In a 1990 Atlantic Monthly piece, the most influential realist of a generation – John Mearsheimer – put forth a provocative title: “Why we will soon miss the Cold War.” His most dire projections, with nuclear proliferation and major conflict across Europe, fortunately did not come to pass. But Mearsheimer’s dramatic title kicked off a debate that remains unsettled 30 years later: What is going to be the guiding principle for American foreign policy after the Cold War?
The search for such a principle or paradigm has frustrated scholars, practitioners and American allies for three decades. “Overreach” might be the most appropriate label for American foreign policy during this period. There was an abiding, bipartisan consensus that America could reshape the world in its own image, that “engagement” and technology were magical elixirs, and that “shock and awe” demonstrations of American power would keep adversaries and rogue actors in check.
This world has not come to pass. Instead, American foreign policy became mired in two decades’ worth of “forever wars” that cost the nation at least $3-4 trillion and became deeply unpopular with the American public. The internet has done as much to repress liberty, hand victories to ISIS, and sow discord within democracies as it has to spread economic and political freedom. “Engagement” with China, Cuba and Iran has made repressive regimes more powerful – and less free – than what was promised.
With America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the “War on Terror” era has come to an end. But what is going to follow it? Despite reassurances from first candidate and now President Joe Biden that America will be “back,” a paradigm shift that started during the Obama administration and accelerated in the Trump years now seems to have firmly taken hold.
Great power rivalry with China will be the central feature of American foreign policy. The “pivot to Asia” that began during the Obama administration has morphed into an open and quite antagonistic rivalry during the Trump and now Biden administrations.
Given that the Sino-American rivalry is a global one, it is curious and disappointing that in some regions the US is simply – as the late Sean Connery put it in “The Untouchables” – bringing “a knife to a gunfight.” Despite consternation in Washington over China’s investment in the Port of Piraeus, no serious American bidders appeared in that deal. Despite lobbying Greece (as it did others) to exclude Huawei from its 5G network, the US has yet to develop American alternatives to this equipment. It certainly counted as a victory in Washington that Greece chose Sweden’s Ericsson, but if the US really wanted to lead, it would launch what Congressman (and Intelligence Committee member) Raja Krishnamoorthi has dubbed a “Manhattan Project” for 5G so it would be much easier for allies to decline the cheaper Huawei products.
Early in the Trump administration, Congress passed the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. At the end of the Trump administration, the new US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) established a foothold in Greece and the Balkans as per legislation authored by Senator Chris Murphy – who recently visited Greece. But year one of the Biden administration represents a big step backward on this front. Earlier this year, the DFC’s leadership had to refute reports that it was withdrawing from the Aegean and Balkans. Eight months later, the DFC has yet to lay out its vision for engagement in Greece and the surrounding region. This is frustrating other players in the administration who know that the Aegean and Balkans are part of the rivalry with China.
Therein lies a major problem with the Biden administration – a major gulf between rhetoric and execution. There is little to argue over when it comes to the administration’s pronouncements on the Eastern Mediterranean. But to let DFC bureaucrats ignore the geopolitical implications of pulling back from Greece (especially since there is a Congressional directive to be involved in Greece), is political and diplomatic malpractice. To have Secretary Blinken declare his interest in engaging in the “3+1” and then to only offer Under Secretary Nuland for a trilateral meeting at the UN with the foreign ministers of Israel, Greece and Cyprus is similarly a misfire (and does not compare favorably to Secretary Pompeo’s direct involvement).
The post-WWII order was guided not only by American leadership, but by institutions that were designed to protect America’s allies and partners from the challenges posed by the Soviets and communism. Comparable institutions must be developed that will draw others to America’s side in this 21st century great power rivalry. The Biden administration must immediately reverse the mistakes occurring within the DFC, and it has to recognize and optimize the potential of budding institutions like the “3+1,” the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, and the Philia Forum – instead of worrying about what it means for Turkey. After justifiably complaining over the last three administrations about allies not carrying their weight when it comes to defense and security, the US should encourage and provide support for emerging regional partnerships and agreements like the one France and Greece struck this week. American political leaders and the American public have made it clear that the US has abandoned the willingness to “go it alone.” Washington’s need for capable and reliable allies is more urgent than ever. When such allies step up, they deserve American support.
Despite the rhetoric, America has not proven that it is “back,” especially in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. President Biden and his team should have a greater sense of urgency in proving relying on America is a smart move in these regions before others start making arrangements as if America may never fully be back.
Endy Zemenides is the executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC).