Prof. ST Hsieh
Director, US-China Energy Industry Forum
November 4, 2023
Before anyone answers the question Is America Really ‘Indispensable’ Again? one must reflect on a more fundamental question: Is America Great Again!
America is still the greatest power in the world history today (parphasing President Biden), but is “greatest” means indispensable? No really! Indispensable means the world without the US, just cannot manage herself. More significantly does it mean the US is not replaceable, no one other nation else can do the justice to the world as the US!
The US faces challenges more from a self-inflicted domestic divide than foreign competitions. The US politicians have successfully used overblown foreign threats to justify the excessive national defense budgets, which resulted in the world largest military. But the win-loss record has been miserable. Except the complete destruction of Iraq, the US had not really won any war lately. Note the forever war in Afghanistan, ended with a disastrous withdraw from Kabul, in front of the global TV audiences. The US is committed to millions of US dollars in the years to come.
Under President Biden’s watch, the proxy war in Ukraine is in a “stalemate’ again. Despite the billons billons of dollars already “invested,” Biden is asking billions dollars more: unfortunately it becomes a US proxy war, means the US will have to cover all the cost of continuing fight without any exit strategy, as well as no end in sight!
We cannot say the current Israel-Hamas war is entirely Biden’s fault. But it happened under Biden’s watch, he has to manage “end the war!” Rather, Biden’s main messages, thru his deputies, are that “we can walk and chew at the same time!”
How long will it last? How many foreign wars can the US fight at the same time? Specifically, why are we fighting so many foreign wars, anyway?
The new debates over aid to Ukraine and Israel have opened an old wound: avoiding too many foreign entanglements.
NOVEMBER 3, 2023, 3:05 PM
By Michael Hirsh, a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Here we go again. The Republican Party, which has been a font of isolationist sentiment for more than a century, is once again splintering over U.S. commitments abroad. Even before Hamas started another war on Oct. 7, the GOP was backing away from Ukraine. Now the new House speaker, Mike Johnson, has opened up a fresh fissure by insisting on sending aid only to Israel for the moment—and making it contingent on domestic budget cuts—while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell still wants to link that bill to Ukraine aid. But even McConnell now wants to tie this money to new funds for domestic border security.
The Democrats have stood much stronger in support of U.S. President Joe Biden’s ambitious—and somewhat scary—attempts to project military strength on three major international fronts: supplying, all at once, Ukraine’s stand against Russia, Israel’s war on Hamas, and Taiwan’s defense against China.
But even among Democrats, new doubts are surfacing about U.S. commitments abroad. This week, Democratic progressives in the Senate sent a letter to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer demanding that the new more than $100 billion emergency supplemental aid for Ukraine, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific requested by Biden in his Oct. 19 Oval Office address be accompanied by additional money for domestic programs. “The supplemental cannot just be about responding to emergencies abroad,” says the letter, which was signed by Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, Jeff Merkley, Mazie Hirono, and Peter Welch. Biden, meanwhile, has pledged to veto the House bill.
All these new battles on Capitol Hill have a very old ring to them. In times of stress, Americans always revert to their default mode going back to the Founding Fathers, which is to avoid too many foreign entanglements. And it’s probably healthy that these debates are happening now. With Israel’s war against Hamas recently added to the mix, the United States is once again seriously entangled abroad. The problem is that the debates in Washington so far—if one can call them that—have been utterly incoherent.
The Republicans can’t decide: Do they want to be the old GOP of defense hawkishness, or the new GOP of former President Donald Trump’s neo-isolationism? Meanwhile, the Biden administration is having something of an identity crisis of its own. In just the past year or so, the administration has gone from seeking to disentangle itself from the Middle East, pull out of Afghanistan, and shift the security burden to Europe to supplying the lion’s share of aid to Ukraine and pledging to stand fully behind Israel in what could become a wider war in the Middle East.
Biden has also edged the United States into a new cold war with the world’s second-most-powerful nation, China—despite his demurrals that he is doing so, and in spite of recent efforts by others in his administration to reach out to Beijing. Though Biden plans to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping later this month at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco, he has all but embraced an incendiary pledge to defend Taiwan and has expanded NATO’s focus to East Asia in what is effectively a new containment policy toward China.
All of a sudden, the United States is again the “indispensable nation” and a “beacon to the world”—as Biden declared in his Oct. 19 Oval Office address—and the United States is once more thrusting itself forward as the arsenal of democracy to the world. And this at a time when its defense-industrial base is shrunken and ill-prepared, its economy is sluggish, and its politics at home are polarized and, far too often, paralyzed.
For Stephen Wertheim, a political scientist at the Carnegie Endowment and the author of the influential 2020 book, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, this incoherence and strategic drift in Washington is a vindication of what he’s been arguing for years.
Since World War II, the U.S. idea of internationalism has become fatally intertwined with the idea of maintaining the United States’ global military dominance, Wertheim argues. Consequently, we can find no way out of this global police officer role, even as it’s strained both our economy and our sense of national identity to the breaking point. This hubris helped lead to the debacle of the Iraq invasion 20 years ago—and today it could well lead to a new disaster of overextension in the Middle East, Europe, and the Indo-Pacific, Wertheim told me in an interview. And that is partly what is causing so much alarm on Capitol Hill.
Wertheim said that until now, Biden has been acting on what political scientists call “the deterrence model of conflict.” But the growing danger is that the United States will instead get sucked into the “spiral model” as things grow out of control. “I think something is changing, because the costs of maintaining what Biden called the ‘indispensable nation’ are rising very high now, and the risks are so much higher than they ever were in the 1990s,” Wertheim said.
This is a supreme irony for Americans, Wertheim notes, because for most of its 247 years of existence, the United States saw itself as an exceptional nation in large part because it did not view itself as military hegemon. It is understandable why Washington got pulled in when and the way it did after World War II—there was no other country with the means and will to rebuild and maintain the international system after Germany and Japan destroyed it.
But in embracing its postwar role permanently, Americans did not fully realize that their country would get caught up “beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue”—as John Quincy Adams warned in his famous 1821 speech, when he also said that the U.S. should never “go in search of monsters to destroy”—and that, as Adams put it, “the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.”
That’s pretty much what happened. Having obtained such power by force, it was difficult to give it up, especially with a giant defense-industrial complex vested in it. Thus, long after World War II and then the Cold War ended in U.S. triumph, almost nothing has changed. “The United States decided, when the costs and risks were low, to scatter its forces all across the world, naively thinking [that] it was the end of history and projecting American power wasn’t going to inspire violent reactions,” Wertheim said.
Post-Cold War U.S. hegemony wasn’t necessarily fated to inspire such reactions, but it certainly did after successive administrations, both Republican and Democratic, badly mishandled things. Feckless NATO expansion toward Russia’s borders and the unjustified Iraq invasion discredited U.S. power as a reliable peacekeeper, helping to provoke Russia and China to go their own ways.
Domestic anger at the way the United States’ internationalist elites bungled this role then opened the door to the nativist populism of Trump. In his crude way, Trump sought to redefine U.S. hegemonic power—for example, by demanding that the NATO allies pay up for the U.S. defense umbrella that had allowed them to spend instead on their welfare states. And he struck a chord by daring to ask why the United States was simply maintaining, apparently through inertia, a system that was created to oppose a set of threats that no longer existed: first fascism, and then communist totalitarianism. As vicious as Russian President Vladimir Putin is, he’s running a second-rate (if nuclear-armed) power that has nothing close to the former Soviet Union’s global reach does not pose the same threat.