Is COVID-19 Judgement Day for the National Security State?

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Andrew Bacevich, the president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, recently argued that COVID-19 had ended the United States' pretense of global leadership: "So this is how it happens. American global hegemony ending not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with shoppers in homemade facemasks wondering why grocery shelves are half-empty." Except "American hegemony" didn’t end with the United States’ failure to contain COVID-19, according to Bacevich – it ended with the election of President Trump. Actually, no – it ended during the Great Recession. Or was it the Iraq War?

Bacevich has been declaring the death of the “American century” and delivering unflattering eulogies about its misspent life for years. He says Washington’s devotion to “liberal hegemony” – the promotion and defense of American values and interests abroad through international alliances and institutions, free trade, and especially military action – is the cause of American decline since the end of the Cold War.

This is a view shared by realist international relations scholars like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (both fellows at the Quincy Institute), who recently published books arguing that the United States squandered its “unipolar moment” after the Cold War. Like Bacevich, they regard the United States’ military interventionism as the prime culprit in its loss of global primacy, and they argue that it’s time to heed John Quincy Adams’s warning about the dangers of going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” There’s a reason Bacevich is the president of a think tank called the Quincy Institute – a name that echoes Adams and reflects a stated commitment to “ideas that move U.S. foreign policy away from endless war and toward vigorous diplomacy in the pursuit of international peace.”

According to Bacevich, COVID-19 means “Judgment Day may at long last have arrived for the national security state.” He argues that “all these years in which the national security state has been preoccupied with projecting hard power abroad have left us naked and vulnerable right here at home.” He even claims that the Democrats’ nomination of Joe Biden, who supported the Iraq War, is comparable to “Democrats in 1880 nominating not a former union general (as they did) but a former confederate who, 20 years before, had advocated secession.”

While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were certainly blows to the United States’ international standing, post-Cold War American military interventionism has had its successes, too. When President George H.W. Bush led the effort to expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, the United States formed a coalition of almost 40 countries and rolled back the invasion in a matter of months. Unlike the Iraq War, the Gulf War had U.N. authorization, and it was a victory for international law over a direct challenge from a genocidal and aggressive dictator.

Despite the insistence that the United States has relentlessly pursued “endless war” since the end of the Cold War, the Clinton administration dithered as the bodies piled up in the Balkans in the early 1990s (to say nothing of its failure to intervene in Rwanda as 800,000 people were slaughtered in 90 days). This inaction didn’t lead to international respect – in June 1995, after years of European demands for the United States to take a more active role in the conflict, French President Jacques Chirac declared that the “position of leader of the free world is vacant.” After Gen. Ratko MladiÄ?’s forces massacred thousands of Muslims in Srebrenica, Clinton admitted that his reluctance to intervene in Bosnia was "killing the position of the U.S. in the world." The Dayton Accords that ended the war were finally signed in November 1995, and the U.S. force was what drove the Serbs to the negotiating table.

Compared to the traumas of Afghanistan and the Iraq War, these may seem like minor achievements. But they demonstrate that U.S. power is capable of upholding international laws and norms, defending vulnerable populations, and putting dictators and ethnic cleansers on notice. Despite all the talk about the “end of the American century,” the United States still has unparalleled military strength (spending almost three times as much on defense as its nearest competitor, China) and the largest economy in the world. The challenge is for the United States to use this power wisely – not to shrink away because its share of global influence has declined.

Consider the United States’ presence in northeastern Syria before President Trump abruptly withdrew in October 2019. While Turkey was furious about the presence of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters (many of which are members of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄ?an describes as a “terror army”) on its border, the U.S. brokered a deal between Turkey and the SDF in August 2019 that prevented a Turkish invasion. But when the U.S. withdrew, Turkey promptly invaded, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and leading to atrocities against civilians (including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a Syrian-Kurdish politician).

There was no conceivable strategic rationale for the sudden removal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria. In doing so, the United States forced its Kurdish allies to request assistance from the Assad regime and Russia, forfeiting American leverage in the eventual political settlement (as well as future talks in Syria). Meanwhile, the move alienated European allies and led to the escape of Islamic State fighters who had been captured by the SDF. Even Walt observed that “Trump’s impulsive action has managed to imperil the Kurds, alarm other U.S. allies, and add further tensions to the already-delicate relationship with Turkey.”

The ugly aftermath of Trump's withdrawal demonstrated what a significant impact just a couple of thousand U.S. troops could have. Trump justified his decision by arguing that “it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars,” but the consequences should remind us that retreat can be even more destructive than engagement.

Bacevich is right that the "American century" is coming to an end, but this isn't because of the United States' "endless wars." It's because the United States' power is waning in relation to a rising China – something no American policy could have prevented. Despite all the talk about the emergence of a “new Cold War” with China, this outcome isn’t inevitable, and it should be avoided at all costs – as Quincy Institute scholars Rachel Esplin Odell and Stephen Wertheim recently explained: “A ‘new cold war’ between the superpowers could plunge the world into an intense military rivalry and thwart necessary cooperation against planetary threats like global warming, disease and deprivation.”

The Quincy Institute is an important voice of restraint in American foreign policy discourse today, as demonstrated by Odell and Wertheim's position on China. But when Bacevich repeatedly announces that the United States' role as a global leader has died an ignominious death, he's ignoring all the ways in which U.S. power – including the use of force – can continue to make the world a safer place. It's long past time for the United States to focus on using its power more prudently and intelligently. Let's try to remember that this power didn't suddenly disappear overnight.

Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Bulwark, Editor & Publisher, Areo Magazine, Arc Digital, Splice Today, Forbes, and the Kansas City Star. He was formerly the opinion page editor at the Topeka Capital-Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjj89.

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