David Ignatius comes to the wrong conclusions about many things:
With this advantageous position, the United States can afford to think like a superpower. It shouldn’t rush to make concessions to weaker nations or to gain agreements that aren’t fully ripe, as may be the case with nuclear talks with Iran. It shouldn’t be shy about helping its friends or making its adversaries pay for their reckless behavior, as in dealing with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
If “thinking like a superpower” means failing to reach a mutually satisfactory deal on the nuclear issue, then, no, the U.S. shouldn’t “think like a superpower.” If “helping its friends” means throwing weapons at a conflict where the U.S. has little at stake, it should be very reluctant to do anything of the kind. Ignatius sees America’s advantageous position as an opportunity to miss opportunities for diplomatic agreements and to make mischief in foreign wars. The proper response to such favorable circumstances should be to reach accommodations with other regimes when possible and to avoid expending resources unless absolutely necessary. Being in such an advantageous position, the U.S. has no need to rush to take sides in foreign conflicts, nor should it be unduly wary of reaching agreements with much weaker governments. The U.S. stands to lose nothing by proceeding cautiously, and it potentially risks a great deal by putting itself on a path of confrontation with other states. Superpowers that “think like a superpower” in Ignatius’ sense of the phrase will commit one costly blunder after another.
Ignatius’ column is a good example of the misguided thinking that Paul Pillar identified in this post from a few days ago. Pillar wrote:
A one-way exceptionalist asymmetry infects much discussion in this country about international diplomacy and negotiation. The process is viewed not as mutual give-and-take but instead as the other side giving and the U.S. side taking. Hence issues under negotiation get discussed in terms of the United States imposing “redlines” and of how pressure can be exerted to get the other side to capitulate to U.S. demands. This perspective in turn gets exploited by anyone who does not want an agreement at all on whatever issue is at hand.
Ignatius makes the strange claim that “time doesn’t favor the Iranian hard-liners,” but that doesn’t make much sense. It is Iran’s relative moderates that will be on the hook for the failure of negotiations on the nuclear issue. Ignatius must know that. Hard-liners will point to a breakdown in negotiations as proof as that the entire exercise was a trick and a waste of time, and inside Iran they will be in a stronger position than they have been for the last year and a half. Unless the goal is to encourage Iran’s government to become more intransigent and hostile, this is obviously an undesirable development for all concerned. Further, if the negotiations fall apart because the U.S. refuses to make the minimal concessions that may be required to seal a deal, the Iranian regime will be able to blame the failure of the talks on the U.S. and the other members of the P5+1, and any increase of sanctions that follows will help to make the people of Iran much more willing to believe the regime’s version of events. If this is what “thinking like a superpower” gets us, it would be much better if the U.S. tried to think like a normal state instead.
Ignatius also sees no problem with sending weapons to Ukraine. He doesn’t even try to deny that it could lead to an escalation of the conflict:
If Putin escalates further, at a time when Russia is weakened by low oil prices, he faces a ruinous war across Ukraine. His decision, not ours.
What difference will it make whose final decision it is? This is the reasoning of a functionary looking to shift blame for a disaster to someone else. If the U.S. helps to fuel a ruinous war in Europe, Ukraine will be ruined in the process, and whatever limited military assistance the U.S. provides will serve only as a catalyst for much worse developments. If “thinking like a superpower” means shutting down all critical thought and ignoring the possible consequences of one’s actions, then the U.S. definitely shouldn’t be doing that.
As if Ignatius weren’t already making himself appear ridiculous enough, he concludes with this nonsense:
Fortune blesses strong nations, but only when they act with resolve.
It may occasionally be true that fortune favors the resolute, but it is definitely not the only time when nations are fortunate. Wisdom, prudence, caution, and restraint are responsible for keeping strong nations from exhausting themselves in unnecessary conflicts, and they also help those nations to reach agreements with other nations in order to settle their differences without resorting to the use of force. Ignatius unsurprisingly overestimates the importance of resolve, which can sometimes spur great nations on to senseless and destructive courses of action that they could have avoided.