U.S. foreign policy in recent years can look like a series of misadventures—failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bungled peace efforts in the Middle East, growing nuclear capabilities in some rival powers, and any number of other embarrassments. And the latest setback—the deaths of three U.S. soldiers in Jordan in a drone attack by a pro-Iranian militia—raises new questions about what U.S. forces are doing in these turbulent areas and whether it makes sense to keep them there.
It’s tempting to blame these recurring failures on inept U.S. leadership (in both political parties) or an ill-chosen grand strategy—I’ve written plenty of that sort of criticism myself—but U.S. efforts to shape world politics face a deeper structural problem that we sometimes overlook. U.S. initiatives sometimes fail not because U.S. strategy is necessarily bad or because public officials are less skilled than one might wish, but because adversaries have a greater stake in the outcome and are willing to make greater sacrifices than we are to get their way. In these situations, America’s superior power may be overcome by an opponent’s superior resolve.
This problem arises in good part because the United States is far and away the most secure great power in modern history. It has no serious rivals anywhere near its own territory; has a large, sophisticated, and diverse economy; possesses thousands of nuclear weapons; and enjoys a highly favorable geography. Its present level of security and prosperity may not last forever, but no other country (and certainly no major power) is in an equally fortunate position today.
The result is a paradox: The United States can roam the world and intervene in lots of distant problems because it doesn’t have to worry about defending its own soil against armed attack. But these favorable circumstances also mean that what happens in these far-flung regions is rarely critical for U.S. survival and may be only loosely related to its long-term prosperity. Among other things, this means that nearly every major foreign war fought by the United States is, to some degree, a war of choice. States facing a hostile invader or a rapidly deteriorating security situation may have no option but to fight to retain their independence, but the United States hasn’t faced these problems since the 19th century. Even U.S. entry into both world wars may not have been strictly necessary: Although I believe intervening in both of these conflicts was the right decision on strategic and moral grounds, U.S. involvement was hotly debated at the time—and for understandable reasons.