When British prime minister Harold Macmillan was asked what he feared most, he replied, "Events, dear boy, events." This special issue begins with a symposium to assess what the most significant national-security challenge might be for the incoming Trump administration. It then moves to a series of longer essays that examine American relations with Russia, China, Europe and the Middle East, followed by conceptual analyses of international economics, counterterrorism, democracy, grand strategy and the National Security Council.
The specific answers may vary, but they revolve, more or less, around the same fulcrum that has inspired the National Interest for three decades: What constitutes foreign-policy realism? When should the United States intervene abroad and when should it refrain? Should it seek to cultivate warmer relations with China and Russia, or are they revisionist powers that need to be confronted? Is free trade a good thing--or does it undermine American fiscal might?
With the election of Donald Trump, these questions have acquired great prominence. But they are actually not all that new. In the 1890s, when William McKinley embraced imperialism and Theodore Roosevelt declared that Americans had to break out of their "fossilized isolation" and take up their "might mission," controversies raged about whether or not the United States was betraying its heritage. After World War II, leading realist thinkers such as Walter Lippmann envisioned a pragmatic political settlement over Europe with the Kremlin. In his 1947 book The Cold War, Lippmann rejected the notion that diplomacy was inutile and ideological confrontation unavoidable: "There would be little for diplomats to do if the world consisted of partners, enjoying political intimacy, and responding to common appeals."
In this issue, Graham T. Allison and Dimitri K. Simes warn that the United States and Russia "face a serious risk of stumbling into a war neither side wants." They urge the president-elect to make the case for realistic engagement directly to the American people. When it comes to China, Evan A. Feigenbaum observes that the longstanding consensus in Washington is eroding, but it isn't inevitable that the United States is headed for a "more adversarial relationship." Zalmay Khalilzad contends that Trump is well positioned to establish a new bipartisan foreign policy: "The opportunity is there. I hope he seizes it." At the same time, Richard Burt emphasizes Europe's strategic utility: "There is perhaps no more effective and efficient way for Washington to project strength than from the platform of a robust and united NATO alliance." Sen. Rand Paul, meanwhile, asserts that it is imperative for Congress to reclaim the war powers that he believes it has surrendered to a succession of presidents.
In publishing these essays, our aspiration is to show that what is truly in the national interest is also in the National Interest.
David A. Bell
The most predictable crises the new administration will face will involve failed states, mired in seemingly permanent civil war. These states generate terrorism that threatens Americans abroad and at home. They generate humanitarian crises into which Washington feels pressure to intervene. And they generate refugee crises, sometimes of enormous proportions. Syria currently offers the worst example of such geopolitical disaster areas, but many other states, especially in the Middle East, could easily follow its catastrophic path.
If recent history suggests anything at all, it is that the United States most often has no good solution to the problems of failed states. Indeed, virtually any action it takes to resolve these problems has the potential to make things worse, or to create new problems elsewhere. New administrations seeking to make their mark with solid achievements will not want to believe this message, and may only come to recognize its truth through bitter experience. But the bitter experience can be minimized if the new administration's foreign-policy and defense teams keep in mind the following points.
First, the American military is terribly designed for dealing with failed states. The American military is an amazing institution, staffed by remarkable men and women. It is, of course, the most powerful such institution on the planet, by far. But its use, when dealing with the problems of failed states, is enormously limited. Against organized military forces it can be effective, but here American policymakers can quickly run up against the unwillingness of the public to accept even small-scale casualties, and the highly charged reaction from states and publics elsewhere to U.S. infliction of large-scale casualties on others. Against organized terrorist groups, the American military can also be very effective, but generally requires considerable time, luck and good intelligence to be so (see Osama bin Laden). Against freelance terrorists inspired and instructed online by figures in failed states, and haphazardly armed, the U.S. military is almost useless--it all too often resembles a person trying to eradicate viruses with a hammer.
Second, don't worry about showing weakness. Advocates of the vigorous projection of American force frequently warn cautious administrations against "showing weakness," and invoke images of enemies laughing smugly. These critics have rarely lived outside the United States, almost never read non-American media on a regular basis, and almost never stop to consider what America's political, military and economic might looks like from the outside. If they did, they would quickly realize that non-Americans, especially in failed states, are far more likely to overestimate American strength--indeed, to consider the United States virtually omnipotent--than to mock our supposed weakness. On the occasions when an administration really does show weakness, America's enemies are more likely to wonder what fiendish plot Washington is cooking up behind this obviously false facade, than to cackle gleefully.
Third, Hitler really is dead. There are many forces out there in the world, based in failed states, who want to destroy the United States. They can't. While they can inflict horrible pain through acts of terrorism, even in the worst plausible scenarios, they cannot come close to wiping out the population, overthrowing the government or occupying territory. The black flags of ISIS are not going to fly above the Capitol. And in the most likely scenarios, the worst pain they can inflict will not come close to matching the pain the country would suffer in a real war. So treat enemies as a serious threat, not as the end of the world.
Fourth, remember the good news, and don't get distracted. Because there is good news. Warfare between states is at a historic low. By most estimates, worldwide deaths from terrorism have fallen over the past twenty years, not the reverse. The worldwide poverty rate is falling. Despite the recurrent panics over SARS, avian flu, Ebola and Zika, epidemic diseases are largely under control. All this helps to put the problems of failed states, as heartrending, dangerous and attention grabbing as they are, in perspective. And at the same time, it should serve as a reminder that there is also some very bad news out there that does not involve failed states. Suppose that climate scientists are, in fact, being unduly pessimistic, and that uncontrolled climate change has only a one in six chance of producing catastrophic environmental problems during the next century. Does that sound like good odds? To me, it sounds like playing Russian roulette with one of my children. And the odds are probably much higher than one in six. There is only a certain number of global issues that new administrations can focus on at any one time. They have to guard against the problems of failed states sucking up all their attention.
David A. Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Department of History at Princeton.
The good news for the world's only remaining superpower is that the greatest injuries tend to be self-inflicted. That is, as they say, also the bad news. This was true well before Donald Trump won the presidential election. The race to the White House will be remembered for its exceptional divisiveness and brutality--and for ending in a surprise plot twist. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were the most disliked presidential candidates in the history of polling. Before a single vote had been cast, America's reputation had taken a massive hit in the eyes of the world. America's overreaction to 9/11 marked the greatest damage to U.S. international standing since the Cold War. The 2016 campaign now claims that honor. And it still remains to be seen what damage a Trump presidency will do to American global leadership (if that's even something President-elect Trump cares about). I'm hopeful that Trump will grow into the office he has just won. Hope dies last, after all.
But it doesn't help that Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote. That questionable mandate, combined with the further polarization that will inevitably follow, constitutes a serious national-security challenge because it will cast further doubt over U.S. leadership and its political legitimacy. The worst that Trump can do is pretend that divisiveness doesn't exist and operate as if handed a blank check by the American people. And for the record, I would be saying the exact same thing had Clinton won.
Why does tarnishing U.S. credibility constitute a national-security threat? Because it means that your allies are less likely to back you, and your enemies are more likely to think they can damage you. And that means your enemies will try harder than ever to do just that. For all the noise the media has made about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin's budding romance, Russia has been tactically engaged in hybrid attacks against the United States for months. Putin...