Opinion - Politics

Op-ed: America’s partners and adversaries navigate uncertain period of U.S. ‘strategic contraction’

Minister of External Affairs of India, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar speaks during a bilateral meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Anton Raharjo | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

India's external affairs minister, representing the world's largest democracy and second-most-populous country, shared with me a concept that he believes captures the geopolitical moment.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, one of the keenest international thinkers of our uncertain times, reckons that the United States, after years of unrivaled global leadership, is in a state of "strategic contraction." He sees this as one of four factors shaping our times. 

The other three: China's increased relevance in almost every corner of the world; the rise of middle-sized powers with regional and international influence (India being atop that list); and the evolution of what Jaishankar refers to as ad hoc, interest-based "shareholder groups." The latter won't replace formal treaty alliances, he argued, but will operate alongside them. 

As an example, he cites the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as "the Quad") of the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia — which was born in 2007 and, after a brief pause, was reestablished in 2017 but has gained greater relevance recently. In addition, he mentions a "new quad" announced in October that includes the U.S., India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates.    

Jaishankar doesn't introduce the notion of U.S. "strategic contraction" as a theoretical matter, but rather sees it as a reality that's been unfolding ever since the Obama administration's "leading from behind," through the Trump administration's "America First," and right into the Biden administration "Build Back Better" mantra, with its emphasis on rebuilding at home.

By his calculus, the U.S. "will still be the premier power by a large margin but one more realistic and open to working with others. We are seeing that especially under Biden. The contraction actually helps create a "transitional order" from the Cold War period of U.S.-Soviet competition through the post-Cold War years of U.S. dominance to the period ahead.

Like all periods of change, however, this transition comes with risks as China tests its new muscle, Russia maneuvers to regain lost ground and the U.S. comes to terms with a messy, contested world.

Since speaking with the Indian minister in Dubai, I've been sharing his thoughts about U.S. strategic contraction with European and Middle Eastern experts and officials. The term resonates with them.  

Our partners are still reeling from the unconditional U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan that allowed the return to power of the Taliban, against whom they had helped fight. They look around and see Russia's military buildup near Ukraine, a migrant crisis on the Belarus border and growing Chinese military pressure on Taiwan. They harbor rising doubts about how Washington will navigate these challenges, knowing they are unready to do so alone.

Yet those who argue the U.S. is withdrawing from the world stage couldn't have it more wrong. Washington will remain a leading voice on key issues from climate change to nuclear proliferation. In a world that constantly demands our attention and engagement, U.S. isolationism isn't an option.

U.S. allies have noticed — and they're concerned

What our partners see now is a less externally confident, more internally focused U.S. guided by a sober calculation of its leverage and resources, burdened by public weariness with the cost of international leadership, and hobbled by domestic political polarization. 

They agree with the Biden administration's conviction that it must strengthen itself at home to effectively lead abroad. In that spirit, they welcome the new $1.2 trillion infrastructure law and are closely watching the roughly $2 trillion social-spending and climate bill, passed Friday by the House, and now heading to the Senate.

That said, the U.S.'s closest friends and allies are most concerned by the uncertain direction of U.S. democracy, with former U.S. President Donald Trump still denying the legitimacy of his defeat and the Biden administration struggling to summon broad public support.

In my travels through Europe and the Middle East over the past month, I was most struck by how many conversations began with questions about the health and direction of the U.S.'s democracy. The topic seems of greater concern to our partners than the rise of China's authoritarian state.

It isn't new that the world follows U.S. domestic politics closely. What seems different is the bewildered tone of our allies in asking whether Americans understand the dangers of any erosion in democracy and are willing to address them. I was surprised how often my foreign friends quoted from Robert Kagan's recent foreboding piece in the Washington Post, "Our constitutional crisis is already here."

Lessons from U.S. 'strategic contraction' in Afghanistan

What seems to have shaken our partners most profoundly was the nature and speed of the U.S.'s unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan, without serious consultation with allies who had troops there or with Mideast partners who fear the emergence of an extremist-run country and the reemergence of a terrorist safe haven.

"It said nothing good about the steadiness, reliability, or predictability of U.S. leadership," one Middle Eastern official told me. "Even the Taliban was surprised by how quickly it all unfolded."

The picture that presents itself is that of an emerging world order shaped by greater multipolarity and regionalism. It's less likely to break down into clear camps split between China and the U.S. Too many of America's most important allies have China as their biggest trading partner and will resist being drawn into any global either-or contest.

U.S. partners will look to new regional arrangements, involving the U.S. where possible, and they will promote their trading and security interests in a pragmatic way, participating if invited into larger U.S. schemes like the Biden administration's upcoming democracy summit or "Build Back Better World" approach laid out at the Group of Seven summit in June as a sort of answer to Beijing's belt-and-road initiative.

At the same time, U.S. partners and allies will hedge their bets, more certain about China's course — even though they may not like it — than they are about the U.S. trajectory. 

Many of our partners hope the U.S. once again will provide the galvanizing role that was decisive during World War II and did so much to define the post-war period's world and institutions, and determined the Cold War's outcome. 

For now, however, U.S. partners feel they need to navigate the reality they see in front of them: U.S. "strategic contraction."

Frederick Kempe is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.