Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Failed Empire

U.S. policymakers should stop fooling themselves about their ability to control international events. America should return to a foreign policy fit for a republic.

Credit: Kanokratnok

Despite failing in his attempt to save a defiant world, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has perhaps retained his sense of humor. With stories circulating that North Korea is providing Russia with arms, Sullivan insisted that this action is “not going to reflect well on North Korea and they will pay a price for this in the international community.”

The latter is a laugh line, even if unintended. When is the last time the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea worried what its neighbors, or even its presumed friends, such as China and Russia, thought about its behavior? Sullivan added: “We have continued to convey privately as well as publicly to the North Koreans—and asked allies and partners to do the same—our view that they should abide by their publicly stated commitments that they’re not going to provide these weapons.”


What is this “conveyance” supposed to achieve? A succession of U.S. officials from the president on down spent decades insisting that North Korea cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. Today, Pyongyang is expanding an arsenal that already numbers two or three score, as well as developing tactical nukes, intercontinental and submarine-launched missiles, and multiple independent reentry vehicles (warheads).

Washington attempted to block the DPRK’s nuclear program with both economic sanctions and military threats. Alas, both strategies failed. Indeed, Pyongyang accelerated its military build-up while essentially sanctioning itself by sealing its border in response to the Covid epidemic. Moreover, China and Russia have increased support for the North as their relations with America cratered. This week Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin are holding their second summit, at which they are expected to solidify one or more weapons deals.

Military action also was no answer. The Biden administration has been flaunting its alliance ties to South Korea, including high profile visits of U.S. planes and vessels, most recently a nuclear-capable submarine. However, Washington officials have no stomach for war on the Korean peninsula. Especially since Pyongyang could make good on its threat to turn Seoul, if not Washington, into “a sea of fire,” while also hitting Guam and Tokyo. In time, the DPRK also will be able to target American cities. In those circumstances, only a fool, or a witless hawk like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, would consider striking the North militarily.

However, Kim Jong-il’s communist monarchy is not the only case in which attempted US coercion has failed. Six decades ago, the U.S. imposed an economic embargo on Cuba, and since then has continued, even expanded, those sanctions—without threatening the communist regime. Indeed, Washington has turned poverty and starvation into its weapon of choice, targeting such countries as Sudan, Iran, and Iraq, with little positive effect.

Most recently, Washington further impoverished the already desperate populations of Syria and Venezuela. American officials know the likely impact of their policies. For instance, former ambassador James Jeffrey treated Syria’s people as a means to an end, explaining that Washington’s objective was to turn that country into a “quagmire” for Russia, never mind the hardship created for victims of the Assad regime. Madeleine Albright famously declared that “we think the price is worth it” when confronted with estimates that a half million Iraqi children had been killed by U.S. sanctions.


Finally, Washington has promiscuously imposed lesser sanctions on thousands of other targets—governments, companies, and individuals. Penalties against Afghanistan’s Taliban and Yemen’s Ansar Allah, the Putin regime and assorted Chinese Communist Party officials, and a potpourri of bankers, entrepreneurs, and operators have caused widespread economic pain. However, never has the U.S. achieved anything approaching its political objectives.

Washington also oft considered, and sometimes launched, military action, but achieved little more success. The U.S. and Russia narrowly avoided nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Since then, military options involving Cuba have been off the table. Washington waged a long, but ultimately disastrous, war in Afghanistan and a shorter, but far more costly, campaign in Iraq. It is difficult to imagine a repeat in either country. The Clinton administration made plans to attack North Korean nuclear sites—how close it was to initiating hostilities remains a matter of dispute—but faced strenuous opposition from Seoul. Since then, Pyongyang has steadily strengthened an effective conventional and more recently created a nuclear deterrent.

Successive presidents insisted that “all options are on the table” regarding Iran, but none were willing to risk an all-out conflict. Although Washington backed insurgents in Syria, the Obama administration rejected the Siren call of war and Congress refused to approve military action. President Donald Trump considered invading Venezuela to oust the Maduro regime but found no support in Latin America. Politically-minded Republican politicians have proposed military action to halt Mexico’s drug trade, but such a misadventure could prove disastrous given resistance from nationalist Mexicans long wary of American domination.

Which has left Washington bereft of effective imperial tools. The hallowed bully pulpit delivers increasingly less influence, evidenced by the failure of the Global South to follow the ever-sanctimonious West in its campaign against Russia. Although few countries endorse Moscow’s criminal aggression against Ukraine, many believe the U.S. and its allies have little moral claim to leadership.

Washington once handed abundant cash to its friends, no matter how authoritarian. However, so-called development aid yielded little economic growth. As the Cold War waned so did support for what often amounted to barely disguised bribes. Moreover, the U.S. is now competing with well-heeled adversaries, such as Russia, which has survived Western sanctions, and China, which has become a global trading power. Even nominal friends, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have proved increasingly willing to forge their own paths.

The U.S. retains the world’s largest economy, but two successive administrations have pushed protectionist nostrums, cutting foreign economic ties. Finally, federal finances are rapidly deteriorating. This undermines other initiatives seeking to purchase influence. For instance, the Biden administration’s counter to Beijing’s faltering Belt and Road Initiative is not only unnecessary, but also underfunded and thus doomed to failure.

Yet this inevitable collision with reality has not stemmed Washington’s attempts to impose its will on friend and foe alike—hence Sullivan’s toothless threats against North Korea. U.S. policymakers should stop fooling themselves about their ability to control international events. America should return to a foreign policy fit for a republic.