Charles Kupchan is half-right in his call for geopolitical realpolitik
Georgetown University's Charles Kupchan has written an important article in the National Interest that urges U.S. leaders to eschew "idealist aspirations" and refrain from efforts to globalize "the liberal order" and instead adopt a grand strategy based on geopolitical realpolitik. Kupchan's broad vision is correct, but some of the details of his policy proposals are problematic.
Kupchan recognizes that U.S. efforts to expand the "liberal order" have been a costly, miserable failure since the end of the Cold War. He further recognizes that those failed policies — for which Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama all share blame — helped push a defeated Russia into the arms of a rising China in the post–Cold War world. Kupchan also rightly views current international relations through a "Hobbesian" lens, which requires the United States to practice realpolitik with the goal of "preserving geopolitical stability rather than expanding the liberal international order."
Kupchan revives the George Kennan strategy of "patient containment" in both the European and Asia-Pacific regions, and recommends increased defense spending and "strict avoidance of costly wars of choice and nation-building adventures ... in peripheral regions." He also advocates efforts to weaken the "emerging Sino-Russian bloc by looking for ways to put distance between Moscow and Beijing."
So far, so good. Where Kupchan goes astray, however, is in characterizing the "America First" wing of the Republican Party as "illiberal populism" which he worries will undermine "the durability and global appeal of the liberal order," and in his belief that we need to entice China to distance itself from Russia in order to maintain the geopolitical pluralism of Eurasia.
First, Kupchan's characterization of an "America First" foreign policy is simply wrong, but as an accepted member of America's foreign policy establishment, he needs to lash out at Donald Trump whenever possible. To do otherwise is to risk alienating his intellectual colleagues and being branded a "white nationalist." Yet in reality, George Washington, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan were also in their own distinctive ways "America First" presidents. There is nothing "illiberal" about our leaders putting our country's interests "first" in their list of foreign policy priorities.
Second, it was Donald Trump who initially attempted to improve relations with Russia, but when he did, he was accused of "Russia collusion" and thereafter impeached on false allegations instigated by his 2016 political opponents. Trump was the most hawkish U.S. president toward China since the end of the Cold War. And it was Trump who sought to end the costly, disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that Kupchan believes distracted our attention from Sino-Russian rapprochement.
Third, Kupchan's belief that the United States can entice China to distance itself from Russia and thereby drive a geopolitical wedge between the two Eurasian powers has it exactly backwards. China is the driving force in forging the Sino-Russian bloc. China is playing the geopolitical long game with both Russia and Iran — and in pursuing its Belt and Road Initiative — in an effort to forge a hostile Eurasian geopolitical bloc that can replace the United States as the preeminent world power. We have "engaged" China for far too long, and the result has been a much more powerful peer competitor.
Kupchan is right that we are in a "new and demanding era of great power rivalry," but he is wrong in accusing Vladimir Putin of sending "history into reverse." History is not linear in the sense that the human race is progressing in values or conduct. The United States and many in the West were beguiled into believing that great power rivalry had ended with the end of the Cold War.
History doesn't work like that. Our unipolar moment was just that — a "moment." We still live in what Kupchan rightly calls a "Hobbesian world" of nation-states struggling for power. We should follow his advice to wage this struggle by practicing geopolitical realpolitik — the same way that Washington, Adams, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, and Trump did — by putting America's interests "first."
Image: Dora Marr.