As a longtime senator, President Joe Biden has rarely witnessed an entirely new era in US foreign policy in which America won a single war it started, ranging from Vietnam to the conflict in Afghanistan. He understood the coldness of wars to resolve issues that cannot be resolved by force, especially in countries where America has no understanding of Irish history and culture. No wonder as president he opposes “forever wars”.
But are these “forever wars” gone forever? We look at history and trends. Biden’s foreign policy is a complex mix of an elitist passion for great power competition, a traditionalist commitment to alliances, and a public belief that foreign policy must serve the interests of the American working and middle class. So his policy aims to rebuild strength at home and compete with China abroad, the latter shaped by America’s fear of losing its great power status to Beijing.
Biden began a campaign of maximum pressure against China by threatening to decouple the economy, increase tensions over Taiwan, and raise the geopolitical stakes by tying allies against Beijing. But he was only partially successful. Understandably, China and the United States have both climbed down. Imagine a war against Taiwan, a major producer of semiconductors, and its implications for the world economy. In their recent summit, Biden and President Xi Jinping emphasized the need to engage and compete while responsibly managing their strategic rivalry.
But with Europe reeling from the war in Ukraine and facing economic challenges that make engagement with China critical, Washington’s gains have been mixed. NATO was strengthened but so was Europe’s insistence on a fair Chinese policy that was not an adjunct to America’s great power rivalry with China.
It is almost as if American war is righteous by definition.
America is doing its own rebalancing between geopolitics and geo-economics. Biden is making a special bid to reconnect with the Global South where the US is losing ground to China. This is partly the reason for the revival of US-Pakistan ties.
But the trouble with the American system is that one never knows what the next election and the politics of the day might bring to US foreign policy. The war could return. Since becoming a superpower, the US has gone to war and gone impulsively, with consequences for itself and its allies. The wars fueled pride in its military power and fueled domestic political interest groups, as explained in Jack Snyder’s book Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition.
Because of Americans’ own historical experience, going to war comes naturally to them. They do not look at the wisdom or morality of wars. It’s almost as if American war is right by definition. That’s why, when they start losing, the debate about the war is rarely bad news. It’s always about cutting losses and getting out. So, in the end, Americans don’t really know why they actually went to war and why they quit. This is a perfect recipe for continuing to go in and out of future wars.
For a nation whose basic principle was religious freedom, war was almost always defined as a divine mission, a struggle between good and evil, indeed a moral conflict. Although sometimes a force for good, imperialist aims were often hidden.
In recent history, America’s sense of ‘exceptionalism’ has converged with post-Cold War geopolitics, exacerbating its traditional militarism. Driven by the supreme power consciousness and the propaganda of the unipolar moment, and then overwhelmed by 9/11, America simplified and distorted the emerging global challenges and resorted to unilateralism. The result was failed wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
What can prevent future American wars? I hope the US power is not absolute. America has walked alone on many issues. Its wars have entangled bad partners, regional rivalries and bilateral conflicts, rather than unleashing new forces of instability. America’s image and credibility are also hurt.
Other guardrails against war are also visible at home and abroad. There is opposition to domestic wars. In addition, you cannot have a war without European cooperation, which cannot be accepted in the future. Europe is in the process of strategic diversification, and allies like Saudi Arabia and India are multifaceted in their relations with great powers. Look at the recent Sino-Arab summit. The national priorities around the world are now geo-economics, based on geo-politics.
For Pakistan, friendly ties with the US are essential but partnership in war is optional. Pakistan should never be America’s war partner again. Washington’s war aims will always be different from Pakistan’s. As in the past, the cost outweighs the benefits.
The writer, a former ambassador, is an assistant professor at Georgetown University and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.
Published in Dawn, December 18, 2022