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Iraq and the Pathologies of Primacy: The Flawed Logic that Produced the War is Alive and Well
Foreign Affairs, May/June 2023
As “shock and awe” gave way to chaos, insurgency, destruction, and death, the war should have discredited the primacist project that spawned it. Instead, the quest for primacy endures. U.S. power is meeting mounting resistance across the globe, and Washington wishes to counter almost all of it, everywhere, still conflating U.S. power projection with American interests, still trying to overmatch rivals and avoid curbing U.S. ambitions.
Two Decades Later, It Feels As If the U.S. is Trying to Forget the Iraq War Ever Happened
The Guardian, March 17, 2023
Countries outside the west have an interest in defending the principle that sovereignty should be respected. They have no interest in defending the principle that sovereignty is conditional. If Washington still claims the right to judge who is sovereign, then has it really renounced the right invade Iraq after all?
Prioritization Is Not Enough to Fix U.S. Grand Strategy
Defense Priorities, February 13, 2023
The United States must begin to relinquish some obligations in order to meet those that matter most. Otherwise, a president’s best attempts to set priorities will last only as long as the rest of the world sits still. And no one these days is sitting still.
The New Republic, January/February 2023, 14-15
Progress under Biden has been incremental rather than fundamental. Unless his administration recovers its initial, reformist insights, Biden will miss his opportunity to put U.S. foreign policy on a more peaceful and strategic footing, and risk handing deepening problems to a potentially dangerous successor.
Overstretched U.S. Foreign Policy Raises Risks for Washington and Its Allies
Financial Times, January 4, 2023, 17
2022 made every strategic challenge worse. America’s allies should wonder if an overstretched superpower will be able to come to their rescue in a moment of need.
World War III Begins With Forgetting
The New York Times, December 4, 2022, SR1 and 4
Not having to worry about the effects of wars — unless you enlist to fight in them — has nearly become a birthright of being American. That birthright has come to an end. The United States is entering an era of intense great power rivalry that could escalate to large-scale conventional or nuclear war. It’s time to think through the consequences.
The United States’ Democracy Problem
Inkstick, October 17, 2022
When the national security community addresses foreign and domestic connections, it often dwells upon what kind of internal reforms can maximize the United States’ strength and competitiveness abroad. That is a worthy question. But in 2022 it might be more important to reverse the causal arrow and ask: What kind of foreign policy is most conducive to domestic peace and well-being?
Biden’s Bullish Rhetoric on Taiwan Risks Provoking China with No Gain in Security
The Guardian, September 21, 2022
The One China policy was always dissatisfying. It is no one’s idea of justice. But it is effective, and no one has put forward an alternative that would not move the world’s two leading powers closer to war and 24 million Taiwanese people nearer to calamity.
The Crisis in Progressive Foreign Policy
Foreign Affairs, August 24, 2022
As the United States descends into intense rivalry with China and Russia, progressives can no longer treat great-power competition as a secondary concern. They need to decide where they stand, or else great-power competition will decide for them.
The Real Zeitenwende: A Europe that Defends Itself
49security, August 23, 2022
As long as Europe depends on the United States for its security, the continent will remain insecure. Today’s Washington has other priorities, strained resources, and tempestuous politics. None of these problems will go away anytime soon. Within this decade, Europe should take the lead in its own defense.
The National Interest and the Left
Dissent, Summer 2022, 31-32
The left should embrace, and redefine, the “national interest.” To some, interests can sound excessively nationalistic and antithetical to human values. Yet the national interest simply expresses the public good in an international context. It is necessarily the chief criterion for guiding the external conduct of the U.S. state.
The One Key Word Biden Needs to Invoke on Ukraine
The Atlantic, June 11, 2022
The United States does itself no favors when it appears to cast its cause first and foremost as a defense of democracy. The implication is that the United States places greater value on democracy than on sovereignty.
El País, May 25, 2022
La guerra en Ucrania ha hecho más necesario, no menos, que Estados Unidos limite sus compromisos militares. La guerra también ha hecho más factible la disciplina estratégica, al animar a Europa a mejorar su defensa. La Europa actual es más que capaz de desarrollar el poder militar necesario para equilibrar a Rusia.
Biden is Sending Dangerous Messages about Taiwan to China
The Guardian, May 25, 2022
No one knows how much liberty the United States can take with its One China policy before Beijing will decide its red line has been crossed. Even Xi may not know himself. For all involved, it would be better not to find out.
The Ukraine Temptation: Biden Should Resist Calls to Fight a New Cold War
Foreign Affairs, April 12, 2022
If anything, the war has strengthened the case for strategic discipline, by offering a chance to encourage Europe to balance against Russia while the United States concentrates on security in Asia and renewal at home.
Europe Is Showing that It Could Lead Its Own Defense
The Washington Post, March 3, 2022
In the coming years, European states should move to take the lead in their collective defense, and the United States should do everything possible to encourage them. To stake the defense of Europe on the United States, over the next decade and beyond, would be to answer Putin’s rash gamble with a slow-moving gamble of our own.
The United States Must Punish Russia but Remember the Limits of Power
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 24, 2022
Over decades, the United States has learned hard-earned lessons about the the limits of its power and its capacity to do harm as well as good. These lessons may be difficult to recall in the face of Russian aggression, but they have become only more important now.
With Putin, Biden Should Channel His Inner Realist
Foreign Policy, February 3, 2022
Biden is showing pragmatic, realist instincts in wanting negotiations to succeed and war to be averted, but he or his advisers do not appear to be following these instincts to their logical conclusions. With the standoff threatening to turn into a major conflict in Europe, it’s time to be decisive.
The New York Review of Books, February 3, 2022
Isolationism is not, and has never been, a real position, whereas fear of it creates problems of its own.
Acting Too Aggressively on Ukraine May Endanger It—and Taiwan
The Washington Post, December 23, 2021 (with Joshua Shifrinson)
What has brought about a crisis for the United States over Ukraine is not so much passivity as a legacy of overexertion, more of which would pose acute dangers. A better path lies in the live-and-let-live approach through which the United States has managed the potentially explosive issue of Taiwan.
Biden Should Say Yes to Global Cooperation but No to Globalism
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 17, 2021
While many U.S. leaders and commentators have long wished for a cooperative future of global problem-solving, they have also pursued one of the most maximalist geopolitical objectives imaginable: ensuring that the United States remained the world’s dominant military power, deployed in every major region and seeking to maintain its superiority in perpetuity.
Defense Priorities, September 10, 2021
America’s war in Afghanistan exhibits the danger of prolonging a combat mission past the point where its objective can be clearly defined and verifiably achieved, even when a record of success to date makes the cost of continuing into the future appear to be low.
Foreign Affairs, September 9, 2021 (with Joshua Shifrinson)
The Biden who terminated the United States’ longest war has been hiding in plain sight. Throughout his career, Biden has put the pragmatic pursuit of national security over foreign policy orthodoxy. For more than a decade, that calculus has made him a critic of regime-change wars and other efforts to promote American values by military force.
interview on Background Briefing
The United States Is No Longer Indispensable
Foreign Policy, September 8, 2021
It is finally possible to say, 20 years later, that 9/11 has shattered the U.S. pretension to global indispensability.
The New York Times, August 25, 2021
The responsibility to declare war rightly belongs to Congress, and if Congress keeps passing the buck, then Mr. Biden, his successor or the voting public ought to insist that it fulfill its obligations. Otherwise, a lone individual will continue to direct the largest military the world has ever seen, while 333 million Americans fight, pay, and mostly watch our wars unfold.
chinese edition (simplified) / chinese edition (traditional) / spanish edition
Joe Biden’s Perfect Foreign Policy Storm
New York Magazine, August 19, 2021
The very concept of “engagement” across borders has been corrupted to prize coercion and to scorn constructive cooperation. This moment demands a wholesale change in how the United States conceives of international engagement, both to meet immediate crises and to recast American foreign policy thereafter.
Afghanistan Under the Taliban: Was Pulling Out of Afghanistan A Mistake?
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 18, 2021
What is unfolding in Afghanistan is so tragic that it ought to represent the worst possible outcome. And yet, one alternative was worse still: continuing the U.S. war effort. That would have meant sending more U.S. service members to kill and be killed for the sole purpose of slowing the Afghan government’s defeat.
The Ever-Ready Answer for Failures in Afghanistan: More War
The Washington Post, August 18, 2021
You don’t get to lose a war and expect the result to look like you’ve won it. That is the terrible truth that the collapse of the Afghan government has proved but that some in Washington continue to refuse to accept.
What Trump Got Right: Shaking the Foreign Policy Consensus
The Washington Post, August 1, 2021, B1-3
After decades of massive and routinized killing sold as virtue, Trump at least recognized that U.S. warmaking looked like liberation principally to a small cadre in Washington.
interview on The Michael Smerconish Program
9/11—The Moment that Postponed Everything
Prospect, August/September 2021, 66-73
Spectacular ambitions produced interminable conflict. Shock and awe yielded to endless war. The very bid for indispensability left Americans doubting both their power in the world and their status as an example to it.
Sorry, Liberals. But You Really Shouldn’t Love NATO
The New York Times, June 14, 2021
It’s time for Americans to recover their critical faculties when they hear “NATO,” a military alliance that cements European division, bombs the Middle East, burdens the United States and risks great-power war — of which Americans should want no part.
interview on Democracy Now! / interview on Lawfare podcast / interview on Majority Report
Follow-up: “If not now, when is a good time for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Europe?”
America Pursues Vaccine Internationalism—but What Kind?
The Nation, June 7, 2021
In an age of climate change and pandemic disease—universal dangers with differential impacts—an effective internationalism will respect the genuine interests of nations but redefine and then harness them.
Aufbau, June 4, 2021, 6-8
Die 1940 entwickelte Doktrin militärischer Dominanz bleibt Grundlage der amerikanischen Aussenpolitik. Ein Umdenken wäre längst überfällig. Ob Joe Biden als Präsident dazu willens ist, erscheint unklar.
Is America’s Longest Forever War Really Coming to an End?
The Guardian, April 19, 2021 (with Adam Weinstein)
Now the Taliban is poised to take the offensive and could target Americans on the way out. Whether that happens or not, one thing is certain: those who got the United States into its quintessential forever war will do their utmost to block the exit.
Biden Just Made a Historic Break With the Logic of Forever War
Foreign Policy, April 16, 2021
President Biden has not just decided to withdraw all U.S. troops, scrapping his campaign plan to leave residual forces behind. He has also delivered a methodical debunking of the forever-war mindset that has prevailed for decades. After the United States ends one endless war, what might come next?
America Is Not ‘Back.’ And Americans Should Not Want It to Be.
The New York Times, February 24, 2021, A23
What matters is whether the Biden administration will actually make America — No. 1 in armed force and arms dealing — less violent in the world. In that regard, Biden’s larger vision, of the United States dividing the globe into subordinate allies and multiplying adversaries, and shouldering the burdens toward both, remains troubling, no matter how high-minded his rhetoric or diplomatic his actions.
spanish edition / romanian edition
Delusions of Dominance: Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—And Shouldn’t Try
Foreign Affairs, January 25, 2021
The Biden administration enters office intending to restore American primacy, not preside over its destruction. Yet realities will intrude. As Biden addresses urgent priorities in his early days — repairing democracy at home, ending a mass-killing pandemic, averting climate chaos, rescuing U.S. diplomacy — he will find, if he takes a hard look, that the burdens of primacy contradict his own goals at every turn.
arabic edition / greek edition / russian edition
Biden Wants to Convene an International ‘Summit for Democracy.’ He Shouldn’t
The Guardian, December 22, 2020 (with David Adler)
The commanding crises of our century cannot be found in the conflict between countries. Instead, they are common among them. The American people will be secured not by any “complete victory” over external adversaries but by a sustained commitment to improve life in the US and cooperate as a partner across traditional boundaries of U.S. diplomacy.
Say No, Joe: On U.S. Foreign Policy, There’s No Going Back to the Status Quo
Foreign Policy, November 25, 2020 (with Benjamin H. Friedman)
As he left office, President Barack Obama criticized what he called “the Washington playbook” for reflexively prescribing “militarized responses” to world events. Obama was right then and is only more so today. Overextended abroad, the United States has urgent needs at home, starting with recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. But the old playbook will invariably reappear, given its popularity among foreign-policy hands and, more fundamentally, the temptation U.S. power creates to meddle and boss others around. When this happens, the Biden administration will need to be ready to say no — no to unnecessary wars and no to further U.S. military overstretch.
America Has No Reason to Be So Powerful
The New York Times, October 16, 2020, A29
Eighty years ago, as it prepared to enter World War II, the United States made a fateful choice not only to pursue military supremacy but also to sustain it long into the future. This decision, tragic even then, has become immobilizing now. It has caused America’s leaders to see armed dominance as the only way the United States can relate to the world.
arabic edition / chinese edition (simplified) / chinese edition (traditional) / turkish edition
Quincy Institute video / interview on Background Briefing
How Trump Brought Home the Endless War
The New Yorker, October 1, 2020
As the war on terror loses its emotive force, American leaders cast fellow-citizens as akin to foreign enemies. Senators call for an “overwhelming show of force” against protesters with the knee-jerk zeal once reserved for distant peoples. Endless war has not merely come home; endless war increasingly is home. American politics has taken on the qualities of American wars.
Ending America’s Forever Wars: How the U.S. Leads the Postwar World
New Statesman, September 23, 2020, 13-14
This year, for the first time ever, the presidential nominees of both major parties are promising to end the “endless” or “forever” wars in which they acknowledge their nation to be engaged.
interview on New Statesman World
The American Public Wants Less War. Can Joe Biden Deliver?
The Guardian, August 18, 2020
Biden is not the future of the Democratic party, and everyone knows it, including him. Those who seek realism and restraint in military affairs, and peaceful engagement on common challenges, should see his potential administration as an invitation.
Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica, Julio-Septiembre 2020, 137-146
La estrategia de Washington posterior a la Guerra Fría ha fracasado. Estados Unidos debe abandonar la cruzada por la primacía armamentista en aras de proteger el planeta y crear más oportunidades para más personas.
COVID-19 and the Costs of Military Primacy
RealClear Defense, July 22, 2020
Because their leaders prize armed dominance, the American people are unsafe where they live and work.
Can the Democrats Avoid Trump’s China Trap?
The New York Times, May 11, 2020, A27 (with Rachel Esplin Odell)
Decades from today, the pandemic should be remembered as the crucible of effective international cooperation against 21st-century threats. So far, it looks more like we are choosing to make the threats worse and create new perils.
chinese edition (simplified) / chinese edition (traditional)
Quincy Institute video / interview on Background Briefing
The Price of Primacy: Why America Shouldn’t Dominate the World
Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020, 19-29
Washington’s post–Cold War strategy has failed. The United States should abandon the quest for armed primacy in favor of protecting the planet and creating more opportunity for more people. It needs a grand strategy for the many.
french edition / spanish edition
Why Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Isn’t So Visionary
Responsible Statecraft, March 9, 2020
Biden offers a proudly restorationist foreign policy. His main pitch is to bring back U.S. global “leadership” after its supposed Trumpian aberration, rather than to deliver what the American people need and increasingly demand: a clean break from decades of policy failure, to which Biden himself has contributed.
Trump Has No Strategy for the Middle East, Only Vengeance
Responsible Statecraft, January 7, 2020
Donald Trump’s Iran policy — the current policy of the United States — is driven by a thirst for vengeance and domination. Of course Trump has no coherent strategy, makes slipshod decisions, and flouts the law. That is the point.
The Washington Post, December 15, 2019, B1-2 (with Samuel Moyn)
There is a reason the quagmire in Afghanistan, despite costing thousands of lives and $2 trillion, has failed to shock Americans into action: The United States for decades has made peace look unimaginable or unobtainable. We have normalized war.
Quincy Institute video
America’s Syria Debacle Is Not Trump’s Alone
Foreign Policy, October 18, 2019 (with Trita Parsi)
Trump and his interventionist critics share a fatal flaw. They fetishize armed force as the acid test of U.S. engagement and influence. As a result, both sides treat the deployment or removal of troops as the only act that really matters. And they denigrate the one tool that’s actually capable of resolving conflicts and comporting with U.S. interests: diplomacy.
The Only Way to End ‘Endless War’
The New York Times, September 15, 2019, SR7
Like the demand to tame the 1 percent, or the insistence that black lives matter, ending endless war sounds commonsensical but its implications are transformational. It requires more than bringing ground troops home from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. American war-making will persist so long as the United States continues to seek military dominance across the globe. Dominance, assumed to ensure peace, in fact guarantees war.
The Quincy Institute Opposes America’s Endless Wars. Why Should That Be a Scandal?
The Washington Post, August 30, 2019
Might there exist a choice besides armed domination or total isolation? The American people have heard enough from those who dismiss as “isolationist” anyone who objects to the use of force. If it remains impermissible to oppose war anywhere, the United States will end up waging war everywhere.
Here’s One Way Democrats Can Beat Trump: Be Radically Anti-War
The Guardian, July 1, 2019 (with Mark Hannah)
Democrats need to articulate a positive vision that combines peaceful engagement with military restraint — an American internationalism fit for the 21st century. Otherwise Trump’s nativist pitch will stand alone as the alternative to establishment platitudes.
Can We Stop a Cold War With China?
The New York Times, June 9, 2019, SR4
Led by President Trump, Washington is swiftly and decisively turning against the world’s No. 2 power. That could be disastrous.
chinese edition (simplified) / chinese edition (traditional)
How to End Endless War: The Case Against American Military Supremacy
The New Republic, April 2019, 10-11 publisher version
Trump and the establishment are one in assuming that the United States must maintain global military dominance, regardless of circumstances, forever. It is long past time to question this assumption.
A Clash is Coming Over America’s Place in the World
The New York Times, February 26, 2019
Foreign policy hands are putting forward something like opposite diagnoses of America’s failure and opposite prescriptions for the future. One camp holds that the United States erred by coddling China and Russia, and urges a new competition against these great power rivals. The other camp, which says the United States has been too belligerent and ambitious around the world, counsels restraint, not another crusade against grand enemies.
Democratic Party Elites Silence Ilhan Omar at Their Peril
The Guardian, February 16, 2019 (with Trita Parsi)
Democratic voters seek genuine alternatives, not the continuation of a one-party DC elite that assumes its right to rule and rules badly to boot. But the Democratic establishment is moving in the opposite direction.
Don’t Let the Democrats Become the Party of War
Foreign Policy, February 4, 2019 (with Trita Parsi)
Over the past six months, Democratic politicians and experts have repeatedly urged this most impulsive and unprincipled of presidents to undertake more international conflict, not less. As progressives seek to develop a new foreign policy, they should reject the party’s drift toward belligerence and rescue diplomacy from Trump and the Democratic establishment alike.
interview on Background Briefing
The New York Review of Books, January 2, 2019
Trump has forced neoconservatives to decide, for the first time, whether they are more against “totalitarianism” or “globalism.” If anti-totalitarians take Trump to be perverting what they hold dear, anti-globalist neocons have found in Trump a kindred spirit and vehicle for power.
portuguese edition / serbian edition
Paeans to the ‘Postwar Order’ Won’t Save Us
War on the Rocks, August 6, 2018
Despite claiming a seven-decade pedigree, the defense of the “liberal order” is surprisingly vulnerable to attack from each side, for it offers a nationalism that dares not to speak its name, and an internationalism afraid to walk the talk.
Forget Whether Trump is ‘Normal’: That Won’t Help Beat Him
The Washington Post, June 6, 2018
Normality is the wrong yardstick, analytically and politically. “This is not normal” offers a false diagnosis and sorry comfort that Trump came from nowhere and will revert there soon. It disarms his critics from taking full measure of the problem and developing adequate solutions.
Trump’s Foreign Policy is Very American
The New York Times, March 11, 2018, SR7 (with Thomas Meaney)
Democracy requires experts but it also requires something from them: that they facilitate public debate and respect the ultimate power of the electorate to set the aims of the nation. By rallying behind the lowest common denominator of “anything but Trump,” they are disengaging the public’s discontent, pulling up the drawbridge until the next election. In that sense, Donald Trump is not the only one who might be called an isolationist.
german edition / greek edition / hungarian edition / persian edition
A ‘Trump Doctrine’ Is Born: ‘America First’ Has Become ‘Defending the West’
The New York Times, July 23, 2017, SR1-2
Like it or not, the emerging Trump doctrine has deep roots in American tradition. Six months in, the time has come for advocates of American world leadership to own up to a fact: Donald Trump is one of you.
follow-up interview with New York Times
The New York Times, April 10, 2017, A21 (with Samuel Moyn)
After Vietnam, the American people recognized an American catastrophe. They embarked on a sustained period of self-reflection and policy evolution. Despite the tumult and excesses of that era, vocal disagreement at least reflected a determination to put things right. Mr. Trump’s victory indicates that when we lived through our own disaster, we failed to reckon with the past and paved the way for an even more terrifying future.
Democratizing U.S. Foreign Policy
Foreign Affairs, April 5, 2017 (with Daniel Bessner) publisher version
For too long, foreign policy experts have isolated themselves from the public. Confined to the coastal cities, experts have failed to engage citizens where they live and work. Worse, experts typically tell the public what must be done instead of presenting multiple options from which the public can choose. They thereby deny ordinary people their due as the ultimate decision-makers in a democracy. No wonder the public is showing the back of its hand, refusing to take experts seriously.
Quit Calling Donald Trump an Isolationist, He’s Worse than That
The Washington Post, February 17, 2017, B2 publisher version
Trump is no isolationist, whether caricatured or actual. Rather than seeking to withdraw from the world, he vows to exploit it. Far from limiting the area of war, he threatens ruthless violence against globe-spanning adversaries and glorifies martial victory. In short, the president is a militarist.
Trump and American Exceptionalism: Why a Crippled America is Something New
Foreign Affairs, January 3, 2017 publisher version
Trump has already distinguished himself in one dramatic respect. He may be the first president to take office who explicitly rejects American exceptionalism.
The Nation, May 28, 2012, 27-31 (with Thomas Meaney) publisher version
Is there a single, overarching purpose, much less strategy, around which a world power should orient everything it does? Certainly, if an all-consuming threat truly exists, but otherwise grand strategy becomes a recipe for simplifying the world and magnifying threats—in which case the best “grand strategy” may be no grand strategy.
Barack Obama and the Limits of Prudence
Dissent, October 11, 2010 (with Thomas Meaney) publisher version
Obama and America are disenchanted today less because they have different values within the American political spectrum than because they have different orientations toward politics as a whole. More than any American president within memory, Barack Obama embodies the “ethic of responsibility” identified by the sociologist Max Weber in his lecture Politics as a Vocation. Obama weighs possible consequences carefully and tries to produce the best result. This comes in contrast to the “ethic of ultimate ends” favored by large swaths of the American public.
The Utopian, Vol. 6, March 26, 2010 publisher version
If we believe there is a duty to stop genocide, it matters only whether there is genocide. We need think no further. Genocide must be stopped. States must act. All competing values are trumped; politics is adjourned. Never mind what the consequences of a mission to stop genocide might be. No matter if intervention, however intended, seems more likely to do harm than good. Merely inquiring about consequences is subversive. It denies the duty to intervene. For if you think outcomes matter, you have to entertain the possibility that, on reflection, the most humane way to act might fall short of stopping genocide. It might even be to do nothing at all.
Harvard International Review, June 17, 2009 publisher version
The impulse to confront evil is not the same as the impulse to help. It undermines humanitarianism by fixating on wrongdoers, distracting from victims. It injects a moralism that makes matters of implementation seem beside the point, and a judgmentalism that chokes off understanding of genocide’s political and strategic causes.