The Many Reasons Why American Foreign Policy Needs a Reset

The Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago, and America has yet to fully adjust.

AP/Natacha Pisarenko
According to one British official some 30 former pilots were lured by annual salaries of about $270,000 to decamp to Communist China and train pilots for the PLA. AP/Natacha Pisarenko


Russia has invaded Ukraine, Free China is under threat, and the post-World War II order, dominated and fashioned by America, is beginning to look decrepit. In truth, America’s grand strategy needs a rethink.

The current American national security architecture was established in the wake of World War II. The U.S. created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and a host of other collective security and monetary arrangements to contend with the threat posed by the Soviet Union. NATO was, and is, extraordinarily successful. It must not be abandoned. 

Yet the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago, and America has yet to fully adjust.

The chief threat facing America is China, a country that had yet to fall to Communist rule when NATO was created. Beijing alone can compete with the United States, economically and militarily. It is, to use a political science term, a “near competitor.” Indeed, in key emerging areas like artificial intelligence, China has been labeled a “full spectrum peer competitor.”

To be sure, the U.S. faces a host of other threats, including from Russia, Iran, and North Korea — to name but a few. Each poses their own challenges and requires attention from America and its allies. None should be dismissed as inconsequential — as the current Russian belligerence illustrates.

But America needs to prioritize. The U.S. won World War II, in part, by prioritizing the Atlantic Theater over the Pacific. It won the Cold War by prioritizing as well. The U.S. did not send troops to every country that was threatened by communism. Even in the early years of the Cold War, when the U.S. accounted for the majority of the world’s GDP, such a strategy would’ve been an impossibility — as defense strategists in both political parties recognized. 

Also, America in 2022 is not the country it was in the early Cold War era. The U.S. faces severe constraints, economically, militarily, and in terms of popular support for interventions abroad. And the battlefields — and battlespaces — have changed as well.

Elbridge Colby, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, has noted that Asia will soon account for more than 50 percent of global GDP. By contrast, Europe will account for 10 percent within 20 years. 

In sum: The priority must be Asia. This will require retooling our defense strategy, including our allocation of forces, accordingly. Existing collective security arrangements should be kept, but changes must be made, and pressure brought to bear on “free rider” nations like Germany, who benefit much, but, at present, contribute little to U.S. objectives in Europe and abroad.

The current arrangement, in which Germany has refused to pay its share of NATO dues and cuts deals with U.S. enemies from Moscow to Beijing, isn’t sustainable. By allowing it to occur the United States is acquiescing to policies that threaten Europe’s stability. But by increasing their own share of the defense burden, America’s European allies will be doing themselves a favor in the long term. And they will be restoring a balance that is, at present, missing on the continent.

The United States can’t be everywhere and do everything forever. Pretending otherwise has weakened not only our capabilities and efficiency but our ability to deter threats from our adversaries. 

Further, preparing for — and preferably deterring — a conflict in East Asia will also require a significant investment in our naval and air forces to deal with the logistical problems posed by a war far from American shores. Supply chains will be as important as they’ve always been in war — but more complicated thanks to technological advances and a U.S. that has become far too reliant on Chinese manufacturing.

Importantly the battle spaces will be different, as well. Unlike 1945, they will include conflicts in the cyber and space domains. These are not the wars of the future. Rather, these are the wars of today — and our enemies are advancing on these key fronts. 

Retooling American foreign policy doesn’t require retrenchment. Quite the opposite, in fact. Yet it does require a rethink. The strategies of the past are inadequate to the stormy present. We’re beginning to see the sorry results.


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