Mead's Conspiracy Theorizing

Mead is suffering from the ideologue’s affliction of trying to force world events to fit his preconceived notions.

Walter Russell Mead tries his hand at being a conspiracy theorist:

Our adversaries—and some of our allies as well as several American policy makers and commentators—believe that a polarized America is locked into decline and retreat. This is not, the revisionist powers feel, a good reason to offer Mr. Biden help in rebalancing his commitments. On the contrary, it is the time to double down on their assaults on the American world order. The logic is so obvious that they don’t need to coordinate their response. If America stands tall in the South China Sea, the revisionists will chip away in the Black Sea. If we toughen our stance in the Baltics, they will push harder in the Balkans. If we try to escape the Middle East, they will drag us back in.

Mead is suffering from the ideologue’s affliction of trying to force world events to fit his preconceived notions. Many things are happening at the same time, and so he decides to link them all together and to assert that the governments in different parts of the world must be working in concert with a common goal in mind. Nothing has happened in the last year that requires us to subscribe to this paranoid view of the world. Mead is attributing made-up motives to the leaders of these governments because it is convenient for his argument and easier than doing the work of trying to understand why these things are happening.

If tensions are rising between Russia and Ukraine, it is not because Putin is “doing what [he] can to keep the president from focusing on Asia.” It is happening because of Russian frustrations with ongoing U.S. and NATO involvement in Ukraine. Iran is taking a harder negotiating position over the nuclear deal because they have a new administration headed by a notorious hard-liner. It is not because Iran desires to “drag” the U.S. back into the Middle East. Obviously, the Iranian government has had a decades-long goal of getting the U.S. to reduce or end its presence in the region, so keeping the U.S. focused on their part of the world is the last thing that they would want. Each government is acting according to its own perceived interests and is pursuing longstanding policy goals that have nothing to do with a U.S. “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia.

Mead’s analysis is junk, as usual, and his prescription is arguably worse. He concludes:

To recognize this reality and respond to it requires the kind of foreign-policy leadership that the U.S. hasn’t seen in decades. Mr. Biden and those around him should look to Harry S. Truman’s example of a Democratic president who—in the face of a polarized country and a divided, mostly dovish Democratic Party yearning for more social spending at home rather than activism abroad—prepared the American people for the Cold War. Nothing less will do.

Given that Truman left office deeply unpopular after having presided over a debacle in Korea, it is truly bizarre to hold him up as a model of leadership that Biden should emulate. Is there some new disastrous land war in Asia that Biden should have the U.S. fight as well? The posthumous rehabilitation of Truman as a great foreign policy president has always seemed strange, and now it is becoming genuinely dangerous if people think that Truman should serve as a model for what to do now. One of Truman’s biggest mistakes was to take a containment doctrine that was originally intended to be applied to Europe and then expand it to apply to the entire world. “Global Engagement” was not something that was forced on Truman.

If the U.S. is in danger of being “distracted” from East Asia, the wiser and more disciplined course of action would be to reduce U.S. commitments in other parts of the world. Given limited resources, the U.S. has to prioritize one region as more important than the rest, and that means that Europe and the Middle East won’t receive as much as they once did. Recognize that the U.S. can’t be everywhere all the time, and realize that the U.S. cannot keep adding new commitments to protect non-allies. If the problem is that the U.S. might end up being off-balance and over-committed, the solution would seem to be obvious: shift away from regions that matter less to the U.S. and scale back on our security obligations in those places. That is not what Truman would do, and that is another reason why we shouldn’t want the president to copy Truman today.