Last year, I had an interesting dialogue with a professor regarding American foreign policy. My interests revolved around Cold War policy so quite naturally in this exchange, we discussed differences and parallels between the Cold War international order and the contemporary one.
At one point in the discussion, he expressed an opinion that at first perplexed me. He said that, despite its obvious dangers and the state of panic it caused, he missed the Cold War. The reason is comprehensible if one considers the perspectives of those tasked with interpreting, formulating and carrying out a grand strategy.
Throughout the frenetic Cold War era, the nemesis and objective was perspicuous. As too was the policy by which Americans could accomplish the goal of containment. The brainchild of the diplomat, George Kennan, the containment strategy was meant to obviate Communist expansion through “strong resistance” to Soviet encroachment and the diffusion of its Marxist-Leninist ideology. There were some addendums or deviations, but American policy and its objective were constant, logical and usually formulated within the broader scope of containment.
In 1991, America emerged as the dominant superpower, and there was a euphoric vindication of liberal capitalist democracy. But this brought with it the conundrum about which my professor was speaking. How would America define its role in the world with this power? What was the proper foreign policy with which to proceed in a unipolar world?
As scholar Michael Mandelbaum remarked, “Power is to sovereign states in the international system what money is to individuals: the more they have, the wider is the range of uses to which they can put it.”
In the post-Cold War era, there has been ongoing vacillation on the question of how involved the United States should be in world affairs and what its mission is. As the supreme superpower, it has embarked on Wilsonian nation-building projects to “make the world safe for democracy,” such as the Bush administration’s efforts to liberate and rebuild Iraq. It was an ill-fated commitment to democratizing areas that are immensely hostile to Western liberalism and plagued by tribalism for which solutions are beyond the West’s means.
President Obama’s policy is often described as a “policy of retreat.” Oftentimes, there was an asymmetry between Obama’s public utterances and how he dealt with foreign powers. Relying on rhetorical grandiosity, he rarely followed it with action and his administration was recklessly feeble in the face of adversarial aggression, and servile to America’s foes.
Donald Trump’s predecessors showcase how global commitment and withdrawal are injurious if taken to the extreme. The past decade or so has proved that America can’t overextend itself, but it shouldn’t let insularity take over and succumb to the isolationist temptation. It would thereby be abandoning its responsibilities as a liberal superpower.
Despite his sporadic nature, Trump has had the opportunity to conduct foreign policy in a way that, in some sense, reflects a “principled realism.” The blunders like his dealings with North Korea notwithstanding (I have copious quibbles about some of his decisions), the Trump Doctrine may prove to be rooted in a realism that emphasizes calculated actions not based in sanctimony but the genuine national interest; and tough deterrent actions to enforce order and sway enemies against acting on their pernicious ambitions. These are noticeable in the handling of the Iranian regime and China’s theft of intellectual property.
Ross Douthat pithily summarizes the strategy as “maintaining American primacy on a more manageable footing, while focusing more energy and effort on containing the power and influence of China.” A reorientation of American foreign policy is necessary as the world continues to morph into a multipolar one, and a disorderly one.
As China advances towards becoming the global hegemon, some have described the current geopolitical landscape as a new Cold War. What could be a protracted conflict between the still ideologically Marxist China, its allies and America may evince a renascent Cold War order. However, there are some important differences if this is the case.
It will be a more strenuous task for Americans to make a case for liberal capitalism’s superiority as China’s economy has boomed significantly. This is a benefit of what Niall Ferguson calls “Chimerica,” the economic relationship between China and America that has largely deteriorated. Though Trump’s trade war has the potential to stall China’s economic trajectory, Ferguson has insisted that it nevertheless is in a position to be a more formidable rival than the Soviet Union.
While the bipolarity of the first Cold War made it much easier to develop a grand strategy, the approach to a new one would have to take into account all the antagonists with which the West contends for global influence; the main force being the villainous tripartite of China, Iran, and Russia.
The current venue for the contest is Venezuela, where in close cooperation with allies, the United States is attempting to have Nicholas Maduro’s socialist dictatorship toppled and replaced by a democratic government headed by centrist, Juan Guaido—whom the United States and many other governments have recognized as the legitimate president.
So far, the Trump administration has made use of economic sanctions and has not been reticent about its support for the opposition.
There has been no shortage of truculent voices deriding what they see as the treacherous policy of “regime change.” A “Hands Off Venezuela” movement has sprouted, and there have been protests at which one can hear perceptive slogans like: “No coup! No war! No sanctions!”
The anti-American stance in this instance is piquant to two coteries. The first group consists of wide-eyed socialists who are mourning yet another failed revolution and steadfastly believe that it wasn’t the fault of socialism. In other words, they side with Maduro when he blames America and “monsters who want to destroy Venezuela” for the recent blackouts and electricity rationing.
George Ciccariello-Maher of The Nation provides a nice example of the orthodox Marxist analysis. He blames America for Venezuela’s woes, makes excuses for Maduro’s rule, and denounces Guaido as a “candidate for empire” trying to bring about an “unconstitutional coup.”
The second group is doctrinaire libertarian isolationists who adhere to a meretricious idea of “peace” and detest intervention in any circumstance.
Since reasoning with the first group is a lost cause, I’d like it if the second group enlightened me on why peace would prevail if America disengaged from the region. How would this quell any security threats?
China and Russia have both resolutely supported Maduro. Russia recently sent planes carrying about 100 troops to Venezuela for “bilateral consultations.” China has also provided moral and financial support by designing disinformation and propaganda campaigns to amplify anti-Americanism in Venezuela.
Having had a long presence in South America, Iran is a committed ally of Maduro. Tehran has utilized Venezuela as a primary base from which it can inflame the anti-American virus and attract new devotees to its radical Islamist cause. The terrorist group, Hezbollah, has been allowed to establish a base for its terrorist finance networks.
So all those who deride American policy and urge obeisance to a nation’s sovereignty should ask themselves if these inimical actors should be free to meander in and out of Venezuela with impunity.
An unapologetic resuscitation of the Monroe Doctrine would be an intelligent course of action. The behaviour of the malevolent trio begs for a response that’s accordant with James Monroe’s 1823 proclamation that the United States should not tolerate any foreign power wishing to “extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere” in a manner that is considered dangerous to hemispheric security.
National Security Advisor John Bolton has stated that “We’re not afraid to use the phrase ‘Monroe Doctrine’ in this administration.” Also, if Maduro continues to consolidate power in spite of Washington’s efforts to hasten change, military action has been considered. Given the fervour of the antagonists and the growing difficulty of aiding Maduro’s opposition through purely diplomatic means, this may have viability. With that said, the response must be rigorous, measured, and pursued in continued cooperation with allies in the Organization of American States and NATO.
If we are witnessing an epochal shift in international relations, American strategy must be coherent and firm. To face a radically rogue China, Putin’s nostalgic nationalism and fanatical Islamists in Tehran, protecting its backyard should be a preoccupation of American policy. As Josh Hammer of The Daily Wire proclaims, “it’s time to make the Monroe Doctrine great again.” In this new era, if Venezuela is the first test of America’s probity and resolve, America must pass it.