The new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is confronting a world of tough, urgent national-security problems. Relations with an increasingly powerful and antagonistic China are at a new low, as Beijing strengthens global ties through its Belt and Road Initiative. Russia has demonstrated American vulnerability by hacking into the networks of more than a dozen U.S. government agencies. Protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are ending in defeat. And, after four years of Donald Trump, even the country’s longest-standing alliances are frayed. What happened to American power in the world?

According to Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and the cofounder and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, D.C., two illusions have led the country into continual mistakes since the end of the Cold War—that only the United States can fix the world’s biggest problems, and that the U.S. military is supreme and invincible. As Bacevich sees it, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are failures, and it’s well past time for the U.S. military to leave those countries and, more generally, extricate itself from the Middle East. Still, there’s important work for America in the world, particularly in dealing with China and confronting climate change.

Michael Bluhm: What do you see as the key global challenges facing the Biden administration?

Andrew Bacevich: It’s a world in which American primacy is a thing of the past. The overarching claim of the post-Cold War era was that the United States was the sole superpower—the indispensable nation. Implicit in that theme was a conviction that the principal guarantor of American primacy was American military power. All parties assumed that the United States was supreme, unchallengeable. The period after 9/11 put that proposition to the test—and revealed that it was false.

In some senses, at least one of the explanations for why Donald Trump was elected president in 2016—somebody utterly ill-equipped for the office from any perspective—is that large numbers of our fellow citizens had reached the conclusion that the American claim of primacy, based on a belief in military supremacy, had turned out to be wrong. This is the key point: Most members of the Blob—the foreign policy establishment—had not figured that out.

The question is, to what extent do Biden and his principal advisors understand that the era of taken-for-granted American primacy has ended?

A key piece of evidence would be the essay that Biden published in Foreign Affairs. His language there suggests that he still believes in an approach to global leadership based on the assumption of primacy.

That said, there’s some contrary evidence emerging. The most important example is the decision to end the Afghanistan war. He will try to dress that up: Yeah, we’ve accomplished our mission—defining the mission very narrowly as going after bin Laden.

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But the truth is the Afghanistan war is ending in catastrophic failure. You can read Biden’s statement on ending the war as a de facto admission that he, too, has some inkling that the Afghanistan war—famously, the longest war in U.S. history—is ending in failure. There are hints that he’s declaring that era of American primacy defunct.

Bluhm: Why did the era of American primacy end in failure?

Bacevich: It failed for a number of reasons. I think two are the most important.

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