That the fall from grace for the average American has occurred in tandem with waining U.S. influence around the world is generally consistent with the acknowledged relationship between domestic politics and foreign policy. There are many excellent academic commentaries on the topic, but perhaps the most compelling and concise proof-point can be seen in Donald Rumsfeld's statement following 9/11:
“We have a choice. Either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or change the way they live. And we chose the latter.”
With this revealing statement Rumsfeld thus articulated the last 120 years of U.S. foreign policy. And that foreign policy has helped foster a "limitlessness" Andrew Bacevich suggested Americans now take as their birthright. As conditions have changed in the post-Cold War world, however, America is increasingly confounded by the very limits of that power:
Foreign policy has, for decades, provided an outward manifestation of American domestic ambitions, urges, and fears. In our own time, it has increasingly become an expression of domestic dysfunction – an attempt to manage or defer coming to terms with contradictions besetting the American way of life.
The American way of life is crumbling at its core. U.S. infrastructure deteriorates more dramatically with each passing year. Income disparity continues to rise. The devastation of the country's middle class has reduced large swaths of the workforce to the status of surplus Americans, and it seems clear the country will continue on its long trajectory of de-industrialization. The numbers provide a clear picture of decline, as in this 2015 study:
Median wealth per adult - Rank of U.S.: 27th out of 27 high-income countries. Spain, Cyprus and Qatar all have higher median wealth (per capita) than America’s, as does much of Europe and the industrialized world. Per capita median income in the U.S. ($18,700) is also relatively low - and unchanged since 2000. A middle-class Canadian’s income is now higher.
Education and skills - Rank of U.S.: 16th out of 23 countries. The U.S. ranked near the bottom in a skills survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which examined European and other developed nations. In its Skills Outlook 2013, the U.S. placed 16th in adult literacy, 21st out of 23 in adult numeracy, and 14th in problem-solving.
Health - Rank of U.S.: 33rd out of 145 countries. In countries that are home to at least one million people, the U.S. ranks below many other wealthy countries. Quoting a Lancet study, the study notes that more American women also are dying during pregnancy and childbirth. For every 100,000 births in the United States, 18.5 women die. Saudi Arabia and Canada have half that maternal death rate.
People living below the poverty line - Rank of U.S.: 36th out of 162 countries, behind Morocco and Albania. Officially, 14.5% of Americans are impoverished - 45.3 million people - according to the latest US Census data. That’s a larger fraction of the population in poverty than Morocco and Albania. America’s poor are more often in their prime working years, or in households headed by single mothers.
Children in poverty - Rank of U.S.: 34th out of 35 countries surveyed. When UNICEF relative poverty - relative to the average in each society - the US ranked at the bottom, above only Romania, even as Americans are, on average, six times richer than Romanians. Children in all of Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan fare better.
Income inequality - Rank of U.S.: Fourth highest inequality in the world. The study suggests that the most severe inequality can be found in Chile, Mexico, Turkey -- and the US. Citing the Gini coefficient, a common inequality metric, and data from Wall Street Journal/Mercer Human Resource Consulting, it shows this inequality slows economic growth, impedes youths’ opportunities, and ultimately threatens the nation’s future (an OECD video explains). Worsening income inequality is also evident in the ratio of average CEO earnings to average workers’ pay. That ratio went from 24:1 in 1965 to 262:1 in 2005.
Prison population - Rank of U.S.: First out of 224 countries. More than 2.2 million Americans are in jail. Only China comes close, with about 1.66 million.
Social progress index - Rank of U.S.: 16th out of 133 countries. A broad measure of social well-being, the index comprises 52 economic indicators such as access to clean water and air, access to advanced education, access to basic knowledge, and safety. Countries surpassing the US include Ireland, the UK, Iceland, and Canada.
Little wonder, then, that Orange Thing struck a resonant chord among disaffected Americans with his MAGA message. But OT's ability to make good on his "America first" pledge - suspending disbelief and assuming, for a moment, he ever had a plan to do so - will hinge on addressing the catastrophic disrepair of U.S. infrastructure while also reintegrating into the economy the millions of disaffected and now-redundant American workers. To do so also means improving educational standards and reversing the precipitous decline in scientific literacy. There can be no other path forward - short of war - if America is to navigate a new world dominated by the Chinese economic strategy of the New Silk Road.
Under His Orangeness, of course - or any likely U.S. leader - none of this will happen. The long game is not part of the American DNA. Worse, a growing passivity of the American populace is reinforced through manufactured four-year cycles that pretend elections guarantee democracy. And in the spirit of limitlessness, Americans will hold fast to the expectation (one policy makers will continue to foster) that others will change the way they live so Americans don't have to. In bending others to the American will, the military is now the primary instrument in the United States' foreign policy toolkit, even more so as Orange Thing continues to marginalize the State Department while outsourcing U.S. foreign policy to the Pentagon.
And thus we return to this site's original proposition - that America, especially in its decline, is an imminent danger to the world.
On This Page America as an imminent danger is a subject explored in detail in The Twin Perils and History and Co-conspirator sections of this site. American actions abroad - from the Philippines in 1898 to Afghanistan in 2017 - are imbued with an embrace of collateral damage, the understanding that some life is disposable. It reflects the deeply held belief in American exceptionalism - reviewed extensively elsewhere on this site - as a function of divine mission coupled with immense power. This belief was perfected at home before it was ever exported abroad, though today it continues to be applied in the homeland.
Consider, dear reader, just four examples of the disposability of life in domestic America, and then consider how that ethos translates to the rest of the world. After all, a government that readily accepts the deaths of a certain segment of its own population (from a specific socio-economic group), will readily accept the deaths of citizens in other lands a price worth paying (channeling Madeline Albright).
As shocking as the Flint water crisis was to the normal sensibilities of any normal human being when the story first burst into the public consciousness (including the callous disregard of the city and EPA officials involved), it is even more outrageous that the crisis still isn't over.
The U.S. government's response to the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria was painfully slow, one that might best be described as criminal. While the island's citizens, who are Americans, struggled to survive, Orange Thing engaged in a culture war with black NFL players over their First Amendment right of freedom of speech to protest the execution of people of colour in the streets by police. And when the Mayor of San Juan was forced to go public to plead for humanitarian assistance, the thin-skinned president lashed out like a child.
The tragedy of the Las Vegas shooting briefly reignited the simmering debate over gun control, only to follow the NRA game plan by which it quickly faded from public consciousness, later reignited with fury by the Florida high school shooting. But even a small sampling of recent mass shootings demonstrates the power of the NRA to block any meaningful change. Trump is almost certain to hold the line on Second Amendment rights, given his deep affinity for the NRA. As Axios reported, Steve Bannon texted of any Trump left-turn on guns: "Impossible: will be the end of everything," and Roger Stone said, "Base would go insane, and he knows it." And, soon enough, as the furor dies down - a standard NRA tactic - a Republican bill relaxing the sale of gun silencers will quietly move through Congress. Of course, there's also this bit of helpful advice for citizens in future mass murder situations from Republican Senator John Thune, as he seeks to deflect attention from gun control and the NRA: “I think people are going to have to take steps in their own lives to take precautions,” he opined. “To protect themselves. And in situations like that, you know, try to stay safe. As somebody said - get small.”
Healthcare is a recognized universal human right. Americans came agonizingly close to adopting universal healthcare in the 30s, but now healthcare for the masses is disparagingly labeled an "entitlement." Today, after seven years of "repeal and replace," Republicans have gained full control over the entire machinery of government, and are determined to remove the hard won (though imperfect) protections of Obamacare for millions of their fellow citizens (of a certain socio-economic segment of the population).
At home, America has demonstrated, throughout its history and certainly still today, that some life is disposable. Around the world, for the last 120 years and certainly still today, foreign lives are routinely deemed disposable in service of American foreign policy. A perfectly heartless, deal-driven, bottom-line, zero-sum mentality is now openly running the show in America, never more clearly demonstrated than by the GOP's $trillion give-away to the One Percent through an openly corrupt tax bill. At home, Donald Trump has already demonstrated a real passion for cruelty. What can that mean for America and the rest of the world?
In Orange Thing's America, the state of decline at home is dramatically revealed by the juxtaposition of the GOP tax cuts and a recent UN report on poverty and human rights in the United States. For the broader world, U.S. decline is exemplified by the fact that its military is now the dominant component of American statecraft. The remainder of this page is devoted to three insightful commentaries on the decline of Pax Americana.
American Power Under Challenge
by Noam Chomsky...
When we ask “Who rules the world?” we commonly adopt the standard convention that the actors in world affairs are states, primarily the great powers, and we consider their decisions and the relations among them. That is not wrong. But we would do well to keep in mind that this level of abstraction can also be highly misleading.
"All for ourselves and nothing for other people."
States of course have complex internal structures, and the choices and decisions of the political leadership are heavily influenced by internal concentrations of power, while the general population is often marginalized. That is true even for the more democratic societies, and obviously for others. We cannot gain a realistic understanding of who rules the world while ignoring the “masters of mankind,” as Adam Smith called them: in his day, the merchants and manufacturers of England; in ours, multinational conglomerates, huge financial institutions, retail empires, and the like. Still following Smith, it is also wise to attend to the “vile maxim” to which the “masters of mankind” are dedicated: “All for ourselves and nothing for other people” -- a doctrine known otherwise as bitter and incessant class war, often one-sided, much to the detriment of the people of the home country and the world.
In the contemporary global order, the institutions of the masters hold enormous power, not only in the international arena but also within their home states, on which they rely to protect their power and to provide economic support by a wide variety of means. When we consider the role of the masters of mankind, we turn to such state policy priorities of the moment as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the investor-rights agreements mislabeled “free-trade agreements” in propaganda and commentary. They are negotiated in secret, apart from the hundreds of corporate lawyers and lobbyists writing the crucial details. The intention is to have them adopted in good Stalinist style with “fast track” procedures designed to block discussion and allow only the choice of yes or no (hence yes). The designers regularly do quite well, not surprisingly. People are incidental, with the consequences one might anticipate.
The Second Superpower The neoliberal programs of the past generation have concentrated wealth and power in far fewer hands while undermining functioning democracy, but they have aroused opposition as well, most prominently in Latin America but also in the centers of global power. The European Union (EU), one of the more promising developments of the post-World War II period, has been tottering because of the harsh effect of the policies of austerity during recession, condemned even by the economists of the International Monetary Fund (if not the IMF’s political actors). Democracy has been undermined as decision making shifted to the Brussels bureaucracy, with the northern banks casting their shadow over their proceedings.
Mainstream parties have been rapidly losing members to left and to right. The executive director of the Paris-based research group EuropaNova attributes the general disenchantment to “a mood of angry impotence as the real power to shape events largely shifted from national political leaders [who, in principle at least, are subject to democratic politics] to the market, the institutions of the European Union and corporations,” quite in accord with neoliberal doctrine. Very similar processes are under way in the United States, for somewhat similar reasons, a matter of significance and concern not just for the country but, because of U.S. power, for the world.
The rising opposition to the neoliberal assault highlights another crucial aspect of the standard convention: it sets aside the public, which often fails to accept the approved role of “spectators” (rather than “participants”) assigned to it in liberal democratic theory. Such disobedience has always been of concern to the dominant classes. Just keeping to American history, George Washington regarded the common people who formed the militias that he was to command as “an exceedingly dirty and nasty people [evincing] an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people.”
The elites' contempt for "the lower class of these people" has taken various forms throughout the years.
In Violent Politics, his masterful review of insurgencies from “the American insurgency” to contemporary Afghanistan and Iraq, William Polk concludes that General Washington “was so anxious to sideline [the fighters he despised] that he came close to losing the Revolution.” Indeed, he “might have actually done so” had France not massively intervened and “saved the Revolution,” which until then had been won by guerrillas -- whom we would now call “terrorists” -- while Washington’s British-style army “was defeated time after time and almost lost the war.”
A common feature of successful insurgencies, Polk records, is that once popular support dissolves after victory, the leadership suppresses the “dirty and nasty people” who actually won the war with guerrilla tactics and terror, for fear that they might challenge class privilege. The elites’ contempt for “the lower class of these people” has taken various forms throughout the years. In recent times one expression of this contempt is the call for passivity and obedience (“moderation in democracy”) by liberal internationalists reacting to the dangerous democratizing effects of the popular movements of the 1960s.
"There may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion."
Sometimes states do choose to follow public opinion, eliciting much fury in centers of power. One dramatic case was in 2003, when the Bush administration called on Turkey to join its invasion of Iraq. Ninety-five percent of Turks opposed that course of action and, to the amazement and horror of Washington, the Turkish government adhered to their views. Turkey was bitterly condemned for this departure from responsible behavior. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, designated by the press as the “idealist-in-chief” of the administration, berated the Turkish military for permitting the malfeasance of the government and demanded an apology. Unperturbed by these and innumerable other illustrations of our fabled “yearning for democracy,” respectable commentary continued to laud President George W. Bush for his dedication to “democracy promotion,” or sometimes criticized him for his naïveté in thinking that an outside power could impose its democratic yearnings on others.
The Turkish public was not alone. Global opposition to U.S.-UK aggression was overwhelming. Support for Washington’s war plans scarcely reached 10% almost anywhere, according to international polls. Opposition sparked huge worldwide protests, in the United States as well, probably the first time in history that imperial aggression was strongly protested even before it was officially launched. On the front page of the New York Times, journalist Patrick Tyler reported that “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”
Unprecedented protest in the United States was a manifestation of the opposition to aggression that began decades earlier in the condemnation of the U.S. wars in Indochina, reaching a scale that was substantial and influential, even if far too late. By 1967, when the antiwar movement was becoming a significant force, military historian and Vietnam specialist Bernard Fall warned that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity... is threatened with extinction... [as] the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.”
But the antiwar movement did become a force that could not be ignored. Nor could it be ignored when Ronald Reagan came into office determined to launch an assault on Central America. His administration mimicked closely the steps John F. Kennedy had taken 20 years earlier in launching the war against South Vietnam, but had to back off because of the kind of vigorous public protest that had been lacking in the early 1960s. The assault was awful enough. The victims have yet to recover. But what happened to South Vietnam and later all of Indochina, where “the second superpower” imposed its impediments only much later in the conflict, was incomparably worse.
It is often argued that the enormous public opposition to the invasion of Iraq had no effect. That seems incorrect to me. Again, the invasion was horrifying enough, and its aftermath is utterly grotesque. Nevertheless, it could have been far worse. Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the rest of Bush’s top officials could never even contemplate the sort of measures that President Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson adopted 40 years earlier largely without protest.
Western Power Under Pressure There is far more to say, of course, about the factors in determining state policy that are put to the side when we adopt the standard convention that states are the actors in international affairs. But with such nontrivial caveats as these, let us nevertheless adopt the convention, at least as a first approximation to reality. Then the question of who rules the world leads at once to such concerns as China’s rise to power and its challenge to the United States and “world order,” the new cold war simmering in eastern Europe, the Global War on Terror, American hegemony and American decline, and a range of similar considerations.
The challenges faced by Western power at the outset of 2016 are usefully summarized within the conventional framework by Gideon Rachman, chief foreign-affairs columnist for the London Financial Times. He begins by reviewing the Western picture of world order: “Ever since the end of the Cold War, the overwhelming power of the U.S. military has been the central fact of international politics.” This is particularly crucial in three regions: East Asia, where “the U.S. Navy has become used to treating the Pacific as an ‘American lake’”; Europe, where NATO -- meaning the United States, which “accounts for a staggering three-quarters of NATO’s military spending” -- “guarantees the territorial integrity of its member states”; and the Middle East, where giant U.S. naval and air bases “exist to reassure friends and to intimidate rivals.”
The problem of world order today, Rachman continues, is that “these security orders are now under challenge in all three regions” because of Russian intervention in Ukraine and Syria, and because of China turning its nearby seas from an American lake to “clearly contested water.” The fundamental question of international relations, then, is whether the United States should “accept that other major powers should have some kind of zone of influence in their neighborhoods.” Rachman thinks it should, for reasons of “diffusion of economic power around the world -- combined with simple common sense.”
There are, to be sure, ways of looking at the world from different standpoints. But let us keep to these three regions, surely critically important ones.
The Challenges Today: East Asia Beginning with the “American lake,” some eyebrows might be raised over the report in mid-December 2015 that “an American B-52 bomber on a routine mission over the South China Sea unintentionally flew within two nautical miles of an artificial island built by China, senior defense officials said, exacerbating a hotly divisive issue for Washington and Beijing.” Those familiar with the grim record of the 70 years of the nuclear weapons era will be all too aware that this is the kind of incident that has often come perilously close to igniting terminal nuclear war. One need not be a supporter of China’s provocative and aggressive actions in the South China Sea to notice that the incident did not involve a Chinese nuclear-capable bomber in the Caribbean, or off the coast of California, where China has no pretensions of establishing a “Chinese lake.” Luckily for the world.
Chinese leaders understand very well that their country’s maritime trade routes are ringed with hostile powers from Japan through the Malacca Straits and beyond, backed by overwhelming U.S. military force. Accordingly, China is proceeding to expand westward with extensive investments and careful moves toward integration. In part, these developments are within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes the Central Asian states and Russia, and soon India and Pakistan with Iran as one of the observers -- a status that was denied to the United States, which was also called on to close all military bases in the region. China is constructing a modernized version of the old silk roads, with the intent not only of integrating the region under Chinese influence, but also of reaching Europe and the Middle Eastern oil-producing regions. It is pouring huge sums into creating an integrated Asian energy and commercial system, with extensive high-speed rail lines and pipelines.
One element of the program is a highway through some of the world’s tallest mountains to the new Chinese-developed port of Gwadar in Pakistan, which will protect oil shipments from potential U.S. interference. The program may also, China and Pakistan hope, spur industrial development in Pakistan, which the United States has not undertaken despite massive military aid, and might also provide an incentive for Pakistan to clamp down on domestic terrorism, a serious issue for China in western Xinjiang Province. Gwadar will be part of China’s “string of pearls,” bases being constructed in the Indian Ocean for commercial purposes but potentially also for military use, with the expectation that China might someday be able to project power as far as the Persian Gulf for the first time in the modern era.
All of these moves remain immune to Washington’s overwhelming military power, short of annihilation by nuclear war, which would destroy the United States as well.
In 2015, China also established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), with itself as the main shareholder. Fifty-six nations participated in the opening in Beijing in June, including U.S. allies Australia, Britain, and others which joined in defiance of Washington’s wishes. The United States and Japan were absent. Some analysts believe that the new bank might turn out to be a competitor to the Bretton Woods institutions (the IMF and the World Bank), in which the United States holds veto power. There are also some expectations that the SCO might eventually become a counterpart to NATO.
The Challenges Today: Eastern Europe Turning to the second region, Eastern Europe, there is a crisis brewing at the NATO-Russian border. It is no small matter. In his illuminating and judicious scholarly study of the region, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, Richard Sakwa writes -- all too plausibly -- that the “Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 was in effect the first of the ‘wars to stop NATO enlargement’; the Ukraine crisis of 2014 is the second. It is not clear whether humanity would survive a third.”
The West sees NATO enlargement as benign. Not surprisingly, Russia, along with much of the Global South, has a different opinion, as do some prominent Western voices. George Kennan warned early on that NATO enlargement is a “tragic mistake,” and he was joined by senior American statesmen in an open letter to the White House describing it as a “policy error of historic proportions.”
The present crisis has its origins in 1991, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were then two contrasting visions of a new security system and political economy in Eurasia. In Sakwa’s words, one vision was of a “‘Wider Europe,’ with the EU at its heart but increasingly coterminous with the Euro-Atlantic security and political community; and on the other side there [was] the idea of ‘Greater Europe,’ a vision of a continental Europe, stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, that has multiple centers, including Brussels, Moscow and Ankara, but with a common purpose in overcoming the divisions that have traditionally plagued the continent.”
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the major proponent of Greater Europe, a concept that also had European roots in Gaullism and other initiatives. However, as Russia collapsed under the devastating market reforms of the 1990s, the vision faded, only to be renewed as Russia began to recover and seek a place on the world stage under Vladimir Putin who, along with his associate Dmitry Medvedev, has repeatedly “called for the geopolitical unification of all of ‘Greater Europe’ from Lisbon to Vladivostok, to create a genuine ‘strategic partnership.’”
These initiatives were “greeted with polite contempt,” Sakwa writes, regarded as “little more than a cover for the establishment of a ‘Greater Russia’ by stealth” and an effort to “drive a wedge” between North America and Western Europe. Such concerns trace back to earlier Cold War fears that Europe might become a “third force” independent of both the great and minor superpowers and moving toward closer links to the latter (as can be seen in Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and other initiatives).
The Western response to Russia’s collapse was triumphalist. It was hailed as signaling “the end of history,” the final victory of Western capitalist democracy, almost as if Russia were being instructed to revert to its pre-World War I status as a virtual economic colony of the West. NATO enlargement began at once, in violation of verbal assurances to Gorbachev that NATO forces would not move “one inch to the east” after he agreed that a unified Germany could become a NATO member -- a remarkable concession, in the light of history. That discussion kept to East Germany. The possibility that NATO might expand beyond Germany was not discussed with Gorbachev, even if privatelyconsidered.
Soon, NATO did begin to move beyond, right to the borders of Russia. The general mission of NATO was officially changed to a mandate to protect “crucial infrastructure” of the global energy system, sea lanes and pipelines, giving it a global area of operations. Furthermore, under a crucial Western revision of the now widely heralded doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” sharply different from the official U.N. version, NATO may now also serve as an intervention force under U.S. command.
Of particular concern to Russia are plans to expand NATO to Ukraine. These plans were articulated explicitly at the Bucharest NATO summit of April 2008, when Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual membership in NATO. The wording was unambiguous: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” With the “Orange Revolution” victory of pro-Western candidates in Ukraine in 2004, State Department representative Daniel Fried rushed there and “emphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” as a WikiLeaks report revealed.
Russia’s concerns are easily understandable. They are outlined by international relations scholar John Mearsheimer in the leading U.S. establishment journal, Foreign Affairs. He writes that “the taproot of the current crisis [over Ukraine] is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West,” which Putin viewed as “a direct threat to Russia’s core interests.”
“Who can blame him?” Mearsheimer asks, pointing out that “Washington may not like Moscow’s position, but it should understand the logic behind it.” That should not be too difficult. After all, as everyone knows, “The United States does not tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western hemisphere, much less on its borders.”
In fact, the U.S. stand is far stronger. It does not tolerate what is officially called “successful defiance” of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which declared (but could not yet implement) U.S. control of the hemisphere. And a small country that carries out such successful defiance may be subjected to “the terrors of the earth” and a crushing embargo -- as happened to Cuba. We need not ask how the United States would have reacted had the countries of Latin America joined the Warsaw Pact, with plans for Mexico and Canada to join as well. The merest hint of the first tentative steps in that direction would have been “terminated with extreme prejudice,” to adopt CIA lingo.
As in the case of China, one does not have to regard Putin’s moves and motives favorably to understand the logic behind them, nor to grasp the importance of understanding that logic instead of issuing imprecations against it. As in the case of China, a great deal is at stake, reaching as far -- literally -- as questions of survival.
The Challenges Today: The Islamic World Let us turn to the third region of major concern, the (largely) Islamic world, also the scene of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) that George W. Bush declared in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attack. To be more accurate, re-declared. The GWOT was declared by the Reagan administration when it took office, with fevered rhetoric about a “plague spread by depraved opponents of civilization itself” (as Reagan put it) and a “return to barbarism in the modern age” (the words of George Shultz, his secretary of state). The original GWOT has been quietly removed from history. It very quickly turned into a murderous and destructive terrorist war afflicting Central America, southern Africa, and the Middle East, with grim repercussions to the present, even leading to condemnation of the United States by the World Court (which Washington dismissed). In any event, it is not the right story for history, so it is gone.
The success of the Bush-Obama version of GWOT can readily be evaluated on direct inspection. When the war was declared, the terrorist targets were confined to a small corner of tribal Afghanistan. They were protected by Afghans, who mostly disliked or despised them, under the tribal code of hospitality -- which baffled Americans when poor peasants refused “to turn over Osama bin Laden for the, to them, astronomical sum of $25 million.” There are good reasons to believe that a well-constructed police action, or even serious diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban, might have placed those suspected of the 9/11 crimes in American hands for trial and sentencing. But such options were off the table. Instead, the reflexive choice was large-scale violence -- not with the goal of overthrowing the Taliban (that came later) but to make clear U.S. contempt for tentative Taliban offers of the possible extradition of bin Laden. How serious these offers were we do not know, since the possibility of exploring them was never entertained. Or perhaps the United States was just intent on “trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world. They don’t care about the suffering of the Afghans or how many people we will lose.”
That was the judgment of the highly respected anti-Taliban leader Abdul Haq, one of the many oppositionists who condemned the American bombing campaign launched in October 2001 as "a big setback" for their efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within, a goal they considered within their reach. His judgment is confirmed by Richard A. Clarke, who was chairman of the Counterterrorism Security Group at the White House under President George W. Bush when the plans to attack Afghanistan were made. As Clarke describes the meeting, when informed that the attack would violate international law, "the President yelled in the narrow conference room, ‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.'" The attack was also bitterly opposed by the major aid organizations working in Afghanistan, who warned that millions were on the verge of starvation and that the consequences might be horrendous.
The consequences for poor Afghanistan years later need hardly be reviewed.
The next target of the sledgehammer was Iraq. The U.S.-UK invasion, utterly without credible pretext, is the major crime of the twenty-first century. The invasion led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people in a country where the civilian society had already been devastated by American and British sanctions that were regarded as “genocidal” by the two distinguished international diplomats who administered them, and resigned in protest for this reason. The invasion also generated millions of refugees, largely destroyed the country, and instigated a sectarian conflict that is now tearing apart Iraq and the entire region. It is an astonishing fact about our intellectual and moral culture that in informed and enlightened circles it can be called, blandly, “the liberation of Iraq.”
Pentagon and British Ministry of Defense polls found that only 3% of Iraqis regarded the U.S. security role in their neighborhood as legitimate, less than 1% believed that “coalition” (U.S.-UK) forces were good for their security, 80% opposed the presence of coalition forces in the country, and a majority supported attacks on coalition troops. Afghanistan has been destroyed beyond the possibility of reliable polling, but there are indications that something similar may be true there as well. Particularly in Iraq the United States suffered a severe defeat, abandoning its official war aims, and leaving the country under the influence of the sole victor, Iran.
The sledgehammer was also wielded elsewhere, notably in Libya, where the three traditional imperial powers (Britain, France, and the United States) procured Security Council resolution 1973 and instantly violated it, becoming the air force of the rebels. The effect was to undercut the possibility of a peaceful, negotiated settlement; sharply increase casualties (by at least a factor of 10, according to political scientist Alan Kuperman); leave Libya in ruins, in the hands of warring militias; and, more recently, to provide the Islamic State with a base that it can use to spread terror beyond. Quite sensible diplomatic proposals by the African Union, accepted in principle by Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, were ignored by the imperial triumvirate, as Africa specialist Alex de Waal reviews. A huge flow of weapons and jihadis has spread terror and violence from West Africa (now the champion for terrorist murders) to the Levant, while the NATO attack also sent a flood of refugees from Africa to Europe.
Yet another triumph of “humanitarian intervention,” and, as the long and often ghastly record reveals, not an unusual one, going back to its modern origins four centuries ago.
In brief, the Global War on Terror sledgehammer strategy has spread jihadi terror from a tiny corner of Afghanistan to much of the world, from Africa through the Levant and South Asia to Southeast Asia. It has also incited attacks in Europe and the United States. The invasion of Iraq made a substantial contribution to this process, much as intelligence agencies had predicted. Terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank estimate that the Iraq War “generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilian lives lost; even when terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan is excluded, fatal attacks in the rest of the world have increased by more than one-third.” Other exercises have been similarly productive.
A group of major human rights organizations -- Physicians for Social Responsibility (U.S.), Physicians for Global Survival (Canada), and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Germany) -- conducted a study that sought "to provide as realistic an estimate as possible of the total body count in the three main war zones [Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan] during 12 years of ‘war on terrorism,'" including an extensive review “of the major studies and data published on the numbers of victims in these countries,” along with additional information on military actions. Their "conservative estimate" is that these wars killed about 1.3 million people, a toll that "could also be in excess of 2 million." A database search by independent researcher David Peterson in the days following the publication of the report found virtually no mention of it. Who cares?
More generally, studies carried out by the Oslo Peace Research Institute show that two-thirds of the region’s conflict fatalities were produced in originally internal disputes where outsiders imposed their solutions. In such conflicts, 98% of fatalities were produced only after outsiders had entered the domestic dispute with their military might. In Syria, the number of direct conflict fatalities more than tripled after the West initiated air strikes against the self-declared Islamic State and the CIA started its indirect military interference in the war -- interference which appears to have drawn the Russians in as advanced US antitank missiles were decimating the forces of their ally Bashar al-Assad. Early indications are that Russian bombing is having the usual consequences. The evidence reviewed by political scientist Timo Kivimäki indicates that the “protection wars [fought by ‘coalitions of the willing’] have become the main source of violence in the world, occasionally contributing over 50% of total conflict fatalities.” Furthermore, in many of these cases, including Syria, as he reviews, there were opportunities for diplomatic settlement that were ignored. That has also been true in other horrific situations, including the Balkans in the early 1990s, the first Gulf War, and of course the Indochina wars, the worst crime since World War II. In the case of Iraq the question does not even arise. There surely are some lessons here.
The general consequences of resorting to the sledgehammer against vulnerable societies comes as little surprise. William Polk’s careful study of insurgencies, Violent Politics, should be essential reading for those who want to understand today’s conflicts, and surely for planners, assuming that they care about human consequences and not merely power and domination. Polk reveals a pattern that has been replicated over and over. The invaders -- perhaps professing the most benign motives -- are naturally disliked by the population, who disobey them, at first in small ways, eliciting a forceful response, which increases opposition and support for resistance. The cycle of violence escalates until the invaders withdraw -- or gain their ends by something that may approach genocide.
Playing by the Al-Qaeda Game Plan Obama’s global drone assassination campaign, a remarkable innovation in global terrorism, exhibits the same patterns. By most accounts, it is generating terrorists more rapidly than it is murdering those suspected of someday intending to harm us -- an impressive contribution by a constitutional lawyer on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, which established the basis for the principle of presumption of innocence that is the foundation of civilized law.
Another characteristic feature of such interventions is the belief that the insurgency will be overcome by eliminating its leaders. But when such an effort succeeds, the reviled leader is regularly replaced by someone younger, more determined, more brutal, and more effective. Polk gives many examples. Military historian Andrew Cockburn has reviewed American campaigns to kill drug and then terror “kingpins” over a long period in his important study Kill Chain and found the same results. And one can expect with fair confidence that the pattern will continue.
No doubt right now U.S. strategists are seeking ways to murder the “Caliph of the Islamic State” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is a bitter rival of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The likely result of this achievement is forecast by the prominent terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman, senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. He predicts that “al-Baghdadi’s death would likely pave the way for a rapprochement [with al-Qaeda] producing a combined terrorist force unprecedented in scope, size, ambition and resources.”
Polk cites a treatise on warfare by Henry Jomini, influenced by Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of Spanish guerrillas, that became a textbook for generations of cadets at the West Point military academy. Jomini observed that such interventions by major powers typically result in “wars of opinion,” and nearly always “national wars,” if not at first then becoming so in the course of the struggle, by the dynamics that Polk describes. Jomini concludes that “commanders of regular armies are ill-advised to engage in such wars because they will lose them,” and even apparent successes will prove short-lived.
Careful studies of al-Qaeda and ISIS have shown that the United States and its allies are following their game plan with some precision. Their goal is to “draw the West as deeply and actively as possible into the quagmire” and “to perpetually engage and enervate the United States and the West in a series of prolonged overseas ventures” in which they will undermine their own societies, expend their resources, and increase the level of violence, setting off the dynamic that Polk reviews.
Scott Atran, one of the most insightful researchers on jihadi movements, calculates that “the 9/11 attacks cost between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute, whereas the military and security response by the U.S. and its allies is in the order of 10 million times that figure. On a strictly cost-benefit basis, this violent movement has been wildly successful, beyond even Bin Laden’s original imagination, and is increasingly so. Herein lies the full measure of jujitsu-style asymmetric warfare. After all, who could claim that we are better off than before, or that the overall danger is declining?”
And if we continue to wield the sledgehammer, tacitly following the jihadi script, the likely effect is even more violent jihadism with broader appeal. The record, Atran advises, “should inspire a radical change in our counter-strategies.”
Al-Qaeda/ISIS are assisted by Americans who follow their directives: for example, Ted “carpet-bomb ’em” Cruz, a top Republican presidential candidate. Or, at the other end of the mainstream spectrum, the leading Middle East and international affairs columnist of the New YorkTimes, Thomas Friedman, who in 2003 offered Washington advice onhow to fight in Iraq on the Charlie Rose show: “There was what I would call the terrorism bubble... And what we needed to do was to go over to that part of the world and burst that bubble. We needed to go over there basically, and, uh, take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble. And there was only one way to do it... What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy we’re going to just let it go? Well, suck on this. Ok. That, Charlie, was what this war was about.”
That’ll show the ragheads.
Looking Forward Atran and other close observers generally agree on the prescriptions. We should begin by recognizing what careful research has convincingly shown: those drawn to jihad “are longing for something in their history, in their traditions, with their heroes and their morals; and the Islamic State, however brutal and repugnant to us and even to most in the Arab-Muslim world, is speaking directly to that... What inspires the most lethal assailants today is not so much the Quran but a thrilling cause and a call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends.” In fact, few of the jihadis have much of a background in Islamic texts or theology, if any.
The best strategy, Polk advises, would be “a multinational, welfare-oriented and psychologically satisfying program... that would make the hatred ISIS relies upon less virulent. The elements have been identified for us: communal needs, compensation for previous transgressions, and calls for a new beginning.” He adds, “A carefully phrased apology for past transgressions would cost little and do much.” Such a project could be carried out in refugee camps or in the “hovels and grim housing projects of the Paris banlieues,” where, Atran writes, his research team “found fairly wide tolerance or support for ISIS’s values.” And even more could be done by true dedication to diplomacy and negotiations instead of reflexive resort to violence.
Not least in significance would be an honorable response to the “refugee crisis” that was a long time in coming but surged to prominence in Europe in 2015. That would mean, at the very least, sharply increasing humanitarian relief to the camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey where miserable refugees from Syria barely survive. But the issues go well beyond, and provide a picture of the self-described “enlightened states” that is far from attractive and should be an incentive to action.
There are countries that generate refugees through massive violence, like the United States, secondarily Britain and France. Then there are countries that admit huge numbers of refugees, including those fleeing from Western violence, like Lebanon (easily the champion, per capita), Jordan, and Syria before it imploded, among others in the region. And partially overlapping, there are countries that both generate refugees and refuse to take them in, not only from the Middle East but also from the U.S. “backyard” south of the border. A strange picture, painful to contemplate.
An honest picture would trace the generation of refugees much further back into history. Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk reports that one of the first videos produced by ISIS “showed a bulldozer pushing down a rampart of sand that had marked the border between Iraq and Syria. As the machine destroyed the dirt revetment, the camera panned down to a handwritten poster lying in the sand. ‘End of Sykes-Picot,’ it said.” For the people of the region, the Sykes-Picot agreement is the very symbol of the cynicism and brutality of Western imperialism. Conspiring in secret during World War I, Britain’s Mark Sykes and France’s François Georges-Picot carved up the region into artificial states to satisfy their own imperial goals, with utter disdain for the interests of the people living there and in violation of the wartime promises issued to induce Arabs to join the Allied war effort. The agreement mirrored the practices of the European states that devastated Africa in a similar manner. It “transformed what had been relatively quiet provinces of the Ottoman Empire into some of the least stable and most internationally explosive states in the world.”
Repeated Western interventions since then in the Middle East and Africa have exacerbated the tensions, conflicts, and disruptions that have shattered the societies. The end result is a “refugee crisis” that the innocent West can scarcely endure. Germany has emerged as the conscience of Europe, at first (but no longer) admitting almost one million refugees -- in one of the richest countries in the world with a population of 80 million. In contrast, the poor country of Lebanon has absorbed an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, now a quarter of its population, on top of half a million Palestinian refugees registered with the U.N. refugee agency UNRWA, mostly victims of Israeli policies.
Europe is also groaning under the burden of refugees from the countries it has devastated in Africa -- not without U.S. aid, as Congolese and Angolans, among others, can testify. Europe is now seeking to bribe Turkey (with over two million Syrian refugees) to distance those fleeing the horrors of Syria from Europe’s borders, just as Obama is pressuring Mexico to keep U.S. borders free from miserable people seeking to escape the aftermath of Reagan’s GWOT along with those seeking to escape more recent disasters, including a military coup in Honduras that Obama almost alone legitimized, which created one of the worst horror chambers in the region. Words can hardly capture the U.S. response to the Syrian refugee crisis, at least any words I can think of. Returning to the opening question “Who rules the world?” we might also want to pose another question: “What principles and values rule the world?” That question should be foremost in the minds of the citizens of the rich and powerful states, who enjoy an unusual legacy of freedom, privilege, and opportunity thanks to the struggles of those who came before them, and who now face fateful choices as to how to respond to challenges of great human import.
Written by Noam Chomsky, first published in TomDispatch, May 8 and 10, 2016
The End of Pax Americana: How Western Decline Became Inevitable
by Christopher Layne...
When great powers begin to experience erosion in their global standing, their leaders inevitably strike a pose of denial. At the dawn of the twentieth century, as British leaders dimly discerned such an erosion in their country's global dominance, the great diplomat Lord Salisbury issued a gloomy rumination that captured at once both the inevitability of decline and the denial of it. "Whatever happens will be for the worse," he declared. "Therefore it is our interest that as little should happen as possible." Of course, one element of decline was the country's diminishing ability to influence how much or how little actually happened.
We are seeing a similar phenomenon today in America, where the topic of decline stirs discomfort in national leaders. In September 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed a "new American Moment" that would "lay the foundations for lasting American leadership for decades to come." A year and a half later, President Obama declared in his State of the Union speech: "Anyone who tells you that America is in decline . . . doesn't know what they're talking about." A position paper from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stated flatly that he "rejects the philosophy of decline in all of its variants." And former U.S. ambassador to China and one-time GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman pronounced decline to be simply "un-American."
Such protestations, however, cannot forestall real-world developments that collectively are challenging the post-1945 international order, often called Pax Americana, in which the United States employed its overwhelming power to shape and direct global events. That era of American dominance is drawing to a close as the country's relative power declines, along with its ability to manage global economics and security.
This does not mean the United States will go the way of Great Britain during the first half of the twentieth century. As Harvard's Stephen Walt wrote in this magazine last year, it is more accurate to say the "American Era" is nearing its end. For now, and for some time to come, the United States will remain primus inter pares--the strongest of the major world powers--though it is uncertain whether it can maintain that position over the next twenty years. Regardless, America's power and influence over the international political system will diminish markedly from what it was at the apogee of Pax Americana. That was the Old Order, forged through the momentous events of World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. Now that Old Order of nearly seven decades' duration is fading from the scene. It is natural that U.S. leaders would want to deny it--or feel they must finesse it when talking to the American people. But the real questions for America and its leaders are: What will replace the Old Order? How can Washington protect its interests in the new global era? And how much international disruption will attend the transition from the old to the new?
The signs of the emerging new world order are many. First, there is China's astonishingly rapid rise to great-power status, both militarily and economically. In the economic realm, the International Monetary Fund forecasts that China's share of world GDP (15 percent) will draw nearly even with the U.S. share (18 percent) by 2014. (The U.S. share at the end of World War II was nearly 50 percent.) This is particularly startling given that China's share of world GDP was only 2 percent in 1980 and 6 percent as recently as 1995. Moreover, China is on course to overtake the United States as the world's largest economy (measured by market exchange rate) sometime this decade. And, as argued by economists like Arvind Subramanian, measured by purchasing-power parity, China's GDP may already be greater than that of the United States.
Until the late 1960s, the United States was the world's dominant manufacturing power. Today, it has become essentially a rentier economy, while China is the world's leading manufacturing nation. A study recently reported in the Financial Times indicates that 58 percent of total income in America now comes from dividends and interest payments.
Since the Cold War's end, America's military superiority has functioned as an entry barrier designed to prevent emerging powers from challenging the United States where its interests are paramount. But the country's ability to maintain this barrier faces resistance at both ends. First, the deepening financial crisis will compel retrenchment, and the United States will be increasingly less able to invest in its military. Second, as ascending powers such as China become wealthier, their military expenditures will expand. The Economist recently projected that China's defense spending will equal that of the United States by 2025.
Thus, over the next decade or so a feedback loop will be at work, whereby internal constraints on U.S. global activity will help fuel a shift in the distribution of power, and this in turn will magnify the effects of America's fiscal and strategic overstretch. With interests throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Caucasus--not to mention the role of guarding the world's sea-lanes and protecting U.S. citizens from Islamist terrorists--a strategically overextended United States inevitably will need to retrench.
Further, there is a critical linkage between a great power's military and economic standing, on the one hand, and its prestige, soft power and agenda-setting capacity, on the other. As the hard-power foundations of Pax Americana erode, so too will the U.S. capacity to shape the international order through influence, example and largesse. This is particularly true of America in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent Great Recession. At the zenith of its military and economic power after World War II, the United States possessed the material capacity to furnish the international system with abundant financial assistance designed to maintain economic and political stability. Now, this capacity is much diminished.
All of this will unleash growing challenges to the Old Order from ambitious regional powers such as China, Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey and Indonesia. Given America's relative loss of standing, emerging powers will feel increasingly emboldened to test and probe the current order with an eye toward reshaping the international system in ways that reflect their own interests, norms and values. This is particularly true of China, which has emerged from its "century of humiliation" at the hands of the West to finally achieve great-power status. It is a leap to think that Beijing will now embrace a role as "responsible stakeholder" in an international order built by the United States and designed to privilege American interests, norms and values.
These profound developments raise big questions about where the world is headed and America's role in the transition and beyond. Managing the transition will be the paramount strategic challenge for the United States over the next two decades. In thinking about where we might be headed, it is helpful to take a look backward--not just over the past seventy years but far back into the past. That is because the transition in progress represents more than just the end of the post-1945 era of American global dominance. It also represents the end of the era of Western dominance over world events that began roughly 500 years ago. During this half millennium of world history, the West's global position remained secure, and most big, global developments were represented by intracivilizational power shifts. Now, however, as the international system's economic and geopolitical center of gravity migrates from the Euro-Atlantic world to Asia, we are seeing the beginnings of an intercivilizational power shift. The significance of this development cannot be overemphasized.
The impending end of the Old Order--both Pax Americana and the period of Western ascendancy--heralds a fraught transition to a new and uncertain constellation of power in international politics. Within the ascendant West, the era of American dominance emerged out of the ashes of the previous international order, Pax Britannica. It signified Europe's displacement by the United States as the locus of global power. But it took the twentieth century's two world wars and the global depression to forge the transition between these international orders.
Following the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Britain quickly outstripped all of its rivals in building up its industrial might and used its financial muscle to construct an open, international economic system. The cornerstones of this Pax Britannica were London's role as the global financial center and the Royal Navy's unchallenged supremacy around the world. Over time, however, the British-sponsored international system of free trade began to undermine London's global standing by facilitating the diffusion of capital, technology, innovation and managerial expertise to emerging new centers of power. This helped fuel the rise of economic and geopolitical rivals.
Between 1870 and 1900, the United States, Germany and Japan emerged onto the international scene more or less simultaneously, and both the European and global power balances began to change in ways that ultimately would doom Pax Britannica. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it had become increasingly difficult for Britain to cope with the growing number of threats to its strategic interests and to compete with the dynamic economies of the United States and Germany.
The Boer War of 1899-1902 dramatized the high cost of policing the empire and served as both harbinger and accelerant of British decline. Perceptions grew of an ever-widening gap between Britain's strategic commitments and the resources available to maintain them. Also, the rest of the world became less and less willing to submit to British influence and power. The empire's strategic isolation was captured in the plaintive words of Spenser Wilkinson, military correspondent for theTimes: "We have no friends, and no nation loves us."
Imperially overstretched and confronting a deteriorating strategic environment, London was forced to adjust its grand strategy and jettison its nineteenth-century policy of "splendid isolation" from entanglements with other countries. Another consideration was the rising threat of Germany, growing in economic dynamism, military might and population. By 1900, Germany had passed Britain in economic power and was beginning to threaten London's naval supremacy in its home waters by building a large, modern and powerful battle fleet. To concentrate its forces against the German danger, Britain allied with Japan and employed Tokyo to contain German and Russian expansionism in East Asia. It also removed America as a potential rival by ceding to Washington supremacy over the Americas and the Caribbean. Finally, it settled its differences with France and Russia, then formed fateful de facto alliances with each against Germany.
World War I marked the end of Pax Britannica--and the beginning of the end of Europe's geopolitical dominance. The key event was American entry into the war. It was Woodrow Wilson who called the power of the New World "into existence to redress the balance of the Old" (in the words of the early nineteenth-century British statesman George Canning). American economic and military power was crucial in securing Germany's defeat. Wilson took the United States to war in 1917 with the intent of using American power to impose his vision of international order on both the Germans and the Allies. The peace treaties that ended World War I--the "Versailles system"--proved to be flawed, however. Wilson could not persuade his own countrymen to join his cherished League of Nations, and European realpolitik prevailed over his vision of the postwar order.
Although the historical wisdom is that America retreated into isolationism following Wilson's second term and Warren Harding's return to "normalcy," that is not true. The United States convened the Washington Naval Conference and helped foster the Washington naval treaties, which averted a U.S. naval arms race with Britain and Japan and dampened prospects for increased great-power competition over influence in China. America also played a key role in trying to restore economic, and hence political, stability in war-ravaged Europe. It promoted Germany's economic reconstruction and political reintegration into Europe through the Dawes and Young plans that addressed the troublesome issue of German reparations. The aim was to help get Europe back on its feet so it could once again become a vibrant market for American goods.
Then came the Great Depression. In both Europe and Asia, the economic cataclysm had profound geopolitical consequences. As E. H. Carr brilliantly detailed in his classic work The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939, the Versailles system cracked because of the growing gap between the order it represented and the actual distribution of power in Europe. Even during the 1920s, Germany's latent power raised the prospect that eventually Berlin would renew its bid for continental hegemony. When Adolf Hitler assumed the chancellorship in 1933, he unleashed Germany's military power, suppressed during the 1920s, and ultimately France and Britain lacked the material capacity to enforce the postwar settlement. The Depression also exacerbated deep social, class and ideological cleavages that roiled domestic politics throughout Europe.
In East Asia, the Depression served to discredit the liberal foreign and economic policies that Japan had pursued during the 1920s. The expansionist elements of the Japanese army gained sway in Tokyo and pushed their country into military adventurism in Manchuria. In response to the economic dislocation, all great powers, including the United States, abandoned international economic openness and free trade in favor of economic nationalism, protectionism and mercantilism.
The crisis of the 1930s culminated in what historian John Lukacs called "the last European war." But it didn't remain a European war. Germany's defeat could be secured only with American military and economic power and the heroic exertions of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the war quickly spread to the Pacific, where Western colonial redoubts had come under intense military pressure from Japan.
World War II reshaped international politics in three fundamental ways. First, it resulted in what historian Hajo Holborn termed "the political collapse of Europe," which brought down the final curtain on the Eurocentric epoch of international politics. Now an economically prostrate Western Europe was unable to defend itself or revive itself economically without American assistance. Second, the wartime defeats of the British, French and Dutch in Asia--particularly the humiliating 1942 British capitulation in Singapore--shattered the myth of European invincibility and thus set in motion a rising nationalist tide that within two decades would result in the liquidation of Europe's colonies in Asia. This laid the foundation for Asia's economic rise that began gathering momentum in the 1970s. Finally, the war created the geopolitical and economic conditions that enabled the United States to construct the postwar international order and establish itself as the world's dominant power, first in the bipolar era of competition with the Soviet Union and later as the globe's sole superpower following the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Thus do we see the emergence of the new world order of 1945, which now represents the Old Order that is under its own global strains. But we also see the long, agonizing death of Pax Britannica, which had maintained relative global stability for a century before succumbing to the fires of the two world wars and the Great Depression. This tells us that periods of global transition can be chaotic, unpredictable, long and bloody. Whether the current transitional phase will unfold with greater smoothness and calm is an open question--and one of the great imponderables facing the world today.
As the United States emerged as the world's leading power, it sought to establish its postwar dominance in the three regions deemed most important to its interests: Western Europe, East Asia and the Middle East/Persian Gulf. It also fostered an open international-trading regime and assumed the role of the global financial system's manager, much as Britain had done in the nineteenth century. The 1944 Bretton Woods agreement established the dollar as the international reserve currency. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade fostered international commerce. The United Nations was created, and a network of American-led alliances established, most notably NATO.
It is tempting to look back on the Cold War years as a time of heroic American initiatives. After all, geopolitically, Washington accomplished a remarkable double play: while avoiding great-power war, containment--as George F. Kennan foresaw in 1946--helped bring about the eventual implosion of the Soviet Union from its own internal contradictions. In Europe, American power resolved the German problem, paved the way for Franco-German reconciliation and was the springboard for Western Europe's economic integration. In Asia, the United States helped rebuild a stable and democratic Japan from the ashes of its World War II defeat. For the trilateral world of Pax Americana--centered on the United States, Western Europe and Japan--the twenty-five years following World War II marked an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. These were remarkable accomplishments and are justly celebrated as such. Nevertheless, it is far from clear that the reality of the Cold War era measures up to the nostalgic glow in which it has been bathed. Different policies might have brought about the Cold War's end but at a much less expensive price for the United States.
The Cold War was costly in treasure and in blood (the most obvious examples being the wars in Korea and Vietnam). America bears significant responsibility for heightening postwar tensions with the Soviet Union and transforming what ought to have been a traditional great-power rivalry based on mutual recognition of spheres of influence into the intense ideological rivalry it became. During the Cold War, U.S. leaders engaged in threat inflation and overhyped Soviet power. Some leading policy makers and commentators at the time--notably Kennan and prominent journalist Walter Lippmann--warned against the increasingly global and militarized nature of America's containment strategy, fearing that the United States would become overextended if it attempted to parry Soviet or communist probes everywhere. President Dwight Eisenhower also was concerned about the Cold War's costs, the burden it imposed on the U.S. economy and the threat it posed to the very system of government that the United States was supposed to be defending. Belief in the universality of American values and ideals was at the heart of U.S. containment strategy during most of the Cold War, and the determination to vindicate its model of political, economic and social development is what caused the United States to stumble into the disastrous Vietnam War.
Whatever questions could have been raised about the wisdom of America's Cold War policies faded rapidly after the Soviet Union's collapse, which triggered a wave of euphoric triumphalism in the United States. Analysts celebrated America's "unipolar moment" and perceived an "end of history" characterized by a decisive triumph of Western-style democracy as an end point in human civic development. Almost by definition, such thinking ruled out the prospect that this triumph could prove fleeting.
But even during the Cold War's last two decades, the seeds of American decline had already been sown. In a prescient--but premature--analysis, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believed that the bipolar Cold War system would give way to a pentagonal multipolar system composed of the United States, Soviet Union, Europe, China and Japan. Nixon also confronted America's declining international financial power in 1971 when he took the dollar off the Bretton Woods gold standard in response to currency pressures. Later, in 1987, Yale's Paul Kennedy published his brilliant Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which raised questions about the structural, fiscal and economic weaknesses in America that, over time, could nibble away at the foundations of U.S. power. With America's subsequent Cold War triumph--and the bursting of Japan's economic bubble--Kennedy's thesis was widely dismissed.
Now, in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown and ensuing recession, it is clear that Kennedy and other "declinists" were right all along. The same causes of decline they pointed to are at the center of today's debate about America's economic prospects: too much consumption and not enough savings; persistent trade and current-account deficits; deindustrialization; sluggish economic growth; and chronic federal-budget deficits fueling an ominously rising national debt.
Indeed, looking forward a decade, the two biggest domestic threats to U.S. power are the country's bleak fiscal outlook and deepening doubts about the dollar's future role as the international economy's reserve currency. Economists regard a 100 percent debt-to-GDP ratio as a flashing warning light that a country is at risk of defaulting on its financial obligations. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has warned that the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio could exceed that level by 2020--and swell to 190 percent by 2035. Worse, the CBO recently warned of the possibility of a "sudden credit event" triggered by foreign investors' loss of confidence in U.S. fiscal probity. In such an event, foreign investors could reduce their purchases of Treasury bonds, which would force the United States to borrow at higher interest rates. This, in turn, would drive up the national debt even more. America's geopolitical preeminence hinges on the dollar's role as reserve currency. If the dollar loses that status, U.S. primacy would be literally unaffordable. There are reasons to be concerned about the dollar's fate over the next two decades. U.S. political gridlock casts doubt on the nation's ability to address its fiscal woes; China is beginning to internationalize the renminbi, thus laying the foundation for it to challenge the dollar in the future; and history suggests that the dominant international currency is that of the nation with the largest economy. (In his piece on the global financial structure in this issue, Christopher Whalen offers a contending perspective, acknowledging the dangers posed to the dollar as reserve currency but suggesting such a change in the dollar's status is remote in the current global environment.)
Leaving aside the fate of the dollar, however, it is clear the United States must address its financial challenge and restore the nation's fiscal health in order to reassure foreign lenders that their investments remain sound. This will require some combination of budget cuts, entitlement reductions, tax increases and interest-rate hikes. That, in turn, will surely curtail the amount of spending available for defense and national security--further eroding America's ability to play its traditional, post-World War II global role.
Beyond the U.S. financial challenge, the world is percolating with emerging nations bent on exploiting the power shift away from the West and toward states that long have been confined to subordinate status in the global power game. (Parag Khanna explores this phenomenon at length further in this issue.) By far the biggest test for the United States will be its relationship with China, which views itself as effecting a restoration of its former glory, before the First Opium War of 1839-1842 and its subsequent "century of humiliation." After all, China and India were the world's two largest economies in 1700, and as late as 1820 China's economy was larger than the combined economies of all of Europe. The question of why the West emerged as the world's most powerful civilization beginning in the sixteenth century, and thus was able to impose its will on China and India, has been widely debated. Essentially, the answer is firepower. As the late Samuel P. Huntington put it, "The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion . . . but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do."
Certainly, the Chinese have not forgotten. Now Beijing aims to dominate its own East and Southeast Asian backyard, just as a rising America sought to dominate the Western Hemisphere a century and a half ago. The United States and China now are competing for supremacy in East and Southeast Asia. Washington has been the incumbent hegemon there since World War II, and many in the American foreign-policy establishment view China's quest for regional hegemony as a threat that must be resisted. This contest for regional dominance is fueling escalating tensions and possibly could lead to war. In geopolitics, two great powers cannot simultaneously be hegemonic in the same region. Unless one of them abandons its aspirations, there is a high probability of hostilities. Flashpoints that could spark a Sino-American conflict include the unstable Korean Peninsula; the disputed status of Taiwan; competition for control of oil and other natural resources; and the burgeoning naval rivalry between the two powers.
These rising tensions were underscored by a recent Brookings study by Peking University's Wang Jisi and Kenneth Lieberthal, national-security director for Asia during the Clinton administration, based on their conversations with high-level officials in the American and Chinese governments. Wang found that underneath the visage of "mutual cooperation" that both countries project, the Chinese believe they are likely to replace the United States as the world's leading power but Washington is working to prevent such a rise. Similarly, Lieberthal related that many American officials believe their Chinese counterparts see the U.S.-Chinese relationship in terms of a zero-sum game in the struggle for global hegemony.
An instructive historical antecedent is the Anglo-German rivalry of the early twentieth century. The key lesson of that rivalry is that such great-power competition can end in one of three ways: accommodation of the rising challenger by the dominant power; retreat of the challenger; or war. The famous 1907 memo exchange between two key British Foreign Office officials--Sir Eyre Crowe and Lord Thomas Sanderson--outlined these stark choices. Crowe argued that London must uphold the Pax Britannica status quo at all costs. Either Germany would accept its place in a British-dominated world order, he averred, or Britain would have to contain Germany's rising power, even at the risk of war. Sanderson replied that London's refusal to accommodate the reality of Germany's rising power was both unwise and dangerous. He suggested Germany's leaders must view Britain "in the light of some huge giant sprawling over the globe, with gouty fingers and toes stretching in every direction, which cannot be approached without eliciting a scream." In Beijing's eyes today, the United States must appear as the unapproachable, globally sprawling giant.
In modern history, there have been two liberal international orders: Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. In building their respective international structures, Britain and the United States wielded their power to advance their own economic and geopolitical interests. But they also bestowed important benefits--public goods--on the international system as a whole. Militarily, the hegemon took responsibility for stabilizing key regions and safeguarding the lines of communication and trade routes upon which an open international economy depend. Economically, the public goods included rules for the international economic order, a welcome domestic market for other states' exports, liquidity for the global economy and a reserve currency.
As U.S. power wanes over the next decade or so, the United States will find itself increasingly challenged in discharging these hegemonic tasks. This could have profound implications for international politics. The erosion of Pax Britannica in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was an important cause of World War I. During the interwar years, no great power exercised geopolitical or economic leadership, and this proved to be a major cause of the Great Depression and its consequences, including the fragmentation of the international economy into regional trade blocs and the beggar-thy-neighbor economic nationalism that spilled over into the geopolitical rivalries of the 1930s. This, in turn, contributed greatly to World War II. The unwinding of Pax Americana could have similar consequences. Since no great power, including China, is likely to supplant the United States as a true global hegemon, the world could see a serious fragmentation of power. This could spawn pockets of instability around the world and even general global instability.
The United States has a legacy commitment to global stability, and that poses a particular challenge to the waning hegemon as it seeks to fulfill its commitment with dwindling resources. The fundamental challenge for the United States as it faces the future is closing the "Lippmann gap," named for journalist Walter Lippmann. This means bringing America's commitments into balance with the resources available to support them while creating a surplus of power in reserve. To do this, the country will need to establish new strategic priorities and accept the inevitability that some commitments will need to be reduced because it no longer can afford them.
These national imperatives will force the United States to craft some kind of foreign-policy approach that falls under the rubric of "offshore balancing"--directing American power and influence toward maintaining a balance of power in key strategic regions of the world. This concept--first articulated by this writer in a 1997 article in the journal International Security--has gained increasing attention over the past decade or so as other prominent geopolitical scholars, including John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Robert Pape, Barry Posen and Andrew Bacevich, have embraced this approach.
Although there are shades of difference among proponents of offshore balancing in terms of how they define the strategy, all of their formulations share core concepts in common. First, it assumes the United States will have to reduce its presence in some regions and develop commitment priorities. Europe and the Middle East are viewed as less important than they once were, with East Asia rising in strategic concern. Second, as the United States scales back its military presence abroad, other states need to step up to the challenge of maintaining stability in key regions. Offshore balancing, thus, is a strategy of devolving security responsibilities to others. Its goal is burden shifting, not burden sharing. Only when the United States makes clear that it will do less--in Europe, for example--will others do more to foster stability in their own regions.
Third, the concept relies on naval and air power while eschewing land power as much as possible. This is designed to maximize America's comparative strategic advantages--standoff, precision-strike weapons; command-and-control capabilities; and superiority in intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance. After all, fighting land wars in Eurasia is not what the United States does best. Fourth, the concept avoids Wilsonian crusades in foreign policy, "nation-building" initiatives and imperial impulses. Not only does Washington have a long record of failure in such adventures, but they are also expensive. In an age of domestic austerity, the United States cannot afford the luxury of participating in overseas engagements that contribute little to its security and can actually pose added security problems. Finally, offshore balancing would reduce the heavy American geopolitical footprint caused by U.S. boots on the ground in the Middle East--the backlash effect of which is to fuel Islamic extremism. An over-the-horizon U.S. military posture in the region thus would reduce the terrorist threat while still safeguarding the flow of Persian Gulf oil.
During the next two decades, the United States will face some difficult choices between bad outcomes and worse ones. But such decisions could determine whether America will manage a graceful decline that conserves as much power and global stability as possible. A more ominous possibility is a precipitous power collapse that reduces U.S. global influence dramatically. In any event, Americans will have to adjust to the new order, accepting the loss of some elements of national life they had taken for granted. In an age of austerity, national resources will be limited, and competition for them will be intense. If the country wants to do more at home, it will have to do less abroad. It may have to choose between attempting to preserve American hegemony or repairing the U.S. economy and maintaining the country's social safety net.
The Constellation of world power is changing, and U.S. grand strategy will have to change with it. American elites must come to grips with the fact that the West does not enjoy a predestined supremacy in international politics that is locked into the future for an indeterminate period of time. The Euro-Atlantic world had a long run of global dominance, but it is coming to an end. The future is more likely to be shaped by the East.
At the same time, Pax Americana also is winding down. The United States can manage this relative decline effectively over the next couple of decades only if it first acknowledges the fundamental reality of decline. The problem is that many Americans, particularly among the elites, have embraced the notion of American exceptionalism with such fervor that they can't discern the world transformation occurring before their eyes.
But history moves forward with an inexorable force, and it does not stop to grant special exemptions to nations based on past good works or the restrained exercise of power during times of hegemony. So is it with the United States. The world has changed since those heady days following World War II, when the United States picked up the mantle of world leadership and fashioned a world system durable enough to last nearly 70 years. It has also changed significantly since those remarkable times from 1989 to 1991, when the Soviet Union imploded and its ashes filled the American consciousness with powerful notions of national exceptionalism and the infinite unipolar moment of everlasting U.S. hegemony.
But most discerning Americans know that history never ends, that change is always inevitable, that nations and civilizations rise and fall, that no era can last forever. Now it can be seen that the post-World War II era, romanticized as it has been in the minds of so many Americans, is the Old Order--and it is an Old Order in crisis, which means it is nearing its end. History, as always, is moving forward.
The End of the American Era
by Stephen M. Walt...
The United States has been the dominant world power since 1945, and U.S. leaders have long sought to preserve that privileged position. They understood, as did most Americans, that primacy brought important benefits. It made other states less likely to threaten America or its vital interests directly. By dampening great-power competition and giving Washington the capacity to shape regional balances of power, primacy contrib- uted to a more tranquil international environment. That tranquility fostered global prosperity; investors and traders operate with greater confidence when there is less danger of war. Primacy also gave the United States the ability to work for positive ends: promoting human rights and slowing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It may be lonely at the top, but Americans have found the view compelling.
When a state stands alone at the pinnacle of power, however, there is nowhere to go but down. And so Americans have repeatedly worried about the possibility of decline - even when the prospect was remote. Back in 1950, National Security Council Report 68 warned that Soviet acquisition of atomic weapons heralded an irreversible shift in geopolitical momentum in Moscow’s favor. A few years later, Sputnik’s launch led many to fear that Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev’s pledge to “bury” Western capitalism might just come true. President John F. Kennedy reportedly believed the USSR would eventually be wealthier than the United States, and Rich- ard Nixon famously opined that America was becoming a “pitiful, helpless giant.” Over the next decade or so, defeat in In- dochina and persistent economic problems led prominent academics to produce books with titles like America as an Ordinary Country and After Hegemony.1 Far-fetched concerns about Soviet dominance helped propel Ronald Reagan to the presidency and were used to justify a major military buildup in the early 1980s. The fear of imminent decline, it seems, has been with us ever since the United States reached the zenith of global power.
Debates about decline took on new life with the publication of Paul Kennedy’s best- selling Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which famously argued that America was in danger of “imperial overstretch.” Kennedy believed Great Britain returned to the unseemly ranks of mediocrity because it spent too much money defending far-flung interests and fighting costly wars, and he warned that the United States was headed down a similar path. Joseph Nye challenged Kennedy’s pessimism in Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, which sold fewer copies but offered a more ac- curate near-term forecast. Nye emphasized America’s unusual strengths, arguing it was destined to be the leading world power for many years to come.
Since then, a host of books and articles - from Charles Krauthammer’s “The Unipolar Moment,” G. John Ikenberry’s Liberal Leviathan and Niall Ferguson’s Colossus to Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World (to name but a few) - have debated how long American dominance could possibly last. Even Osama bin Laden eventually got in on the act, proclaiming the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fatal blows to American power and a vindication of al-Qaeda’s campaign of terror.
Yet for all the ink that has been spilled on the durability of American primacy, the protagonists have mostly asked the wrong question. The issue has never been whether the United States was about to imitate Britain’s fall from the ranks of the great powers or suffer some other form of catastrophic decline. The real question was always whether what one might term the “American Era” was nearing its end. Specifically, might the United States remain the strongest global power but be unable to exercise the same influence it once enjoyed? If that is the case - and I believe it is - then Washington must devise a grand strategy that acknowledges this new reality but still uses America’s enduring assets to advance the national interest. The American Era began immediately after World War II. Europe may have been the center of international politics for over three centuries, but two destructive world wars decimated these great powers. The State Department’s Policy Planning Staff declared in 1947 that “preponderant power must be the object of U.S. policy,” and its willingness to openly acknowledge this goal speaks volumes about the imbalance of power in America’s favor. Interna- tional-relations scholars commonly speak of this moment as a transition from a multipolar to a bipolar world, but Cold War bipolarity was decidedly lopsided from the start.
In 1945, for example, the U.S. economy produced roughly half of gross world product, and the United States was a major creditor nation with a positive trade balance. It had the world’s largest navy and air force, an industrial base second to none, sole possession of atomic weapons and a globe-circling array of military bases. By supporting decolonization and backing Eu- ropean reconstruction through the Marshall Plan, Washington also enjoyed considerable goodwill in most of the developed and developing world.
Most importantly, the United States was in a remarkably favorable geopolitical position. There were no other great powers in the Western Hemisphere, so Americans did not have to worry about foreign invasion. Our Soviet rival had a much smaller and less efficient economy. Its military might, concentrated on ground forces, never ap- proached the global reach of U.S. power- projection capabilities. The other major power centers were all located on or near the Eurasian landmass - close to the Soviet Union and far from the United States - which made even former rivals like Germany and Japan eager for U.S. protection from the Russian bear. Thus, as the Cold War proceeded, the United States amassed a strong and loyal set of allies while the ussr led an alliance of comparatively weak and reluctant partners. In short, even before the Soviet Union collapsed, America’s overall position was about as favorable as any great power’s in modern history.
What did the United States do with these impressive advantages? In the decades after World War II, it created and led a political, security and economic order in virtually every part of the globe, except for the sphere that was directly controlled by the Soviet Union and its Communist clients. Not only did the United States bring most of the world into institutions that were largely made in America (the un, the World Bank, the IMF, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), for decades it retained the dominant influence in these arrangements.
In Europe, the Marshall Plan revitalized local economies, covert U.S. intervention helped ensure that Communist parties did not gain power, and nato secured the peace and deterred Soviet military pressure. The position of supreme allied commander was always reserved for a U.S. officer, and no significant European security initiative took place without American support and approval. (The main exception, which supports the general point, was the ill-fated Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt during the Suez crisis of 1956, an adventure that collapsed in the face of strong U.S. opposition.) The United States built an equally durable security order in Asia through bilateral treaties with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and several others, and it incorporated each of these countries into an increasingly liberal world economy. In the Middle East, Washington helped establish and defend Israel but also forged close security ties with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the shah of Iran and several smaller Gulf states. America continued to exercise a position of hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, using various tools to oust leftist governments in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Chile and Nicaragua. In Africa, not seen as a vital arena, America did just enough to ensure that its modest interests there were protected.
To be sure, the United States did not exert total control over events in the various regional orders it created. It could not prevent the revolution in Cuba in 1959 or Iran in 1979, it failed to keep France from leaving nato’s integrated military command structure in 1966, and it did not stop Israel, India, North Korea and Pakistan from acquiring nuclear weapons. But the United States retained enormous influence in each of these regions, especially on major issues.
Instead of trying to be the "indispensable nation" nearly everywhere, the United States will need to figure out how to be the decisive power in the places that matter.
Furthermore, although the U.S. posi- tion was sometimes challenged - the loss in Vietnam being the most obvious example - America’s overall standing was never in danger. The U.S. alliance system in Asia held firm despite defeat in Indochina, and during the 1970s, Beijing formed a tacit partnership with Washington. Moreover, China eventually abandoned Marxism-Leninism as a governing ideology, forswore world revolution and voluntarily entered the structure of institutions that the United States had previously created. Similarly, Tehran became an adversary once the clerical regime took over, but America’s overall position in the Middle East was not shaken. Oil continued to flow out of the Persian Gulf, Israel became increasingly secure and prosperous, and key Soviet allies like Egypt eventually abandoned Moscow and sided with the United States. Despite occasional setbacks, the essential features of the American Era remained firmly in place.
Needless to say, it is highly unusual for a country with only 5 percent of the world’s population to be able to organize favorable political, economic and security orders in almost every corner of the globe and to sustain them for decades. Yet that is in fact what the United States did from 1945 to 1990. And it did so while enjoying a half century of economic growth that was nearly unmatched in modern history.
And then the Soviet empire collapsed, leaving the United States as the sole superpower in a unipolar world. According to former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft, the United States found itself “standing alone at the height of power. It was, it is, an unparalleled situation in history, one which presents us with the rarest opportunity to shape the world.” And so it tried, bringing most of the Warsaw Pact into NATO and encouraging the spread of market economies and democratic institutions throughout the former Communist world. It was a triumphal moment - the apogee of the American Era - but the celebratory fireworks blinded us to the trends and pitfalls that brought that era to an end.
The past two decades have witnessed the emergence of new power centers in several key regions. The most obvious example is China, whose explosive economic growth is undoubtedly the most significant geopolitical development in decades. The United States has been the world’s largest economy since roughly 1900, but China is likely to overtake America in total economic output no later than 2025. Beijing’s military budget is rising by roughly 10 percent per year, and it is likely to convert even more of its wealth into military assets in the future. If China is like all previous great powers - including the United States - its definition of “vital” interests will grow as its power increases - and it will try to use its growing muscle to protect an expanding sphere of influence. Given its dependence on raw-material imports (especially energy) and export-led growth, prudent Chinese leaders will want to make sure that no one is in a position to deny them access to the resources and markets on which their future prosperity and political stability depend.
This situation will encourage Beijing to challenge the current U.S. role in Asia. Such ambitions should not be hard for Americans to understand, given that the United States has sought to exclude out- side powers from its own neighborhood ever since the Monroe Doctrine. By a similar logic, China is bound to feel uneasy if Washington maintains a network of Asian alliances and a sizable military presence in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Over time, Beijing will try to convince other Asian states to abandon ties with America, and Washington will almost certainly resist these efforts. An intense security competition will follow.
The security arrangements that defined the American Era are also being under- mined by the rise of several key regional powers, most notably India, Turkey and Brazil. Each of these states has achieved impressive economic growth over the past decade, and each has become more will- ing to chart its own course independent of Washington’s wishes. None of them are on the verge of becoming true global powers - Brazil’s gdp is still less than one-sixth that of the United States, and India and Turkey’s economies are even smaller - but each has become increasingly influential within its own region. This gradual diffusion of power is also seen in the recent expansion of the G-8 into the so-called G-20, a tacit recognition that the global institutions created after World War II are increasingly obsolete and in need of reform.
Each of these new regional powers is a democracy, which means that its leaders pay close attention to public opinion. As a result, the United States can no longer rely on cozy relations with privileged elites or military juntas. When only 10–15 percent of Turkish citizens have a “favorable” view of America, it becomes easier to understand why Ankara refused to let Washington use its territory to attack Iraq in 2003 and why Turkey has curtailed its previously close ties with Israel despite repeated U.S. efforts to heal the rift. Anti-Americanism is less prevalent in Brazil and India, but their democratically elected leaders are hardly deferential to Washington either.
The rise of new powers is bringing the short-lived “unipolar moment” to an end, and the result will be either a bipolar Sino-American rivalry or a multipolar system containing several unequal great powers. The United States is likely to remain the strongest, but its overall lead has shrunk - and it is shrinking further still.
Of course, the twin debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan only served to accelerate the waning of American dominance and under-score the limits of U.S. power. The Iraq War alone will carry a price tag of more than $3 trillion once all the costs are counted, and the end result is likely to be an unstable quasi democracy that is openly hostile to Israel and at least partly aligned with Iran. Indeed, Tehran has been the main beneficiary of this ill-conceived adventure, which is surely not what the Bush administration had in mind when it dragged the country to war.
The long Afghan campaign is even more likely to end badly, even if U.S. leaders eventually try to spin it as some sort of victory. The Obama administration finally got Osama bin Laden, but the long and costly attempt to eliminate the Taliban and build a Western-style state in Afghanistan has failed. At this point, the only interesting question is whether the United States will get out quickly or get out slowly. In either scenario, Kabul’s fate will ultimately be determined by the Afghans once the United States and its dwindling set of allies leave. And if failure in Afghanistan weren’t enough, U.S. involvement in Central Asia has undermined relations with nuclear- armed Pakistan and reinforced virulent anti-Americanism in that troubled country. If victory is defined as achieving your main objectives and ending a war with your security and prosperity enhanced, then both of these conflicts must be counted as expensive defeats.
But the Iraq and Afghan wars were not simply costly self-inflicted wounds; they were also eloquent demonstrations of the limits of military power. There was never much doubt that the United States could topple relatively weak and/or unpopular governments - as it has in Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq and, Libya - but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that unmatched power-projection capabilities were of little use in constructing effective political orders once the offending leadership was removed. In places where local identities remain strong and foreign interference is not welcome for long, even a global superpower like the United States has trouble obtaining desirable political results.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the greater Middle East, which has been the main focus of U.S. strategy since the ussr broke apart. Not only did the Arab Spring catch Washington by surprise, but the U.S. response further revealed its diminished capacity to shape events in its favor. After briefly trying to shore up the Mubarak regime, the Obama administration realigned itself with the forces challenging the existing regional order. The president gave a typically eloquent speech endorsing change, but nobody in the region paid much attention. Indeed, with the partial exception of Libya, U.S. influence over the entire process has been modest at best. Obama was unable to stop Saudi Arabia from sending troops to Bahrain - where Riyadh helped to quell demands for reform - or to convince Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to step down. U.S. leverage in the post-Mubarak political process in Egypt and the simmering conflict in Yemen is equally ephemeral.
One gets a vivid sense of America’s altered circumstances by comparing the U.S. response to the Arab Spring to its actions in the early years of the Cold War. In 1948, the Marshall Plan allocated roughly $13 billion in direct grants to restarting Europe’s economy, an amount equal to approximately 5 percent of total U.S. gdp. The equivalent amount today would be some $700 billion, and there is no way that Washington could devote even a tenth of that amount to helping Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or others. Nor does one need to go all the way back to 1948. The United States forgave $7 billion of Egypt’s foreign debt after the 1991 Gulf War; in 2011, all it could offer Cairo’s new government was $1 billion worth of loan guarantees (not actual loans) and $1 billion in debt forgiveness.
America’s declining influence is also revealed by its repeated failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It has been nearly twenty years since the signing of the Oslo accords in September 1993, and the United States has had a monopoly on the “peace process” ever since that hopeful day. Yet its efforts have been a complete failure, proving beyond doubt that Washington is incapable of acting as an effective and evenhanded mediator. Obama’s call for “two states for two peoples” in his address to the Arab world in June 2009 produced a brief moment of renewed hope, but his steady retreat in the face of Israeli intransigence and domestic political pressure drove U.S. credibility to new lows.
Taken together, these events herald a sharp decline in America’s ability to shape the global order. And the recent series of economic setbacks will place even more significant limits on America’s ability to maintain an ambitious international role. The Bush administration inherited a rare budget surplus in 2001 but proceeded to cut federal taxes significantly and fight two costly wars. The predictable result was a soaring budget deficit and a rapid increase in federal debt, problems compounded by the finan- cial crisis of 2007–09. The latter disaster required a massive federal bailout of the fi- nancial industry and a major stimulus pack- age, leading to a short-term budget shortfall in 2009 of some $1.6 trillion (roughly 13 percent of gdp). The United States has been in the economic doldrums ever since, and there is scant hope of a rapid return to vigorous growth. These factors help explain Standard & Poor’s U.S. government credit- rating downgrade in August amid new fears of a “double-dip” recession.
The Congressional Budget Office projects persistent U.S. budget deficits for the next twenty-five years - even under its optimistic “baseline” scenario - and it warns of plausible alternatives in which total federal debt would exceed 100 percent of GDP by 2023 and 190 percent of GDP by 2035. State and local governments are hurting too, which means less money for roads, bridges, schools, law enforcement and the other collective goods that help maintain a healthy society.
The financial meltdown also undermined an important element of America’s “soft power,” namely, its reputation for competence and probity in economic policy. In the 1990s, a seemingly robust economy gave U.S. officials bragging rights and made the “Washington Consensus” on economic policy seem like the only game in town. Thomas Friedman (and other popular writers) argued that the rest of the world needed to adopt U.S.-style “DOScapital 6.0” or fall by the wayside. Yet it is now clear that the U.S. financial system was itself deeply corrupt and that much of its economic growth was an illusory bubble. Other states have reason to disregard Washington’s advice and to pursue economic strategies of their own making. The days when America could drive the international economic agenda are over, which helps explain why it has been seventeen years since the Uruguay Round, the last successful multilateral trade negotiation.
The bottom line is clear and unavoidable: the United States simply won’t have the resources to devote to international affairs that it had in the past. When the president of the staunchly internationalist Council on Foreign Relations is penning articles decrying “American Profligacy” and calling for retrenchment, you know that America’s global role is in flux. Nor can the United States ex- pect its traditional allies to pick up the slack voluntarily, given that economic conditions are even worse in Europe and Japan.
The era when the United States could create and lead a political, economic and security order in virtually every part of the world is coming to an end. Which raises the obvious question: What should we do about it?
The twilight of the American Era arrived sooner than it should have because U.S. leaders made a number of costly mistakes. But past errors need not lead to a further erosion of America’s position if we learn the right lessons and make timely adjustments.
Above all, Washington needs to set clear priorities and to adopt a hardheaded and unsentimental approach to preserving our most important interests. When U.S. primacy was at its peak, American leaders could indulge altruistic whims. They didn’t have to think clearly about strategy because there was an enormous margin for error; things were likely to work out even if Washington made lots of mistakes. But when budgets are tight, problems have multiplied and other powers are less deferential, it’s important to invest U.S. power wisely. As former secretary of defense Robert Gates put it: “We need to be honest with the president, with the Congress, with the American people . . . a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things.” The chief lesson, he emphasized, was the need for “conscious choices” about our missions and means. Instead of trying to be the “indispensable nation” nearly everywhere, the United States will need to figure out how to be the decisive power in the places that matter.
For starters, we should remember what the U.S. military is good for and what it is good at doing. American forces are very good at preventing major conventional aggression, or reversing it when it happens. We successfully deterred Soviet ambitions throughout the long Cold War, and we easily reversed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. The U.S. naval and air presence in Asia still has similar stabilizing effects, and the value of this pacifying role should not be underestimated.
By contrast, the U.S. military is not good at running other countries, particularly in cultures that are radically different from our own, where history has left them acutely hostile to foreign interference, and when there are deep ethnic divisions and few democratic traditions. The United States can still topple minor-league dictators, but it has no great aptitude for creating stable and effective political orders afterward.
It follows that the United States should eschew its present fascination with nation building and counterinsurgency and return to a grand strategy that some (myself included) have labeled offshore balancing.2 Offshore balancing seeks to maintain benevolent hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and to maintain a balance of power among the strong states of Eurasia and of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. At present, these are the only areas that are worth sending U.S. soldiers to fight and die in.
Instead of seeking to dominate these regions directly, however, our first recourse should be to have local allies uphold the balance of power, out of their own self-interest. Rather than letting them free ride on us, we should free ride on them as much as we can, intervening with ground and air forces only when a single power threatens to dominate some critical region. For an offshore balancer, the greatest success lies in getting somebody else to handle some pesky problem, not in eagerly shouldering that burden oneself.
To be more specific: offshore balancing would call for removing virtually all U.S. troops from Europe, while remaining formally committed to NATO. Europe is wealthy, secure, democratic and peaceful, and it faces no security problems that it cannot handle on its own. (The combined defense spending of NATO’s European members is roughly five times greater than Russia’s, which is the only conceivable conventional military threat the Continent might face.) Forcing NATO’s European members to take the lead in the recent Libyan war was a good first step, because the United States will never get its continental allies to bear more of the burden if it insists on doing most of the work itself. Indeed, by playing hard to get on occasion, Washington would encour- age others to do more to win our support, instead of resenting or rebelling against the self-appointed “indispensable nation.”
In the decades ahead, the United States should shift its main strategic attention to Asia, both because its economic importance is rising rapidly and because China is the only potential peer competitor that we face. The bad news is that China could become a more formidable rival than the Soviet Union ever was: its economy is likely to be larger than ours (a situation the United States has not faced since the nineteenth century); and, unlike the old, largely autarkic Soviet Union, modern China depends on overseas trade and resources and will be more inclined to project power abroad.
The good news is that China’s rising status is already ringing alarm bells in Asia. The more Beijing throws its weight around, the more other Asian states will be looking to us for help. Given the distances involved and the familiar dilemmas of collective ac- tion, however, leading a balancing coalition in Asia will be far more difficult than it was in Cold War Europe. U.S. officials will have to walk a fine line between doing too much (which would allow allies to free ride) and doing too little (which might lead some states to hedge toward China).
To succeed, Washington will have to keep air and naval forces deployed in the region, pay close attention to the evolving military and political environment there, and de- vote more time and effort to managing a large and potentially fractious coalition of Asian partners.
Perhaps most importantly, offshore bal- ancing prescribes a very different approach to the greater Middle East. And prior to 1991, in fact, that’s exactly what we did. The United States had a strategic interest in the oil there and a moral commitment to defending Israel, but until 1968 it mostly passed the buck to London. After Britain withdrew, Washington relied on regional allies such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel to counter Soviet clients like Egypt and Syria. When the shah fell, the United States created the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF) but did not deploy it to the region; instead, it kept the RDJTF over the horizon until it was needed. Washington backed Iraq against Iran during the 1980s, and the U.S. Navy escorted oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War, but it deployed U.S. ground and air forces only when the balance of power broke down completely, as it did when Iraq seized Kuwait. This strategy was not perfect, perhaps, but it preserved key U.S. interests at minimal cost for over four decades.
Unfortunately, the United States abandoned offshore balancing after 1991. It first tried “dual containment,” in effect confronting two states - Iran and Iraq - that also hated each other, instead of using each to check the other as it had in the past. This strategy - undertaken, as the National Iranian American Council’s Trita Parsi and Brookings’ Kenneth Pollack suggest, in good part to reassure Israel - forced the United States to keep thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia, sparking Osama bin Laden’s ire and helping fuel the rise of al-Qaeda. The Bush administration compounded this error after 9/11 by adopting the even more foolish strategy of “regional transformation.” Together with the “special relationship” with Israel, these ill-conceived approaches deepened anti-Americanism in the Middle East and gave states like Iran more reason to consider acquiring a nuclear deterrent. It is no great mystery why Obama’s eloquent speeches did nothing to restore America’s image in the region; people there want new U.S. policies, not just more empty rhetoric.
One can only imagine how much policy makers in Beijing have enjoyed watching the United States bog itself down in these costly quagmires. Fortunately, there is an obvious solution: return to offshore balancing. The United States should get out of Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible, treat Israel like a normal country instead of backing it unconditionally, and rely on local Middle Eastern, European and Asian allies to maintain the peace - with our help when necessary.
The biggest challenge the United States faces today is not a looming great-power rival; it is the triple whammy of accumulated debt, eroding infrastructure and a sluggish economy.
Don’t get me wrong. The United States is not finished as a major power. Nor is it destined to become just one of several equals in a future multipolar world. To the contrary, the United States still has the world’s strongest military, and the U.S. economy remains diverse and technologically advanced. China’s economy may soon be larger in absolute terms, but its per capita income will be far smaller, which means its government will have less surplus to devote to expanding its reach (including of the military variety). American expenditures on higher education and industrial research and development still dwarf those of other countries, the dollar remains the world’s re- serve currency and many states continue to clamor for U.S. protection. Furthermore, long-term projections of U.S. latent power are reassuring. Populations in Russia, Japan and most European countries are declining and aging, which will limit their economic potential in the decades ahead. China’s median age is also rising rapidly (an unintended consequence of the one-child policy), and this will be a powerful drag on its economic vitality. By contrast, U.S. population growth is high compared with the rest of the developed world, and U.S. median age will be lower than any of the other serious players.
Indeed, in some ways America’s strategic position is actually more favorable than it used to be, which is why its bloated military budget is something of a mystery. In 1986, for example, the United States and its allies controlled about 49 percent of global military expenditures while our various ad- versaries combined for some 42 percent. Today, the United States and its allies are responsible for nearly 70 percent of military spending; all our adversaries put together total less than 15 percent. Barring additional self-inflicted wounds, the United States is not going to fall from the ranks of the great powers at any point in the next few decades. Whether the future world is unipolar, bipolar or multipolar, Washington is going to be one of those poles - and almost certainly the strongest of them.
And so, the biggest challenge the United States faces today is not a looming great-power rival; it is the triple whammy of accumulated debt, eroding infrastructure and a sluggish economy. The only way to have the world’s most capable military forces both now and into the future is to have the world’s most advanced economy, and that means having better schools, the best universities, a scientific establishment that is second to none, and a national infrastructure that enhances productivity and dazzles those who visit from abroad. These things all cost money, of course, but they would do far more to safeguard our long-term security than spending a lot of blood and treasure determining who should run Afghanistan, Kosovo, South Sudan, Libya, Yemen or any number of other strategic backwaters.
The twilight of the American Era is not an occasion to mourn or a time to cast blame. The period when the United States could manage the politics, economics and security arrangements for nearly the entire globe was never destined to endure forever, and its passing need not herald a new age of rising threats and economic hardship if we make intelligent adjustments.
Instead of looking backward with nostalgia, Americans should see the end of the American Era as an opportunity to rebal- ance our international burdens and focus on our domestic imperatives. Instead of building new Bagrams in faraway places of little consequence, it is time to devote more attention to that “shining city on a hill” of which our leaders often speak, but which still remains to be built.
Written by Stephen M. Walt, first published in The National Interest, Sept/Oct 2011
1. See Richard Rosecrance, ed., America as an Ordinary Country: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Future (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976); and Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton, nj: Princeton University Press, 1984).
2. On “offshore balancing,” see Christopher Layne, “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America’s Future Grand Strategy,” International Security 22, no. 1 (1997); John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001); and Stephen M. Walt, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), chap. 5.