The U.S. Isn't All Powerful | Opinion

Attend enough conferences in the Washington, D.C. area, and you're bound to discover a common theme percolating through a wide segment of the U.S. foreign policy community: the United States, the most powerful country on the planet, has a unique responsibility to lead the world into a more peaceful era.

Yet as Christopher Preble of the Atlantic Council argued in a recent report, the U.S. is hardly the center of attention as so many in the Beltway assume it to be. In many instances, the U.S. can be marginal or downright irrelevant. The U.S. may be a superpower with the world's largest economy, a resilient workforce, strong demographics and a military second to none, but it still has limits. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's invocation of the U.S. as the "indispensable nation" is in reality a tale we tell ourselves.

The U.S., to put it bluntly, is not the all-powerful player at the head of the table with infinite resources and an unending reservoir of leverage. Not every crisis has a "Made in the USA" solution, and Washington can often make situations worse by thrusting itself into the picture.

The ongoing disputes in Belarus, Nicaragua and Ethiopia are illustrative of this baseline observation.

In Belarus, a former Soviet republic, dissidents who dare to criticize President Alexander Lukashenko's government expose themselves to arbitrary detention, show trials, beatings and exile. Those swept up by Belarusian security forces are thrown into overcrowded prisons with dim lighting, where they are subjected to torture and forced confessions. Since last year's fraudulent presidential elections, in which Lukashenko claimed a sixth term, more than 30,000 people have been arrested. Others have fled for fear of long-term imprisonment. In case this wasn't disturbing enough, Minsk is also encouraging migrants from Iraq and Syria to fly to Belarus and cross into Poland in a cynical attempt to retaliate for sanctions imposed by the European Union.

For the U.S., Lukashenko's conduct is the epitome of Wild West gangsterism, in which a government rebels against even the façade of civilized behavior. The Biden administration has responded to Belarus as it often does with other states the U.S. doesn't like: by slapping sanctions on them. Multiple rounds have been applied, most of them going after the personal assets of Belarusian officials. Yet in Belarus, there is only so much U.S. sanctions can do to compel a change in behavior. Valued at $454 million last year, the U.S.-Belarusian trading relationship is small potatoes, which means Washington doesn't have many cards to play against Minsk to begin with. Lukashenko is also fortunate to have Russia's Vladimir Putin next door, who despite somewhat icy personal relations with the Belarusian autocrat continues to view the former farm boss as the least bad alternative for Russia's interests. Look no further Moscow's hand-outs to the Belarusian government, including loans and cheap natural gas.

The White House is seen
The White House is seen in the morning. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Ethiopia is another example. Traditionally, the second-largest country in Africa has had a businesslike relationship with the U.S., partnering with Washington on counterterrorism operations in Somalia and serving as a relatively stable anchor in an oftentimes chaotic Horn of Africa region. The year-long civil conflict in Ethiopia, however, is taking a toll on the broader U.S.-Ethiopian relationship. The Biden administration continues to denounce Addis Ababa for its prosecution of the war against the Tigray People's Liberation Front, with the Ethiopian army's blockade of desperately needed food supplies taking special prominence for U.S. policymakers. A U.N. investigation reported that crimes against humanity have been conducted by all sides in the war.

Yet again, Washington is scurrying for a response. The White House published an executive order in September tasking the U.S. Treasury Department to sanction individuals responsible for hindering peace efforts and engaging in serious human rights violations. On Nov. 2, the Biden administration suspended Ethiopia from a U.S. trade program that gives participating states duty-free access to the U.S. market.

Further sanctions are likely if the warring parties refuse to seriously engage in negotiations. But while more economic restrictions would be the path of least resistance, they aren't cost-free. At a time when hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are living in famine-like conditions, U.S. officials need to ask themselves whether shutting certain sectors of the Ethiopian economy will simply solidify the country's humanitarian crisis.

While Nicaragua isn't in a civil war like Ethiopia, it poses a similar conundrum for U.S. policymakers. Daniel Ortega, the longest-serving leader in Latin America, won a fourth term in deeply flawed presidential elections after arresting his political opponents, banning entire political parties and charging anyone voicing disapproval of his government as an enemy of the state. Building off the asset freezes and visa bans already implemented earlier this year, additional sanctions designations are in the works.

In the case of Nicaragua, the U.S. does in fact have economic leverage. Nicaragua relies on the U.S. for over 61 percent of its trade. But having leverage doesn't necessarily mean the U.S. should use it, especially when doing will incentivize more Nicaraguans to make the arduous trek to the U.S. southern border (U.S. Border Patrol encounters with Nicaraguan migrants are up by an astounding 965 percent compared to the 2015-2019 average). If the U.S. claims to care about the Nicaraguan people, 30 percent of whom already live in poverty, it's hard to see how restricting the Nicaraguan economy helps them in any way.

In an ideal world, the U.S. would be able to ride into the fray as the white knight and solve all of these problems. But there are no fairytales in international relations—and it's about time our leaders come to grips with this inescapable reality.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.