Slow and Steady Wins the Race: Embracing Incrementalism in U.S. Foreign Policy

“It is not surprising…that many [Americans] are confused and unhappy about our foreign relations, and that some are tempted to seek refuge from their confusion either in retreat to isolationism or in suggested solutions whose simplicity is only matched by their folly. In the main, our difficulties arise from unwillingness to face reality.”
—Henry L. Stimson, “The Challenge to Americans,” Foreign Affairs, 26:1 (October 1947): p. 5

Today’s Landscape

Every generation of postwar Americans has contended that the number and complexity of challenges it confronts abroad are without precedent. The present generation is no exception; as with its predecessors, its conclusion is exaggerated in some respects and plausible in others.

First, the world has been more dangerous. While a great-power conflict may not be as inconceivable as it was at the start of the century, it remains difficult to imagine another conflagration on the scale of World War I, in which some 20 million perished, or of its successor two decades later, wherein three times as many died. And while the danger of nuclear confrontation is growing—witness North Korea’s trajectory—the possibility of a superpower atomic exchange in which hundreds of millions die—a possibility that U.S. and Soviet policymakers countenanced with unnerving composure during the Cold War—has decreased significantly. discuss a given order presupposes the possibility for—indeed, the likelihood of—significant disequilibrium...

Richard Haas: "...‘order’ is not the same as ‘orderly’….One can have world orders that are anything but stable or desirable.”(

Second, while the erosion of the post-World War II order is indeed concerning, disorder is hardly a novelty; it is inbuilt into world affairs. Indeed, to discuss a given order presupposes the possibility for—indeed, the likelihood of—significant disequilibrium: Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass explains that “‘order’ is not the same as ‘orderly’….One can have world orders that are anything but stable or desirable.”[1] While the Cold War, for example, may have constituted “a long peace” at the highest level of analysis, it also witnessed proxy wars, civil wars, and genocides that killed tens of millions.

Still, it remains difficult to think of a postwar analogue to the present confluence of strategic circumstances, at least four of which merit mention. First, the United States no longer confronts the kind of singular nemesis that might stir some semblance of national unity. Former British diplomat Jonathan Clarke argued almost a quarter century ago that “[t]oday’s discretionary problems simply do not carry the same weight as yesterday’s life-threatening dangers.” He elaborated: “Those used to the daily red meat of the Cold War and looking for fresh sources of provender will be disappointed. Today’s wars…and today’s problems…do not provide the all-encompassing challenge that was inherent in totalitarian fascism and communism.”

That assessment remains valid. While China is a redoubtable competitor-cum-partner, it is neither embarking on an arms race with the United States nor attempting to export a “Beijing Consensus.” Terrorism, meanwhile, continues to shift from an infrequent, mass-casualty phenomenon to a more routine, low-scale occurrence; while the Islamic State poses a grave danger to certain Middle Eastern countries, it is far from an existential threat to the United States. Were North Korea to succeed in mating a nuclear warhead to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), it would certainly pose a threat to the homeland—again, however, not an existential one.

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping in Palm Beach, Florida, in April 2017. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

At least since the emergence of fascist Japan and Nazi Germany, the United States has paradoxically been uneasy about both the presence and absence of existential threats, real and perceived: when they exist, they inspire a commensurate fear for survival but also a seeming coherence of purpose; when they disappear, Americans take comfort in their relative security but express anxiety over the prospect of national drift (in that regard, the United States has never “recovered” from the Soviet Union’s dissolution).

Second, each of the three core regional orders is undergoing fundamental realignments. For instance, there are serious questions about the viability of the European project and the resilience of transatlantic ties. The disintegration of large swathes of the Middle East continues apace, with few credible speculations about the kind of regional order that will prevail. Meanwhile, China’s resurgence and the acceleration of pan-Asian economic integration, among other phenomena, are substantially altering the current strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific.

Third, the postwar order is under growing duress, in considerable measure owing to populist movements within its architect countries. While the United States has often oscillated between over-extension and retrenchment, no administration over the past 70 years has challenged the conclusion that contributing to that order advances U.S. national interests—excepting the present one. With its rejection of trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); its frequent derogations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and longstanding U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia; and its preference for bilateral, transactional diplomacy over multilateral, positive-sum interactions; the Trump administration would appear to be harkening back to a 1930s-era conception of U.S. foreign policy.

Fourth, there has probably never been a greater incongruity between the qualities that are essential to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy—temperance, restraint, and patience—and the impulses that are likely to tempt current and future policymakers. Our digital era prizes action over deliberation and demands success as impatiently as it pronounces failure: policymakers are more likely to be rewarded politically for taking a tactical step that demonstrates “leadership” than taking a strategic pause that appreciates complexity.

The Limits to U.S. Influence

The aforementioned quartet of circumstances has left the United States with considerably less scope for maneuver than it possessed at the turn of the 21st century, when the Economist famously observed that America “bestrides the globe like a colossus.” Zooming in on the world’s three principal theaters helps illuminate both the limits to U.S. influence and the challenge of formulating a compelling case for sustained engagement.


Transatlantic ties have been central to America’s role in the world as well as to the resilience of the postwar order. Increasingly, however, they are under strain. Prospects for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are dim. Princeton political scientist Andrew Moravcsik notes that “the two sides of the Atlantic remain deeply divided on a fundamental issue: whether the Europeans should spend more on defense.” They are comparably split on the appropriate balance of sticks and carrots for dealing with Russia, which has demonstrated a sustained ability to undermine the cohesion of the European Union (EU)—whether by hiving off territory, interfering with elections, or supporting populist parties. Finally, traditional European concerns about U.S. unilateralism have yielded to more fundamental uncertainties about the direction of U.S. foreign policy. Witness the alarm that European capitals expressed when the Obama administration announced its “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific in early 2012. Former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta observed that the EU reacted “as jealous lovers would, and overlooked the fact that Obama made a natural and fundamental choice in a country that is just as Pacific as it is Atlantic.” Regarding the Trump administration, the EU’s worry is not so much that the United States is focused on Asia, but that the principal drivers of U.S. engagement are difficult to discern.

U.S. President Donald Trump with European leaders. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

While the preceding paragraph suggests some ways in which the United States might work to shore up transatlantic ties, there is little it can do unilaterally to increase the EU’s heft; the union’s declining weight, after all, is borne principally of organic challenges. A recent report concludes that its “role as a positive global force” “belies a simple reality: Europe’s place in the world is shrinking.” In 1960, it accounted for 11 percent of the world’s population; along current trend lines, it will account for only four percent by 2060. Its share of gross world product, roughly 22 percent today, will likely fall to “much less than 20 percent” by 2030. Its median age is forecast to reach 45 that year, at which point Europe’s people will be the oldest in the world.

It is not only longstanding structural difficulties such as anemic growth and demographic decline that challenge the EU; more recent issues, including resurgent populism and refugee integration, raise questions about the body’s cohesion. It is logical to conclude that the EU must strengthen itself from within before it can enhance its external position. One could also contend, however, that its internal woes are more proximate than fundamental—that is, that they are better understood as being symptomatic of, and in turn reinforced by, the union’s increasingly evident inability to define its role in world affairs.

After the Cold War, the EU had hoped to—and many analysts believed it would—serve as an exemplar of integration that transcended the ruinous great-power politics of the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, up until the global financial crisis of 2008-09, one often encountered analyses that encouraged the Asia-Pacific to emulate the EU’s economic integration and institutional coordination. Today, however, it projects an image of disarray. The Chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, Ivan Krastev, contends that countervailing forces of integration may yet prevail:

...the union’s various crises, much more so than any of Brussels’s “cohesion policies,” have contributed to the sense that we Europeans are all part of the same political community. In responding to the euro crisis, the refugee question, and the growing threat of terrorism, Europe has ended up more integrated than ever before, at least when it comes to economics and security.[2]

His argument is compelling, and the annals of postwar strategic analysis are rife with premature obituaries for Europe (and, of course, for the United States). Still, the longer the EU proves incapable of articulating a vision for its place in the world that rouses its inhabitants to a transcendent purpose, the more powerful the forces of disintegration are likely to become. The United States cannot furnish that concept; the EU alone can, and must.

The Middle East

Perhaps the only prognostication one can issue about the Middle East with any measure of confidence is that its evolution is uncertain. In Afghanistan, the clash between government forces and Taliban fighters has grown so protracted that it has become difficult to distinguish current news stories about the conflict from those written a decade earlier. Reflecting on the massive bombing in Kabul at the beginning of June 2017, the New York Times noted that it “has continued unabated well into its second decade.” It strains credulity to suppose that a significant increase in the pace of drone strikes or another surge of troops would do more than temporarily alter the course of the stalemate there. Meanwhile, according to UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien, Yemen faces “total social, economic, and institutional collapse” on account of internecine fighting between the Hadi government, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, and Houthi rebels, with no termination of the conflict in sight. Close to seven million people are at risk of starvation, a cholera outbreak is raging, and al-Qa’ida affiliates have retaken parts of the country’s southeast.

Jordan's King Abdullah II, Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan pose for a photo during Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 21, 2017. (Reuters)

In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has wreaked havoc. One can accordingly sympathize with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s position that the United States has “shifted from attrition tactics, where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria, to annihilation tactics.” Even if it is defeated, though, there is little reason to believe that mutations of the organization will not incubate in the power vacuums that engulf much of the Middle East. Moreover, the group’s diminishing foothold could well prove a Pyrrhic victory in both countries. Iraq’s “complex ethnic make-up,” the Financial Times explained in early May, “means conflicts, many of which predate ISIS, are hard to resolve and relatively easy to reignite.” In Syria, meanwhile, an over-six-year war of attrition between government forces and assorted rebel outfits raises serious doubts about the possibility of reestablishing a coherent polity: “With Russians and Iranians in control in Damascus,” concludes the director of IDC Herzliya’s Rubin Center, “the U.S. bolstering rebels, and no one powerful enough to press for unification, the breakup of Syria is a fait accompli.” The destruction of ISIS would simply consolidate the Assad government’s grip on power.

Reflecting on the Middle East’s ongoing devolution, one specialist of the region shared this assessment with me: “On virtually every indicator, Arab countries are at greater risk of experiencing internal upheaval than they were in 2010. Even Tunisia, the purported poster child of a successful post-Arab Spring government, is barely surviving.” Egypt no longer commands nearly as much influence in the Middle East as it did at the start of the decade, and Saudi Arabia is increasingly concerned about the prospect of domestic tumult. To avoid having to implement significant political reforms at home, it is attempting to counter U.S. shale producers by slashing oil production. Given how precipitously the price of crude oil has fallen, though (it has been hovering around $50 per barrel), and how quickly the kingdom is burning through its foreign-exchange reserves—they fell below $500 billion in April, for the first time since 2011—Saudi Arabia cannot pursue that tack indefinitely.

So long as the Middle East’s present convulsions continue to reverberate, America’s influence in the region is likely to be constrained. The upheavals that began seven years ago were largely the product of internal dynamics—frustration with autocratic governance, chiefly—not outside interventions, however misguided they have been. The region’s destructive reordering has spawned a bewildering array of actors and realignments, well beyond America’s ability to comprehend fully, let alone mold significantly. Meanwhile, contends the aforementioned specialist, the United States confronts a vexing dilemma: while its recent record of interventions in the Middle East has been dubious—witness the state of present-day Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya—exiting the region would entail significant sunk costs, for it has a range of important vetted interests there.

The Asia-Pacific

The emerging crucible of world order, the Asia-Pacific, also contains its share of phenomena over which the United States has little leverage. Consider China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea. The United States has issued strong denunciations of that activity and conducted freedom-of-navigation operations to affirm its Pacific presence. But China continues to erect military installations on the features over which it has gained control, most recently deploying a series of rocket launchers on Fiery Cross Reef. According to MIT political scientist Taylor Fravel, one of the world’s foremost experts on China’s territorial disputes, the United States “does not have great options in the South China Sea. China will not vacate the features it occupies, and the United States will not forcibly remove them.” Similarly, while Washington can—and should—try to participate in and shape Beijing’s emerging geoeconomic campaign, it cannot credibly ask its allies to decline Chinese overtures, especially if it is unable to offer a serious trade and investment agenda of its own.

North Korean Parade (NBC News)

Perhaps even more vexing is North Korea’s nuclear odyssey, which, with the possible exception of Syria’s continued bloodletting, perhaps best exemplifies the poverty of choice that often confronts U.S. policymakers. If the United States and its regional allies do nothing, the regime’s ability to target Seoul, Tokyo, and, in time, Washington, will grow; the Wall Street Journal reported this January that “North Korea has launched more major missiles [in the past three years] than in the three previous decades combined.” Its successful ICBM test earlier this month further affirms Washington’s shrinking range of options. If it conducts unilateral strikes against Pyongyang, it would be unlikely to eliminate all of North Korea’s above-ground nuclear infrastructure, let alone what one must presume to be a substantial underground atomic apparatus; there is every reason to believe that the regime would retaliate with nuclear and/or conventional strikes, endangering the 28,500 U.S. soldiers who are stationed on the Korean Peninsula as well as hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other lives across Northeast Asia. Secretary Mattis warns that “conflict in North Korea would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.” Finally, regime collapse would raise the prospect not only of a major influx of refugees into China, but also of the seizure of fissile material and nuclear weapons by terrorist organizations. In his much-discussed cover story for The Atlantic, Mark Bowden observes that “the U.S. has four broad strategic options for dealing with North Korea and its burgeoning nuclear program....All of them are bad.” While U.S. officials may continue to avow publicly that they remain committed to North Korea’s complete, verifiable denuclearization, they would be remiss to maintain that objective in practice; Center for a New American Security President Richard Fontaine contends that, at best, they might pursue a “freeze or some modest rollback” of its nuclear and missile programs.

Internal Challenges

Elite commentary abounds with concern about the postwar order’s erosion, with many observers having already penned eulogies for it. While resuscitating that operating system is a compelling imperative, it scarcely rouses passions—certainly not to the same extent as, say, defeating the Soviet Union. It also feels detached from many Americans’ material realities and lived experiences (lest I be sanctimonious, I hasten to note that I have often called upon the United States to uphold the “liberal world order,” without concretizing the term or considering why that suggestion might not be self-evidently meritorious).

There is no supreme antagonist to defeat, and while the world beyond America’s borders is disorderly, it is not acutely menacing—at least not when refracted through the prism of vital U.S. national interests. Moreover, while “engagement” encompasses a wide array of activities, most Americans understandably associate that term with the country’s military undertakings, the outcomes of which over the past 15 years leave much to be desired. In short, the material gains to be accrued from active participation in world affairs are not immediately apparent; it is not surprising, then, that Americans want their representatives to focus more on the country’s internal challenges.

MIT economist Peter Temin notes that the middle class’s share of income fell by 30 percent between 1970 and 2014. He chronicles the ongoing emergence of a “dual economy”: 20 percent of the population, comprising “skilled workers and managers who have college degrees,” are seeing their share of income growing; the remaining 80 percent, consisting of “low-skilled workers who are suffering some of the ills of globalization,” are not.[3] Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have documented that “white non-Hispanic mortality rates for those aged 45-54 increased from 1998 through 2013,” a phenomenon they attribute to “a longstanding process of cumulative disadvantage for those with less than a college degree.”

Johns Hopkins’s Hal Brands and the Naval War College’s Charles Edel worry that Americans seem to have

forgotten why [their country’s] leadership is worth bearing in the first place. Why do we have troops and military hardware stationed around the globe? Why do we have an extensive system of alliances the world over? Why do we worry so much about what happens in faraway places like Ukraine or the South China Sea? Why do we pursue free trade even when it sometimes comes at a near-term cost to certain industries and workers in the United States? There are, of course, good historical answers to all of these questions, and they all come back to the very nasty things that tended to happen to the international system before the United States took up its ambitious, globe-girdling role. But now most of the country has forgotten that history, in part because of the simple passage of time but more precisely because the successes of American leadership have made it possible to forget.

Among the central imperatives of America’s foreign policy establishment is to document the tangible impact of the country’s engagement abroad—military, economic, diplomatic, and so forth—on people’s day-to-day welfare. A useful start to that end is an interactive map Max Fisher and Sergio Peçanha produced this January. But a far more granular, exhaustive version is necessary: as greatly as is feasible, analysts need to document how much a given city, a given zip code—even a given neighborhood—would suffer were the United States to withdraw from the world to this extent or that extent, and how so.

Countries with mutual defense treaties with the United States, and trade in 2015 between the United States and major partners. (New York Times)

At the Harvard Kennedy School’s commencement ceremony this May, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry observed that “a lot of folks want to stop the world and get off...Yes, technology is transformative,” he explained, “but if it was your job that was disrupted and nothing replaced it, guess what? You would find zero comfort in the fact that some technology that stole your job also gave you a smartphone that lets you binge-watch a future that’s out of reach for you and everybody you grew up with.” Sustained U.S. engagement in the world depends on public support: even the most rousing case for preserving the postwar order is unlikely to gain enduring traction unless it demonstrates why flesh-and-blood Americans have a stake in its success. While “America First” may appear to prioritize U.S. national interests, departing radically from the foreign policy consensus of the past seven decades is likely to diminish the country’s influence—hence widespread disappointment with the Trump administration’s rejection of the TPP and abandonment of the Paris accord on climate change.

Whither Engagement?

In April 2014, responding to a journalist’s suggestion that some critics construed his foreign policy doctrine to be one of “weakness,” President Obama observed that “[y]ou hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.” While his proposition was widely derided as defeatist, it is likely to grow more valid over time. Foreign policy successes are less likely be sweeping and total; instead, they are more likely be tentative and incremental. American University’s James Goldgeier and George Washington University’s Elizabeth Saunders note that “successful foreign policy is largely invisible. It often means paying up front for benefits that are hard to see until you lose them, or that will only be obvious when you really need them. Sometimes, successful foreign policy even means keeping real victories quiet.” That judgment should not dissuade Americans from engaging in world affairs; it should, however, temper their expectations about the scope of the dividends that such activities will accrue.

Foreign policy successes are less likely TO be sweeping and total; instead, they are more likely be tentative and incremental.

The opening to Cuba, for example, may not transform America’s relations with Latin and South America overnight, but it could gradually allow the country to rebuild trust and strengthen trade and investment ties in the Western Hemisphere.

The landmark P5+1 deal with Iran may not eliminate tensions between Washington and Tehran on a range of issues, but it could emerge as a case study in successful nonproliferation diplomacy, stimulate selective cooperation between the two countries, and reduce the influence Saudi Arabia has within the Middle East as well as on U.S. foreign policy.

The United States and China will not become allies; the evolution of their relationship is likely to be marked by piecemeal experimentation and continual readjustment, not front-page victories. But if they continue to strengthen their economic interdependence, deepen their shared efforts to counter climate change, and think imaginatively to identify other potential areas of cooperation—Zbigniew Brzezinski ventured that “a growing U.S.-PRC partnership in coping with the Middle Eastern crisis is an historically significant test of their ability to shape and enhance together wider global stability”—their relationship could mature over time and contribute significantly to a more stable world order. Deepening military, economic, and diplomatic engagement with Japan, South Korea, India, and Australia may not be glamorous, but it could contribute to strengthening what former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter calls “a principled and inclusive security network” in the Asia-Pacific.

Building coalitions of governments, businesses, and civil society actors to tackle the pressing challenges of our time—climate change, nuclear proliferation, the swelling ranks of forcibly displaced persons, and the growing risk of famine in failing states, to name but a few—is slow, painful work, but it is indispensable, and the United States is uniquely disposed to undertake it. Unfortunately, though, the years ahead are likely to witness growing tension between the ethos of the American people and the demands of foreign policy. Georgetown government professor Daniel Byman contends that

Americans like to think that all problems can be solved and that, if they aren’t, incompetence or malfeasance is to blame. Often, however, the challenge is overwhelming and U.S. influence is limited. The problem is…that few foreign policy problems can truly be solved. Most can at best be managed, and just getting by is often the best we can do.

With Byman’s conclusion in mind, U.S. policymakers should recalibrate their standards for successful engagement in world affairs: lest they succumb to a defensive, even fatalistic, mindset, they must develop a greater tolerance for setbacks; focus more on managing problems than on solving them; pursue incremental gains rather than sweeping victories; appreciate more fully the limits to U.S. power, especially military; and accept that world order is neither a fixed state nor an attainable end, but a fluid condition and an ongoing process. To do so, however, they will have to give themselves the opportunity to pause and think—an opportunity that is becoming both more rare and more invaluable. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt recently recalled how George Shultz used to reserve an hour for himself each week when he was secretary of state, only taking calls from his wife and President Reagan:

Shultz…told me that his hour of solitude was the only way he could find time to think about the strategic aspects of his job. Otherwise, he would be constantly pulled into moment-to-moment tactical issues, never able to focus on larger questions of the national interest. And the only way to do great work, in any field, is to find time to consider the larger questions.

Those who hope to advance U.S. foreign policy interests through rousing slogans and transformational achievements are likely to be disappointed; those who instead take periodic “Shultz hours” and approach the undertaking of world ordering with patience are likely to prove more successful.

Ali Wyne is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a new leader with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

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Header Image: Flag of the World (Human Rights Watch)


[1] A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (New York: Penguin Press, 2017): p. 18

[2] After Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017): p. 110

[3] The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017): pp. 3-4,