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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Hell of Good Intentions

America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy

Stephen M. Walt

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



WHEN THE SOVIET UNION collapsed, in 1991, Americans could have taken a well-earned victory lap and reconsidered the expansive grand strategy they had pursued for the previous four decades. They could have asked themselves whether the level of global engagement mandated by the Cold War strategy of containment still made sense in these radically new circumstances. In the absence of a peer competitor or a strong ideological rival, was it still necessary or wise for the United States to maintain an extensive array of global security commitments and to work overtime to shape events around the world? The sudden disappearance of America’s only serious rival might have encouraged U.S. leaders to question the wisdom of trying to guide political, economic, and military relations on every continent, and led them to retrench slightly and focus more attention on domestic needs.

Yet this possibility did not get much of a hearing in the early 1990s.1 A handful of academics and policy analysts called for a significant reduction in America’s global commitments, but their views attracted scant attention in official circles and had zero impact on U.S. foreign and defense policy.2 Allies in Europe and Asia worried that the United States might cash in its “peace dividend” and reduce its global presence substantially, but the foreign policy establishment never considered this possibility for more than a moment. The world had changed, but a serious reassessment of U.S. grand strategy never took place.

Even before the U.S.S.R. imploded, top officials in the Bush administration believed that the United States should preserve or expand its existing commitments and maintain overwhelming military superiority in order to deter the emergence of new “peer competitors.”3 But their ambitions did not stop there. As President George H. W. Bush and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft later recalled, they found themselves “standing alone at the height of power” with “the rarest opportunity to shape the world and the deepest responsibility to do so wisely for the benefit of not just the United States but all nations.”4

As Richard Haass, former director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and later the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, described it, the central objective of U.S. foreign policy became one of integrating other countries “into arrangements that will sustain a world consistent with U.S. interests and values, and thereby promote peace, prosperity, and justice.”5 The process of “integration” was not passive: on the contrary, the United States actively pressured other states to adopt more representative political systems, open themselves to trade and investment, and accept a set of global institutions that were to a large extent made-in-America. States that welcomed U.S. primacy were supported and defended; those that resisted it were isolated, contained, coerced, or overthrown. Terrorist and insurgent groups that opposed U.S. dominance would be tracked, targeted, and, if possible, destroyed. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all shared these broad objectives and actively pursued them, albeit in somewhat different ways.

The United States, in short, was not a “status quo” power. Having won the Cold War, helped liberate Eastern Europe, and freed Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s clutches, U.S. leaders now set out to create a liberal world order through the active use of U.S. power. Instead of defending its own shores, maximizing prosperity and well-being at home, and promoting its ideals by force of example, Washington sought to remake other countries in its own image and incorporate them into institutions and arrangements of its own design.

Victorious nations often succumb to hubris, and the heady sense of possibility that followed America’s Cold War triumph was to be expected. Nor did these hopes appear unwarranted. The smashing U.S. victory in the 1991 Gulf War had exorcized the ghosts of Vietnam and the 1979 Iranian hostage debacle, and U.S. military supremacy was now apparent to all. The U.S. economy grew impressively for most of the 1990s, new democracies were springing up in Latin America and the former Soviet empire, and there were even hopes for lasting peace in the broader Middle East.

Small wonder, then, that prominent intellectuals believed that the era of great power competition and grand ideological rivalries was finally behind us and humankind could concentrate on amassing wealth in a benevolent “new world order.” American power would be marshaled for (nearly) everyone’s benefit, and other states were expected to welcome Washington’s leadership, accept its well-intentioned guidance, imitate the American model of democratic capitalism, and be grateful for the benefits U.S. primacy would provide.

Unfortunately, the results of this ambitious attempt to remake the world have been dismal. Pursuing liberal hegemony did not make the United States safer, stronger, more prosperous, or more popular. Nor did it make the rest of the world more tranquil and secure. On the contrary, America’s ambitious attempt to reorder world politics undermined its own position, sowed chaos in several regions, and caused considerable misery in a number of other countries.

To see this clearly, we need only compare the world the United States faced in the early 1990s with the world it confronts today. It is not a pretty picture.



When the Cold War ended, the United States found itself in a position of global primacy unseen since the Roman Empire. It had the world’s largest and most advanced economy—with a gross domestic product roughly 60 percent larger than its nearest competitor—and in 1992 it produced roughly 25 percent of the world’s goods and services.6 It continued to set the pace in scientific research and technological innovation, its universities and research labs were the best in the world, and the U.S. dollar remained the world’s reserve currency, a luxury that allowed Washington to run larger trade deficits and to offset costs onto other countries in other ways.

The United States was also the only country in the world with a global military presence. Not only did it have “command of the commons” (the oceans and much of the world’s airspace), it had the capacity to take decisive military action almost anywhere.7 In the 1990s, in fact, U.S. military spending exceeded the defense expenditures of the next twenty or thirty largest countries combined. Many of these states were close U.S. allies, so America’s practical lead over its remaining rivals was in fact even larger. Its armed forces also enjoyed impressive qualitative advantages, with U.S. spending on military R & D alone exceeding the entire defense budgets of Germany, Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan, or China.8 Even the deaths of nineteen U.S. Rangers in a bungled raid in Somalia in 1993 did not undermine the widespread sense of U.S. military omnipotence.

Moreover, the United States was on good terms with all the other major powers. The major European states were bound to the United States through NATO, and Washington also had formal alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines as well as close strategic partnerships with Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan (among others). Relations with Russia were surprisingly cordial as the unipolar era began, as Moscow wanted Western help to transition to a market economy and was eager to forge cooperative security arrangements as well. China’s rising power was of some concern to U.S. leaders, but Beijing was still committed to Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “peaceful rise.” Accordingly, the United States opted to integrate China into existing institutions such as the new World Trade Organization in the hope that extending a friendly hand would convince Beijing to be a partner rather than a rival.

Given America’s abundant advantages, many experts believed that the “unipolar moment” might last for years—and possibly decades. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1990, the columnist Charles Krauthammer of The Washington Post suggested that preserving U.S. dominance was readily affordable and that the only thing that might topple the United States from its lofty perch was a prolonged economic downturn caused by wasteful entitlement spending at home.9 The political scientists William Wohlforth and Stephen Brooks of Dartmouth College agreed, arguing that U.S. primacy might last even longer than the forty-plus years of bipolarity that preceded it.10 These and other apostles of U.S. dominance repeatedly emphasized that the costs of U.S. primacy were modest and would be easy for the world’s largest economy to bear.11

The strategic situation was not entirely rosy, of course, but the dangers that troubled U.S. leaders after the Cold War were far less ominous than the threats the United States had faced in the recent past. Instead of competing with a continent-size superpower driven by a revolutionary ideology that had won millions of sympathizers around the world, America’s main adversaries were now an array of weak “rogue states” such as Iraq, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan (under the Taliban), and Serbia. These regimes were all unsavory dictatorships, some of them sought to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and each was a troublesome influence within its own region. But they were all third- to fifth-rate powers when compared with the mighty United States, and none of them posed an existential threat to the United States or to any of its vital interests.12 As General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wryly noted in 1991, “I’m running out of demons. I’m running out of enemies. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung.”13

Moreover, the first Gulf War and the subsequent containment of Iraq suggested that the United States and its allies could take care of any of these states rather easily if it became absolutely necessary. From a broad historical perspective, the United States could hardly have asked for a more benign security environment.


In 1993 the tides of history appeared to be flowing America’s way. Victory in the Cold War seemed to be a striking vindication of America’s core ideals of individual liberty, free elections, and open markets. The so-called velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe and a “third wave” of democratic transitions in Latin America and elsewhere convinced many observers that liberal democracy was the only logical end point for modern or even postmodern societies. The expansion and deepening of the European Union (EU) in 1992—culminating in its decision to adopt a common currency, the euro—fit this upbeat narrative as well. Indeed, as a self-proclaimed “civilian power,” the EU seemed to offer further evidence that democracy, the rule of law, and the progressive expansion of international institutions could create durable “zones of peace” among countries that had fought repeatedly in the past.

The spread of liberal norms and institutions—democracy, free speech, rule of law, market economies, etc.—was closely linked to hopes for significant progress in human rights. With Soviet-style authoritarianism discredited and more states becoming democratic, it seemed inevitable that government abuses would decline and humans would live increasingly free and secure lives. America’s dominant position put it in an ideal place to press other states to protect basic human rights and to help states making the transition to democracy build the requisite legal institutions and other supporting elements of civil society.

The political scientist Francis Fukuyama captured the zeitgeist perfectly in a famous 1989 essay (and subsequent 1993 book), arguing that the grand ideological struggles of the past were now behind us and that mankind had reached “the end of history.”14 In the future, he suggested, there would be “no struggle or conflict over ‘large’ issues and consequently no need for generals or statesmen; what remains is primarily economic activity.” The chief danger we faced, warned Fukuyama, might be boredom. Another well-known scholar, John Mueller, offered the rosy view that great power war had become unfashionable and obsolescent, and the Harvard professor Stanley Hoffmann told The New York Times that foreign policy realism—which emphasizes the perennial and often tragic struggle for power between states—was “utter nonsense today.”15 These (and other) optimistic views reflected the widespread sense that the world had left great power politics behind and was moving steadily toward a peaceful liberal order.

Reinforcing the sense of optimism about democracy and human rights was the belief that economic globalization was opening the door to a new era of peace and prosperity. The Communist world had embraced the market; new technologies of transportation, communication, and digitalization were shrinking distance and lowering transaction costs; ambitious new global agreements were removing political barriers to trade and investment; and global manufacturing now depended on complex but highly efficient supply chains that made goods cheaper and war even less feasible. International institutions such as the new World Trade Organization (WTO) would manage these new arrangements and enable all states to benefit from increased economic cooperation, assuming that they met the relevant requirements for membership and agreed to abide by the rules that these various organizations had laid down.16

Needless to say, these same pundits saw the United States as the linchpin of this benevolent new economic order. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas L. Friedman’s bestselling anthem to globalization, the New York Times columnist argued that countries hoping to succeed in a globalized world had to don the “Golden Straitjacket”—open markets, democratic institutions, the rule of law, etc.—and described the United States as the state that had gone furthest toward perfecting what he called “DOSCapital 6.0.” And Friedman seemed to be onto something, because the U.S. economy performed well during the 1990s. Time magazine dubbed the U.S. Treasury secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers and the Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan “the Committee to Save the World,” and the idea that U.S. officials and Wall Street financial institutions were better at running a modern economy than anyone else reinforced the so-called Washington Consensus. If poorer states wanted to succeed in an increasingly integrated and competitive world economy, they would have to become more like the United States.

Taken together, these trends heralded a bright future for the United States but also for much of the world. Liberal values were on the march, and powerful secular trends seemed to be pulling much of the world inexorably in the direction that U.S. leaders wanted it to go. A few recalcitrant “rogue states” might hold out for a while, but over time, more and more countries would become democratic, respect human rights, and enter an ever-expanding global economy. U.S.-led international institutions would facilitate cooperation and enhance transparency, reinforcing liberal norms and uniform legal standards even more. American power was the foundation on which globalization supposedly rested—or, as Friedman quipped, “Without America on duty, there will be no America Online.”17


Primacy also seemed to put Washington in an ideal position to address an array of vexing global issues. Given the vast power at America’s disposal and the lack of serious rivals, the United States would be free to use its influence, wealth, prestige, and, if necessary, its superior military forces to address problems that had defied solution for decades.

1. The Arab-Israeli Conflict

In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference had made a promising start toward resolving the long and bitter Arab-Israeli conflict. Then, in 1993, the Oslo Accords brought new hope that the elusive final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians might finally become a reality. The Palestinian Liberation Organization had accepted Israel’s existence, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was genuinely interested in a permanent peace, and the Clinton administration seemed to be in an ideal position to broker the deal. For the first time since Israel’s founding in 1948, a lasting peace in the Middle East appeared within reach.

2. Proliferation

Addressing the danger posed by nuclear weapons seemed increasingly feasible as well. The United States had long sought to discourage the spread of nuclear weapons (and other weapons of mass destruction) and had labored to create the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to persuade close U.S. allies to abandon their own nuclear ambitions. Although the problem had not disappeared in the early 1990s, the United States seemed to be in an excellent position to keep the lid on it. Iraq was now under strict UN sanctions, and inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) were dismantling its nuclear programs. Its neighbor, Iran, had sought nuclear weapons during the reign of Shah Reza Pahlavi, but the Islamic Republic had zero nuclear centrifuges operating when the Clinton administration took office in 1993 and still had none when George Bush became president eight years later. The United States joined with Russia and several European states to convince Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to give up the nuclear weapons they had inherited when the U.S.S.R. broke up; Washington and Moscow subsequently negotiated new reductions in their own nuclear forces; and the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program was gradually placing Russia’s vast stockpile of nuclear materials under more reliable custody and reducing the danger of “loose nukes.”18 Washington was keeping a watchful eye on North Korea, and the Clinton administration eventually decided against preventive war and instead negotiated the so-called Agreed Framework in 1994, which sought to persuade Pyongyang to forgo a nuclear weapons capability in exchange for civilian nuclear power plants and other material benefits.19 Proliferation and other related issues remained a concern, but they appeared to be problems the United States could manage.

3. International Terrorism

International terrorism seemed to be a manageable problem as well. U.S. officials were aware that Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups were hostile and dangerous, and attacks on the World Trade Center (1993), the Khobar Towers dormitory in Saudi Arabia (1996), the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya (1998), and the USS Cole in Yemen (2000) underscored the challenge. But top U.S. officials also believed that the threat could be contained and that significant adjustments in U.S. strategy—such as distancing itself from its various Middle East clients or reducing its military presence there—were not required. Instead, they believed that the long-term solution was the further spread of U.S. ideals: as two former Clinton administration counterterrorism officials later wrote, “Democratization, however hazardous and unpredictable the process may be, is the key to eliminating sacred terror over the long term.”20

As the post–Cold War era began, in short, the United States was in the catbird seat. Not only was it richer and stronger than any of the other major powers, it was allied with most of them and on good terms with the others, and it faced no peer competitors, regional rivals, or existential dangers. Key geopolitical trends seemed to be breaking America’s way, and the liberal prescription for perennial peace and expanding prosperity appeared to be fulfilling its promise. It was time to abandon ancient hatreds and local quarrels and get busy getting rich in a rapidly globalizing world, one whose defining features were made in America and underpinned by American power.

But even if the winds of progress were at America’s back, U.S. leaders still believed it would take an active effort to lead the world to this bright new future. As Secretary of State Warren Christopher told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1993, the United States was standing “on the brink of … a new world of extraordinary hope and possibility.” But, he also cautioned, “the new world we seek will not emerge on its own. We must shape the transformation that is underway.”21

Shaping that transformation is precisely what Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all tried to do. Although their diplomatic styles differed and their specific policies and priorities varied in certain respects, liberal hegemony remained the default strategy for all three administrations. All three assumed that U.S. leadership was essential to global progress, and each sought to use American power to spread democracy, expand U.S. influence and security commitments, and reinforce a rules-based, liberal world order. How well did their efforts go?


By almost any measure, and in nearly every key area of foreign policy, the United States is in worse shape today than it was in 1992. The “unipolar moment” turned out to be surprisingly brief, the United States suffered repeated setbacks in several important areas, and the strategic environment has deteriorated sharply. Liberal democracy is in retreat in many places, and America’s image as a vanguard of stable and competent governance was eroding long before Donald Trump appeared on the scene. U.S. efforts to address important regional problems have repeatedly failed, existing global institutions are visibly fraying, and terrorism and nuclear weapons have spread despite extensive U.S. efforts to contain them. Some regions—most notably the Middle East—are now mired in conflicts that may take decades to resolve. Although there have been isolated foreign policy achievements over the past twenty-five years, the failures are far more numerous and consequential than the successes.


1. Great Power Relations

When the “unipolar era” began, the United States was the sole great power. Russia and China were both relatively weak, U.S. relations with both countries were reasonably good, and Washington’s attention was focused primarily on a set of even weaker “rogue states,” on terrorism, and on WMD proliferation. Today, Russia and China are significantly stronger than they were, both are at odds with Washington, and Moscow and Beijing are collaborating more closely than at any time since the 1950s. Several of the rogue states that Washington targeted in the 1990s remain defiant, and the rest are now “failed states” that may pose even greater risks. America’s image of military dominance has been tarnished, the danger from terrorism has increased, and efforts to halt proliferation have been disappointing.

Relations with Russia deteriorated largely because the United States repeatedly ignored Russian warnings and threatened Moscow’s vital interests. The most important step was the decision to expand NATO eastward, beginning with the admission of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999; the subsequent entry of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004; and the U.S. proposal to invite Ukraine and Georgia to prepare “action plans” for NATO membership in 2008.

As Russia experts like the late George Kennan warned, expanding NATO to the east was a “tragic mistake” that made a future conflict with Russia far more likely.22 It also violated the assurances that Western officials (notably Secretary of State James Baker) had given to Soviet leaders prior to German reunification, including a pledge that NATO’s jurisdiction and military forces would not move “one inch to the east.”23 U.S. leaders felt they could act with near impunity, however, because the Russian economy was in free fall and there was little Moscow could do, even in areas adjacent to its territory. A similar disregard for Russian concerns led President George W. Bush to withdraw from the U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and announce plans to deploy ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe, triggering Russian fears of a possible U.S. first-strike capability.

By 2000, Russia’s official National Security Concept was warning of “attempts to create an international relations structure based on domination by developed Western countries … under U.S. leadership,” and some of these fears were well-founded.24 The United States bombed Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo War (without prior authorization by the UN Security Council), toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, backed the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, and ousted the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. This last step was especially significant because Moscow had gone along with UN Security Council Resolution 1973—which authorized military action “to protect civilian life” but not to topple the Libyan government—only to see the United States and its allies use the resolution as an opportunity to remove a leader they had long despised.25 As former secretary of defense Robert Gates later acknowledged, “the Russians felt they had been played for suckers on Libya,” which helps explain why Russia later backed the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad so firmly and blocked UN action against him.26

Similarly, Obama’s early insistence that “Assad must go” in Syria threatened Moscow’s only remaining Middle East ally, and then, in 2013, U.S. officials openly sided with the pro-Western demonstrators who ousted Viktor Yanukovych, the democratically elected, pro-Russian leader of Ukraine. Moscow responded by seizing Crimea and backing breakaway militias in eastern Ukraine, thereby halting Ukraine’s drift into the Western orbit.27 The United States and its NATO allies responded with economic sanctions and the deployment of additional air and ground units in Eastern Europe, plunging relations with Moscow to the lowest level since the Cold War.

Russia is still significantly weaker than the United States but no longer a basket case. Although its economy remains dependent on energy exports and vulnerable to falling energy prices, its military power has been partly restored, and Moscow now has some capacity to defend its vital interests, especially in areas close to home. The seizure of Crimea, along with Moscow’s successful military intervention in support of the Assad regime in Syria, underscored Russia’s return to great power status and the waning of America’s unipolar moment.

U.S. relations with China have become increasingly fraught as well. In the 1990s, U.S. officials had hoped to integrate China into existing international institutions and make it a “responsible stakeholder” that would not challenge U.S. dominance. As late as 2002, in fact, the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy counseled China to forgo advanced military capabilities and focus on greater social and political freedom instead.28

China ignored this self-serving advice, however, and by 2016 had emerged as an increasingly confident and ambitious rival. It was using some of its rapidly growing wealth to modernize its military forces, with an eye toward contesting the dominant position in Asia that the United States had enjoyed since the end of World War II. As China grew stronger, its leaders abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s doctrine of a “peaceful rise” and began active efforts to shift the regional status quo in its favor. In a triumphal speech to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Chinese president Xi Jinping described global power trends as increasingly favorable, said that the Chinese nation “now stands tall and firm in the East,” and declared that China would be “a global leader in terms of comprehensive national power and international influence” by mid-century.29

Within Asia itself, China has begun to challenge U.S. military preeminence in the maritime areas close to China and to advance its own territorial claims in the South China and East China seas. This policy has led to repeated incidents with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan, largely over disputed territorial claims in the adjacent waters. Beijing also began a sustained effort to build up and garrison a number of partially submerged reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, rejecting a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that challenged its territorial claims there. A further sign of Beijing’s more confrontational posture was its seizure of an unmanned U.S. undersea drone in December 2016, even though the drone was operating outside the waters Beijing had previously claimed. And with the United States bogged down in the Middle East and elsewhere, in 2013 Beijing announced an ambitious “One Belt, One Road Initiative,” a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project to develop transportation networks in Central Asia and the Indian Ocean.30

The Bush administration sought to balance a rising China by forming a “strategic partnership” with India, and the Obama administration took the next step by announcing a “pivot” (or “rebalancing”) toward Asia in 2011. In addition to moving additional U.S. military forces to the region, the Obama team negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a controversial twelve-nation multilateral trade agreement that excluded China and was intended to reinforce U.S. economic and political influence in Asia.

Yet in a move clearly designed to provide an alternative to the U.S.-led liberal order, Beijing began to develop its own set of international institutions. Chief among them was a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which had attracted fifty-seven “founding members” by 2016. The Obama administration refused to participate and tried to persuade other countries to follow its lead, but Washington could not even convince such close U.S. allies as Israel, Germany, or Great Britain to stay out of the new organization. And when President-elect Donald Trump announced that he would abandon the TPP as soon as he took office, Beijing immediately offered to organize regional trade under the auspices of a “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership” that excluded the United States.31

By 2016, it was increasingly clear that the world’s two most powerful countries were headed for an intense security competition, one that was likely to shape great power politics for many decades to come.32 Not surprisingly, the deteriorating U.S. relationship with both Russia and China gave the two Asian giants ample incentive to cooperate with each other. In 1992 the two states announced that they were forming a “constructive partnership”; in 2001 they signed a formal treaty of friendship and cooperation. And when Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Moscow in 2015, Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke openly of a “special relationship” between the two states. Although they share a long border, have fought in the past, and are in many respects not natural allies, a shared desire to rein in American power has led Beijing and Moscow to share intelligence and military technology, conduct joint military exercises, sign a number of long-term oil and gas development deals, and coordinate diplomatic positions within the UN Security Council.

Instead of being on reasonably good terms with all the major powers and being decisively stronger than all of them, by 2016 the United States had an increasingly contentious relationship with two of the world’s great powers and U.S. policies had pushed them closer together.

2. From Rogue States to Failed States

American efforts to address the supposed threat from “rogue states” fared no better. The United States remains on bad terms with the rogue states that are still in power—North Korea, Iran, and the Assad regime in Syria—and all three governments continue to defy U.S. pressure. Syria has been wrecked by a brutal civil war, but Assad seems likely to remain in power, and Iran and North Korea are in stronger positions than they were twenty-five years ago.

With the partial (and minor) exception of Serbia, the rogue states the United States has successfully overthrown—Ba’athist Iraq, the Afghan Taliban, and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya—ended up as failed states in the aftermath of U.S. intervention. Instead of becoming stable, pro-Western democracies, or even more moderate authoritarian regimes with a high degree of internal order, each became an active war zone, a breeding ground for violent extremism, and a further source of regional instability. Toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq also removed a key counterbalance to Iranian influence and greatly enhanced Iran’s position in the Persian Gulf region.

3. A Tarnished Military Reputation

By 2016 a series of internal scandals; the long, costly, and unsuccessful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the ability of a number of weaker foes to defy sustained U.S. pressure had eroded the armed forces’ reputation for competence and military supremacy. The United States still possessed the world’s most capable military forces, but they no longer seemed unstoppable.

In Afghanistan, the toppling of the Taliban in 2001 seemed like a miraculous demonstration of U.S. military prowess, belying preinvasion fears that the United States would end up in the same sort of quagmire that had ultimately defeated the Soviet Union. Some seventeen years later, however, it is clear that those fears were well-founded. None of the long line of U.S. commanders managed to find the magic formula to defeat the Taliban and achieve victory, and the Afghan government remained corrupt, internally divided, and incapable of securing its own territory without extensive U.S. military backing and lavish economic support. The much-publicized 2009 “surge” of additional U.S. troops failed to turn the tide, and by 2016 the United States seemed trapped in a war it could neither win nor leave.33

The Bush administration’s ill-fated decision to invade Iraq in 2003 offers a similarly tragic lesson. The invading force had little difficulty defeating Iraq’s third-rate army, but U.S. civilian and military leaders had failed to plan for the occupation and were repeatedly surprised by the challenges it posed. A potent insurgency soon emerged, sectarian violence exploded, and the occupying troops responded in ways that made these problems worse. The subsequent “surge” in 2007 was a tactical success but a strategic failure, as it did not produce the necessary political reconciliation between Iraq’s Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish populations. Iraq’s new Shia-dominated government eventually insisted that the United States leave, and the Bush administration negotiated a schedule for withdrawal in 2008. Barack Obama eventually implemented this agreement (albeit more slowly than intended), only to be surprised when the new insurgent group ISIS emerged in 2014, inflicted a series of defeats on the Iraqi government forces that the United States had spent billions of dollars training and equipping, and proceeded to seize control of a significant slice of Iraqi and Syrian territory and proclaim the formation of a new “caliphate.” Viewed as a whole, the Iraq War was an eloquent reminder of the limits of military power: having broken Iraq and ignited a bitter sectarian struggle, Washington had no idea how to fix it.34

U.S. military interventions elsewhere were no more successful. Relying primarily on covert action teams, Special Forces, and armed drones, the United States had interfered in Somalia and Yemen on several occasions from the early 1990s onward, and in each case the political situation got worse and anti-American extremists grew stronger.35 Even the twin interventions in the Balkans—the 1996 Dayton Agreement and the 1999 Kosovo War—produced at best mixed results, as the new states that emerged from these conflicts remain fragile and the ethnic tensions that produced these conflicts continue to fester. As Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted when asked about U.S. efforts at regime change in 2016, “We’re 0 for a lot.”36

By 2016, what had once appeared to be an irresistible tool of American influence had been humbled, and the mismatch between U.S. commitments and aspirations and its military capabilities was increasingly apparent. The 2008 financial crisis, ballooning federal deficit, and subsequent budget sequester eventually forced across-the-board cuts in defense spending, yet the United States was still fighting in Afghanistan, still waging war against ISIS in Iraq, still reinforcing vulnerable NATO allies in Eastern Europe, still attempting to “rebalance” toward Asia, and still conducting an unknown number of counterterrorist operations in dozens of other countries.

When Donald Trump took the oath of office, the United States was committed to defending more countries than at any time in its history. It had formal defense commitments with at least sixty-six countries, including the twenty-eight other members of NATO, the twenty signatories of the Rio Treaty in the Western Hemisphere, and such Asian allies as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines. Afghanistan, Argentina, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand, and Pakistan had all been designated “major non-NATO allies,” and the United States was tied to dozens of other countries through a bewildering array of security arrangements and defense cooperation agreements.37 In 2014 a RAND Corporation study of U.S. security partnerships noted that “the most striking observation is the sharp increase in 1992, after the end of the Cold War, in both bilateral and multilateral agreements.”38 The available resources had shrunk, the number of opponents had grown, and still America’s global agenda kept expanding.

By almost any measure, the strategic environment the United States faces today is worse than it was in 1993, and America’s overall position within that environment has eroded. In 2014, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, judged the world to be “more dangerous than it ever has been.” In 2016, Richard Haass gloomily noted that “the question is not whether the world will continue to unravel, but how fast and how far.” Or as Henry Kissinger observed darkly, “The United States has not faced a more diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.”39 Even if one allows for the hyperbole that pervades much contemporary commentary on U.S. foreign policy, this is hardly the world that U.S. foreign-policy makers anticipated when the Cold War ended. To the contrary, the broad downward trend is a telling indictment of America’s post–Cold War grand strategy.


When the Cold War ended, U.S. leaders expected that a rising liberal tide would accelerate the spread of democracy, human rights, and open markets and would usher in an unprecedented era of peace and global prosperity, all under Uncle Sam’s benevolent but watchful eye. By 2016 these confident expectations of an ever-rising liberal tide had dissipated, and liberalism was in retreat both at home and abroad.

1. Democracy Demotion

The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations all made democracy promotion a central goal of U.S. foreign policy and were confident that U.S. power could reinforce a powerful secular trend. The Clinton administration’s national security strategy of “engagement and enlargement” put this objective at the heart of U.S. foreign policy, and George W. Bush said that his own national security strategy was based on a “great and guiding goal: to turn this time of American influence into generations of democratic peace.”40 Barack Obama was less outspoken on the topic than his predecessors, perhaps, but many of his senior aides were deeply committed to promoting liberal values, and Obama himself repeatedly called for foreign governments to be more open, transparent, and accountable.41 As he told the UN General Assembly in 2010, “There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny.”42 Or, as the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review declared in 2015, “Democracy, accountable government, and respect for human rights are essential for a secure, prosperous and just world.”43 This commitment to promoting certain human rights extended to religious freedom, which successive U.S. officials declared to be a cherished constitutional value, a strategic interest, and a foreign policy priority.44

Nor were such statements merely empty rhetoric. In addition to using military power to topple such dictators as Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, the United States used an array of softer policy instruments to promote or solidify democratic change in other countries. The U.S. Agency for International Development allocates more than $1 billion annually to strengthening political parties and democratic institutions, with the U.S. State Department spending roughly half that much on similar programs. The federal government also subsidizes the nonprofit National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, organizations run by the two main U.S. political parties whose mission is aiding their counterparts overseas. The U.S. taxpayer also supports the National Endowment for Democracy, a bipartisan, nongovernmental organization created by Congress that is “dedicated to fostering the growth of a wide range of democratic institutions abroad.”45 According to former assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland, a leading proponent of U.S.-sponsored regime change, the U.S. government invested more than $5 billion to strengthen democracy in Ukraine alone.46

Yet despite the rhetorical priority given to this goal and the repeated use of U.S. wealth and power to advance it, efforts to promote democracy and human rights have gone into reverse. In 2012 the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index reported that “between 2006 and 2008 there was stagnation of democracy; between 2008 and 2010 there was regression across the world.” The 2015 edition was even gloomier, noting “a decline in some aspects of governance, political participation and media freedoms, and a clear deterioration in attitudes associated with, or that are conducive to, democracy.”47 More shocking still, in 2016, declining trust in government led the Democracy Index to downgrade the United States from a “full” to a “flawed” democracy.48

Similarly, the 2018 edition of Freedom House’s annual report on Freedom in the World warned that democracy “faced its most serious crisis in decades” and found that “Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.” Over that twelve-year period, in fact, “113 countries have seen a net decline, and only 62 have experienced a net improvement.”49

These trends are apparent nearly everywhere: liberal institutions are eroding in Poland and Hungary, Turkey’s ruling AKP Party has sharply curtailed press freedoms and imprisoned thousands of suspected opponents, and right-wing populist parties are increasingly active across Europe. The Obama administration persuaded the Egyptian military dictator Hosni Mubarak to step down in February 2011, but a military coup crushed Egypt’s brief experiment with electoral democracy two years later. Elections in Afghanistan are rife with fraud, and the government in Kabul remains divided, corrupt, and ineffective to this day. U.S.-backed reform efforts in Myanmar convinced the military to give up power and hold free elections, but the new, mostly civilian-led government subsequently launched a brutal campaign of violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group. After a period of decline, mass killings peaked again in 2013, with massacres or civil wars occurring in Egypt, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, and several other countries.50 By 2016, what began as a peaceful protest movement for modest reforms in Syria had become a brutal civil war between the Assad regime and its equally despicable and dangerous opponents. Meanwhile, the youngest beneficiary of U.S. efforts at democracy promotion—the fledgling Republic of South Sudan—had fallen back into civil war before its third anniversary.51

“Between 2000 and 2015,” observed democracy expert Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution in 2016, “democracy broke down in 27 countries … Meanwhile, many existing authoritarian regimes have become even less open, transparent, and responsive to their citizens … [And] democracy itself seems to have lost its appeal. Many emerging democracies have failed to meet their citizens’ hopes for freedom … just as the world’s established democracies, including the United States, have grown increasingly dysfunctional.”52

As Diamond suggests, part of the problem was the various ills afflicting Western-style liberal democracy itself, including the paralysis that repeatedly hobbled the U.S. political system, the pervasive and corrupting role that money plays in U.S. elections, and the regulatory failures exposed by the 2008 financial crisis. The inability of European leaders to devise prompt and effective responses to the eurozone crisis sapped popular confidence as well, and public opinion polls across the Western world revealed declining support for democracy itself. For example, a 2014 study based on Eurobarometer surveys found that “satisfaction with democracy [in the EU] receded by seven percentage points between autumn 2007 and 2011, while trust in national parliaments decreased by eight percentage points.”53 As Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment rightly noted, “Democracy’s travails in both the United States and Europe have greatly damaged the standing of democracy in the eyes of many people around the world.”54

Compounding these problems was the failure of countries like the United States to uphold the ideals they eagerly preached to others. The discovery that U.S. officials had authorized torture, extraordinary rendition, and targeted assassinations, and the revelations about prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the U.S. prison at Guantanamo made U.S. complaints about other states’ human rights conduct seem gratuitous at best and hypocritical at worst.55 Similarly, revelations that the National Security Agency was illegally compiling a vast trove of electronic data on U.S. and foreign citizens—and that top officials had lied about these activities—cast doubt on America’s professed commitment to civil liberties and the rule of law, straining relations with key allies. U.S. support for authoritarian governments such as Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Singapore; its ready acceptance of the coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt; and its refusal to sanction the questionable human rights behavior of such allies as Israel and Turkey helped tarnish America’s democratic brand as well.56

At the same time, authoritarian regimes proved to be more resilient than U.S. leaders had anticipated. China’s one-party state weathered the 2008 financial crisis well and continued to enjoy impressive levels of economic growth, Russia regained its status as a great power and began defending its interests more successfully, and quasi-democratic leaders such as Recep Erdogan in Turkey and Viktor Orbán in Hungary remained popular despite their increasingly authoritarian conduct.

The antidemocratic backlash also hit the philanthropic foundations and nongovernmental organizations that were working to strengthen democracy and promote human rights around the world. Between 2012 and 2015, for example, “more than 60 countries have passed or drafted laws that curtail the activity of non-governmental and civil society organizations. Ninety-six countries have taken steps to inhibit NGOs from operating at full capacity, in what the Carnegie Endowment calls a ‘viral-like spread of new laws’” designed to limit what these organizations can do or in some cases shut them down altogether.57

To sum up: both Democratic and Republican administrations wanted to make the world more democratic, foster greater freedom, and improve human rights, and they believed that powerful secular forces around the world would make this goal easy to achieve and lead to a more peaceful and prosperous world. Not only were their hopes not borne out, U.S. actions at home and abroad have undermined these idealistic objectives and helped ignite the populist backlash that ushered Donald Trump into the White House.

2. Globalization and Its Discontents

The backlash against liberal democracy gained additional momentum when globalization failed to deliver as promised. Lowering political barriers to global trade and investment did boost world trade, helped countries like China and India lift millions of people out of deep poverty, reduced the costs of goods for U.S. consumers, and increased overall living standards in many places. But in the developed world—and especially the United States—the benefits of rapid globalization went mostly to the wealthy and well-educated: Wall Street won big, but Main Street did not. As Branko Milanovic has shown, incomes of the Asian middle class and the “global 1%” increased by roughly 60 percent between 1988 and 2008, while income gains for the lower and middle classes in the West over the same period were less than 10 percent.58 According to Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, between 1980 and 2016 the top 1 percent in North America received as much of the aggregate increase in real incomes as the bottom 88 percent did.59 Over time, the combination of rapid technological change and increasingly mobile global capital disrupted formerly dominant industries and eliminated thousands of middle- and lower-class jobs.60 The benefits for the country as a whole might be undeniable, but globalization had harmed key sectors and regions, and government institutions failed to create adequate compensatory or adjustment mechanisms. By 2016, a growing sense of vulnerability in the face of powerful but anonymous market forces had produced a strong domestic backlash in the United States, Great Britain, and a number of other countries, paving the way for such populist politicians as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and helping inspire the “Brexit” campaign in the United Kingdom.61

Globalization also made the international economic order more vulnerable to financial crises, beginning with the 1997 Asian financial panic and later the 2008 Wall Street crisis and subsequent global recession. The follies and corruption within key financial institutions were eventually exposed, and Wall Street no longer seemed populated by brilliant and farsighted “Masters of the Universe.” The financial crisis raised serious doubt about the competence of the U.S. economic leadership and accelerated the search for new institutional models. The subsequent problems of the eurozone—a direct result of the Wall Street collapse—put the European Union under unprecedented strains as well and dampened earlier expectations of an “ever-deeper Union.”

Proponents of globalization also believed that an array of existing international institutions would facilitate cooperation between states, dampen conflicts between them, and help overcome familiar dilemmas of collective action. Instead of growing more capable and legitimate, however, the U.S-led institutions that seemed invincible in the early 1990s—NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization—“are now in rapid and unmistakable decline.”62 Even more charitable appraisals acknowledge that existing institutions are not working well and are badly in need of reform, yet the measures needed to update and improve them have been almost impossible to implement.63

A final consequence was the growing backlash against immigration. Globalization facilitated the movement of large numbers of people, including economic migrants seeking better employment and refugees fleeing conflict zones in the Balkans, Afghanistan, sub-Saharan Africa, or the Middle East. Although immigrants and refugee populations comprised relatively small minorities in their host countries, the inevitable cultural frictions, fears of job displacement, and concerns about crime and/or terrorism fueled opposition to immigration and aided the rise of right-wing nationalist movements across the industrialized world. Nationalism turned out to be alive and well, and when tensions arose between the desire for national sovereignty and an increasingly globalized world economy, it was the latter that lost out.64

The bottom line: the liberal vision of an increasingly democratic and economically open world—a world that many U.S. elites believed was in the offing when the Cold War ended—did not emerge as expected. History did not end; if anything, it galloped off in the opposite direction. Nor were these setbacks the result of a series of unfortunate accidents or a run of bad luck; they were mostly due to inflated expectations, hubris, and bad policy choices.

By the time Donald Trump took the oath of office, visions of a robust and globalized world economy—guided by Washington and underpinned by American power—had largely evaporated. As the political economist Jonathan Kirshner noted in 2014, “actors throughout the world are disenchanted with the American model and with the U.S. orchestration of global economic governance. Many are now searching for alternative conceptions, and, feeling empowered, for greater voice in determining the rules of global governance and recognition of their own, often distinct, interests.”65 Here, as in many other areas, the strategy of liberal hegemony came up short.


When the unipolar era began, U.S. leaders believed that America’s privileged position would allow them to address and eventually solve a wide array of global problems. Although the United States made some progress on a number of challenges and was able to manage or resolve crises in several places, the overall record of the past three presidents was unimpressive.

Perhaps most obviously, repeated U.S. efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict all ended in abject failure. Bill Clinton oversaw the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, George W. Bush negotiated the Middle East “Road Map” and convened a summit meeting in Annapolis, and Barack Obama spent eight years trying to halt the continued expansion of Israeli settlements and coax the two sides toward a final status agreement.

Yet by 2016 the two-state solution that all three presidents had favored was further away than ever. The settler population in the territories Israel conquered in 1967 had grown from roughly 281,000 in 1993 to more than 600,000, and a network of Israeli roads, checkpoints, military bases, and settlements crisscrossed the West Bank, making a viable Palestinian state effectively impossible.66 Given the potential leverage that all three presidents had at their disposal, their inability to make meaningful progress toward a solution they believed to be, as Obama put it, “in Israel’s interest, the Palestinians’ interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest” was a humiliating display of U.S. impotence and diplomatic incompetence.67

Efforts to limit the danger from weapons of mass destruction—especially nuclear weapons—achieved only slightly better results. On the positive side, the Clinton administration successfully persuaded Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to give up the nuclear arsenals they had inherited from the former Soviet Union, and the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea delayed its development of nuclear weapons for a few years. The so-called Nunn-Lugar programs helped place Russia’s vast and poorly secured stockpile of nuclear materials under more reliable control; and sustained pressure from the United States and its European allies eventually persuaded the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to abandon his own WMD programs in exchange for a pledge that the United States would not overthrow him.68 The Obama administration also convened several well-attended Nuclear Security Summits that highlighted the need for further work on this problem.

But on the negative side, the Agreed Framework with North Korea broke down after 2000, and Pyongyang eventually withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, and had amassed a stockpile of at least a dozen bombs by 2016. India and Pakistan resumed nuclear tests in 1998 despite strenuous U.S. objections and continued to expand their nuclear arsenals in later years. UN inspectors dismantled Iraq’s nascent nuclear research program after the 1991 Gulf War, but neighboring Iran eventually mastered the full nuclear fuel cycle and produced a stockpile of enriched uranium that brought it within striking distance of a weapons capability. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) completed in 2015 rolled back Iran’s enrichment capacity and uranium stockpile and increased the time it would take for Tehran to “break out” and build a weapon, but Iran was now a latent nuclear weapons state with the ability to get a bomb if it ever wanted to.

With hindsight, it is not surprising that U.S. efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons achieved relatively little after 1993. Washington kept demanding that other states refrain from developing WMD, at the same time making it clear that it intended to keep a vast nuclear arsenal of its own.69 If the mighty United States believed its security depended on having a powerful nuclear deterrent, then surely a few weaker and more vulnerable states might come to a similar conclusion. Moreover, the U.S. decision to ignore its earlier pledge and topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 showed the world that Washington could not be trusted and that states with no deterrent were vulnerable to attack. That lesson was not lost on countries such as North Korea or Iran, which had every reason to fear U.S.-led regime change and thus ample incentive to preserve a nuclear option.70

Last but by no means least, the U.S. response to international terrorism has been costly and counterproductive despite some modest successes. The Clinton administration recognized that groups like Al Qaeda posed a growing challenge in the 1990s, but it never developed an effective response to them.71 On the contrary, Clinton’s most significant attempts to deter, preempt, or retaliate for attacks on U.S. facilities or personnel were embarrassing debacles: a cruise missile strike on an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in August 1998 missed Osama bin Laden, and a subsequent strike on an alleged chemical weapons facility in Sudan was in all likelihood an error based on faulty intelligence.72 Nor did Clinton or his aides ever reevaluate the policies that had helped to inspire movements like Al Qaeda in the first place, such as the strategy of “dual containment” in the Persian Gulf and unconditional U.S. support for Israel.73

The most obvious failure of U.S. counterterrorism policy, of course, was September 11.74 The Bush administration responded to the attacks by launching a “global war on terror,” with the president vowing “to rid the world of evil.”75 Unfortunately, this mind-set led directly to the fateful decision to invade Iraq, which Bush and his aides believed would “send a message” to America’s enemies and spark a democratic transformation of the region, which they assumed would make it harder for extremists to recruit new followers.

They could not have been more wrong. The occupation of Iraq fueled anti-Americanism across the Arab and Islamic world, and Iraq quickly became a magnet for extremists eager to take up arms against Uncle Sam. According to Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, the Iraq conflict “greatly increased the spread of the Al Qaeda ideological virus, as shown by a rising number of terrorist attacks … from London to Kabul, and from Madrid to the Red Sea.”76 There were also incidents of blowback in the United States itself, such as the fatal shooting of thirteen U.S. Army soldiers at Fort Hood in 2009 by a U.S. Army psychiatrist who had become convinced that the United States was at war with Islam itself.77

As the “virus” spread, the war on terror kept expanding and the number of enemies kept growing. Greater reliance on drone strikes and “targeted killings” by U.S. Special Forces kept the costs of the war low, but these measures could not eliminate the problem and frequently made things worse. As terrorism experts Bruce Hoffman and Fernando Reinares noted in 2014, “despite its systematic attrition as a result of the U.S. drone campaign … al-Qaeda has nonetheless been expanding and consolidating its presence in new and far-flung locales.”78

Al Qaeda was barely present in Somalia in 2001, for example, but a series of bungled U.S. interventions galvanized an Islamic resurgence and eventually spawned al-Shabaab, a radical Islamist group that conducted a lethal attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in 2013 and remains a dangerous force today.79 U.S. counterterror operations and political interference had similar effects in Yemen, which gradually descended into a brutal civil war and remains a haven for Al Qaeda and other radical extremists.80

Perhaps the clearest sign that the “war on terror” had not gone as planned was the emergence of ISIS. An even more extreme offshoot of Al Qaeda, the group seized power in portions of western Iraq and Syria in 2014, proclaimed a new “caliphate,” and used social media and online propaganda to attract thousands of recruits from around the world. ISIS agents and sympathizers conducted attacks in a number of countries—including France, Libya, Turkey, and the United States itself—and refugees from its tyrannical rule began fleeing to other countries.

Bin Laden was dead, but “bin Ladenism” was clearly alive and well. In December 2013, the heads of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI), told CNN that “terror was up worldwide … there were more groups than ever and there was huge malevolence out there,” and both agreed that Americans were not safer than they had been a year or two previously. Two years later, the CIA director, John Brennan, one of the leading architects of the war on terror, was admitting to a congressional committee, “our efforts have not reduced [ISIS’s] terrorism capability and global reach.”81

The problem, as some U.S. officials had recognized from the start, was that there was no shortage of new extremists to replace those whom the United States had killed or captured. As the head of the U.S. Africa Command, General Thomas D. Waldhauser, admitted in 2017, “We could knock off all the ISIL and Boko Haram this afternoon … But by the end [of the] week, so to speak, those ranks would be filled.”82 Further evidence that the war on terror had become an endless, ever-expanding effort were the revelations that 17 percent of U.S. commando troops were now deployed in Africa (up from a mere 1 percent in 2006) and engaged in more than one hundred separate missions, and that the United States was building a $100 million drone base in Niger to facilitate further attacks on extremist groups in West Africa and Libya.83

Nor was it obvious that all this effort and expense was necessary or cost-effective. Over time, it became increasingly clear that most terrorists were not brilliant criminal masterminds but incompetent bunglers. The 9/11 attacks were not a harbinger of horrific mass attacks to come; they are more properly seen as a tragic incident when Al Qaeda got extremely lucky. And as John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart have shown, even if the losses suffered on 9/11 are included, international terrorism still poses an exceedingly small threat to American lives.84 In 2001, the year the 9/11 attacks occurred, more Americans died from peptic ulcers than from all acts of terrorism.85 Thus, the enormous political, economic, and human costs of the war on terror—including the instability it has sown in many countries—was based on a panicked and faulty estimate of the true danger America faced.

To be sure, the war on terror can claim some tangible achievements: a team of Navy SEALS eventually found and killed bin Laden, the drone war eliminated most of Al Qaeda’s original leaders, and U.S. airpower helped a coalition of Iraqis, Kurds, and Iranian militias retake the territory ISIS had seized and forced the organization back underground. Along with improving homeland security efforts, these policies made large-scale attacks on the United States even less likely than they already were.

Viewed as a whole, however, the U.S. response to terrorism is no more impressive than the rest of its recent foreign policy. U.S. leaders understood that terrorism was a problem back in 1993; the problem is more widespread today. Violent extremists are active in more places than ever before and with more far-reaching political consequences, often as a direct result of misguided U.S. responses. Like other key aspects of U.S. foreign policy, the “war on terror” has been a costly failure.


No country as wealthy, powerful, and energetic as the United States fails every time, and U.S. foreign policy has produced a number of important successes in recent years. American diplomats brokered the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1994 and the agreements that ended the Bosnian War in 1996. A combination of U.S. pressure and the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program improved nuclear security in Russia and the former Soviet republics, and the Bush administration’s Proliferation Security Initiative probably discouraged the export of dangerous weapons technologies. Bill Clinton successfully mediated the 1999 Kargil crisis between India and Pakistan, the PEPFAR program helped reduce the incidence of AIDS in Africa, and U.S. officials handled several potentially serious incidents with China (including a midair collision between a Chinese fighter and a U.S. reconnaissance plane) with skill and sensitivity.

Some observers might include in this list of successes the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and the multilateral agreement that capped Iran’s nuclear program and lengthened the time it would take for Tehran to acquire the bomb. There were also a number of dogs that didn’t bark—such as an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula, a military clash over Taiwan, or an actual nuclear exchange—and the United States can plausibly claim some credit for these “nonevents.” To say that U.S. foreign policy has been mostly a failure is not to say that it fails at everything.

Nor is U.S. foreign policy solely responsible for the negative developments described above. Some of these adverse trends—such as China’s rapid rise and growing military potential—would probably have occurred no matter what the United States government did. The euro crisis may have begun when the U.S. housing bubble burst and U.S. financial markets crashed, but Washington is not responsible for the design flaws and other errors that made the euro vulnerable.

But considering where the United States and the world were in 1993 and where both are today, and looking back at the major initiatives the United States undertook and the most fateful decisions U.S. leaders made, America’s outsize responsibility for today’s problems is hard to deny. U.S. leaders may have had the best of intentions and the fondest of hopes, but their ambitious effort to “shape the world … for the benefit of all nations” fell woefully short. The next chapter explains why.

Copyright © 2018 by Stephen M. Walt