Going Unassisted Is a Losing Strategy for the United States

January 25, 2019

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Basketball star James Harden of the Houston Rockets has been on an incredible scoring binge, averaging more than 40 points per game over the past month and a half. Even more incredible is that he is playing this team game almost alone. Harden has scored his last 263 points without being assisted by a teammate.

While Harden may be the most valuable player in basketball, he doesn’t play on the best team. That honor belongs to the Golden State Warriors, who play a sublime brand of ball, premised on exquisite passing that leads to easy shots. They lead the league in assists. They are the odds-on favorites to win a third straight championship this June.

There’s a lesson here for the United States. It’s a great country. It’s the richest and strongest country in the world. It can score a lot of points without needing help. But, like James Harden, it can’t achieve its most cherished goals alone.

Let’s take the trade war with China. There is a lot at stake. If the Chinese are not deterred from stealing ideas from western companies and giving massive subsidies to domestic competitors, the United States could lose leadership in cutting-edge industries like artificial intelligence and clean energy.

The Trump administration’s approach to China resembles Harden’s approach to basketball. It lost its best teammates, allies like Canada and the European Union, and is trying to score points through brute force. (To be fair to Harden, his best teammates were injured, whereas the United States alienated its allies by imposing tariffs on them.) The strategy may achieve some gains in the short term, but only a global alliance will be able to effectively push back against unfair Chinese trade practices in the long run to maximize the growth and spread the benefits of new industries..

It’s the same story in many other areas of foreign policy. Sanctions on North Korea and Iran won’t work unless the United States is joined by the rest of the world. Terrorists won’t be apprehended without intelligence-sharing and coordinated action. Climate change won’t be stopped in the absence of global cooperation.

Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect foreign policy to perform with the fluidity of the Golden State Warriors. World affairs are far more complicated than basketball. But there are profound lessons in that simple game. One of them is that going unassisted is a losing strategy.