The aftermath of the Cold War has seen the emergence of what Robert Kagan and William Kristol have called “benevolent global hegemony.” The leaders of both major U.S. political parties have asserted that America’s unchallengeable military might is essential to the maintenance of global order. This period of “primacy” was marked by military interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The exercise of hegemony was validated by the rhetoric of “promoting democracy,” “protecting human rights,” “confronting aggression,” and by the invocation of American exceptionalism: In world affairs we are supposedly motivated by values, rather than interests.
That bipartisan consensus has been codified in official strategic doctrine. George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy declared that the U.S. would “extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent” and bring about an end to “destructive national rivalries.” The Obama administration’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, still in force, claims that the task of the United States is to “confront and defeat aggression anywhere in the world.” This continuity of utopian objectives reflects the chronic refusal of the policymaking community in Washington to establish a rational correlation between strategic ends and means, or to see America as a “normal” nation-state pursuing limited political, economic, and military objectives in a competitive world.
A major source of instability in today’s “global order” is the tendency of the most powerful player to reject any conventionally ordered hierarchy of American global interests. Traditional foreign policymaking may be prone to miscalculations (e.g., Vietnam), but in principle it is based on some form of rationally adduced raison d’etat. The strategy of full-spectrum dominance, by contrast, has its grounding in ideological assumptions that are impervious to rational discourse. It has consistently created outcomes—e.g., in Iraq, Libya, and Syria—that are contrary to any conventional understanding of this country’s security interests.
Hillary Clinton is a leading exponent of the hegemonist consensus. In 2002 she voted in favor of the Iraq war, the greatest foreign-policy disaster in recent times. In 2011 she tipped the balance within the Obama administration in favor of the Libyan intervention, with devastating consequences for Libya, the region, and the world. Oblivious to the lessons of Ben ghazi, she still advocates providing arms to the “moderate” Syrian rebels—which in reality means further enabling non-ISIS jihadists supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. She was the first major political figure to compare Vladimir Putin to Hitler. She sees military power as a tool of first resort: In the Obama Cabinet she had been “the most hawkish person in the room.” According to her aides, she subscribes to “a textbook view of American exceptionalism.” Hillary Clinton’s strategic vision is a “known-known”: open-ended global commitments and endless wars and crises in pursuit of flawed and/or unrealizable objectives unrelated to the American interest.
Donald Trump’s strategic vision seems less ideologically coherent than Clinton’s, but he is more rational in his stated guiding principles and more “realist” in detail. He has repeatedly asked why the United States must play the global policeman. He has raised the issue of NATO’s utility and core mission a quarter-century after the demise of the Soviet Union, which NATO was created to contain. He has suggested either a readjustment of NATO or the creation of an entirely new coalition in order to put America’s resources to better use, especially in the fight against terrorism. He has advocated rapprochement with Russia. He has criticized the regime-change mania of successive administrations, pointing out the “disastrous” consequences of toppling Saddam. He has said that he would leave Syrian President Bashar al-Assad alone and focus on degrading the Islamic State.
Trump’s global vision is somewhat fragmentary and can be described as a “known-unknown.” We know that many of his points run counter to the duopolistic consensus. We do not know if he would be consistent in devising a new grand strategy and related policies in harmony with them. Such uncertainty is perhaps inevitable in view of Trump’s temperament and personality, but the possibility of a paradigmatic shift toward a national-interest-based approach does exist. In Hillary Clinton’s case, the continuity of basic assumptions—and the escalation of risks and tensions resulting from their application—is predictable with mathematical certainty.
It would be in the American interest for the new administration to effect a “strategic pause” in order to take stock of the global geopolitical map, reconsider priorities, and devise specific policies on the basis of their likely costs and benefits. Whether this long-overdue assessment is even possible depends on what happens on November 8.