Getting to Restraint, Responsibly
In late September 2020, the long-simmering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan boiled over into full-blown war. As Azerbaijani tanks and drones advanced into territory held by Armenian forces, commentators around the world warned of the possibility of regional instability or even a wider conflict between Turkey and Russia, which supported opposite sides in the fighting.
The heart of the conflict was the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an obscure province in the South Caucasus that most Americans have never heard of—even fewer can muster an opinion as to which former Soviet republic it should belong to. Its relationship to U.S. security interests, even to experts, is not obvious. But nonetheless, various commentators in Washington insisted that the United States should intervene in some way. “The United States should be thinking—urgently—about how to raise the cost of prolonged fighting,” David Ignatius urged in The Washington Post. Nagorno-Karabakh, he warned, “offers a case study in how regional problems left unresolved can eventually explode into much wider crises. … This faraway war could quickly get very hot.”
For many American observers, only the United States could effectively preserve stability in this fraught region. “Without U.S. diplomatic leadership,” Ignatius’ colleague Jason Rezaian asserted, “it’s difficult to imagine a lasting peace, as none of the regional powers that wield any influence—Turkey, Israel, Russia and potentially Iran—can credibly claim neutrality.” The upshot of these arguments, similar to what one hears in Washington with regard to almost any conflict anywhere in the world, was that if the United States did not exercise its power to deal with the problem, it wouldn’t get solved and would eventually hurt America’s security.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to Armageddon in the South Caucasus. Russia brokered a peace deal, and the war ended about as cleanly as such conflicts ever do. Various commentators fretted that by effectively excluding the U.S. from the negotiations that ended the hostilities, Ankara and Moscow had gained influence relative to Washington. But they left unclear why the United States would want to expend the effort necessary for influence in a region of little strategic importance, and one that is nestled between Turkey, Russia and Iran to boot. In any case, the original rationale for U.S. diplomatic intervention—that it was necessary for stability—proved untrue.
Washington’s lack of involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement, though not an earth-shaking event, reflects a trend. U.S. politicians on both the left and right—including both President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump—are, in varying ways, thinking about how to reduce America’s responsibilities in the world. Biden has decided to end the U.S. military involvement in the war in Afghanistan, regardless of the conditions on the ground there, while also promising to review America’s global force posture. Trump wanted to go even further, announcing troop withdrawals from Germany in his final months in office and pushing to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea.
This trend worries many in Washington’s foreign policy establishment as well as their counterparts in key allied states that depend on the United States for protection from various unpleasant neighbors. Even if Biden still expresses a belief in a policy of U.S. global leadership, his retreat from Afghanistan, his focus on China and his vaguely protectionist idea of a foreign policy for the middle class contribute to fears of a U.S. retrenchment, particularly in Europe and the Middle East.
The right question is not whether reducing America’s global commitments should take place, but how it can be accomplished in the most responsible manner.
This fear often expresses itself as an appeal to American exceptionalism and its unique role in upholding world order. For many foreign policy thinkers in the United States, the long arm of U.S. global hegemony has become necessary for maintaining stability in the world and even democracy at home. “The only hope for preserving liberalism at home and abroad,” Robert Kagan informs us, “is the maintenance of a world order conducive to liberalism, and the only power capable of upholding such an order is the United States.”
A world without U.S. leadership, according to these commentators, is therefore one that is nasty, brutish and usually dominated by China. For the sake of all that is holy and democratic, the United States must therefore maintain its policy of global leadership and alliance commitments around the world, even if it means horning its way into disputes in the South Caucasus that are otherwise irrelevant to U.S. interests.
Among the Washington foreign policy cognoscenti, this vision of America’s role in the world is something of an article of faith. An appeal for less U.S. geopolitical involvement in the world, such as the one I published in April 2021 in Foreign Affairs, immediately elicits questions about whether, in the absence of the United States, stability will persist.
This special U.S. role in maintaining peace and democracy in far-flung regions would no doubt come as a surprise to the residents of many countries that have found themselves on the wrong end of U.S. precision-guided weapons or CIA-sponsored coups. A 2021 poll of 53 countries by the Alliance of Democracies found that globally, 44 percent of respondents believe that U.S. influence threatens democracy in their country, compared to 28 percent for the influence of Russia and 38 percent for that of China.
But it is true that the United States is a massive presence in international politics in almost every region of the world and that global politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Any major change in U.S. policies in volatile regions will create reactions from both U.S. allies and adversaries that will be at best unsettling for those invested in the status quo, and at worst destabilizing.
The net effect of those changes is much more difficult to predict. One can engage in fascinating counterfactual speculations on whether, for example, a U.S. military withdrawal from Europe will stimulate destabilizing Russian expansionism or inspire more effective European defense efforts. The Nagorno-Karabakh outcome suggests that the U.S. role in maintaining regional stability is often exaggerated or even romanticized by American observers. But the sheer alarm of U.S. allies at the prospect of U.S. withdrawal implies that if it is carried out too suddenly, it could inspire all sorts of overreactions. In the end, we cannot know.
Regardless of the effect, however, power shifts and polarized domestic politics have made retrenchment a geopolitical necessity. As Biden’s focus on China implies, the U.S. will want to concentrate its geopolitical efforts in the near future on East Asia, where the rise of China presents a direct threat to the United States that the public seems to accept. Unfortunately, Biden’s tendency to describe that effort as a global, ideological war against authoritarianism, reminiscent of the Cold War, encourages the U.S. to diffuse its efforts all around the world. This tendency to define the war in ideological terms and exaggerate the importance of peripheral theaters was arguably the central strategic mistake of the Cold War and led the U.S. to disasters in Vietnam and Central America. In the geopolitical contest with China, the United States simply cannot afford that diffusion of effort.
If retrenchment is a political and strategic necessity domestically, then it must happen despite the risks to stability. The right question, therefore, is not whether reducing America’s global commitments should take place, but how it can be accomplished in the most responsible manner. Specific political contexts will of course matter, but here are a few principles for responsible U.S. retrenchment.
The U.S. must be clear and declaratory in its intentions, with as long-term a planning horizon in each region as possible. To date, the U.S. is about as opaque and inconsistent as possible on this point, perplexing interested observers at home and abroad. One can understand their confusion.
The Biden administration, for instance, sometimes implies that it intends to reduce commitments in the Middle East and even Europe, and has given life to the idea of retrenchment by announcing a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. But at the same time, it has made clear that the United States intends to remain and even increase its geopolitical presence in East Asia, even as Biden promotes the idea of a new global competition against authoritarianism and repeats the mantras of U.S. global leadership as if nothing fundamental is changing.
If Biden does want to reduce U.S. commitments, he should describe clearly what that means in the major regions of the world and for U.S. leadership globally.
This implies that Washington’s will toward leadership continues unabated, reflecting in part a difficult domestic political dynamic by which any effort to rationalize the U.S. approach to the world, particularly by a Democratic president, is met with charges of weakness and appeasement. Thus, even though the Trump administration also pursued a policy whose ultimate goal was withdrawal from Afghanistan, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saw a political advantage in labeling Biden’s plan “a grave mistake.”
But Afghanistan, like most foreign policy issues, is a low priority for the voting public. If the Biden administration articulated a principled strategy of responsible retrenchment more broadly, it would certainly occasion howls from various think tanks in Washington and partisan attacks from Republican hawks in Congress, but it would have little impact on the administration’s domestic political standing. If the administration indeed does want to reduce U.S. commitments and pursue, as Biden often claims, a foreign policy for the middle class, it should be willing to describe clearly what that means in the major regions of the world and for U.S. leadership globally.
That could mean many things, but if Biden does intend to follow through on his pivot to Asia, he should articulate a clear and certain timeline for allies in Europe and the Middle East for when the U.S. intends to withdraw forces and military protection in those theaters.
U.S. withdrawal from any of its overseas commitments should be gradual and evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. This is related to the first principle, in that the United States can enhance stability in the wake of its departure if, rather than announcing it just months before it leaves, Washington articulates a glide path for a progressive drawdown over the course of several years. The task of removing U.S. troops from Europe or the Persian Gulf, for example, can and should proceed at a measured pace, albeit with interim benchmarks. In the end, it is closer to the work of a decade than of a presidential term. Such a pace will allow U.S. allies and partners, as well as their adversaries, to adjust slowly as well, enhancing their ability to find a new normal and maintain stability in those regions.
The U.S. should consciously and proactively promote adjustment mechanisms for partners and allies. Even as U.S. domestic politics has become suffused with demands for withdrawal, U.S. foreign policy—and the foreign policy establishment—continues to show ambivalence toward efforts by U.S. allies to take greater responsibility for their own security affairs. This is clearest in Europe, where movement toward European strategic sovereignty often elicits worries from U.S. commentators about “decoupling” and even occasionally rebukes from the U.S. government over the issue of defense procurement.
This ambivalence allows those in Europe who don’t want to assume responsibility for regional security to insist that such efforts will provoke American opposition. But in a world of increasingly stretched U.S. resources, the Biden administration should lean strongly into promoting European efforts at greater strategic sovereignty.
A similar situation obtains in the Middle East: U.S. ambivalence toward retrenchment there encourages not only neediness, but also irresponsibility on the part of regional partners, particularly when it comes to their rivalry with Iran. The place to begin to reverse this dynamic is through a firm effort by Washington to step back from the lead in efforts to manage that rivalry.
Currently, much of the Washington foreign policy community is focused on the negotiations in Vienna to revive the Iran nuclear deal—officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—negotiated originally by the Obama administration and then abrogated by the Trump administration. From the start, that deal was a political football in Washington, and that hasn’t changed in the past six years. Now the debate has expanded to include how and when to broaden the nuclear deal to include limitations on Iran’s missile program and regional support for various proxy militias.
But lost in the endless partisan struggles over the good and evil of the nuclear deal and what should follow it is the question of whether America really needs and can afford to take the lead in containing Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East.
Even as foreign policy specialists in Washington differ on the wisdom of the nuclear deal, they almost universally agree that Washington’s role is critical for stability in the region. But it is perhaps strange that such a faraway power takes so much more responsibility for dealing with Iran, whether to counter its nuclear program or any of the other threats it poses, than any of the regional players. And as usual, the U.S. public evinces little interest in Persian Gulf security.
If the U.S. really wishes to divest itself of its security responsibilities in the region, it should allow others to lead on this effort, playing a supportive role and waiting for others to come up with proposals. These talks could be direct, as appears to be taking place between Iran and Saudi Arabia already, or mediated by the European Union or regional go-betweens like Oman. The United States could and probably would support any deal the regional parties come up with, as the entire point of the deal is to preserve regional stability.
This might not solve the problem, but of course the United States has been failing to solve the problem of Iran’s nuclear program for almost 20 years—and the problems raised by regional rivalries with Iran for even longer. And when Washington finally made some progress with the JCPOA, Donald Trump’s election quickly transformed the U.S. into the spoiler of its own achievements. This suggests that U.S. policy is too inconsistent and its domestic politics too volatile to really take the lead in providing stability in such a faraway region.
To say that the U.S. will reduce its forces in some regions or that it should eschew a policy of global leadership is not remotely a counsel of isolationism or even disengagement.
The U.S. should make clear that retrenchment is not disengagement. To say that the U.S. will reduce its forces in some important regions of the world or that it should eschew a policy of global leadership is not remotely a counsel of isolationism or even disengagement. For a large, outward-oriented trading nation like the U.S. in a globalized era, disengagement is not an option. Nor does any important faction in American domestic politics advocate for it. A U.S. that no longer assumes responsibility for regional security in Europe and the Middle East can remain politically and economically engaged in these regions and even retain its alliances, although in somewhat different form. The goal will be to create more balanced alliances where U.S. partners take greater responsibility for their own security as well as for regional security.
Currently, U.S. jawboning over, for example, the commitment of NATO allies to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense elicits solemn promises and scant action. In the end, allies know that the U.S. will backfill whatever security gaps they leave unaddressed, and so they prefer a sort of “cheap-riding” to true burden-sharing. The only way to build balanced alliances is to confront allies with the reality of U.S. withdrawal and, with it, the need to assume responsibility for their own security.
Even in this new landscape, though, the U.S. can and will still take part in efforts at regional security, as an offshore power that nonetheless has interests and power capacities in every part of the world. The United States will want to ensure, for example, that no hostile power is able to dominate Europe and the Persian Gulf in the way the U.S. has in the past. In Europe, the EU and its member states have enough capacity to ensure this outcome on their own. In the Middle East, it may require more classic offshore balancing efforts, including military and economic aid. But currently, no country, including China, seems both able and willing to take on the type of responsibilities that the U.S. has borne at such cost in recent decades.
We can’t know how U.S. retrenchment will affect stability in the various regions of the world where America has long had an outsized influence. But we do know that the current situation is not sustainable. Recent global power shifts, particularly the rise of China, mean that neither U.S. resources nor U.S. domestic politics will long support continued American global leadership. We also know that the only situation more destabilizing than a power vacuum is a supposed hegemon that lacks the will or the capacity to make good on its many commitments.
Allies have no God-given right to U.S. protection, but they deserve to know where they stand. They deserve to know with reasonable certainty whether, in their hour of need, the U.S. will rush to their aid or just issue pious statements of concern. And they deserve assistance and encouragement to accommodate themselves to those changes. A clear path toward a responsible U.S. retrenchment is the least that the United States owes the world.
Jeremy Shapiro is director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.