A “New” Theory of American Power Takes on Straw Men and Loses

The US is not overdoing its retrenchment.

In an essay for the December 2022 issue of The Atlantic, George Packer proposes a new theory of American power that reads much like the Biden administration’s declared approach of defending democracies over autocracies.

But as any even minimally close observer of the Biden policy can see, not all autocracies are created equal. For example, the administration rightly supports Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against the Russian invasion of that country. Still, it greatly exaggerates the security challenge posed by China, as Michael Swaine has made clear in a June 2022 paper on threat inflation and the Chinese military. On the other hand, allied repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt are given US arms and support on the theory that they will be useful partners in a world of great power competition. In reality, uncritically supporting these “exceptional autocracies” serves neither US interests nor the interests of the people inside these autocracies.

Packer’s theory might entail looser ties with these kinds of regimes — in short, a more consistent application of the “democracy versus autocracy” frame — but that is not clear from his essay. What is clear from Packer’s piece is that he has a wildly distorted view of the current US role in the world.

MISUNDERSTANDING RETRENCHMENT

At the outset, Packer asserts, “We [America] overdo our foreign crusades, and then we overdo our retrenchments, never pausing in between.” It’s not clear what he means by retrenchment in a world where the United States maintains over 750 military bases, has counterterror operations in at least 85 nations, arms over 100 nations, is poised to spend $850 billion on troops and weapons next year, and remains engaged at one level or another in the post-9/11 conflicts in Somalia, Iraq, and Syria. Perhaps Packer has some novel definition of retrenchment in mind. If so, he should share it with the rest of us.

The time is long overdue for a reasoned national discussion of the appropriate US role in a world in which power relations are rapidly shifting.

Further in the article, Packer gives a misleading view of the current conversation over US policy toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He harshly criticizes “restrainers” and “the left,” either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that there is a range of views within these purported camps. One prominent version of the restraint argument holds that while supplying Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself, the United States should also be wary of taking steps that could escalate the war to a US-Russian confrontation. This argument is based on Washington looking for openings toward a diplomatic resolution of the conflict — and fully understanding that such a resolution is not in the cards at the moment. This is not retrenchment, nor is it a recipe for ending US global influence. On the contrary, it is a realistic approach to a devastating, complex conflict. If Packer wanted to refute this position, he should have tried to do so, but instead, he takes on a “straw man” version of what he calls restraint.

To be fair, Packer seems to be trying to thread the needle by proposing a model for US leadership that avoids the disastrous penchant for military adventurism that has marked the past two decades. But his alternative is too vague to serve the purpose: “Where democracy exists, strengthen it and defend it from foreign subversion, if necessary with arms. Where it doesn’t, take care to understand particular movements for change and offer only support that preserves their legitimacy.”

But what constitutes “foreign subversion”? Invasion, arming of proxies, cyber attacks, information operations? And when is it necessary to defend against it “with arms”? Packer is silent on these crucial points. Instead, it is a loophole tailor-made for interventionists to continue advocating for the discredited policy of pursuing overarching aims via military force, using democracy promotion as a rationale.

The time is long overdue for a reasoned national discussion of the appropriate US role in a world in which power relations are rapidly shifting. US interests may be better served by elevating cooperation over confrontation as the watchword of US global policy. Unfortunately, Packer’s essay does more to obscure than it does to illuminate a viable way forward.

William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.