Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

What Comes After the Forever Wars

| Apr. 28, 2021

An era of U.S. grand strategy is now ending. Here's what should come next.

By bringing the United States' pointless military campaign in Afghanistan to a close, U.S. President Joe Biden has delivered on his desire to end the "forever wars." But as Steven Cook pointed out in Foreign Policy last week, the phrase "ending forever wars" offers little guidance for how the United States should now approach key national security issues. To do that, the country needs to draw the right lessons from disappointments of the past 20-plus years and identify the principles and goals that should guide foreign- and national security policy from this point forward.

The wars that are finally coming to a close resulted from the unipolar era's odd combination of hubris and alarm. On the one hand, U.S. elites were supremely confident: They believed liberal democracy was the wave of the future and the United States' unmatched military power could be a powerful tool for promoting it. Because they saw U.S. primacy as a benevolent condition that would be good for Americans and nearly everyone else, they assumed other states would support Washington's efforts to expand a liberal global order. A few countries might have other ideas, of course, but they were seen as too weak to resist the United States' well-intentioned campaign and destined to fall in line eventually. Even after the 2007 to 2009 financial crisis, U.S. elites also tended to see globalization as a wholly positive development with hardly any negative effects.

But on the other hand, and especially after Sept. 11, these same elites regarded international terrorism and several weak rogue states as existential threats, and they concluded these opponents had to be eliminated via sanctions, regime change, nation-building, targeted killings, drone strikes, and other applications of U.S. power. It was this peculiar marriage of supreme confidence and exaggerated fears that led to the unnecessary, protracted, and ultimately unsuccessful wars of the unipolar era.

The policies these beliefs encouraged accelerated the decline of U.S. primacy and the reemergence of a multipolar world. Authoritarian regimes proved to be surprisingly resilient while democracy has been in retreat worldwide for more than a decade and is increasingly imperiled in the United States itself. Opponents of U.S. primacy were able to thwart its efforts to expand the liberal world order, aided in no small part by its inability to reverse course and extract itself from costly quagmires. Globalization did produce many benefits, but it also hastened China's emergence as a peer competitor and eventually triggered a powerful populist backlash. International terrorism turned out to be far less dangerous than U.S. leaders had claimed—especially when compared to violence by right-wing domestic extremists or the nearly 575,000 Americans killed by COVID-19—but also more difficult to eradicate.

The past two decades are also a reminder of the problems that ensue when military power is used for the wrong purposes. The United States' vast military establishment is still very effective at protecting the U.S. homeland and deterring large-scale aggression in areas where the United States has clear strategic interests. It is not very good at running other countries and remaking them in its image. The U.S. Defense Department's refusal to acknowledge this was part of the problem, but most of the blame lies with politicians who gave them this impossible job. Social engineering in foreign countries is exceptionally difficult—no great power has ever been very good at it—and military force is a blunt instrument that is unsuitable for such a subtle and inherently political task....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“What Comes After the Forever Wars.” Foreign Policy, April 28, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt