When high school history texts chronicle this moment in 20 or 30 years’ time, the novel coronavirus will occasion a new section header—and the section it will end is the post-9/11 era.
In truth, the post-9/11 era should have ended, for American foreign policy, at least, within mere months of the 9/11 attacks, by which point the original retaliatory goal of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was accomplished. It certainly should have ended by 2008, when the Great Recession ushered in a new president who repudiated in his campaign rhetoric, if not his actual governance, the foreign policy excesses of his predecessor.
Instead, the aggressive, military-first posture Washington adopted in the aftermath of the terror attacks in 2001 solidified into a nigh-permanent doctrine. Two decades, tens of thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of foreign casualties later—to say nothing of trillions of dollars wasted—something more powerful than Washington’s inertia has arrived.
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us into a new time, and our foreign policy must come to reflect that reality. A prudent, pandemic-prompted reset to U.S. foreign policy would have three key features.
First, it would see a new prioritization of the United States’ core interests over costly and unnecessary military adventures abroad. This is not a simplistic “America first” mindset. It does not mean isolationism nor, as Harvard’s Stephen Walt recently wrote at Foreign Policy, “a retreat to autarky or even the same level of deglobalization that occurred as a result of the two world wars and the Great Depression. Contemporary states cannot afford to sever all ties, even in the face of something like the coronavirus.”
The United States should continue global engagement via trade, diplomacy, and cultural exchange. What we should not continue, particularly while COVID-19 exacts a brutal human and economic toll, is using our military to police the world. Our government for far too long has deluded itself into believing it can bomb, occupy, and nation build its way to resolution of other nations’ political, religious, and cultural conflicts. It is time to abandon this fantasy, which was a bloody and misguided “luxury” even in better circumstances.
To put that principle in action, Washington should immediately end U.S. involvement in all ongoing wars, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and lesser conflicts across the Middle East and Africa. These are wars of choice. They are not vital to U.S. security—in fact, they are to its detriment. Prolonging these aimless wars puts American troops in harm’s way for no attainable end, engendering local backlash and risking broader conflict with other intervening powers (most notably Russia). These fights are liabilities, now more than ever.
Finally, this pivot away from military overreach must be matched by a pivot toward realistic diplomacy, which is crucial alike for U.S. relations with our allies (many of whom are also grappling with COVID-19), rivals (a rising China and declining Russia), and antagonists (North Korea, Iran, and multiple non-state actors like the Taliban). Realistic diplomacy is pragmatic, neither trafficking in unjustified idealism about the likely behavior of dictatorial regimes nor fixating on hardline “maximum pressure”-style positions in which Washington demands endless concessions but offers nothing in return. It seeks achievable outcomes and is patient with slow timelines and halting progress. Its aim is not the world remade in America’s image but a mutually tolerable peace.
The post-9/11 era in foreign policy was a time of hubris, recklessness, and neglect of grand strategy. The United States fell into a dangerous habit of executive war-making, with conflicts too easily started and seemingly impossible to end. The novel coronavirus should force a foreign policy reckoning that is years overdue. This pandemic should push Washington to a new posture of peace and restraint.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One,and The American Conservative, among other outlets.