Not Everything in the World is a Test of U.S. Credibility | Opinion

The United States is commonly described as the world's preeminent power, but it's also a power that is completely overstretched militarily. Its ambitions for the world are often as lofty as its soldiers are professional. According to the Defense Department's most recent statistics, over 223,000 U.S. military personnel are deployed overseas. While this figure is a fraction of the 1.2 million Americans who were deployed in the late 1960s, the number is still astounding compared to every other country on the planet. No nation on earth has more overseas military bases than the U.S.—around 800, according to the Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition.

Perhaps it's not surprising that Washington takes every negative development happening in the world on any given day as if it was a personal vendetta. Believing the U.S. is at the center of the geopolitical universe is nothing new for U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts. That ingrained belief is not without reason: at $21.4 trillion, the U.S. possesses nearly 25 percent of the world's GDP, boasts the strongest fighting force on the planet and has a diplomatic corps as experienced and talented in the art of statecraft as the 2000 New York Yankees were in playoff baseball.

Yet let's be honest: at times, the infatuation with ourselves is a little too much to bear and borders on the narcissistic. The People's Liberation Army dispatched over a dozen fighters to breach the southwest of Taiwan's air defense identification zone, and the immediate, conventional reaction is that China is testing the mettle of the new U.S. administration. Myanmar's military claimed fraud, deposed the civilian government and locked politicians in their homes, and the event was categorized as an immediate challenge to the United States. The Kremlin arrested Russian opposition campaigner Alexei Navalny and sentenced him to two and a half years of hard labor in a cold prison colony, and the narrative was one of Vladimir Putin testing President Joe Biden's resolve. North Korea launched two missile tests in less than a week and ... you guessed it: The U.S. is being tested.

One could make an argument that countries want America's attention. The North Koreans, for example, are notorious for launching ballistic missiles during the early months of a new U.S. presidency. Former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump were both confronted with North Korean missile tests in one form or another in their first years in office. But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has also made it abundantly clear that, absent U.S. terms he views as fair and reasonable, North Korea's nuclear and missile work will continue. The latest test Pyongyang unveiled is less a poking of America's eye than a continuation of business as usual for a regime that remains convinced that a strong nuclear deterrent in innately connected to its security and survival. President Biden, to his credit, suggested as much when confronted with the news.

Myanmar's military coup had nothing whatsoever to do with the United States and everything to do with a crop of generals who are perpetually greedy, indelibly selfish and totally obsessed about their political power and wealth. This is the same military who ruled Myanmar with an iron-first for a half-century, and over time, grew comfortable with their riches even as the masses were given nothing but rags. If the U.S. was a major consideration in the Tatmadaw's decision-making, I have yet to see it.

U.S. flags
U.S. flags are seen. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Russia never misses an opportunity to mess with the U.S. in any number of ways. But the arrest and prosecution of Navalny was not a story about America—it was a story about a Russian political elite who was unable to poison Navalny over the summer but nevertheless saw an opportunity to marginalize Russia's most high-profile opposition campaigner (at least a few years). Sure, tens of thousands of Russians may have poured into the streets in hundreds of cities across Russia's 11 time zones. Those protests, though, have simmered—ultimately, keeping Navalny quiet over the short to medium-term was worth the cost of international opprobrium and another round of U.S. and E.U. sanctions.

China's military maneuvers around Taiwan, too, are nothing new. While overflights and Taiwan-centric military exercises have grown in frequency and intensity, pressuring the self-governing island in order to intimidate it from declaring independence has long been a central strategy of the Chinese Communist Party.

For the CCP, an independent Taiwan is unthinkable and a scenario so disturbing to officials in Beijing that an outright invasion of the island is on their short list of options. China's policy on Taiwan is influenced first and foremost by the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait and its long-standing belief that, eventually, this renegade province must be reunited with the mainland.

Washington can be a very self-centered town. Allowing that narcissism to guide our frame of reference to the world is a mistake with potentially serious repercussions. It can impact how we approach U.S. foreign policy and deal with specific countries. And just as critical, it can lure us into a belief that all the U.S. needs to do to pass these tests is to be stronger, tougher, more committed and more invested.

Maybe, just maybe, they weren't tests to begin with?

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

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