The author is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School
Last year was a time of redemption for America’s national security establishment. Washington had closed out 2021 reeling from its chaotic retreat from Afghanistan. Today US global power feels vital again. Hand-wringing over “endless wars” has given way to a familiar sense of purpose: beating back the aggression of autocrats in Moscow and Beijing.
Some satisfaction is warranted. In Europe, President Joe Biden has achieved what few thought possible. After anticipating Russia’s invasion and uniting the west, he has enabled Ukraine to preserve its sovereignty and regain some of its territory, all without getting Nato into a direct war with Russia.
But take a longer view, and the conventional wisdom starts to look suspect. Leaving Afghanistan freed America to focus on higher priorities. By contrast, 2022 made every strategic challenge worse. America’s allies should wonder if an overstretched superpower will be able to come to their rescue in a moment of need.
The chief source of trouble is the freefall in US-Chinese relations. Some in Washington entered 2022 hoping to ease tensions and make progress on shared challenges. Instead, Xi Jinping proclaimed a “no limits” partnership with Vladimir Putin. The US went on the offensive, too. Presidential “gaffes” vowing to defend Taiwan antagonised Beijing, and House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei sparked a cross-Strait crisis.
Now a war between the world’s top two powers, though a low probability, is no less likely than a return to Obama-era “engagement”. After Biden’s decision to cut off Chinese access to advanced semiconductors, US-China competition will remain cut-throat even if not catastrophic.
The need to invest more resources in Asia was one reason Biden pursued a “stable and predictable” relationship with Moscow upon taking office. So much for that. The invasion of Ukraine turned Russia into America’s outright adversary. Instead of encouraging Russian-Chinese divisions, the US finds itself setting out to contain both powers at once.
This prospect disturbs US leaders less than it should. With the Russian military degraded in Ukraine, the US could insist that Europe deliver a real Zeitenwende: develop the capability to defend itself by, say, the end of a second Biden term. Biden has done the opposite. His administration surged roughly 40,000 US troops into Europe in 2022 and championed the expansion of Nato.
Meanwhile, North Korea remains nuclear and menacing. Pyongyang fired a record number of missiles in 2022, lofting some over Japan and into South Korean territorial waters. After a four-year pause, it resumed testing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking North America. China and Russia for the first time vetoed a UN resolution to tighten sanctions on North Korea over its missile tests. Washington’s toolkit is shrinking, and Pyongyang’s nukes are here to stay.
On top of everything, efforts to restore the nuclear accord with Iran fell apart in 2022 — perhaps definitively. US officials say that President Ebrahim Raisi’s government simply does not want to rejoin the agreement. Biden may soon face a daunting choice: allow an Iranian nuclear bomb or bomb Iran.
The post-cold war world wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. In 1991, Pentagon planners argued that US global primacy would produce peace. By maintaining overwhelming military supremacy, America would dissuade potential rivals from “even aspiring to a larger regional or global role”. A benevolent sole superpower — what Madeleine Albright dubbed the “indispensable nation” — would suppress security competition, benefiting the world while keeping costs low for itself.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dealt a blow to this theory by showing that the US could use power unwisely and cause instability. Now America’s adversaries have multiplied in numbers and gained in strength. The burdens and dangers will continue to mount unless the US makes difficult strategic adjustments.
That hardly means withdrawal from the world. It means the US should combine pulling back (from the Middle East) with shifting the burden (to European allies) and seeking competitive coexistence (with China). The US and its allies should aim for balances of power, not overmatching power.
Washington may think its global leadership is back, but if it keeps trying to defend everything, America will end up defending nothing.