Read Foreign Policy staffers’ reviews of recent releases on U.S. isolationism, the future of energy, and China’s new Silk Road.
Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World
U.S. President Donald Trump’s brand of “America First” isolationism has, over the past four years, repelled much of the foreign-policy establishment and horrified U.S. allies around the world. Ahead of this year’s presidential election, many among them hope the Trump years will end up as a bizarre detour, with a future Joe Biden administration steering the United States back to the brand of liberal internationalism that served the country so well for 75 years after World War II.
To that, Charles Kupchan, a former senior official in the Clinton and Obama administrations (and sometime contributor to Foreign Policy), has two things to say. First, Trump and his brand of isolationism are hardly aberrations; rather, a mix of isolationism, unilateralism, economic protectionism, and racially tinged nativism is “right out of the playbook that anchored foreign policy for most of American history prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor,” he writes.
Second, the postwar Pax Americana, cemented by an activist United States deeply engaged all around the world, is dead. “A strategic retrenchment is coming; the key question is whether it occurs by design or default,” Kupchan writes.
Isolationism is a deeply researched, fascinating look at how an urge to keep the world at bay has largely defined the United States and its foreign policy since the country’s founding. And with reason: George Washington’s famous warning to avoid foreign entanglements endured so long because a strategy of isolationism “unquestionably served the nation’s interests.” For most of its history, the United States steered clear of the very kind of global engagement that now seems to be the norm.
The few departures—the Spanish-American War and the subsequent spurt of American imperialism, as well as the U.S. entry into World War I—soon prompted a backlash and a retreat behind the moat. U.S. isolationism peaked during the Great Depression. The America First Committee that urged the country to stay out of World War II—the namesake and inspiration for Trump’s own foreign policy—is what tarnished isolationism’s image, seemingly for good. The war, then the threats of the Cold War, created the glue to bind security-minded Republicans and partnership-minded Democrats to a unified foreign policy that endured for decades.
But with the end of the Cold War, that foreign-policy consensus began to crumble and is now gone. And today, the same forces that drove isolationism in the past—especially economic anxiety, a need for nation building at home, and worries over social homogeneity—are again resounding, propelling both Trump and many of his progressive political rivals to argue that the United States has overreached and needs to cut back its global commitments. That’s why Kupchan argues that America will step back; the only question is how.
Trump’s 19th-century brand of isolationism, while it worked well in its time, is hardly suitable for an era of economic interconnectedness and mounting transnational challenges such as climate change and pandemics, Kupchan argues. Simply blowing up the international order—as Trump has sought to do—won’t re-create the prosperous, aloof security that defined much of the United States’ early history.
Instead, Kupchan contends, Washington needs to chart a middle course between the crusading, activist foreign policy that has led to decades of endless wars and unmanageable global commitments and a precipitate retreat that would risk repeating the country’s abdication of the 1930s. “(D)angerous overreach could turn into even more dangerous underreach,” he warns.
Kupchan’s prescription for such a middle road—a retreat from peripheral areas such as the Middle East, a redoubling of international cooperation, and a return to spreading American values by example rather than at gunpoint—sounds hopeful. The problem, he as much as notes, is that the recipe sounds a lot like what former President Barack Obama tried to do with his “liberal internationalism lite,” which still failed to bridge the gap between “the scope of the nation’s commitments abroad and the willingness of the body politic to uphold those commitments.”
The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations
Daniel Yergin, the author of The Prize and The Quest, is back with what is essentially the capstone of a trilogy dedicated to exploring how energy created the modern world—and will shape what awaits over the horizon.
The New Map is a kaleidoscopic survey of seemingly every geopolitical development in recent (and not so recent) history, all seen through the lens of energy, national rivalries, changing technologies, and the looming threat of climate change. Much like The Quest, Yergin’s new book seeks to continue the oil-rich saga begun in The Prize, focusing on game-changing developments in the oil and gas industry over the last decade, especially the U.S. shale revolution, which has turned the United States from a fuel beggar into an energy superpower. And like The Quest, Yergin’s latest book also seeks to highlight the energy technologies jostling with fossil fuels—from electric cars to renewable energy (notably, there’s almost no mention of nuclear power)—all under the shadow of an accelerating climate emergency and a black swan pandemic.
Yergin, the vice chairman of the energy research powerhouse IHS Markit, is strongest when it comes to oil and gas, still the mainstays of the world’s energy supplies now and in the decades to come. Even readers familiar with the U.S. “shale gale” will find new gems in his retelling of the pioneers who shattered shale to unleash a revolution. Russia, today leveraging oil and gas the way it once wielded Marxist-Leninist ideas, also provides great grist for Yergin, as do China’s energy-driven forays into the South China Sea.
When it comes to the challenges and the challengers, Yergin is less sure-footed. His account of electric cars and the coming artificial intelligence revolution in automotive technology is fun to read but has been told before. His coverage of climate change, and the scale of the lift needed to wrench the world’s energy system out of the old and into the new, moves little beyond what he outlined in The Quest.
The New Map is an admirable, well-researched, highly readable examination of all the changes that have turned the rock-solid certainties of the past into today’s dangerous combustibility. But any book that seeks to cover so much ground—from the 18th-century development of coal coke to the Sykes-Picot partitions of the Middle East to the origins of China’s “nine-dash line” to Tesla’s foundation to this year’s oil price wars—will feel a little wider than it is deep.
The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century
China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in history, is invariably described as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature policy and cast as Beijing’s effort to use its economic might to stretch its influence across Asia, Europe, and Africa. It has sparked blowback from recipient nations as well as Brussels and Washington, which accuse Beijing of using debt-trap diplomacy to take over key bits of the world’s real estate. But for all the ink spilled on the BRI, actually understanding what the initiative is—and isn’t—remains maddeningly difficult.
The Emperor’s New Road is a good remedy for that. Written by Jonathan Hillman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former advisor to the Obama administration, the slim book lays bare the crude reality of the BRI, a hodgepodge of high-profile investments in ports, roads, railways, and power plants from Almaty, Kazakhstan, to Zeebrugge, Belgium. Far from a well-crafted master plan to turn China’s economic might into geopolitical dominance, Hillman writes, the BRI is more of an uncoordinated scramble by Chinese firms to do deals few others would touch, leaving in its wake a trail of corruption, debt, and economically dubious projects.
“Since leaving the station, China’s BRI has become a gravy train without a conductor,” he writes. The new Silk Road is less like the Marshall Plan, the postwar reconstruction of Western Europe, and more like the post-9/11 war on terrorism: “poorly defined and ever expanding,” Hillman writes.
Hillman explains that while the size and scope of the BRI may be new, great powers have been building infrastructure overseas to boost their geopolitical reach for centuries, from Roman roads to the Suez Canal to the British Empire’s “All Red” telegraph network. One big difference is that China is essentially doing all of those things at once—or trying to.
And that’s what comes through clearest in Hillman’s telling: the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the BRI. Whether it’s an empty cargo port in Gwadar, Pakistan, or a moribund logistics facility at the Khorgos Gateway on the Chinese-Kazakh border, China’s much-touted projects have in many cases failed to materialize or come anywhere close to living up to their promises.
For all the hype and hand-wringing over how the BRI could usher in the Chinese century, Hillman’s engaging mix of high-level analysis and fieldwork in more than a dozen countries paints a much more nuanced picture.
“China is more constrained than its imperial predecessors were,” he writes, “and it will struggle to turn Xi’s grand vision into reality.”
This story appears in the Fall 2020 print issue.