Abstract: American foreign policy has gone through three distinct stages: isolationism, containment, and global hegemony. But instead of transitioning into a policy of globalization, American foreign policy has reverted to a policy of containment vis-à-vis Russia and China, thus dividing the world between a Western bloc and an Eastern bloc yet again. It is unclear whether the political and social divide can be bridged between these two distinct blocs.
Bottom-line-up-front: As a result of America’s relative decline vis-à-vis Russia and China, America has reversed its policy of global hegemony and has gone back to a policy of containment.
Problem statement: How to bridge the divide between the new Eastern and the Western bloc in the future?
So what?: A political settlement between America and China would mitigate the military tensions which result from a policy of containment. Ideally, global hegemony should have transformed into a policy of globalization.
The US Involvement in Eurasia
Eurasia is the world’s largest, most populous, and wealthiest landmass, wielding over 70 percent of the world’s population and close to 65 percent of the world’s GDP. Thus, there are economic, political, and social gains to be made through engagement with the Eurasian landmass from an American standpoint. Nevertheless, historically, the American psyche has been shaped by a “schizophrenic” approach towards Eurasia, oscillating between a desire to be involved in Eurasian affairs and the constraining tradition of isolationism. Consequently, America’s engagement with Eurasia since World War II has been a balancing act between the imperative of involvement and intervention on one hand, and the logic of isolation and minding one’s own business on the other hand.
Nevertheless, historically, the American psyche has been shaped by a “schizophrenic” approach towards Eurasia, oscillating between a desire to be involved in Eurasian affairs and the constraining tradition of isolationism.
Since World War II, establishing global order and preserving global peace is the imperative that has driven American involvement in Eurasia. America created and shaped the global institutions and security architecture which have largely preserved the peace around the world since World War II. To an extent, America’s creation of global institutions and security architecture was a public good provided to the world as part of a “containment” strategy vis-à-vis the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. Now that the Cold War has been over for thirty years, the rationale for providing this public good to the rest of the world has come under question by many individuals and groups in American society. Moreover, America has become a shaky anchor for global order due to its costly involvements in Afghanistan and the Middle East for the last two decades. America’s shakiness as an anchor for global order now manifests along the divide between Europe and Russia, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, as well as the Korean Peninsula.
US Foreign Policy in a Competitive Environment
In response to America’s “relative decline” vis-à-vis China, Eastern nations such as Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and obviously China have grown more assertive from a geopolitical standpoint. A number of recent developments demonstrate this growing perception of weakness, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its troop buildup along the border with Ukraine; Iran’s extension through the heart of the Middle East; Pakistan’s revamping of the Taliban in Afghanistan; and China’s claims to territorial sovereignty combined with China’s carving of a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. America has long had two core foreign policy objectives, namely preventing Russia from achieving hegemony over Europe on one hand, and preventing China from achieving hegemony over Asia on the other hand. Although the American security architecture largely remains intact in Europe, the Persian Gulf region, and Northeast Asia, there are limitations to covering every nook and cranny of the geopolitical space. Thus, Eastern powers will extend their reach where possible and take advantage of America’s weakened position on the international level.
To an extent, chaos and turmoil will result in certain geopolitical shifts as a result of a weakened American position. We are already witnessing some of the chaos and turmoil in certain geopolitical pivot points such as Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Myanmar. North Korea’s intransigence and its lack of willingness to relinquish its nuclear weapons program is yet another case of America’s limits in imposing its political will over other nations. The question remains as to where America will draw the line when it comes to the assertiveness of its “adversaries.” America has already begun the process of abandoning its commitments to Afghanistan by virtue of announcing a full troop withdrawal by September 2021. America also lacks leverage over the situation in Myanmar. America has furthermore reversed its hardline approach towards Iran to a large extent. Where America has doubled down, however, is on its commitments to NATO and Ukraine, at least verbally. Recently, the Biden Administration has revitalized a classic American policy of “containment” vis-à-vis Russia while leaving open the possibility of finding opportunities to cooperate with Russia on global security matters such as nuclear weapons and strategic missiles. Containment of Eastern powers may be an anachronistic strategy in an age of ever-growing interconnectedness and interdependence in the world, but a history of Russophobia and Sinophobia in the United States impacts the American foreign policy approach.
We are already witnessing some of the chaos and turmoil in certain geopolitical pivot points such as Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Myanmar. North Korea’s intransigence and its lack of willingness to relinquish its nuclear weapons program is yet another case of America’s limits in imposing its political will over other nations.
Thus, the foremost priority of the Biden Administration from a foreign policy standpoint is the revitalization of partnerships with traditional allies. President Biden’s first in-person meeting with a foreign leader was with the Prime Minister of Japan. Much of the time spent overseas by America’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has been in Brussels and Northeast Asia. Europe and Northeast Asia were the foremost foreign policy priorities for the United States during the Cold War, and it appears as though these regions of the world are back at the forefront for American foreign policy considerations. Therefore, after two decades of advancing a policy of global hegemony, America has reverted to a policy of containment vis-à-vis Russia and China. American foreign policy has gone through three distinct phases through the course of its history. Isolationism characterized the first phase, in the sense that the United States largely focused on its internal economic and social development in order to reach peer power status with European powers. Containment of the Soviet Union characterized the second phase. Global hegemony has characterized the third phase of American foreign policy, which began after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. American ‘relative decline’ means a reorganization of priorities due to a reckoning with the reality that aspirations exceeded capabilities during the epoch of American global hegemony. Now, as a result of America’s relative decline vis-à-vis Russia and China, America has reversed its policy of global hegemony and has gone back to a policy of containment.
American foreign policy has gone through three distinct phases through the course of its history.
Globalization vs. Containment
America and its traditional allies in Europe and Northeast Asia have the resources and the wealth to sustain a policy of containment vis-à-vis Russia and China. But preferably, a political settlement between America and China would mitigate the military tensions which result from a policy of containment. Globalization would mean further Eurasian integration, but with American involvement and participation rather than American isolation from world affairs. Eurasian integration would indeed be a natural continuation of the growing interconnection and interdependence that has taken place since the creation of global institutions after World War II. Consequently, global hegemony should have transformed into a policy of globalization. Instead, the American approach has regressed back to containment. Rather than globalization, we are headed towards a world divided between an Eastern bloc on one hand, and a Western bloc on the other hand. How to bridge the divide between these two blocs in the future is anyone’s guess.
Globalization would mean further Eurasian integration, but with American involvement and participation rather than American isolation from world affairs.
Adam A. Azim is an entrepreneur and writer based in Virginia, United States. His research interests are American foreign policy, American global strategy, geopolitics, and foreign policy history. He is also the author of a book titled “Is the West in Decline? A Study of World Order and U.S. ‘Relative Decilne.’” The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.
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