Mearsheimer and Bacevich on the Future of American Foreign Policy

by Derek Davison

Last year, to mark the end of the Obama administration, LobeLog spoke with foreign policy analysts Andrew Bacevich, of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, and John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago. The resulting interview covered the Obama foreign policy legacy as well as the broader challenges facing U.S. foreign policy. To mark the first year of the Trump administration, LobeLog spoke again with Bacevich and Mearsheimer to get their impressions of Donald Trump’s foreign policy and the state of the world at large. This is part two of our interview. In part one, we discussed the Trump foreign policy one year into his administration. In part two we discuss the main challenges facing America internationally and the potential for change in U.S. foreign policy.

NOTE: Our interview was conducted prior to the recent unveiling of the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, which does address the issues of multipolarity and the return of great power competition that were brought up during this discussion.

LobeLog: What do you see as the biggest long-term challenge facing America on the world stage?

John Mearsheimer: One change that’s taking place in international politics that Trump has no control over but that will affect his presidency more and more over time—and which is reflected in the NSS—is the rise of China and the resurrection of Russian power. This change in the balance of power has created a situation where we’re moving away from unipolarity and toward multipolarity. If you look at the National Security Strategy (NSS) carefully, it trumpets the fact that great power politics is back, and it’s not just Iran and North Korea that are the principle threats the United States needs to worry about—it’s also China and Russia. It seems clear to me that the Trump administration has its gunsights on both China and Russia and will devote an enormous amount of defense resources to dealing with those two countries. Over time, I think this will mean a fundamental change in our foreign policy, and we will end up focusing more on East Asia and less on the greater Middle East.

Andrew Bacevich: Events since the end of the Cold War have demolished the notion that we live in a unipolar world dominated by the United States. I don’t think that was ever a plausible proposition, but if we look at what has actually happened over the past 30 years or so, the folly becomes fully evident. That said, it’s not clear to me that people in Washington are willing to acknowledge how wrong they were. So when you reference things like the rise of China, the big question is whether the United States is willing to accept the fact that ours is a multipolar world, with fostering stability in that world the task at hand. Or are people in Washington intent on clinging to delusions of unipolarity, the task at hand then being to prevent China’s rise.

Mearsheimer: During the so-called “unipolar moment,” the United States thought it was so powerful and so smart that it could basically run the world. It could do regime change and create more and more liberal democracies, and in the process would be seen as a benign hegemon. And of course all of this social engineering would lead to a much more peaceful world. But now, as we move into multipolarity, it’s becoming apparent that the problems we face are growing in number and are actually much more serious than they have been over the past 25 years. In other words, it’s not just the Middle East, terrorism, and proliferation that matter, now we also have to worry about great power politics.

I think that most people in Washington believe that the United States is so powerful, and can be so effective in the world, that it can deal with Russia and China and these other problems all at the same time. I don’t think that the American foreign policy establishment has a good sense of the limits of power. They don’t understand that there are limits to what you can do with the military force we have, and that given the rise of China and the problems we have with Russia the United States is going to have to prioritize. I don’t think that most American policymakers and pundits think in terms of prioritizing and making hard choices. They continue to think, for reasons that baffle me, that the United States can go around the world and perform all of these missions simultaneously, and be successful to boot, even though we have an abysmal track record in recent years.

Bacevich: I’m also baffled. The explanation that I keep coming back to is American exceptionalism, this sense of being chosen. I don’t understand the durability of that claim given the actual consequences of trying to implement it, particularly over the last few years. Just focus on the Middle East. What have we learned since Ronald Reagan’s de facto intervention on behalf of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War? What has the political establishment learned since then from our various interventions in that region? I think we’ve learned nothing, and therefore we continue to blunder on. This most recent announcement of maintaining U.S. troops in Syria: for how long? It suggests yet another open-ended military commitment, and yet it elicits only yawns from the media and the American people.

Mearsheimer: If you look at Afghanistan, which is another example, Candidate Trump basically said that he was going to pull the troops out of Afghanistan, because it is a hopeless cause—which of course it is. But what did he do when he entered the White House? He upped the ante in Afghanistan, even though we have no strategy for winning that war and there is no end in sight.

With regard to Syria, the United States helped create the mess there, starting in the summer of 2011, when the Obama administration decided it was time to overthrow Assad. This policy failed and a horrendous civil war resulted. Moreover, the Islamic State [ISIS or IS] moved into Syria and occupied a huge chunk of Syrian territory, which forced the United States to go to war in Syria. And now the Trump administration has decided to stay in Syria for the long term to help shape the political outcome in that country. Despite Trump’s past rhetoric about getting out of the business of nation-building, he’s decided to do it in both Afghanistan and Syria. It’s hard to believe, but we’re going to try to decide who should run Syria, what its political system should look like, what its foreign policy should be. We’ve tried to do this in numerous other countries over the past few decades, and we’ve had one failure after another.

Bacevich: To make matters worse, this president—and again, we should remind ourselves of the contempt he expressed for the foreign-policy establishment—has decided to take sides in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Again, it baffles me—not just Trump’s decision to do so and his romance with Saudi royals —but the fact that that kind of uninformed inclination from an ignorant president doesn’t elicit any serious pushback in Washington. We blunder on.

Mearsheimer: There are a few factors that I can point to, which I think help account for this phenomenon. The United States, despite all the heated rhetoric about the dangerous threat environment in which we live, is a remarkably secure great power. When a country is as secure as the United States, it can afford to pursue a foolish foreign policy because the consequences for it are not very great. It also matters that we have an all-volunteer military, which means people who have no interest in serving in the military are not being drafted to fight these futile wars, and that the public does not seem to have a sense that these wars cost an enormous amount of money. Given these various factors, it’s easy for the elite to continue fighting losing wars, simply because the public doesn’t care that much. The elite, on the other hand, is enamored with this super-ambitious foreign policy because it’s basically a jobs program.

LobeLog: It feels like you’ve already answered this in a way, but I’d like to be clear about it. We’ve now seen two consecutive presidents, each very different from one another, who both talked about changing the “Washington playbook,” and neither one has been able to do it. Is the problem, in Trump’s case, that he himself is unsuited to changing the establishment, or do you just think it can’t be changed?

Mearsheimer: I would note that we’ve actually had three straight presidents who were elected on the platform that they were going to change American foreign policy, and then they didn’t. George W. Bush in 2000 criticized the Clinton administration for doing too much nation-building and for being too involved in the affairs of countries all around the world. He called for a more restrained and realist foreign policy. He, of course, then went in exactly the opposite direction after September 11. Obama too was beaten back and adopted the Washington playbook, and now we see the same thing happening with Trump. I think what this tells you is there are powerful structural forces, both at the domestic and the international levels, that constrain any president who wants to challenge the status quo in fundamental ways.

Bacevich: I think that’s very true. That said, I would not entirely exclude the possibility of real change. Trump the candidate, who promised to change everything, really had no conception of what the alternative grand strategy might look like. What we got from him were sound bites about “America First,” which, of course, created great panic inside the Beltway. If we had a candidate who could articulate, with some specificity, what an alternative to the “Washington playbook” might look like in terms of posture and policies, and if that individual could persuade the American people to support those policies, with that individual installing likeminded lieutenants in the most important offices, then real change might become possible. But we haven’t had that candidate, and I don’t know that the existing political establishment is likely to produce one.

Mearsheimer: I would add that one factor, which would work in that president’s favor, is that he or she would have considerable support from the American public. Although the American people are not complaining bitterly about the existing foreign policy, there’s no question they’re disenchanted with our policy, and indeed that dissatisfaction contributed to the victories of Bush, Obama, and Trump. There is reason to think that if you get a president along the lines that Andy is describing, who is also smart and clever, it might be possible to effect some meaningful change. The problem is finding a candidate who fits that bill, which is difficult to do because the foreign-policy establishment doesn’t produce those kinds of people.

LobeLog: Based on how this year has gone, how do you see the Trump administration’s foreign policy playing out down the road? Specifically, what do you see being the implications of this shift to a multipolar world, and what impact could cutbacks at the State Department have on American foreign policy long-term?

Mearsheimer: The fact that we’re moving toward a multipolar world, where China and Russia are rival great powers, is cause for great concern. The potential for great-power war between the United States and China is not to be underestimated. In a unipolar world there is no possibility of great-power war—the most dangerous form of war one can imagine—because there is only one great power. But we’re now moving into a world where you have an increasingly powerful and assertive China, which will create a variety of circumstances where the United States and China might bump up against each other and end up in a shooting war. I’m not saying this is likely, but the potential is there, and thus managing the security competition between China and the United States, as well as between China and its neighbors like Japan, is going to be very tricky. We’re moving into a more dangerous world for sure.

With regard to the State Department, there’s no question that to have an effective foreign policy the United States has to rely heavily on diplomacy. But the only kind of diplomacy that the Trump administration likes is big-stick diplomacy—using your military to coerce other states to act in ways America wants them to act. This is a very foolish way of doing business. It’s necessary to employ big-stick diplomacy on occasion, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s also very important to rely heavily on traditional diplomacy, which is hard to do with a crippled State Department.

This is one of the reasons why the execution of American foreign policy in Trump’s first year has been so abysmal. It’s not just due to his rhetoric, his tendency to shoot from the hip, and his ignorance of foreign policy. It’s also due to the fact that he has undermined diplomacy as an instrument of foreign policy. That’s guaranteed to make it difficult to execute any foreign policy. So again, what we now have is a president who continues, by and large, to pursue the failed foreign policies of his predecessors, but he’s doing it in a much more inept way than they did.

Bacevich: Another way to come at this question relates to time horizons. This multipolar world that is forming will be a competitive one. We need to understand the terms of that competition. We certainly need to devise policies that will avoid the catastrophic outcomes that John referred to. But my sense is that this administration in particular—though prior administrations may not have been much better—is so preoccupied with near-term problems that it devotes insufficient energy and attention to relations among several great and near-great powers that will need to co-exist if the planet is to survive. My guess is that an administration dominated by generals preoccupied with near-term concerns may have difficulty finding time to contemplate the far horizon.

On the State Department, we have certainly had some exceedingly distinguished diplomats in recent years—Ryan Crocker is an example. But one hears complaints about the foreign service being too bureaucratized and unimaginative, and about foreign service officers being unwilling to get out in the field. This suggests it may well be time to undertake a comprehensive assessment, looking in particular at how we choose and develop foreign-service officers. We went to have a world-class diplomatic corps. Simply not filling positions, as seems to be Rex Tillerson’s approach, or humiliating the foreign service by denouncing its members doesn’t strike me as a useful approach.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. Mearsheimer: “. . .great power politics is back, and it’s not just Iran and North Korea that are the principle threats the United States needs to worry about—it’s also China and Russia. . .the dangerous threat environment in which we live”

    Calling Russia and China threats to US national security is laughable (even more so Iran and North Korea), but the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex must be fed. I have asked on military blogs for someone to define these threats to the United States but nobody has responded, so I continue to contend that it’s a joke told for financial purposes.

  2. Not sure where these political analysts and intellectuals were 25-30 years ago? Nobody in the US was predicting the near future on the planet! When establishment in Washington was in euphoria of post Soviet Union and dancing on street and in Congress thinking that from now on we can do anything to anybody who dares to raises their head off of ground. And yet most of the cabdrivers around the world could predict that this euphoria in US won’t last long because America is incapable of managing and handlling the unipolar opportunity well! In fact the cab drivers were telling me that because of the US incapacity the planet will become multipolar and they were adding EU to the list powerhouses mentioned in this interview. Well the cabdrivers that I had the opportunity to speak with were right and the planet is becoming multipolar very fast! Of course the folks in Washington who are still high or drunk over the euphoria haven’t realized that world around them is changing rapidly. My fear is that the current generation of politicians in DC are obsolete and perhaps a new generation who has a better understanding and recognition of this rapid change around the world should begin to replace the old! Trumpism perhaps is a reaction to the euphoria but this gang who is in charge now is not the right group of people and my fear is that things are going to get much worse before we see a turn around.
    In other words, the Washington playbook has to be rewritten!!

  3. “there’s no question that to have an effective foreign policy the United States has to rely heavily on diplomacy.” Aha, that is one thing the USA, under any president, refuses to do or does not use when there is an effort eg Obama after the agreement of John Kerry with the Russians in Syria, then the US killed many Syrian soldiers. No trust, no compromise, no consideration of any other point of view.

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