The ambivalent relationship between the United States and its overseas commitments has long been a preoccupation of academics and practitioners alike – whether one looks at particular episodes such as Washington’s role in the creation of the League of Nations, or the alternation of more expansionist and retrenchment tendencies across administrations since Washington constructed the rules-based international order after the end of World War II. Various explanations have been advanced for different aspects of this, be it the unique elements of American political culture or the institutional difficulties of mobilizing resources for specific foreign policy ends.
But while the dilemmas of U.S. commitment may not be new, there has certainly been a few flood of commentary over the past few years about the sobering state of the so-called rules-based international order that the United States and its allies built following the end of WWII. That is in part due to a confluence of worrying trends about the state of that order and Washington’s role in it, including the intensification of major power rivalry, the rise of ideological competition between democratic and authoritarian forms of governance, and added uncertainty about the U.S. role brought about by President Donald Trump, who was elected into office despite explicitly questioning all three of the pillars on which this order has rested – security alliances, freer trade, and a set of common principles and values.
In The Lessons of Tragedy, Hal Brands and Charles Edel, two prominent American historians who served in the State Department during the Obama administration, deliver a powerful warning that the American complacency about the rules-based order is not only worrying, but also ahistorical and potentially catastrophic. For most of history, Brands and Edel rightly note – from the Peloponnesian War to the Thirty Years’ War to the two World Wars – conflict has tragically been the norm rather than the exception, and international orders, be it the Peace of Westphalia or the Congress System, have proven fragile and difficult to sustain, with chaos lurking just over the horizon. While the post-WWII U.S.-led international order may have its own unique characteristics, it is far from immune to these risks, Brands and Edel argue, even if the world has enjoyed 70 years without major war and the United States has been without a major competitor for a quarter century.
Recalling the approach adopted by the ancient Greeks, who consciously and constantly reminded themselves of the tragic nature of history (and yet still eventually saw the advent of the Peloponnesian War), Brands and Edel urge the United States to voluntarily rediscover its sense of what the authors term “tragic sensibility” on its own before a crisis forcibly shakes Washington out of its contemporary amnesia. While the warning lights on the dashboard have already begun flashing, it is not too late for the United States and its allies and partners to reinforce the current order and resist the challenges to it today.
Asia features prominently in the authors’ account of the past, current, and future evolution of the liberal international order, which is no surprise given both its prominence in contemporary American strategic thinking as well as the region’s growing importance within overall U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. role in Asia within Washington’s post-World War II foreign policy has been centered specifically on preserving American hegemony in the Eurasian landmass and preventing any other single power from dominating it, an idea that dates back to the British geographer Halford Mackinder in the early 20th century and that also informed U.S. foreign policy strategists from George F. Kennan to Zbigniew Brzezinski. The Obama administration also saw the explicit advancement of an “Asia-first” foreign policy – the idea that Asia’s growing heft required the United States to devote relatively more of its resources, attention, and time to Asia than it had previously done in its traditionally Europe-centric foreign policy, even as Washington continued to address concerns in other parts of the world as a global superpower.
For Brands and Edel, Asia was a critical theater that clearly exposed both the value and limitations of the U.S. led order, whether it be the Korean War, where the Truman administration, despite the initial decision of declaring the Korean Peninsula outside the American defensive perimeter, committed U.S. troops to resist the advances of Kim Il Sung because of a recognition of the need to confront a consequential challenge to order at once, or the Vietnam War, which they categorize as a case of hubris and overextension and view as “the greatest tragedy of the U.S. order-building project.” And while there is no doubt a range of challenges for U.S. foreign policy now and in the future, China looms largest, with the authors viewing Beijing as representing “the greatest long-term challenge to the U.S.-led order.”
The book also raises broader questions about the current state and future evolution of U.S. Asia policy. One is how the Trump administration fits within the broader question of how the United States thinks about Asia. For all the challenges that Trump’s foreign policy has posed for the region, the Trump administration – at least for now – has also advanced what looks largely like an Asia-first foreign policy that focuses attention on the challenge posed by China. That has effectively produced the “focused enmity” the authors refer to with respect to what they view as the greatest long-term challenge to U.S. interests, whatever the uncertainties that remain on China policy and the advancement of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Another, broader question is whether and under what circumstances Asia-focused but globally-restrained or retrenchist foreign policies that we have seen under Obama and Trump can be advanced sustainably. Brands and Edel make a convincing case for early and prudent U.S. responses to threats to the order across theaters where needed, even if certain regions may be judged to matter more than others, noting that neglect can also lead to potential overreaction further down the line. With crises looming in other parts of the world today from Venezuela to Iran and the U.S. 2020 elections just around the corner – offering either four more years of Trump for Asia or another fresh round of uncertainty over a new U.S. president’s approach to the world – this is far from an existential question.
To be sure, the book, being a concise and sweeping history, does also raise some general questions that the authors cannot fully answer in the pages that they have. For instance, the comparison between the ancient Greeks and the United States raises the interesting question about the extent to which there may be unique factors about the United States that make it easier for bouts of amnesia and the decline of tragic sensibility to seep in periodically. And while the authors readily admit upfront that the prescriptions they offer at the end of the book are meant to be general lessons sieved from history rather than offering specific policy recommendations on how to contend with particular issues, as we have seen under both the Obama and Trump administrations, it is ultimately on those specifics that debates over actions in the South China Sea or U.S. North Korea policy, or the relative prioritization of some threats over others, often hinge. The elusive balance between restraint and activism can be hard to execute in practice even if it is appreciated in theory, as the authors themselves show with respect to the Greeks.
Overall, in The Lessons of Tragedy, Brands and Edel succeed in delivering a concise and convincing clarion call for the United States to preserve the international order that it built, drawing on both the careful application of history and a clear diagnosis of contemporary reality. Whether or not the United States can rediscover that tragic sensibility in the coming years will be significant not only in the context of history, but also for Asia and the world.