The contrast between the success of America’s Cold War strategy and the failure of the strategy Washington has pursued for the last thirty-odd years could not be more striking. In 1992, the U.S. had no rival anywhere in the world. Today, China contends to be the strongest power in the Pacific. Twenty years of conflict with Iraq—beginning with the 1991 Persian Gulf War and ending with the official withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country in 2011—failed to bring stability, let alone liberal democracy, to the Middle East. And twenty years of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan concluded in 2021 with that country immediately reverting to the rule of the radical Islamists we overthrew in 2001.

The Cold War victory itself has turned to ashes. The U.S. expanded NATO yet failed to contain post-Soviet Russia. For nearly a decade, a newly free Russia posed little threat to its neighbors, but whatever opportunity existed to incorporate this former opponent into the U.S.-led order was squandered. American policymakers took pride in having contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union through far-sighted strategy, but they had no success in devising equally far-sighted strategies to win the peace and secure Russian democracy. 

The architects of America’s unsuccessful foreign policy of the last three decades have been almost uniformly liberals. That has been true in Republican administrations as well as Democratic ones. Liberal internationalists tend to believe that harmony is the default condition of mankind. On that assumption, the fall of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes should always produce democratic and liberal outcomes, though they may take time to emerge. That’s one reason Washington invests billions in nongovernmental organizations, international institutions, and “peacekeeping” missions around the world. After a despotism is toppled, social work is all that’s needed to set a country right, even if some of that social work must be performed by soldiers.