Last week, in response to earlier cyberattacks, additional measures were taken, including against Russian-issued bonds and companies providing support to Russian intelligence.
Yet, much like in the early Obama years when allies’ concerns were brushed aside to facilitate a reset, the administration’s heart clearly is not in this fight. And maybe it should not be. If anything, the threat of China, including the security risk it poses to its neighbors and its predatory economic practices defying international trade rules, looms much greater today than in 2009 when the Obama administration embarked on its pivot to Asia.
While Russia remains just a “well-armed rogue,” China today has become a “peer competitor,” a RAND study puts it. Perhaps it is justifiable to set priorities accordingly. America can’t be everywhere, and Europeans should be perfectly capable of tackling a local revisionist power with an antiquated resource-based economy that is smaller than Italy’s. It was precisely this line of thinking, however, that has empowered Putin at regular intervals in the past and that does so again today. Knowing that the United States was distracted elsewhere and that Europeans were either uninterested, too feeble, or divided to act encouraged the Kremlin to attack Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, prop up Assad’s regime in Syria, and to embark on covert operations in the West, from Alexander Litvinenko’s murder in London, through the explosion in the Czech Republic, to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal.
As a global superpower, the United States does not quite enjoy the luxury of prioritizing. It has to be everywhere, or nearly everywhere. America’s relations with allies, as well as our diplomatic standing in the world, depend critically on the credibility of the many “tripwires” that successive post-war administrations have set up in various regions of the world to ensure that there are consequences for rogue actors. U.S. allies in Asia, after all, will not be reassured if there are no costs to Moscow for its increasingly aggressive behavior against U.S. allies and friendly states in Europe, such as Ukraine.
As an aside, neither will the announced withdrawal from Afghanistan be interpreted as a manifestation of a benign and indeed necessary rebalancing of America’s forces in the world away from battlegrounds of the past to the challenges of the future. Leaving aside Afghanistan’s proximity to China, a commitment of fewer than 3,000 troops and $10 billion to $20 billion annually in order to prevent a highly imperfect though largely friendly country from becoming a cesspit of Jihadism is a commitment that a global superpower should be perfectly capable of making.
Instead, the lesson drawn both by our enemies and our friends is that America’s willingness to stand by our security guarantees and other promises is subject to unpredictable political vagaries at home. How seriously can the Estonians or the Poles take NATO’s principle of collective defense? Can the Koreans or the Taiwanese be sure that the United States will be there for them if things go south?
There is, of course, an intellectually coherent alternative to America’s tightly knit network of alliances, military presence overseas, and willingness to use force. This alternative has been articulated by voices as diverse as Sen. Josh Hawley, Glenn Greenwald, President Trump, or the Quincy Institute: that American power should play a much more limited role in the world.
In their view, the U.S. military might ought to be deployed only sparsely, only to defend immediate, narrowly defined security interests of the United States. Yet, the burden of proof should be on advocates of restraint to show that such a retrenchment would serve Americans well. How exactly would a world where our allies are forced to look for alternatives to U.S. leadership help America’s working classes? Would it be easier or harder to garner the cooperation of likeminded nations in holding China to account for its mercantilism or, to cite a favorite example of our friends on the left, to make progress stopping climate change?
Unlike in the earlier transition from British to American global hegemony, moreover, there is no country in the world whose power approaches ours—as my AEI colleague Michael Beckley explains in his book, Unrivaled. Being the global policeman carries costs, but the world needs one and there is nobody else to do the job. If the United States becomes unwilling to back its diplomacy with a dose of hard power, there is no natural limit to how chaotic, fragmented, and conflict-prone the world might become.
Moreover, crude realism is not the ideology of the Biden administration. The president, after all, promised to repair (if not “build back better”) America’s alliances after years of neglect and, in Trump’s case, occasional acts of arson. The best way to do so is to listen to America’s allies and friends, to take their concerns and our own commitments seriously—and to be able to match our words with action. The coming months in Eastern Europe will provide an important test case.
Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. Follow him on Twitter @DaliborRohac.