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The Serenity Prayer as a guide to US foreign policy

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“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  — Reinhold Niebuhr.

At first glance, one might not think of that sentence from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer as a guideline for U.S. strategy or foreign policy. But as I read the daily headlines of Afghanistan unraveling, as did Vietnam a half-century before, it seems eerily pertinent. Recall that Niebuhr was also a prominent, if controversial, realist political philosopher of the Cold War who argued against absolutist black-and-white assumptions and the idea that superpowers could “manage history.”

In fact, many of the major failures of U.S. foreign policy can be attributed to not fathoming the things the U.S. could not change. This is the result of hubris, not understanding the limits of U.S. power, a problem that’s been magnified as America’s relative power has eroded as power has diffused in a multipolar world.

Indeed, it has left a costly trail of unintended consequences. The mission creep that turned Afghanistan from a swift, successful effort to remove the Taliban government into a 20-year futile exercise in nation-building, or the costly failed nation-building venture in Iraq to impose democracy by force, are good cases in point. And, of course, there was the debacle of Vietnam. Though driven by a different set of flawed assumptions, notably, that markets are necessarily self-correcting, the catastrophic 2008 financial crisis is yet another example.

Some other recent cases include then President Barack Obama’s abandoned “redline” on Syria after it used chemical weapons, and not least, “maximum pressure” campaigns of economic sanctions against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, to date yielding only maximum resistance and lingering confrontation.

But there also are no shortage of positive examples of the “courage to change what you can.” The most spectacular was the post-World War II Bretton Woods inclusive rules-based order, creating institutions that underpinned free trade, open markets and a stable financial system. That system brought 70 years of prosperity and absence of war among major powers, though it is now fraying and contested. It was an important case of learning from history, the failures of an overly vindictive Versailles Treaty and inward trade and financial policies that spawned the Great Depression.

Bold moves defending both values and interests occurred in Germany, beginning with President Truman and the Berlin airlift, which forced the Soviet Union to end its blockade of West Berlin. Then there was JFK’s Ich Bin Ein Berliner speech during the Berlin crisis as the Berlin Wall was built, and most dramatically, Ronald Reagan’s prescient demand that Soviet Premier Gorbachev, “Tear Down This Wall.” And again, in Germany, the skillful, peaceful ending of the Cold War by the Bush administration to reunite Germany and have it remain in NATO as the USSR crumbled was an enormous historical achievement.

The Nixon-Kissinger opening to China, flipping the Cold War script, was a diplomatic coup of historic proportions, even if the U.S. erred in not rethinking assumptions about China policy in 2003-2004, as U.S. job losses mounted.

Though it took the near-death experience of the Cuban missile crisis, a series of arms control accords such as START and most dramatically, the 1991 START deal at the end of the Cold War reduced U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals by over 80 percent. The NAFTA trade accord, begun under Reagan and finalized under President Clinton, despite delivering far less than promised, was another bold move, integrating North American economies. More recently the Paris Climate Accords, though non-binding, committed the world to climate change goals.

Looking ahead, the challenge to U.S. foreign policy is to avoid damaging unforced policy errors and to seize opportunities for advancing American interests. That’s where the wisdom part comes in. Niebuhr warned of the illusion of “managing history,” explaining that “modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.”

Any effective U.S. strategy needs to discard the “single superpower” mindset that assumes U.S. interests subsume those of allies and partners, understand the limits of U.S. agency, and adopt an approach that factors in the interests of other actors. In a global dynamic where power is diffused (the rest of the world accounts for the other 77 percent of the global economy and 95 percent of world population), a major challenge is how to find a balance of interests that creates a larger sense of enfranchisement and reestablishes a post-Trump legitimacy of U.S. power, with guardrails to reduce risk.

A starting point is the reality that international systems work to the degree major powers are invested in them. Like it or not, bad guys have interests, especially when they are the largest trading power in the world and have nuclear weapons with a survivable second-strike capacity. That’s why we had to live for 70 years with the Soviet Union.

That requires a new mental map, a transition from a mindset of U.S. primacy to that of primus inter pares (first among equals). U.S. leadership today means building coalitions, starting with like-minded democracies, but requires understanding partners’ as well as adversaries’ interests, goals, trade-offs, and knowing what your leverage is and is not. Such a shift means learning how to practice self-restraint, collaborative decision-making, pooling power to solve problems where interests intersect, and where to compromise to avoid a system breakdown and eventual conflict.

President Biden’s efforts to revitalize U.S. alliances and build like-minded coalitions on key strategic issues of trade and technology is a step in the right direction. To the extent that the U.S. can reach common positions with the EU, Japan, Australia and South Korea on, for example, reforming the World Trade Organization or on technology standards, the U.S. can maximize its leverage and create pressure on China and others to alter predatory industrial policies.

Polling data suggest Americans would be comfortable with such an approach. They want the United States to remain engaged, but also want others not to free-ride and to do their fair share. This suggests that to the degree partners demonstrate burden-sharing, the U.S. public would see the benefits of global engagement.

So maybe, just maybe, the U.S. could do worse than to use the Serenity Prayer as a foreign policy guide.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the undersecretary of State for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council strategic futures group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags Afghanistan Barack Obama China Cold War Contemporary history Foreign policy of the United States Global politics International relations Iraq Iran Joe Biden NAFTA NATO

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