Thomas Wright is the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, and a senior fellow at Brookings. His new book, “All Measures Short of War: The Contest For the 21st Century and the Future of American Power,” looks at the prospects for the United States in a world where other countries are increasingly disaffected from the global order that America built. I interviewed him about his book by email.
HF — Your book discusses how not every state wanted to converge to the liberal order that the U.S. built. Why did and do other great powers object?
TW — I think there’s a few reasons. The first is that the Russian and Chinese governments worried that the liberal order would undermine their regimes and promote political liberalization. Russia worried about the threat of color revolution and the soft power of the EU. China feared U.S. efforts — often imagined — to undermine the CCP but also the soft power of the West as a whole, including the media. The second reason is that both Russia and China wanted an enhanced sphere of influence in their region and that’s impossible within the liberal order. As they became more capable, they began to push back. A third reason that’s more to do with the West itself is that the financial crisis destroyed the allure that globalization held for many people and gave rise to populist movements in Europe and the United States, diminishing the appeal of convergence. The aggregate effect of all three was to severely weaken the attraction of the international order among key states.
HF — You talk about the difficulties of U.S. policy in the Middle East — how some presidents (Obama) have tried to stay detached, while others have looked to resolve the fundamental problems of the region. Does Trump’s policy regarding e.g. Qatar and Iran fit into this pattern, or is it a new departure?
TW — I think President Trump basically bought into the bipartisan establishment critique of President Obama, which was that the United States should proactively back Sunni Arab states against Iran in the hope of laying the foundation for greater regional stability. The problem is that this plan is fraught with risk and he carried it out with all the aplomb of a bull in a China shop. He gave Saudi Arabia a blank slate and allowed Riyadh to manipulate him. Many on his team also seem to believe in containing Iran as a cause in itself rather than to establish a more favorable balance of power and to use that to negotiate a detente with Iran in the region.
HF — You are pretty skeptical about Europe’s ability to manage Russia and solve its own problems without U.S. support. Does this mean that the recent efforts of European leaders like Angela Merkel to build a stronger Europe separate from the United States are likely to fail, or has Europe’s situation changed?
TW — Yes, I think European efforts at greater cooperation are positive and should be encouraged but they will not be enough to replace the United States in Europe. The gap is simply too big. Consider the Baltics for instance — it’s inconceivable that there could be a credible deterrent without active U.S. involvement. I also think the United States should be careful about doing less in Europe to force European countries to do more. Obama tried this in the Libyan intervention. He hoped that strictly limiting the U.S. role would make France and Britain step up. They tried but came up short. The effect was that the problems in Libya exacerbated a refugee crisis that put pressure on centrist parties in Europe, empowering nationalists.
We also need to recognize the difficulties the EU faces. On the political side, there is a real need for deeper integration in the EU but there are real obstacles to it that may prove insurmountable — Europe is divided in three between a German vision focused on austerity, a French vision focused on fiscal integration, and an Eastern view that is more nationalistic. The gap may prove too big to bridge. And that’s not even mentioning the problems of Brexit. We’re at an optimistic moment right now because of Macron’s unexpected success but strengthening the EU will be a long hard slog. I hope it succeeds but we shouldn’t underestimate the problems.
HF — Your book describes China as playing a patient long-term policy, and suggest that the United States needs to be similarly subtle and far-thinking. The current administration has been described as more interested in short-term deals than long-term gains. What implications does that have for U.S. influence in the region?
TW — It badly damages U.S. interests I think. Dean Acheson and George Shultz used to describe foreign policy as gardening, by which they meant you had to tend to strategic relationships over a long period and not tear up the plants every morning to see how much they grew overnight. Trump is no gardener. He can’t look beyond the immediate. The very essence of America First is to say that the United States is like any other power and is essentially abandoning the long-term vision that diplomats like Acheson and Shultz believed in. His most egregious mistake was to abandon TPP with no positive economic agenda for the region to replace it. This has really empowered China to drive forward with its own agenda. To compete in Asia, the United States will have to adjust course and significantly increase its engagement in the region.
HF — The book discusses new methods of influence being used by Russia and others to turn the strengths of the liberal order against itself. How are Western states responding (or are they responding?).
TW — Well, the United States has basically decided not to respond because the president is in denial that it happened. He prevented NATO from discussing Russia at the mini summit in the spring, and it is clearly not a priority for his administration. Western European nations are more active — working to counter Russian political interference in their elections. But we are all at the very early stages of dealing with this challenge. In the book, I describe these tools as all measures short of war. We need to recognize how they are being used and then develop strategies to blunt their effectiveness or to deter their use.