America’s wars

Published December 18, 2022
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor Georgetown University and Visiting Senior Research Fellow National University of Singapore.
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor Georgetown University and Visiting Senior Research Fellow National University of Singapore.

AS a long-time senator, President Joe Biden is a rare witness to a whole new era in US foreign policy in which America did not win a single war started by itself, ranging from Vietnam to the Afghanistan conflict. He realised the futility of wars to settle issues that cannot be resolved by force, especially in lands whose history and culture are beyond America’s understanding. No wonder as president he opposes “forever wars”.

But are these “forever wars” gone forever? Let us look at history and the trends. Biden’s foreign policy is a complex mix of elitist passion for great power rivalry, the traditionalist’s commitment to alliances, and the populist’s belief that foreign policy must serve the interests of America’s working and middle classes. His policy thus aims at rebuilding strength at home and competition with China abroad, the latter shaped by America’s fear of losing its leading great power status to Beijing.

Biden began with a maximum pressure campaign against China by threatening to decouple the economy, ratcheting up tensions over Taiwan, and raising the geopolitical stakes by lining up allies against Beijing. But he succeeded only partially. Understandably, both China and the US have climbed down. Imagine a war over Taiwan, a major producer of semi-conductors, and its implications for the global economy. In their recent summit, Biden and President Xi Jinping emphasised the need to engage and compete but manage their strategic competition responsibly.

But with Europe impacted by the Ukraine war and facing economic challenges that make engagement with China a critical necessity, Washington’s gains have been mixed. Nato was strengthened but so was Europe’s urge for a balanced China policy that was not an adjunct to America’s great power rivalry with China.

It’s almost as if an American war is righteous by definition.

America is doing its own rebalancing between geopolitics and geo-economics. Biden is making a special bid to reconnect with the Global South where the US is losing ground to China. This is partly the reason for the revival of US-Pakistan ties.

But the trouble with the American system is that one never knows what the next election and the politics of the day might bring to US foreign policy. The war itch could return. Since it became a superpower, the US has been getting into wars and exiting impulsively, creating consequences for itself and its partners. The wars were incited by an overweening pride in its military power and prompted by domestic political interest groups, as explained in Jack Snyder’s book Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition.

Given Americans’ own historical experience, going to war comes naturally to them. They do not look at the wisdom or morality of wars. It is almost as if an American war is righteous by definition. That is why, when they start losing, the debate is rarely about the war having been a bad idea. It is always about cutting losses and getting out. So, in the end, Americans never quite know why they really went to war and why they really exited. This is a perfect recipe for continuing to get into and out of future wars.

For a nation whose founding principle was religious liberty, war was nearly always defined as a divine mission, a struggle between good and evil, indeed a moral conflict. Though sometimes a force for good, it often disguised imperialist aims.

In recent history, America’s sense of ‘exceptionalism’ merged with post-Cold War geopolitics, aggravating its traditional militarism. Driven by a supreme consciousness of power and the hubris of the unipolar moment, and then scarred by 9/11, America simplified and distorted the emerging global challenges and resorted to unilateralism. The result was failed wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

What can prevent future American wars? Hopefully, the realisation that US power is not absolute. America has walked alone on many issues. Its wars got entangled with bad partners, regional rivalries and bilateral conflicts, besides unleashing new forces of instability. They also hurt America’s image and credibility.

Other guardrails against war have also appeared at home and abroad. There is domestic opposition to wars. Besides, you cannot have war without European cooperation, which may not be taken for granted in the future. Europe is engaged in strategic diversification, and allies like Saudi Arabia and India have become polygamous in their relations with big powers. Look at the recent China-Arab summit. National priorities globally are now geo-economics, founded in geopolitics.

For Pakistan, friendly ties with the US are necessary but partnership in war is optional. Pakistan should never become America’s war partner again. Washington’s war aims will always be different from Pakistan’s. As in the past, the cost will outweigh the benefits.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor Georgetown University and Visiting Senior Research Fellow National University of Singapore.

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2022

Opinion

Rule by law

Rule by law

‘The rule of law’ is being weaponised, taking on whatever meaning that fits the political objectives of those invoking it.

Editorial

Isfahan strikes
Updated 20 Apr, 2024

Isfahan strikes

True de-escalation means Israel must start behaving like a normal state, not a rogue nation that threatens the entire region.
President’s speech
20 Apr, 2024

President’s speech

PRESIDENT Asif Ali Zardari seems to have managed to hit all the right notes in his address to the joint sitting of...
Karachi terror
20 Apr, 2024

Karachi terror

IS urban terrorism returning to Karachi? Yesterday’s deplorable suicide bombing attack on a van carrying five...
X post facto
Updated 19 Apr, 2024

X post facto

Our decision-makers should realise the harm they are causing.
Insufficient inquiry
19 Apr, 2024

Insufficient inquiry

UNLESS the state is honest about the mistakes its functionaries have made, we will be doomed to repeat our follies....
Melting glaciers
19 Apr, 2024

Melting glaciers

AFTER several rain-related deaths in KP in recent days, the Provincial Disaster Management Authority has sprung into...