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Idealpolitik Requires Realpolitik

Suddenly Home Alone, the United States should be a “force for good,” but not neglect power in a nasty world. China, Russia, and Iran don’t.

Josef Joffe

What has Donald Trump done to America? Under Bill Clinton, the United States was the “indispensable nation,” under George W. the “last remaining superpower.” Under Barack Obama, the power wasn’t so super, but in retraction. He pulled troops out of Europe and snubbed old allies in the Middle East while making nice to imperial Iran. He practically invited Putin’s Russia into this critical strategic space whence Nixon-Kissinger had extruded the Soviet Union.

Obama started the slide, but Trump accelerated it. What a reversal of fortunes! In the Trump era, the United States ended up in a place where it has never been before. It is Home Alone like little Kevin, but not by choice as in the 19th century. Then, the not-yet giant could denounce the ugly game of “foreign princes and potentates.” It could conformably abjure “entangling alliances,” to recall Jefferson, because it was sheltered by the Royal Navy. Largely ignored by the great powers, those brash Americans could play power politics on their home turf. They bought, conquered, or annexed an entire continent from Florida to the Pacific; throw in Alaska and Hawaii, as well.

World War II ended serendipity. Now, the United States did need permanent friends, and so this hegemon-by-happenstance crafted a magnificent global architecture. It was a liberal empire based not on coercion, but consent. A historical first, this American empire did not go for possessions, but networks. The purpose was not subjugation, but the right milieu, a community with a democratic core. Yes, the outer ring of the West did include despots of all hues, but they were “our bastards,” tied to America by strategic interest. In due time, even mortal rivals took out guest privileges. Moscow cooperated on nuclear arms control, then on anti-terror warfare. Beijing sidled up in order to gain access to U.S. markets, capital, and technology, openly or sub rosa.

What a difference a couple of decades make! Once, America used to be at the center of the web. In the Trump era, it went for bad, if not hostile, relations with the other heavyweights: China, Russia, and the European Union. Add lesser combatants who used to be allies: neo-Ottoman Turkey and Revolutionary Iran.

This reversal cannot be fully blamed on Trump, the “stable genius.” The key trends were fated to turn against the United States, no matter who sat in the White House. Having lost the Cold War and split into fifteen republics, the Soviet colossus was bound to reemerge in the white-blue-and-red garb of its core state, Russia. Compared to Western leaders, Vladimir Putin gets an A-plus for ruthlessness and savvy. His economy is one-tenth the size of China’s, but, bet by bet, he has parlayed a small stack of chips into an impressive pile by sniffing out vulnerabilities and going for a low-risk, high-yield strategy. Using his geographic advantage, Putin has subdued friendless Georgia and Ukraine with minimal force and forged into the Levant vacated by the United States.


It did not take a Ph.D. in history to predict the fabulous rise of China. Nixon and Kissinger thought they could play the “China card” by recruiting Beijing into the American orbit with economic and diplomatic bribes (like ditching Taiwan). They and their heirs neglected the oldest law of interstate politics: First, a nation becomes rich, then rowdy. Beijing is now challenging the United States from the Pacific to the Gulf while patiently burrowing into Europe with its new Silk Road.

While diligently nuclearizing (regardless of the Iran deal), Iran’s pious revolutionaries have expanded all the way to the Mediterranean, and this, like Russia, with a shrinking purse. Turkey’s Ottoman dreams are pie in the sky, but its nuisance power keeps growing, and a goodly portion is focused on its American ex-friend. Whatever riles the United States is good for Ankara, Mr. Erdogan presumes.

This is not all Mr. Trump’s fault, as the times, they have been a-changin’ since “Mission Accomplished” in 2003. But it lays bare the strategic landscape inherited by Joe Biden. What is the world’s No. 1 to do? For starters, count your blessings.

The Incredible Hulk

First, the United States is indeed Home Alone. But this Kevin is the Incredible Hulk gifted with enormous assets. It remains the globe’s largest economy, with a steady GDP share of 24 percent to China’s 17 (historical real GDP). Stretching from Berlin to D.C., from Tokyo to Canberra, the West commands almost two-thirds of the globe’s GDP. By almost any measure—universities, research labs, inventiveness, cultural sway—the “declining” United States leads the global pack. Unmatched is the heft and sophistication of its armed forces and the reach of its fleet. Russia has no friends, and China has to buy them.

Two, though Trump has left behind a diplomatic wasteland, there is no formalized ganging up against the United States, the greatest threat historically faced by a predominant power. In the European state system, coalitions laid low whoever aspired to hegemony: Spanish Habsburg, Napoleon’s France, Hitler’s Germany. American-led NATO, now aged seventy, contained the Soviet Union until it broke up. Today, no combination of adversaries could defeat the continent-sized American Behemoth, except by mutual nuclear annihilation.

Three, this is an auspicious moment because European fears of China are rising. Like the United States, the EU resents Beijing’s technology theft and predatory trade. On a geostrategic roll, Mr. Putin is losing friends all over Europe, which favors U.S. diplomacy if it does what Mr. Trump despised. The task is to upgrade the common interest, to give in order to get instead of playing “I win if you lose.”

The Lonely Giant

Now to the post-Trump downside—America as lonely giant arrayed against China and Russia and resented by the European Union, with Iran looming across from the Mediterranean. So, what is No. 1 up against while China clearly intends to evict the United States from the penthouse of global power and Russia seeks to restore the old Soviet empire? How to undo what the Demolition Man has wrought?

In a world of rivals, power must be bested or balanced, and virtue has nothing to do with it. Yet Mr. Biden is not in a strategic mood. Instead, the oldest story in American foreign policy is unfolding again. It is yet another pendulum swing between ideals and interests, goodness and power politics. Realpolitik would always prevail ever since Revolutionary America played diplomatic hardball with the worst of them by roping despotic France into a victorious alliance against George III.

Ever since, the United States has regularly supped with the devil—with the Czar against the Kaiser, and Stalin against Der Führer. Nor did Washington turn up its nose on those smelly strongmen in East Asia and the Middle East. They were just too useful in the contest against America’s foes. If the United States turns its back on them, its rivals will gladly embrace them. This, alas, is how the real world works.

Naturally, the pendulum is now swinging back from the MAGA Man to Mr. Nice, Joe Biden. Let’s learn war no more. Power politics must yield to America’s lofty vocation as “city upon a hill” and “light unto the nations.” Let’s stop singing “America über allies.” Look out for others. Let’s be a “force for good” and “lead by the power of our example,” as No. 46 put it in his Inaugural.

High up on the agenda is saving the planet by rejoining the Paris climate accord and cutting the Keystone Pipeline. The post-Trump tropes are human rights and democracy promotion, restoring the Iran nuclear deal, and re-engaging with Russia on strategic arms control. Coax, don’t coerce. Return to the rules-based global economy Trump despised—to liberal institutionalism, in short.

Remember Bismarck

It was high time to dispatch Donald Trump to his exile in Mar-a-Lago, as he damaged the interests of America along with those of its traditional friends. Also, the politics of goodness will give the United States a much better international press, and Joe Biden richly deserves it. But nobody can banish realpolitik by Executive Order, certainly not while Messrs. Putin and Xi are busily undercutting America’s—and the West’s—positions. Mr. Trump decimated America’s reputation with ruthless self-dealing. The opposite trap—idealpolitik and self-containment—is waiting for Mr. Biden.

Call it “Obama 2.0,” and count how many associates of No. 44 have returned to the corridors of power. While Trump smashed the furniture, Obama would often leave the room, opening up the Middle East to Russian and Iranian ambitions. Nor were the Europeans amused when he pulled out some ten thousand troops. Mr. Obama’s lodestar was not global leadership, but “it’s time for a little nation-building at home.” For all of Mr. Biden’s good intentions, he should not do another Obama, but listen to a past master of realpolitik, Otto von Bismarck, hailing from the same school as Richelieu, Talleyrand, and Palmerston.

In the European system, Prussia-Germany was America writ small. It was surrounded by mighty rivals—Britain, France, Russia, and Austria. So, Bismarck urged the Kaiser: Collect as many allies as you can to break the encirclement before its jaws close. Located in the center, “we must not court isolation.” All politics “can be reduced to this formula: Try to be in a threesome as long as the world is governed by five great powers.” Construct a system “where others need us and so are kept from coalescing against us.” Soon, Bismarck’s alliances covered half of Europe. Berlin was the hub; the others volunteered as spokes. For good measure, the young Reich was also a free trader.

Nineteenth-century stuff? “Bismarckism” was in fact the guiding light of all U.S. administrations since 1945. Corral allies, craft international networks was the motto. As guardian of the system, the United States did good for others while doing well for itself in the coinage of influence and authority. Yet Mr. Trump crashed his wrecking ball into a magnificent global architecture Made in the U.S.A. It took him only four years to undo seven decades.

He alienated the Europeans by bad-mouthing NATO and fraying trade ties. He hit China with tariffs, which actually increased the U.S. trade deficit. Nixing the responsibilities of leadership, Trump allowed Beijing to pose as the world’s good guy and drag the EU into China’s economic orbit with the recently concluded Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. Vladimir Putin, supposedly Trump’s co-conspirator, soon ended up on the enemies list. Iran has taken the penultimate step toward nuclearization, turning enriched uranium into bomb-grade metal.

Acting as a “force for good” will show a friendlier face to the world. It does not take care of America’s strategic problems, which demand strategic solutions, that is, clout and containment. What should be on the agenda?

A Post-Trump Grand Strategy

Rule 1: Don’t go it alone, as Mr. Trump fantasized he could. To contain China and Russia and to defang Iran, the United States needs allies as legitimators and force multipliers. Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto.

Rule 2: To keep allies, don’t hit them with economic warfare, especially since the theory and history of economics teach that trade barriers don’t reduce trade deficits. Have your helpers read Douglas Irwin’s Clashing over Commerce: A History of U.S. Trade Policy (2017). Punitive tariffs against China have actually widened the gap.

Rule 3: Since protectionism—aka “saving American jobs”—does not turn the trick, don’t rile the Europeans and the East Asians in order to placate the Democratic Left. Soaring trade barriers generate few domestic gains (except for favored corporations and unions) and all the more strategic losses. Unfortunately, Biden has already signed a Buy American Executive Order that will discriminate against foreign suppliers competing for U.S.-government procurement purchases. The allies will not be amused.

Rule 4, on East Asia: Reliable allies need a reliable leader, as Mr. Trump was not while Mr. Obama merely talked about the “pivot to Asia.” To contain China, the United States must tighten strategic bonds with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and all those who are threatened by Beijing’s forays into the Pacific. If the United States does not demonstrate reliability, others won’t commit and will bandwagon with next-door China instead.

Rule 5, on Europe: The same goes for the EU, the world’s second-largest economy and a natural brake on Russian westward-ho ambitions. The EU plus Britain have a military as large as America’s—1.4 million. They outspend Russia. Hence, cut the tiresome brouhaha about burden-sharing and focus on useable military power to deter and defend. Stress the three M’s of modernization, mobility, and joint maneuvers. Don’t pull out troops, as Obama did and Trump ordered.

Again, trade wars do not make for cohesion. A great power must balance domestic needs against strategic necessity. And attack the real cause of America’s endemic deficit, which requires spending less abroad and producing and saving more at home.

Rule 6, on the Middle East, where realpolitik collides most cruelly with goodness: The Democratic Left wants to distance the United States from Israel, and it abhors Arabia’s Sunni strongmen. Alas, these and Israel are Washington’s natural regional allies against Iran. How will it serve American, indeed, Western, interests to alienate those who hold the line against Tehran? Even Europe’s Big Three—Berlin, London, and Paris—are getting nervous now that Iran is reaching for warhead-ready uranium. Beijing will act as the spoiler, but Moscow might cooperate against a nearby Iran armed with nukes and an Islamicist ideology. Russia might also help the United States to sober up Mr. Erdogan.

Rule 7: Once the hard-power stuff is in place, do lead by the “power of our example.” Restore the global architecture Mr. Trump tried to demolish. Do it for America as well as for the rest who want to buy in. Taking care of order will restore crumbling American legitimacy. The United States was always best off when it pursued its own interests while fitting in those of others. Be good where you can, but deploy power when you must. That’s how a liberal empire endures. Illiberal China and Russia just want more for themselves, and the selfish are never elected class president.

An editorial board member of American Purpose, Josef Joffe serves on the editorial council of the German weekly Die Zeit. He teaches U.S. foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he is a senior fellow at the Kissinger Center. He is also a fellow of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

United StatesU.S. Foreign Policy