By RICHARD N. HAASS
THE United States is currently enjoying an unprecedented respite in the foreign policy arena — a temporary relief from the normal rigors of history that allows us to take stock at home and abroad.
It may seem outlandish to claim that we’re in the midst of a lull, given that America faces a civil war in Syria, an Iran that seems to be seeking nuclear weapons, an irresponsible North Korea that already possesses them, continuing threats from terrorists, a rising China and rapid climate change.
Yet the United States enjoys a respite all the same. For the three and a half centuries of the modern international era, great powers have almost always confronted rivals determined to defeat them and replace the global order they worked to bring about. In the last century, this process unfolded three times. The results were violent, costly and dangerous, and included two world wars and a cold war.
Today, there are threats, but they tend to be regional, years away or limited in scale. None rises to the level of being global, immediate and existential. The United States faces no great-power rival. And this is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
The biggest strategic question facing America is how to extend this respite rather than squander it. This will require restraining foreign involvement and restoring domestic strength. We can no longer seek to remake countries in the Middle East and South Asia, as was tried at great cost and with little success in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Instead, we must revive the American economy, something that will not only improve the living standards of our citizens but also generate the resources to discourage would-be competitors from choosing the path of confrontation and to deal with them if they opt for confrontation all the same.
The Obama administration has embraced much of this thinking in its foreign policy, especially when it comes to exercising restraint in the greater Middle East. But it has done less well at home, where it has often held back from pushing much-needed reforms.
Still, the United States stands first among unequals. American primacy is, in part, a consequence of innate advantages: political stability, healthy demographics and commitment to the rule of law. We have a rich endowment of energy, minerals, water and arable land as well as considerable openness to immigrants who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of innovation.
There are excellent institutions of higher education, venture capital and a legal system that allows second chances in the wake of failure. And good relations with our immediate neighbors allow us to focus our foreign policy farther afield, rather than on our borders as most other countries must do.
None of the other major powers of this era — China, Russia, Europe, Japan, India — are tempted to challenge the United States for primacy. America’s per-capita gross domestic product is at least six times that of China, and the United States spends more on defense than the next 10 countries combined.
Moreover, many potential future competitors depend in no small part on their access to American markets, technology, goods and services. They do not always agree with the United States, but they don’t see it as implacably hostile or as an impediment to their own core objectives. And they are often preoccupied with and limited by their own domestic economic, social and political challenges.
China is the country most often cited as a potential challenger. But it is being held back by slowing economic growth, pervasive corruption, widespread environmental degradation, an aging population and a top-heavy political system. China and the other principal powers seek less to overthrow the existing international order than to join it or something like it. They are more interested in integration than in revolution.
This situation isn’t cause for complacency. Primacy is not license to do as we please. A respite is, by definition, temporary — a departure from history, not history’s end. It allows a shift of emphasis, not withdrawal from the world.
Overseas, our attention should be focused on those places where America’s interests are greatest and where our available policy tools — the military, aid, trade and diplomacy — can accomplish the most good. This means limiting wars of choice and wholesale efforts to remake societies like the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the surge in Afghanistan in 2009.
It also means refraining from direct armed intervention in Syria’s current civil war. And when it comes to Iran, we need to emphasize diplomacy, sanctions and other alternatives to military force to dissuade it from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold.
Most important, we should step up efforts to maintain stability in Asia and the Pacific Ocean, where this century’s great powers could easily collide and where American diplomatic, military and economic tools are well suited to ensure that they do not. Modest increases in America’s Air Force and naval presence can reassure allies like Japan and South Korea while sending implicit warnings to China and North Korea, and diplomacy can make clear that China is welcome to join new regional trade arrangements, reducing the possibility that the relationship will become adversarial.
At home, we must work to restore the foundations of American power. In many cases, this doesn’t even require spending more — often there is little relationship between our investments and the results.
The United States spends nearly twice as much as other industrialized nations per citizen on health care — often with worse outcomes. We spend more per student on education than most other wealthy countries, with few results to show for it. Attracting top-quality teachers, rewarding them for success, and enabling parents and students to choose effective schools would be a better use of resources.
And with only modest government funds we could foster public-private partnerships to rebuild this country’s often crumbling infrastructure, refashion immigration policy to give preference for visas and green cards to many more immigrants with advanced degrees and needed skills, and above all reduce long-term entitlement obligations, cutting the ratio of public debt to G.D.P.
These steps, along with individual and corporate tax reform, would facilitate a return to the high levels of economic growth that America enjoyed in much of the post-World War II era.
This is not a recipe for isolationism. Rather, it is a new grand strategy for America that views national security as a function of both foreign and domestic policy.
It has been said that a crisis is too valuable a thing to waste. So is a respite.