Thomas Wright is the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, and a senior fellow at Brookings. His new book, “All Measures Short of War: The Contest For the 21st Century and the Future of American Power,” looks at the prospects for the United States in a world where other countries are increasingly disaffected from the global order that America built. I interviewed him about his book by email.
HF — Your book discusses how not every state wanted to converge to the liberal order that the U.S. built. Why did and do other great powers object?
TW — I think there’s a few reasons. The first is that the Russian and Chinese governments worried that the liberal order would undermine their regimes and promote political liberalization. Russia worried about the threat of color revolution and the soft power of the EU. China feared U.S. efforts — often imagined — to undermine the CCP but also the soft power of the West as a whole, including the media. The second reason is that both Russia and China wanted an enhanced sphere of influence in their region and that’s impossible within the liberal order. As they became more capable, they began to push back. A third reason that’s more to do with the West itself is that the financial crisis destroyed the allure that globalization held for many people and gave rise to populist movements in Europe and the United States, diminishing the appeal of convergence. The aggregate effect of all three was to severely weaken the attraction of the international order among key states.
HF — You talk about the difficulties of U.S. policy in the Middle East — how some presidents (Obama) have tried to stay detached, while others have looked to resolve the fundamental problems of the region. Does Trump’s policy regarding e.g. Qatar and Iran fit into this pattern, or is it a new departure?
TW — I think President Trump basically bought into the bipartisan establishment critique of President Obama, which was that the United States should proactively back Sunni Arab states against Iran in the hope of laying the foundation for greater regional stability. The problem is that this plan is fraught with risk and he carried it out with all the aplomb of a bull in a China shop. He gave Saudi Arabia a blank slate and allowed Riyadh to manipulate him. Many on his team also seem to believe in containing Iran as a cause in itself rather than to establish a more favorable balance of power and to use that to negotiate a detente with Iran in the region.
HF — You are pretty skeptical about Europe’s ability to manage Russia and solve its own problems without U.S. support. Does this mean that the recent efforts of European leaders like Angela Merkel to build a stronger Europe separate from the United States are likely to fail, or has Europe’s situation changed?
TW — Yes, I think European efforts at greater cooperation are positive and should be encouraged but they will not be enough to replace the United States in Europe. The gap is simply too big. Consider the Baltics for instance — it’s inconceivable that there could be a credible deterrent without active U.S. involvement. I also think the United States should be careful about doing less in Europe to force European countries to do more. Obama tried this in the Libyan intervention. He hoped that strictly limiting the U.S. role would make France and Britain step up. They tried but came up short. The effect was that the problems in Libya exacerbated a refugee crisis that put pressure on centrist parties in Europe, empowering nationalists.
Read the full piece at The Washington Post.