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

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.


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.

Read the full piece in Inkstick Media.