With the end of the war in Afghanistan, America’s role in the world is undergoing considerable change. From the Cold War to the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans were happy to serve as the leader of the “free world,” underwriter of global security, architect of free trade, and the promoter of democracy and human rights. Today, most Americans reject those roles.

The American people turned against America’s global leadership roles for several reasons. After the Great Recession of 2008-2009, globalization made the wealthy wealthier and eroded the incomes and aspirations of middle- and working-class Americans. The opioid epidemic was symptomatic of this erosion as globalization offshored American jobs. The average American began thinking their government was no longer representative, not looking out for them, and that America’s institutions were corrupt. Americans were not willing to support deploying U.S. military personnel to far off lands in the Middle East and Central Asia to promote democracy and improve the lives of others.

As the military invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq expanded into long occupations and with interventions in Libya and Syria, Democrats, Republicans, and independents turned against these deployments. People watched as precious American resources were sent abroad. As they saw it, the more the U.S. promoted democracy around the world, the more life deteriorated at home.

They demanded that the U.S. focus more attention on domestic needs. Donald Trump understood this. In 2016, he defeated Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonEveryone has an opinion on Afghanistan — Do voters care? Biden allies say media missing the mark on Afghanistan Pollsters confront tough survey landscape after 2020 flubs MORE with “Make America Great Again” and “America First.” He even criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq and negotiated America’s exit from Afghanistan with the Taliban. In 2020, Biden promised Americans he would “Build Back Better” and proposed new investments in domestic programs, ended the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, and followed through on Trump’s negotiated withdrawal from Afghanistan.

On a strategic foreign policy level, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved there are no American military solutions to complex civil wars where U.S. interests are not clearly expressed. Trump and Biden’s commitments to end endless wars demonstrated that America’s role as the world’s policeman is now over with nation-building having failed.

Biden must now follow through on his pledge to forge a “foreign policy for the middle class.” Eschewing isolationism, he should pursue a more restrained foreign policy guided by careful diplomacy, soft power, and the State Department, not military interventions and the Pentagon. This should be complemented with new domestic investments in education, infrastructure, and high-tech research and development. As Richard Haas maintains, “foreign policy begins at home.”

This will help Americans prepare for what is already an intense security competition with China and Russia. Unlike the Cold War, this great power struggle will center on cyberoperations, information, artificial intelligence and machine learning, quantum computing, network security, and 5G and 6G telecommunications. Building resilient infrastructure, investing in biodefense, and addressing climate change are fundamental in this competitive multipolar environment.

While America cannot do this on its own, its NATO allies must do more to shoulder the burden. The U.S. must allow European allies some measure of autonomy in defense investments. This will be difficult. President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEveryone has an opinion on Afghanistan — Do voters care? As Biden falters, a two-man race for the 2024 GOP nomination begins to take shape It’s time to own our mistakes and look to the future in Afghanistan MORE accused NATO of not putting “skin in the game” and President TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats defeat GOP effort to declare ‘lost confidence’ in Biden after Afghanistan withdrawal Prosecutors say Jan. 6 rioters committed roughly 1,000 assaults on federal officers Texas emerges as new battleground in abortion fight MORE took this one step further by calling NATO “obsolete.” While European leaders questioned American commitments to NATO following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, most NATO members are still not meeting their 2 percent of defense-to-GDP commitments and have entered contracts with China’s Huawei.

All of this demonstrates that Trump was not an aberration. While Trump was ruthless in confronting China, he was incapable of working with what he viewed as America’s free-riding NATO allies and partners in Asia. While Biden has maintained Trump’s forceful containment policy, unlike Trump, he has indicated his support for working with NATO and expanding U.S. commitments in the Quadrilateral Dialogue. And although Biden defines the great power competition with China in terms of democracies versus autocracies, America’s rivalry with China is more Trumpian. That is, it is about power and influence.

The liberal world order America once led is now dead and buried. Trump understood that. If Biden is serious about establishing a foreign policy for the middle class, he must secure passage of his infrastructure measure, research and innovation industrial plan, and new investments in education, health care, and childcare. These domestic initiatives are vital to containing China’s rise and mitigating the resurrection of Russian power. 

Chris J. Dolan is a professor of politics and global studies at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. 

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