A Farewell to Nation-Building

The U.S. is turning away from using its military to transform other countries, but that doesn’t have to mean retreating from the world. By David Luhnow and Gerald F. Seib Sept. 3, 2021 10:55 am ET

In his Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington warned about the perils of foreign alliances, urging his young country to avoid entanglements abroad. More than a century later, his successor Theodore Roosevelt advocated a very different course, asserting that the U.S. should use its military power not only to defend its interests but to reshape the world in its image. Ever since, U.S. foreign policy has steered between these poles of isolation and intervention. Through the long years of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fight against Islamist terrorism, the interventionist impulse has largely dominated.

But not anymore. The hasty, chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is only the latest milestone in a long-developing shift away from an assertive, military-oriented posture abroad, according to most foreign policy experts. This turn inward can be seen across the American political spectrum, and it could have profound implications—not just for the Middle East but for global security in general, creating more space for major U.S. adversaries such as China and Russia, medium-size rivals such as Iran and even would-be dictators from Latin America to Africa.

“One of the consequences of the Afghanistan fiasco is that the U.S. appetite for armed intervention overseas is going to be minimal,” said Moisés Naím, a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. “But at the same time, the number of challengers around the world is increasing, along with this idea that you can push around the superpower and it may not react.”

The U.S. remains enormously powerful, of course. It is still the only country able to project military force across the globe, and it holds an enormous reservoir of soft power thanks to its ideals and capacity for innovation. But if the U.S. seeks to influence and shape world events in the years ahead, it will need to seriously consider instruments beyond military muscle: smarter diplomacy, more help to friendly nations trying to build stable democratic governments, and long-term economic partnerships in regions such as Latin America, where the U.S. has a strong interest in promoting stability and discouraging illegal immigration.

The public opinion driving this change in orientation isn’t necessarily isolationist. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which has been testing American public opinion on foreign policy for more than four decades, found in a survey last month that 70% of Americans, including majorities in both political parties, favored getting out of Afghanistan—but also that record levels of Americans would back defending Taiwan from an attack by China and allied nations from an attack by Russia. The survey also has found strong continuing support for international trade agreements.

“Overall, Americans think Americans need to play a global role,” said Ivo Daalder, a former American ambassador to NATO who now leads the Chicago Council. “What they don’t think is that the U.S. needs to be the world’s superpower. They want shared leadership and work with other countries.”

Americans mainly seem to be expressing a new wariness of military interventions with vaguely defined objectives and open-ended commitments, such as those that became almost routine in the last half-century. Many feel that their country has spent a fortune in taxpayer money in Iraq and Afghanistan without much to show for it, said John Arquilla, professor emeritus at the Naval Postgraduate Institute. Retrenchment is “a natural oscillation in American foreign policy that has occurred time and again,” he said, “and I think this one is going to be with us for a while.” President Biden, in his own post-mortem on the Afghan operation, said its closure is “about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”

The U.S. will likely refrain from overseas military deployments for humanitarian purposes and from nation-building—the use of U.S. military might to help other countries become democracies with Western-style institutions such as political parties, elections and the rule of law. Nation-building never entirely succeeded in Iraq, despite periods of stability and progress, and has been a particular disappointment in Afghanistan, where $2 trillion of U.S. taxpayer money seemed to evaporate in a week-long offensive by the Taliban. These are just the most obvious examples, however, and successive American administrations have also tried to use military force to steer events in Bosnia, Somalia, Libya, Lebanon and Syria, often with limited effect.

“The lesson that comes out of all this is that expeditionary forces to change the politics and economics of a country are virtually impossible to do,” said Carlos Pascual, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Mexico. In Afghanistan, he says, “the most powerful country in the world, with NATO, the most powerful military alliance, and all sorts of other countries, assembled a range of military and humanitarian and economic assistance, virtually unprecedented, and it failed.”

In a telling sign of the political climate, 49 Republicans in the House joined nearly all Democrats this summer to pass a bill rescinding the 2002 authorization of use of military force in Iraq that has justified the military engagement there ever since. “Everyone talks about the lack of bipartisanship. Everyone talks about our political differences. But when it comes to foreign policy, one of the similarities is that neither Republicans nor Democrats are looking for a big foreign policy,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former top State Department and White House national-security official. “They both want to, as George McGovern might say, come home to America.”

For a long time in the post-World War II era, the inclination in both political parties was toward internationalism and interventionism. The impulse wasn’t necessarily identical. Democrats often were more inclined to intervene for “soft” reasons (humanitarian missions and defending human rights), while Republicans were more likely to act for “hard” reasons (improving America’s strategic standing, keeping America’s foes at bay). But both parties were essentially internationalist at their core, and saw America as, if not the world’s policeman, at least the world’s indispensable force for good.

Americans still think the country should play a global role—just one of shared leadership.

This long tendency was receding when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, promising to put an end to nation-building. The Cold War was over, and the struggle against Communism ended the rationale that had driven many American interventions abroad and held together the bipartisan support for internationalism. Ross Perot had spent most of a decade roaming back and forth across the political landscape talking in Trump-like terms about the need to come home and tend to the domestic front.

Then came 9/11. That shocking day slowed for almost a decade the impulse to retreat from the world. President George W. Bush went from opposing nation-building to practicing it on an epic scale in Iraq and Afghanistan. The neoconservatives, hawkish interventionists who figured to become a waning force in the Republican party with the Soviet threat gone, instead took the lead in Republican national-security strategy.

The result wasn’t just a snapback toward intervention but overreach in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where far-reaching nation-building efforts soon bogged down in counterinsurgency warfare. Americans grew weary of these ventures, electing Barack Obama president partly on the strength of his opposition to the Iraq war. By the time Donald Trump ran for president as an outright foe of the military operations that a president from his own party had initiated, the change in mood was inescapable. Three straight administrations—those of Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump and now President Biden—have pledged to end the American military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, though the task proved far more difficult than any of them expected.

Now that the U.S. has withdrawn from Afghanistan and the Taliban have returned to power, the experience of the Afghan war could have widespread repercussions. Among Americans at home, the war’s trajectory “will reinforce the sense that the world is a bad place, that American involvement leads to a costly outcome,” said Mr. Haass. Abroad, the collapse of the Afghan government—coming on the heels of the Trump administration’s abandonment of Kurdish allies in Syria and the Obama administration’s decision to wash its hands of involvement in Libya after helping to oust dictator Muammar Qadhafi there—may reinforce feelings that the U.S. can’t be counted on in a crunch.

In Europe, the messy end of the Afghan enterprise, undertaken as a joint venture with allies from NATO, figures to dampen enthusiasm for future commitments with the U.S. outside of Europe. “NATO will overcome this, but it will strengthen the idea that we can’t rely on the U.S.,” says Mr. Daalder, the former American ambassador to the organization. Such a sentiment, in turn, may add fuel to the argument, advanced in particular by French President Emmanuel Macron, that European nations need to expand their own military capabilities and develop a European military force that can operate independently of the U.S. Skeptics suspect that a deep unwillingness to spend more on defense will limit moves down that path.

The bigger risk is that America’s adversaries will take advantage of what they perceive as an inward turn in the U.S. The trend is already visible. When Mr. Trump tried to help restore democracy in Venezuela by tightening sanctions against the regime of Nicolas Maduro and threatening that “all options” were on the table, almost no one took the implied threat of military force seriously. Coming a few years after Mr. Obama threatened the Syrian government with military force if it used chemical weapons and then declined to follow through, the threats have become hollow, undermining their effectiveness.

For its part, China may now use the Afghan outcome to support its argument that the U.S. is unreliable and that its democratic form of government is weak and deficient. It has already moved against Hong Kong, with no real U.S. response, and could find ways to test American resolve anew in Taiwan, where the U.S. has been warning against more provocative Chinese actions.

Russia, having already grabbed Crimea with relative impunity under the Obama administration, may conclude that its inroads against the government of Ukraine, which it has been seeking to intimidate with diplomatic, economic and military threats, won’t get much pushback from Washington. Both Iran and North Korea could decide that the U.S. isn’t in a position to forcefully counter their ambitions for developing nuclear weapons.

These could be miscalculations, of course. The Biden administration may react forcefully to such moves and perhaps even decide that a tough reaction is particularly important in the wake of doubts created by the Afghanistan withdrawal. Thus, one additional danger now is that U.S. adversaries may become too aggressive because they underestimate America’s underlying resolve, setting off a dangerous escalation.

It could be argued, after all, that U.S. withdrawal from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is a harbinger of new global priorities. Indeed, one reason there has been agreement across administrations of both parties to move away from the Afghan conflict is a consensus that the U.S. is entering a period of big-power competition, certainly with China but perhaps also with Russia. U.S. military leaders have turned their focus away from counterinsurgency and counterterrorism—which took precedence after 9/11—and toward the exigencies of keeping up with a rapidly improving Chinese military. That task requires the rapid mastery of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, surveillance capabilities and robotics.

Even as the U.S. keeps a wary eye on its most powerful adversaries, retrenchment from overseas military adventures may afford it the opportunity to exercise power in different ways and perhaps closer to home. “What if we had expended all that effort on Iraq and Afghanistan in stabilizing the Western Hemisphere?” asked Kori Schake, a senior fellow and the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. “One cost of overreacting to the terror threat after 9/11 was the opportunity cost of what could have been done to improve governance and quality of life” nearer to the U.S. Now, she says, there is a chance to “positively affect change.”

Indeed, Latin America highlights both the ground the U.S. has lost while focusing on problem areas such as Afghanistan and the chances now to begin catching up. The U.S. has given up on building a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone, while China has become the biggest trading partner for most big economies in the region. Nicaragua and Venezuela have both become dictatorships in the past decade. And the growth of organized crime in Mexico and Central America has destabilized countries on the U.S. doorstep and helped to create waves of migration.

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Ms. Schake and many others hope that the U.S. doesn’t lose its nerve to try to help shape the world in a positive way. In 1775, facing the revolt of the American colonies, the great British conservative Edmund Burke warned that the use of force is always temporary: “It may subdue for a moment, but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again; and a nation is not governed, which is perpetually to be conquered.”

The lesson is worth thinking about, Ms. Schake said. The era of using our military to try to transform faraway countries may be over for now, but the U.S. can still try to promote stability and prosperity abroad, especially closer to home, by other means.

Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Appeared in the September 4, 2021, print edition as 'A Farewell To Nation-Building An Aversion to Costly Interventions.'