The Perils of Shaping a Recalcitrant World

The Perils of Shaping a Recalcitrant World

The Perils of Shaping a Recalcitrant World

Relying on military power to shape events in distant countries requires very deep pockets and infinite patience—neither of which we currently possess.


Whenever you hear senior US officials tout Washington’s determination to “shape” the world order pursuant to America’s vision of all that is right and good, make sure you have your flak jacket handy. In practice, “shaping” typically culminates in exchanges of gunfire.

Recently, in a much-anticipated speech, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken outlined the Biden administration’s plan to “shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open, inclusive international system.” In an age that celebrates openness and inclusivity, Blinken’s vision sounds benign.

Yet, to judge by the recent past, this latest effort to shape will leave Americans and the world worse off. To shape is to impose. Incorporating expectations of compliance, the effort is inherently coercive. When the United States sets out to shape, brace yourself for blowback.

Recall that during the Cold War, US strategy had centered on containment. However imperfectly implemented, the overarching idea was quite specific: Prevent the spread of communism and avert a cataclysmic Third World War. Yet the Cold War’s abrupt conclusion in 1989 found the world’s sole remaining superpower in a dominant position without any sense of how to put that dominance to work.

The possibility of claiming a “peace dividend”—the Pentagon effectively declaring Mission Accomplished—apparently never received more than perfunctory consideration. Refashioning the old mission into a new, more proactive one caught Washington’s fancy instead. Shaping—bringing the world into conformity with American values and interests—appeared to fill the bill.

Back in September 1993, Anthony Lake, then serving as national security adviser to President Bill Clinton, unveiled this project, which he styled a “strategy of enlargement.” This strategy was not an explicitly military enterprise. Its advertised purpose, according to Lake, was to “mobilize our nation in order to enlarge democracy, enlarge markets, and enlarge our future”—shaping over multiple dimensions.

Yet Clinton administration exertions in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and the Persian Gulf soon revealed a preference for taking a strong-arm approach. To invade, occupy, overthrow—or at the very least bomb—seemingly offered an expedient way of obliging the recalcitrant to shape up. With Donald Trump a partial exception, Clinton’s successors endorsed that proposition.

Even as the US penchant for armed intervention grew (and as Pentagon spending soared), the advertised rationale of the enterprise remained as Lake had described it: to shape an international order conducive to liberal democratic values. Especially after 9/11, however, any connection between those values and the outcomes actually achieved—not to mention the means employed—became increasingly difficult to discern. In the Greater Middle East, shaping soon yielded to the forever war.

When former president George W. Bush recently confused Russia’s war in Ukraine with the American war in Iraq that he had inaugurated in 2003, he came precariously close to uttering a very uncomfortable truth. If not siblings, the two conflicts are at least first cousins—each one an illegal war of choice recklessly undertaken, each justified by the flimsiest ideological rationale (liberating Iraq, denazifying Ukraine), and each resulting in unmitigated disaster.

Even so, as if oblivious to what prior efforts have yielded, the Biden administration is now eager to take another stab at shaping—this time as a response to China’s rise. Yet the China “threat,” to the extent one exists, is not primarily military. It is economic, commercial, technological, and environmental. If the United States feels the need to compete with China, it should focus on such matters.

Imagine, for example, Washington undertaking its own equivalent of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, by diverting a measly 10 percent of the Pentagon’s budget to fund international development programs. That would come to a tidy $80 billion per year.

Instead, the Biden administration’s major economic initiative in the region amounts to a hefty serving of weak tea. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework isn’t even a trade agreement—it’s an agreement to begin consultations over negotiations about regional rules and standards. If that doesn’t sound very exciting to you, you’re not alone—IPEF has utterly failed to resonate among the nations America hopes to enlist in our “shaping” project. It’s akin to an invitation to a party no one wants to attend.

An African diplomat is said to have remarked that every time China visits we get a hospital, while every time Britain visits we get a lecture. The diplomat might have added that when the US visits, it does so to display American military might. Rather than an invitation to partner, the implicit message is one of paternalism: You need our protection. America’s actual effort to shape the strategic environment around China will instead emphasize bases, enhanced power projection capabilities, provocative military exercises, and arms sales. Indeed, these already describe the principal facets of the Pentagon’s much-touted Asian “pivot.” Needless to say, the Pentagon budget continues to grow apace.

Back in 1993, Anthony Lake proposed his Strategy of Enlargement just two weeks before the famous Mogadishu firefight blew a hole in the Clinton administration’s naive expectations of shaping the future of Somalia. Nearly 30 years later, US troops remain in that recalcitrantly out-of-shape country, with mission accomplishment nowhere in sight.

If the United States should take one lesson from its decades in Somalia, it is this: Relying on military power to shape the course of events in distant countries requires very deep pockets and infinite patience—neither of which we currently possess. And in comparison with China, Somalia would seem to be an easy case.

Emphasizing carrots rather than sticks has served China well. The US reliance on sticks to shape the behavior of others has proven to be a costly failure. Especially when our real priority should be to reshape—and repair—our democracy at home, surely we can do better.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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