When the Cold War ended the United States had the unique position of being the only superpower in the world, with a robust economy, and other countries clambering to become its ally. Even Mikhail Gorbechev floated the prospect of Russia joining NATO on three separate occasions in 1990, Russian President Boris Yeltsin again suggested it to then American President Bill Clinton in 1994, and even more recently, July 18, 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin challenged that Russia be allowed to join or the organization be disbanded as a Cold War Relic. This prospect may seem like a fringe consideration, but even James Baker proposed the idea in the late 1990s and again in 2002 in an article published by The Washington Quarterly. My purpose here is not to propose Russia join NATO, but to highlight the situation as an example of the US’s failure to retool its grand strategy. Indeed, this post-Cold War failure sowed the seeds of today’s US presidency, and the overall absence of a coherent US grand strategy has fostered global concern for the health of US democracy and its position as the global leader.
After the Cold War the US could have easily altered its grand strategy from one of containment to one of embracement. There were no major enemies left, and the US was in a position to expand its demand for the adoption of democracy, embrace existing democracies, and turn away from the Cold War dictators it had originally joined only as a way to balance the powers of the Soviet Union. The US could have shifted its grand strategy to one with a diplomatic overture instead of one based on encirclement, therewith aiming to make new friends instead of enemies. Instead, the US recoiled and maintained the status quo, and even provoked enmity with Russia as NATO continued to expand eastward. Even that policy would have been acceptable temporarily, if not for the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. That day catalyzed the behavior of Washington as the US once again opted to maintain the defensive posture to which it had grown accustomed. That position was solidified further when the US then asserted itself more aggressively through the invasion of Iraq. Old enemies were emboldened, old friends grew concerned, and uncertainty once again threatened global stability.
The invasion of Iraq marked the beginning of a tumultuous 2003-2020 period, since the offensive adventurism occurred without the consent of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). If the US was acting unilaterally, the precedent was being set that the UNSC may no longer be a relevant body. In 1821 the 6th US president, John Quincy Adams, affirmed that the US stood for “Freedom, Independence, and Peace,” and that the country should not go “in search of monsters to destroy.” After 2003 it seemed that this was exactly what the US was doing. When President Barrack Obama came into office in 2009, he did his best to repair old friendships, dissuade new enemies, and reassure the world that the US was still interested in global peace, diplomacy, and universal prosperity for all humanity. Still, without a grand strategy directing policy and adapting to the new global environment, the US was left vulnerable. Furthermore, NATO continued to expand, and Russia continued to be weary of US and European ambitions. New enemies were now becoming emboldened and the potential for new friendships with old adversaries disappeared entirely.
In 2016 Russian interference in US elections may have potentially swayed the electorate to elect Donald Trump as president. Since that time, President Trump has challenged the coequal power of the three branches of the US government, allegedly weakened the rule of law, and made history as the 2nd US president to ever be impeached. Furthermore, without a grand strategy in place, President Trump has been left to do with American power what he prefers. He has been aggressive and insulting to the US’s allies, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and complimentary to its adversaries, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. President Trump has even called into question whether the US should continue to support NATO’s continued existence. With unrest in the streets, a pandemic raging with the US as its epicenter, and a president with a clear admiration for dictators, it seems the US has become a pariah. Furthermore, the US’s allies have never questioned its commitment to them more than they are right now.
However, the US’s commitment to its allies is still robust, because existing institutions are stronger than just one president. If an enemy took explicit advantage of the US, for example by attacking an ally, they could be assured that the US president would not be able to ignore such an action. The US still has the largest blue water navy in the world, an unparalleled capability to project power, and military bases in numerous countries. The US military establishment, intelligence apparatus, cabinet, and congress would, even now, view inaction by a sitting president to protect US allies as unacceptable. Inaction would lead US leadership to exercise section 4 of the 25th amendment of the US Constitution, thereby removing a president from power who fails to follow through on US commitments abroad. Even if this assumption is incorrect, such a potential is certainly enough to keep the enemies of the US and its allies at bay, at least for now.
A president serving only one term cannot destroy the global order, it is too robust. Even so, the next US president will need to form a national grand strategy lest the existing crisis of leadership be repeated. During the Cold War the US had a clear adversary, and George Kennan’s Long Telegram assured the US could develop a grand strategy for that period. Since the Cold War ended the US has had no cohesive grand strategy and has instead been searching for monsters. In the absence of great power competition, the US would do well to formulate a new grand strategy that focuses on diplomacy, human rights, common global prosperity, climate change, and global peace.
Mark J Flowers is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Georgia State University Perimeter College, and he previously served as a fellow of the United States State Department Virtual Fellows Program. He graduated from Florida State University in 2010 and holds degrees in Physics and Economics. Mark is currently studying International Relations.