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2020 Will See a Monumental Clash Over America's Place in the World

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Is it time for the U.S. to confront other great powers — or to retreat?
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  Is it time for the U.S. to confront other great powers — or to retreat? By Stephen Wertheim Mr. Wertheim is a historian who writes about American foreign policy.Feb. 26, 2019 In the past several months, a meaningful debate has finally started to emerge over America’s rolein the world. Politicians and analysts — left, right and center — are conceding that longstandingmistakes have brought the United States to an uncertain moment. Provoked by President Trump,they are concluding that the bipartisan consensus forged in the 1990s — in which the UnitedStates towered over the world and, at low cost, sought to remake it in America’s image — hasfailed and cannot be revived.But the agreement ends there. Foreign policy hands are putting forward something like oppositediagnoses of America’s failure and opposite prescriptions for the future. One camp holds that theUnited States erred by coddling China and Russia, and urges a new competition against thesegreat power rivals. The other camp, which says the United States has been too belligerent andambitious around the world, counsels restraint, not another crusade against grand enemies.Though still in formation, these camps are heading for a clash in the 2020 presidential race, if notin a straightforward way. Each has bipartisan backing. Each finds a little to like in Mr. Trump butrejects him as a member. And each is willing to pull back from wars in the Middle East. It’s thiscontest, not the sound and fury over “America First,” that is set to redefine America’s world role inthe 21st century, during the rest of the Trump years and beyond. The New Cold Warriors Mr. Trump has consistently criticized American leaders for being too weak and too generoustoward other countries, and none more than China. When he began his campaign in 2015, hedecried China as a “bigger problem” than the Islamic State, denouncing Beijing’s trade practicesalongside its military buildup. Now, a growing number of foreign policy experts, includingcentrists who deprecate the president, agree — and add Russia to the list of great powercompetitors. 2020 Will See a Monumental Clash OverAmerica’s Place in the World  In this view, the United States emerged from the Cold War with naïve hopes: It welcomed China into the World Trade Organization and Russia into the G‑20 and expected them to liberalize theirsocieties and conform to an American‑led “world order.” Instead, China and Russia became moreauthoritarian and more assertive, shaping global politics against America’s wishes. As the latestNational Security Strategy maintains, the United States assumed its power would be“unchallenged and self‑sustaining” and “surrendered our advantages” as a result.The Trump administration has led the way in confronting China, an agenda that transcends itsinternal fissures. Under Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who left the administration afterdenouncing the president’s worldview, the Pentagon oriented itself around the premise that“great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”The administration increasingly treats China’s economic actions as national security threats. Inthe past several months, the United States has pushed its allies to block the Chinese tech giantHuawei from participating in their 5G wireless networks on the grounds that the Chinese statecould use the company to conduct espionage. This move may mark a pivot toward the economiccontainment of China, with core North Atlantic and East Asian alliances of the Cold Warreconstituted in opposition to Chinese economic and political power.Pressuring China is one of Mr. Trump’s only policies to have gained bipartisan traction. ElizabethWarren, eyeing 2020, accuses Russia and China of “working flat out to remake the global order” intheir authoritarian image. Similarly, think‑tankers who began the Trump presidency defendingthe “liberal international order” are changing tack. The Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright,for example, now writes off the Russo‑Chinese “neo‑authoritarian world,” urging America to leadthe “free world” against it. The message is not far from that of Vice President Mike Pence, who inOctober blasted China as a crypto‑totalitarian force committing aggression wherever it goes, evenwhen it finances infrastructure in poor countries.Despite the rhetoric, the most basic aims of great power competition remain to be defined,especially toward a rising China. Does the United States seek merely to modify Chinese conduct,or to block China’s ascent outright? How much economic separation from China do nationalsecurity concerns warrant? The irony is that Mr. Trump himself, having ratcheted up tensions,may merely seek leverage toward a trade deal. He is disposed to regard no country as a permanent ally or permanent enemy. But America’s hardening line has bipartisan support and itwon’t be easy to reverse. The Restrainers At the same time, Mr. Trump has helped to incite a counter‑movement. A trans‑partisan coalition,aligning progressives and libertarians, is encouraged by the electoral success of his criticism of Middle East interventions, but seeks much greater restraint than the president has delivered.Those who advocate restraint believe the United States went wrong by expanding, notcontracting, its global responsibilities after the Soviet Union collapsed.  Mr. Trump shares some of these inclinations. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” heproclaimed in the State of the Union. He has pledged to pull most ground troops out of Syria and ispursuing negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. On the whole, though, most advocates of restraint find little to like in Mr. Trump’s militarized foreign policy. They see a president who hasattempted to assert American dominance over the world, boosting the defense budget, escalatingmilitary interventions in the Middle East and Africa, and imposing new sanctions on Iran andnow Venezuela.Yet they also see an opportunity to constrain the United States’ military adventurism by opposingthe war powers of an unprincipled and unstrategic commander in chief. On Feb. 13, antiwar forcesscored a victory when the House voted to end military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. If the resolution passes the Senate, it will mark the first time Congress has invoked the 1973 WarPowers Act in order to bind the president to remove American forces active in hostilities abroad.The bill also offers a template for further withdrawals, according to its Senate sponsors, DemocratChris Murphy, Independent Bernie Sanders and Republican Mike Lee. “Since 9/11, politicianshave become far too comfortable with American military interventions all over the world,” theyhave written. The next step may be to repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Forcepassed after the Sept. 11 attacks, which successive presidents have used to justify almostunlimited warmaking in the greater Middle East.Restraint is advancing on the left of the Democratic Party, but it’s not yet clear whether it canpierce the center as domestic proposals like Medicare for All have done. Calls to cut militaryspending, advanced by Mr. Sanders and House progressives, have not quite become a coreprinciple of the progressive movement. And advocates of restraint tend to become less vocal andunified when they turn beyond the Middle East. The sponsor of the House’s Yemen resolution,Representative Ro Khanna, has distinguished himself by supporting diplomacy with North Korea and opposing regime change in Venezuela, but he stands apart. The restraint coalition wouldbenefit from taking a similarly global view if it is to advance a comprehensive alternative to thestatus quo. The Coming Clash? Does the future belong to great power competition or restraint? Partisans of each camp havegood reason to feel the wind at their back. Decades of policy failure have converged with the dailyeruptions of President Trump to throw open the question of what America’s place in the worldshould be.What’s more, the two camps have not quite trained their sights on each other. That is partlybecause advocates of great power competition in the establishment remain obsessed with Mr.Trump, while advocates of restraint have been marginalized for so long that they need to pick  their battles. One can even glimpse the outlines of a tacit bargain between them, breaking downgeographically: As restrainers try to end wars in the Middle East, centrists pivot toward thePacific, where the adversaries are larger but war less likely.For now, savvy politicians can adopt both positions at once. Ms. Warren, for example, denouncesChinese and Russian behavior at the same time that she promises to remove troops fromAfghanistan and “cut our bloated defense budget.” And Democrat‑leaning experts not previouslyoutraged by America’s Middle East entanglements now bemoan them as distractions. Before long,it will be only anti‑Iran, pro‑Israel hard‑liners — members of the Trump administration andDemocratic leadership included — who will strongly defend America’s posture in the region.But the two sides disagree fundamentally, and Americans deserve a forthright debate betweenthem after decades of stifling consensus. Advocates of great power competition, after all, willhardly accept cutting military spending even if all they seek is to maintain current levels of superiority over a rising China and an assertive Russia. Restrainers, for their part, might succeedspectacularly in the Middle East, only to find America embroiled in a new Cold War. To avoidbeing outflanked, they ought to amplify the potential for cooperation with China, a power that hassuccessfully practiced its own form of restraint, refraining from war for the past 40 years.In the upcoming election, battles within the parties may prove as consequential as the main fightbetween them. For if the last two years have shown anything, it is that America’s purpose in theworld is deeply unsettled, and just might be poised for a major change. Stephen Wertheim (@stephenwertheim) is a visiting assistant professor of history at Columbia University. The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or  any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram. Related Opinion | Jamelle BouieSanders Has an Advantage, and It’s Not About Economics  Feb. 21, 2019

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Feb 26, 2019
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