The American foreign policy debate just shifted into high gear with an op-ed piece in the Washington Times by former Secretary of State and CIA Director Mike Pompeo and an essay in Foreign Affairs by Robert D. Kaplan, perhaps our nation’s foremost geopolitical thinker. Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea, and America’s response to both, are front and center for Pompeo and Kaplan. And their suggested approaches to these foreign policy problems are quite different.
Pompeo urges U.S. policymakers to be more confrontational with both Russia and China.
He advocates that the U.S. and NATO seek a “decisive victory for Ukraine” by providing “conventional weapons of decisive lethality” to the country, including Abrams tanks and fighter aircraft, in order to help Ukraine liberate the eastern provinces that Russia claims to have annexed. And if Russian President Vladimir Putin uses nuclear weapons, Pompeo advocates for “devastat[ing] the Chinese economy through our cessation of trade and capital investments.” Pompeo accuses the Biden administration of “ineptitude” and of mistakenly imposing “self-restricting limits” in responding to Russian aggression. Pompeo’s article is a call to arms for defeating Russia in Ukraine and punishing China for its support of Russia. (READ MORE: Mike Pompeo and the Revival of US Nuclear Strategy)
Robert Kaplan, on the other hand, urges U.S. restraint and the adoption of a “grand strategy of limits.” Kaplan fears that the impending imperial collapse of the great powers of Russia, China, and the United States may lead to global anarchy and chaos. He draws upon the history of the collapses of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires at the end of World War I, leaving in their wake radical and unstable states. “The twentieth century,” Kaplan writes, “was largely shaped by the collapse of dynastic empires in the early decades and by consequent war and geopolitical upheaval in the later decades.” Sometimes, imperial decline can produce “greater problems.”
Kaplan fears that China, Russia, and the United States “may be even more fragile than they seem.” “[B]oth Russia and the United States,” Kaplan writes, “have initiated self-destructive wars: Russia in Ukraine and the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.” And he believes that China may soon embark on its own self-destructive war over Taiwan. Kaplan wants global stability, and that means stable great powers. But he warns that Russia, China, and the United States may all be declining, albeit for different reasons.
Kaplan envisions three potential new power configurations: (1) the decline of Russia and China while the United States overcomes domestic divisions and achieves another “unipolar” moment; (2) the emergence of a bipolar world split between China and the United States; and (3) the gradual decline of all three powers, resulting in an international system more susceptible to anarchy and chaos. “No great power,” Kaplan reminds us, “lasts forever.”
Kaplan points to the example of the Byzantine Empire, which lasted more than a thousand years by acting with restraint, conserving its strength, relying on allies, avoiding war whenever possible, eschewing ideology, and skillfully navigating the balance of power. The United States, he advises, should abandon its “missionary” vision of foreign policy, one that is promoted by what he accurately calls a “sanctimonious media establishment” that often overlooks America’s geopolitical interests.
Kaplan’s restrained global approach is almost the exact opposite of Pompeo’s crusading foreign policy. Kaplan preaches a grand strategy of limits, while Pompeo doesn’t seem to acknowledge any limits. Kaplan seeks stability above all, while Pompeo urges confrontation with both Russia and China, simultaneously.
This is a debate worth having and continuing, though events may intercede. It is reminiscent of the great debate after World War II between George Kennan, who advocated containment of Soviet power; James Burnham, who urged U.S. leaders to implement a policy of “liberation” to defeat Soviet power; and Walter Lippmann, who advocated for restraint and recognized the limits of American power.
Kaplan writes: “Wars are historical hinges. And misbegotten wars, when serving as culmination points of more general national decline, can be fatal.” Pompeo, however, argues that “fear of escalation … demonstrates weakness,” which may only invite even greater aggression. Kaplan is thinking of World War I, while Pompeo summons memories of World War II. Let the debate continue.