A thought struck me as I was reading the obits of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who passed away yesterday at the age of 92. Several accounts highlighted Brubeck's role as a cultural ambassador, through his participation in various goodwill tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department. A number of other prominent jazz artists -- including luminaries like Louis Armstrong -- were featured in these tours, which were intended to show off the appealing sides of American culture in the context of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. This was a Bambi-meets-Godzilla competition, btw, with the Soviets in the role of Bambi. I like Shostakovich and respect the Bolshoi, but Soviet mass culture was outmatched when pitted against the likes of Satchmo.
But here's my question: why isn't the United States doing similar things today? The State Department still sponsors tours by U.S. artists -- go here for a bit more information -- but you hardly ever hear about them and it's not like we're sending "A-list" musicians out to display the vibrancy of American cultural life. Celebrities and musicians are more likely to do good will tours to entertain U.S. troops in places like Iraq, but the sort of tours that Brubeck and others did in the 1950s and 1960s seem to have become a minor endeavor at best.
The problem, I suspect, isn't a lack of interest in cultural diplomacy or even lack of funding. Instead, I think this is an consequence of globalization. Today, someone in Senegal or Indonesia who wants to hear American jazz (or hip-hop, or blues, or whatever) just needs an internet connection. The same is true in reverse, of course; I can download an extraordinary array of world music just sitting here in my study at home. And that goes for videos of performances too, whether we're talking music or dance or in some cases even theatre. Plus, top artists tour the world on their own in order to make money; they don't need to go as part of some official U.S. government sponsored tour. And given the unpopularity of U.S. foreign policy in some parts of the world, official sponsorship is probably the last thing some artists would want.
But there may some exceptions to that rule, in the sense that are a few countries where artistic exchanges might open things up in ways that diplomats cannot. Iran isn't likely to welcome Madonna, Christina Aguilera, or Justin Timberlake, perhaps, but have we thought about an artistic exchange with some slightly less edgy U.S. performers? If table tennis could help thaw relations with Mao's China, maybe jazz, acoustic blues, or even classical music could begin to break the ice with Tehran. Iran's has a large under-thirty population that is by all accounts hungry for greater access to world culture, so this sort of exchange would build good will with the populations that will be rising to positions of influence in the future. Plus, Iran has plenty of gifted performers who might find a ready audience here. And you can send a delegation of American musicians without violating UN sanctions or having to answer a lot of thorny questions about nuclear enrichment.
Update: In response to this post, Hishaam Aidi of Columbia University and the Open Society Institute sent me this piece, which takes a critical view of the State Department's more recent efforts to use hip-hop artists as a form of cultural outreach. Well worth reading, and my thanks to Hishaam for sending it to me.
The California Museum via Getty Images
We are often told that Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are deeply worried about Iran, and eager for the United States to take care of the problem. This is usually framed as a reflection of the Sunni-Shiite divide, and linked to concerns about Iranian subversion, the role of Hezbollah, and of course the omnipresent fretting about Iran's nuclear energy program.
I have heard senior Saudi officials voice such worries on more than one occasion, and I don't doubt that their fears are sincere. But there may be another motive at work here, and Americans would do well to keep that possibility in mind.
That motive is the Gulf states' interest in keeping oil prices high enough to balance their own budgets, in a period where heightened social spending and other measures are being used to insulate these regimes from the impact of the Arab Spring. According to the IMF, these states need crude prices to remain upwards of $80 a barrel in order to keep their fiscal house in order.
Which in turn means that Saudi Arabia et al also have an interest in keeping Iran in the doghouse, so that Iran can't attract foreign companies to refurbish and expand its oil and gas fields and so that it has even more trouble marketing its petroleum on global markets. If UN and other sanctions were lifted and energy companies could operate freely in Iran, its oil and gas production would boom, overall supplies would increase, and the global price would drop.
Not only might this new wealth make Iran a more formidable power in the Gulf region--as it was under the Shah -- but lower oil and gas prices would make it much harder for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to stave off demands for political reform through social spending. Saudi Arabia could cut production to try to keep prices up, but that would still mean lower overall revenues and a budget shortfall.
So when you hear people telling you how worried the Gulf states are about Iran, and how they support our efforts to keep tightening the screws, remember that it's not just about geopolitics, or the historical divide between Sunnis and Shiites or between Arabs and Persians. It's also about enabling certain ruling families to keep writing checks. Keep that in mind the next time you fill your gas tank or pay your home heating bill, or the next time somebody tells you the United States ought to think seriously about a preemptive war.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
If you wanted a clear sense of just how intellectually bankrupt mainstream thinking on U.S. Middle East policy is, I invite you to check out Robert Satloff's latest missive here. His basic thesis is straightforward: The situation in the Middle East is getting worse -- big time. But the good news, you'll be pleased to hear, is that the United States has an obvious response: It should "strengthen ties with Israel." Whew! Problem solved.
First, it is hardly surprising that Satloff favors this course, because he works for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and that organization -- which was spun out of AIPAC a couple of decades ago -- is a key part of the Israel lobby. It is impossible to imagine any circumstances under which a WINEP honcho would recommend reducing U.S. ties with Israel, or even using U.S. leverage to get Israel to alter its conduct in some way. At bottom, this piece is simply a crude attempt to exploit the current turmoil to reiterate the same old line.
Second, Satloff is saying the United States should continue the same course it has followed at least the past thirty years, even though this policy has cost billions of dollars, made the United States wildly unpopular in most of the region, contributed to its terrorism problem, and allowed Israel to continue building settlements, thereby facilitating the slow-motion suicide of a democratic Jewish state. He repeats the standard AIPAC talking point about Israel being a great strategic asset, but that canard has become less and less convincing over time. And let's not forget that Israel is itself a major source of instability in the region: launching wars against Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, against Gaza in 2008-2009 and 2012, and repeatedly threatening to attack Iran.
Finally, it is laughable to think that strengthening ties with Israel even more would alleviate current regional tensions or advance U.S. interests. To take but one example, Satloff says we should deny Hamas any sort of political victory and strengthen more moderate forces. Okay, but Israel's latest pummeling of Gaza did exactly the opposite and yet Obama backed them to the hilt. But you didn't hear Satloff calling for Israel to stop or recommending that the United States distance itself from Netanyahu's latest war.
To be clear: Israel is not the reason there is violence in Syria or political turmoil in Egypt or elsewhere. Nonetheless, doubling down on the "special relationship" isn't going to alleviate those problems or give the United States more influence in any of these turbulent places. In fact, when the United States votes against the U.N. resolution on Palestinian statehood and turns a blind eye to the daily abuses of Palestinian rights, we look hypocritical in the eyes of the world and our influence declines even more. When Israel announces a new round of settlements and the United States says it is opposed but does absolutely nothing, Washington looks feckless and incompetent. How is that good for the United States?
In short, Satloff's prescription isn't in America's interests. It's not even in Israel's interest, although he probably thinks it is. But as long as this sort of thinking is the default condition in D.C., don't expect anything to change for the better.
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The United States has extended a security umbrella over its allies in Asia for roughly sixty years. This policy had obvious benefits, but it has also encouraged these same allies to forget how balance-of-power politics works.
Suppose you were responsible for national security policy in Japan and South Korea. Unless you were completely feckless, you'd be at least somewhat worried about the rise of China. You do have good relations with the United States, which is in the process of "pivoting" to Asia (whatever that means). But will that be enough? Is there anything else you could do to maintain a favorable balance of power and avoid having to show excessive deference to Beijing in the decades ahead?
Here's the rub: Although Japan's capita income is nearly four times greater than China's, its population is less than 10 percent that of China's and its demographic structure is even less favorable. South Korea's economy and population are even smaller, and it also faces an unpredictable neighbor across the DMZ. Most important of all, China's economy is still growing more rapidly than either of these two Asian powers. Unless the Chinese bubble bursts, its advantage in overall power potential is likely to grow over time.
Well, if that was a major long-term concern, what could you do? You might start by asking yourself what other countries did when they faced similar circumstances. For example, you might look at Britain's response to Germany's rise at the beginning of the 20th century. German unification and its rapid industrial development created a powerhouse in continental Europe, and by 1900, Britain could not keep pace through internal effort alone.
How did Britain respond? By mending fences with other major powers. It settled a dispute with the United States over the Venezuelan border, supported the United States during the Spanish-American War, and settled another boundary dispute over Alaska in 1903. It muted its colonial rivalry with France through the Entente Cordiale in 1904, and concluded another entente with Russia by settling border disputes in Persia, Tibet, and Afghanistan in 1907. These were mostly acts of appeasement, by the way, but undertaken with a larger strategic purpose in mind.
In short, the obvious and growing threat from Germany led Britain to resolve various disputes and form stronger ties with other major powers, reducing the number of conflicts it had to worry about and laying the foundation for the alliance that ultimately defeated Germany's attempt to establish hegemony in Europe in World War I.
So if you were a smart Japanese or South Korean strategist and you believed that China was probably your most serious long-term security challenge, you'd be looking to mend fences with other countries and especially with each other. Not only would this allow you to concentrate more attention on China, it would increase the odds that China would face cohesive opposition if it tried to throw its weight around in the future. If done adroitly, that possibility might have a sobering effect on Chinese calculations, thereby stabilizing East Asia for everyone.
Yet this is precisely what Japan and South Korea are NOT doing. To the contrary: at the same time that Japan is having an increasingly ugly spat with China over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands, Japan and South Korea are also engaged in an intermittently heated quarrel over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands, a different and equally insignificant pile of rocks.
I don't know whose claim to these little chunks of land is more deserving and I certainly wouldn't try to arbitrate it here. But it is hard to read about these disputes -- and especially the flap between South Korea and Japan -- without concluding that these two states are letting national pride cloud their thinking in a most unproductive way. And one big reason might be the long habit of expecting Uncle Sam to take care of their security for them.
I've made this point before: managing alliance relations in Asia is not going to be easy. But instead of focusing primarily on military deployments and doctrinal innovations like "Air-Sea Battle," the United States needs to devote at least as much attention to East Asian diplomacy, to include helping its friends settle differences among themselves. In the end, helping our friends work together (and for that matter, helping them resolve differences with China in a fair-minded way) could do more to stabilize relations in the region than shifting another carrier battle group there or doing a lot of saber-rattling.
Balancing against threats is a powerful tendency in international affairs, but it is not always done efficiently and the uncertainties that this creates can tempt others to take advantage. Helping lubricate the balancing process is an ideal role for the United States. It is also the best way to ensure that Uncle Sam doesn't get stuck carrying most of the burden itself.
Update: For a broadly similar view from my colleague Joseph Nye, go here.
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The debate on Iran and its nuclear program does little credit to the U.S. foreign policy community, because much of it rests on dubious assumptions that do not stand up to even casual scrutiny. Lots of ink, pixels, and air-time has been devoted to discussing whether Iran truly wants a bomb, how close it might be to getting one, how well sanctions are working, whether the mullahs in charge are "rational," and whether a new diplomatic initiative is advisable. Similarly, journalists, politicians and policy wonks spend endless hours asking if and when Israel might attack and whether the United States should help. But we hardly ever ask ourselves if this issue is being blown wildly out of proportion.
At bottom, the whole debate on Iran rests on the assumption that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon would be an event of shattering geopolitical significance: On a par with Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933, the fall of France in 1940, the Sino-Soviet split, or the breakup of the former Soviet Union. In this spirit, Henry Kissinger recently argued that a latent Iranian capability (that is, the capacity to obtain a bomb fairly quickly) would have fearsome consequences all by itself. Even if Iran stopped short of some red line, Kissinger claims this would: 1) cause "uncontrollable military nuclear proliferation throughout [the] region," 2) "lead many of Iran's neighbors to reorient their political alignment toward Tehran" 3) "submerge the reformist tendencies in the Arab Spring," and 4) deliver a "potentially fatal blow" to hopes for reducing global nuclear arsenals. Wow. And that's just if Iran has nuclear potential and not even an actual weapon! It follows that the United States must either persuade them to give up most of their enrichment capacity or go to war to destroy it.
Yet this "mother of all assumptions" is simply asserted and rarely examined. The obvious question to ask is this: did prior acts of nuclear proliferation have the same fearsome consequences that Iran hawks now forecast? The answer is no. In fact, the spread of nuclear weapons has had remarkably little impact on the basic nature of world politics and the ranking of major powers. The main effect of the nuclear revolution has been to induce greater caution in the behavior of both those who possessed the bomb and anyone who had to deal with a nuclear-armed adversary. Proliferation has not transformed weak states into influential global actors, has not given nuclear-armed states the ability to blackmail their neighbors or force them to kowtow, and it has not triggered far-reaching regional arms races. In short, fears that an Iranian bomb would transform regional or global politics have been greatly exaggerated; one might even say that they are just a lot of hooey.
Consider the historical record.
Did the world turn on its axis when the mighty Soviet Union tested its first bomb in 1949? Although alarmist documents like NSC-68 warned of a vast increase in Soviet influence and aggressiveness, Soviet nuclear development simply reinforced the caution that both superpowers were already displaying towards each other. The United States already saw the USSR as an enemy, and the basic principles of containment were already in place. NATO was being formed before the Soviet test and Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe was already a fait accompli. Having sole possession of the bomb hadn't enabled Truman to simply dictate to Stalin, and getting the bomb didn't enable Stalin or his successors to blackmail any of their neighbors or key U.S. allies. It certainly didn't lead any countries to "reorient their political alignment toward Moscow." Nikita Khrushchev's subsequent missile rattling merely strengthened the cohesion of NATO and other U.S.-led alliances, and we now know that much of his bluster was intended to conceal Soviet strategic inferiority. Having a large nuclear arsenal didn't stop the anti-commnist uprisings in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Poland, and didn't allow the Soviet Union to win in Afghanistan. Nor did it prevent the USSR from eventually collapsing entirely.
Did British and French acquisition of nuclear weapons slow their decline as great powers? Not in the slightest. Having the force de frappe may have made De Gaulle feel better about French prestige and having their own deterrent made both states less dependent on America's security umbrella, but it didn't give either state a louder voice in world affairs or win them new influence anywhere. And you might recall that Britain couldn't get Argentina to give back the Falklands by issuing nuclear threats -- even though Argentina had no bomb of its own and no nuclear guarantee -- they had to go retake the islands with conventional forces.
Did China's detonation of a bomb in 1964 suddenly make them a superpower? Hardly. China remained a minor actor on the world stage until it adopted market principles, and its rising global influence is due to three decades of economic growth, not a pile of nukes. And by the way, did getting a bomb enable Mao Zedong--a cruel megalomaniac who launched the disastrous Great Leap Forward in 1957 and the destructive Cultural Revolution in the 1960s -- to start threatening and blackmailing his neighbors? Nope. In fact, China's foreign policy behavior after 1964 was generally quite restrained.
What about Israel? Does Israel's nuclear arsenal allow it to coerce its neighbors or impose its will on Hezbollah or the Palestinians? No. Israel uses its conventional military superiority to try to do these things, not its nuclear arsenal. Indeed, Israel's bomb didn't even prevent Egypt and Syria from attacking it in October 1973, although it did help convince them to limit their aims to regaining the territory they had lost in 1967. It is also worth noting that Israel's nuclear program did not trigger a rapid arms race either. Although states like Iraq and Libya did establish their own WMD programs after Israel got the bomb, none of their nuclear efforts moved very rapidly or made it across the finish line.
But wait, there's more. The white government in South Africa eventually produced a handful of bombs, but nobody noticed and apartheid ended anyway. Then the new government gave up its nuclear arsenal to much acclaim. If anything, South Africa was more secure without an arsenal than it was before.
What about India and Pakistan? India's "peaceful nuclear explosion" in 1974 didn't turn it into a global superpower, and its only real effect was to spur Pakistan -- which was already an avowed rival -- to get one too. And it's worth noting that there hasn't been a large-scale war between the two countries since, despite considerable grievances on both sides and occasional skirmishes and other provocations.
Finally, North Korea is as annoying and weird as it has always been, but getting nuclear weapons didn't transform it from an economic basket case into a mighty regional power and didn't make it more inclined to misbehave. In fact, what is most remarkable about North Korea's nuclear program is how little impact it has had on its neighbors. States like Japan and South Korea could go nuclear very quickly if they wanted to, but neither has done so in the six years since North Korea's first nuclear test.
In short, both theory and history teach us that getting a nuclear weapon has less impact on a country's power and influence than many believe, and the slow spread of nuclear weapons has only modest effects on global and regional politics. Nuclear weapons are good for deterring direct attacks on one's homeland, and they induce greater caution in the minds of national leaders of all kinds. What they don't do is turn weak states into great powers, they are useless as tools of blackmail, and they cost a lot of money. They also lead other states to worry more about one's intentions and to band together for self-protection. For these reasons, most potential nuclear states have concluded that getting the bomb isn't worth it.
But a few states-and usually those who are worried about being attacked-decide to go ahead. The good news is that when they do, it has remarkably little impact on world affairs.
For some strange reason, however, the U.S. national security community seems to think that both logic and all this prior history does not apply to Iran. They forget that similarly dire warnings were uttered before many of these others states got the bomb, yet none of these fearsome forecasts took place. Ironically, by repeatedly offering doom-and-gloom scenarios about the vast geopolitical consequences of an Iranian bomb, they may be strengthening the hands of Iranian hardliners who might be interested in actually obtaining a working weapon. After all, if getting a bomb would give Iran all the influence that Kissinger and others fear, why wouldn't Tehran want one?
In fact, the smart way to discourage Iran from going nuclear is both to take the threat of force off the table (thereby reducing Iran's perceived need for a deterrent) and to make it clear that getting a bomb won't bring Iran big strategic benefits and won't affect global or regional politics very much if at all. And in this case, the smart strategy has the additional merit of being true.
If you read this blog, you've probably heard about the various "isms" in the field of international relations. There's realism, of course, but also liberalism, idealism, and social constructivism. And don't forget Marxism, even though hardly anybody claims to believe it anymore. These "isms" are essentially families of theory that share certain common assumptions. For example, realists see power and fear as the main drivers of world affairs, while liberals place more weight on human acquisitiveness and the power of institutions.
But there's another major force in world affairs, and sometimes I think it deserves an "ism" all its own. With tongue in cheek and apologies to a famous Chinese sage, I'll call it "Confusionism." For Confusians, ignorance and stupidity are the real key to understanding state behavior, not fear, greed, ideals, class interests, or any of those other things that people think drive world affairs. When Confusians seek to explain why states act as they do, they start by assuming that leaders do not understand the problems they face, have only a vague sense of where they want to go, and no idea at all about how to get there. Instead of starting with the rational actor assumption beloved by economists, realists, and most liberals, Confusians hone in on all the reasons why humans typically get things wrong.
Confusionism is the opposite of the assorted conspiracy theories that you often read about. Some people believe that the world is run by a shadowy network of elites (e.g., the Trilateral Commission, Bilderberg, Council on Foreign Relations, etc.). Other people think everything is ultimately the product of some secret Zionist conspiracy, or the machinations of oil companies and the military-industrial complex. Islamophobes are convinced there is some sort of well-oiled Muslim plot to infiltrate Europe and America, impose Sharia law, and stick all our young women in harems. If you read enough Robert Ludlum, watch The Matrix too often, or spend enough time patrolling the nether regions of the blogosphere, you might find yourself thinking along similar lines. If that happens, get help.
These warped world-views all assume that there are some Very Clever People out there who are busy implementing some brilliant long-term scheme for their own selfish benefit. But if you've actually met a few real politicians, run a small business, or merely tried to get a dozen family members to a wedding on time, then you know this is not how the world really works.
Which is where Confusionism comes in. It begins by recognizing the limits of human reason, as well as the inherent uncertainties and accidents that accompany all human endeavors. Because men and women are fallible and because our knowledge is imperfect, screw-ups are inevitable. Why do you think the first two letters in the acronym SNAFU stand for "situation normal?" Clausewitz taught us "in warfare everything is simple, but the simplest things are very difficult," but his insight was not limited to the battlefield. Leaders rarely have accurate information, they are usually guessing about the results of different choices, and even well-formulated plans often go wrong for no good reason. For Confusians, world leaders aren't Megaminds implementing fiendishly subtle stratagems; they are mostly well-meaning ignoramuses stumbling around in the dark. Just like the rest of us.
Evidence that supports Confusionism is easy to find. What explains George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003? Simple: he was deeply confused, and so were the people advising him. How are we to understand Mao Zedong's disastrous decision to launch the Great Leap Forward? Easy: his head was full of goofy ideas, he had no idea what he was doing, and he didn't realize how badly he'd blundered until millions had starved. The Russo-Georgian War of 2007? Clearly the product of rampant confusion on both sides. The Euro crisis? Isn't it obvious that the people who created the Euro were confused about the feasibility of a common currency that lacked the institutional framework to sustain it in hard times.
Confusionism doesn't explain every case, of course. There are times when countries identify clear interests, devise effective strategies for achieving them, and implement those strategies more-or-less as intended. Realism is right to emphasize the importance of insecurity and fear, liberalism is sometimes correct in pointing to institutional arrangements that can facilitate cooperation, and social constructivists have a point when they argue that norms and identities also affect state behavior. But we shouldn't forget the important role of human folly, which is where Confusionism shines.
When will Confusians see things more clearly than others? Watch out for the following deadly warning signs:
1. New circumstances. When leaders are facing a completely new set of problems, it will take them awhile to figure out what it all means. Until then, confusion will reign. It took a decade or more before Americans and Soviets understood the full implications of the nuclear revolution, and even then a lot of idiotic things were published and uttered on that topic for decades afterward. And because both sides were deeply confused about how deterrence worked, they spent trillions building well over 60,000 thermonuclear weapons, more than enough to destroy each other many times over.
2. Unfamiliar environments. It is hardly surprising that the United States has been stumbling its way over the past couple of decades, as we've wrestled with the politics of places that are vastly different from us. We were confused when we sallied forth to Afghanistan, Iraq, and a handful of other places, and no country as ignorant of world history and as linguistically-challenged as America is likely to sort these places out. It's the downside of American exceptionalism: if we're as unique as we like to think we are, then the rest of the world is very different and is bound to confuse us. A lot.
3. Overflowing in-boxes. Policymakers are bound to be confused when they are constantly rushing to put out today's new bonfire and don't have time to think about what they are doing or saying. (This is what got Susan Rice into hot water, right?) Confusionism helps you understand why ambitious great powers get into trouble: they are always trying to do too many things in too many places, and that inevitably leaves them operating with a flawed understanding of most of the problems with which they are contending. Getting involved everywhere also makes you a prisoner of the locals on whom you have to rely for advice, and they'll work 24/7 to convince you to do what they want. Needless to say, this is a good way to maximize one's state of confusion.
4. Taboo topics. Nations are more likely to sort out problems when information is readily available and alternative views can be debated freely. It follows they will get confused when secrecy abounds, or when topics become taboo and hard to discuss openly. Small wonder, therefore, that totalitarian societies commit some of the biggest blunders (collectivized agriculture, anyone?), or that governments in open societies get confused whenever they start shielding their actions from public scrutiny and accountability (see under: Gitmo, drone warfare, covert action, etc.).
5. Ideological blinders. Rigid and all-encompassing world-views are a fertile source of confusion. A simple set of dogmas can provide great psychological comfort to believers, but they invariably clash with reality and thus provide a poor foundation for policymaking (or for running a national election, as today's GOP seems determined to prove). Whenever you hear anyone offering up universal and unquestioned truths about politics or society, your Confusion-detector should start pinging and you should hope that they never get close to power.
6. Success. Paradoxically, states can be more vulnerable to confusion after victory, because it often fosters over-confidence. "Victory disease" is a familiar wartime phenomenon, as a string of successes increases the appetite and encourages leaders to believe they can do no wrong. And once leaders stop thinking with their heads and start operating with their hearts and hopes alone, they are bound to stumble.
More seriously, I don't really think Confusionism will become a school of thought in IR, and there is already a pretty extensive literature on the closely related phenomenon of misperception. But the label reminds us when we are puzzled by what national leaders do, an obvious explanation is that they are just as confused as we are. And sometimes more so.
In The Origins of Alliances (1987), I wrote:
"...the domestic situation of the United States may be more important than anything else. External events impinge on U.S. power; internal conditions generate it. Losses abroad will add up slowly (if at all) and will be compensated by balancing behavior by allies and by the United States itself. Thus a final prescription is to avoid policies that jeopardize the health of the U.S. economy. It is far more important to maintain a robust and productive economic system than it is to correct some minor weaknesses in defense capability or to control the outcome of some insignificant clash in the developing world." (p. 284)
I wrote those lines before the Cold War ended; they are even more true today. I thought of them as I read Edward Luce's perceptive discussion of America's deteriorating infrastructure in yesterday's Financial Times. Money paragraph:
"...most Americans are unaware of how far behind the rest of the world their country has fallen. According to the World Economic Forum's competitiveness report, U.S. infrastructure ranks below 20th in most of the nine categories, and below 30 for quality of air transport and electricity supply. The U.S. gave birth to the internet -- the kind of decentralized network that the U.S. power grid desperately needs. Yet according to the OECD club of mostly rich nations, average U.S. internet speeds are barely a 10th of those in countries such as South Korea and Germany. In an age where the global IT superhighway is no longer a slogan, this is no joke."
Why aren't Americans more concerned about their eroding infrastructure? Luce argues we've just adapted to delays, discomfort, and inefficiencies, much as the fabled frog supposedly doesn't recognize it is being boiled to death if the temperature in the pot rises slowly. But I'd argue there are a number of other forces at work.
The first is militarized patriotism: It's easier to get Americans to cheer when a B-2 or the Blue Angels does a flyover above a football game than it is to get them to take pride in a truly modern flight tracking system that would streamline commercial air travel. Similarly, it is easier to scare taxpayers by inflating foreign threats than it is to get them to put money into roads, bridges and other safety features that would reduce U.S. highway fatalities. We all know that nearly 3000 people died on September 11, 2001, but we never notice the deaths that might have been avoided if we had better hospitals, highways, and a more productive economy that kept fewer people in poverty.
Combine the hyping of foreign dangers with America's liberal idealism, and you get a country that will pour a trillion or more dollars into Iraq and Afghanistan, send special forces and drones into countries of little or no strategic value, and spend more time worrying about who's going to run Syria than it does worrying about conditions here at home.
Second, and following from the first, infrastructure improvements don't enjoy the support of large and well-organized lobbies constantly beating the drum for keeping our infrastructure in good working order. Such groups aren't non-existent, but their political power pales in comparison with other groups who are constantly thrusting their hands into the public till.
And then there's the time lag: Building road, bridges, internet capacity, air traffic control, a robust power grid, and protections against climate change/rising sea levels will be expensive and take years to complete. Equally important, the benefits accrue far into the future, long after today's politicians are gone. It takes foresight and a powerful sense of civic duty to invest in things that will mostly benefit future generations, which is why today's politicians are more likely to pander to today's voters and to well-heeled interest groups, instead of helping the country as a whole prepare for the future.
Lastly, as Luce notes, the GOP is no longer interested in federally-funded and managed programs for building national infrastructure, and their long campaign to convince Americans that government is always the problem and never the solution has undermined public support for a major campaign to rebuild the sinews of the U.S. economy. Their skepticism doesn't apply to military spending, however, even though it is hardly a model of efficiency (see my first point above).
This is not an argument for gutting defense, by the way; but cutting defense is clearly implied. More to the point, it is an argument for not squandering lots of money elsewhere when there are obvious needs here at home. And let's not forget that building infrastructure is actually something we know how to do, unlike the various costly projects of "nation-building" we've taken on elsewhere.
So here's a basic strategic principle that we've largely forgotten over the past seventy years, but which would serve us well today: Let's first make sure our leaders have done all we can to improve the lives of Americans -- you know, the citizens who work and pay taxes to support the government -- before they take on various international projects whose primary purpose is to benefit someone else. The United States shouldn't retreat into isolationism, of course, and it would still do things abroad that contributed directly and significantly to making Americans safer and more prosperous. Such actions would include support for an open world economy, maintaining "command of the commons," and helping maintain balances of power in key regions (but not trying to do it all ourselves).
Most importantly, we would not take on the various philanthropic projects embraced by neoconservative hawks, liberal imperialists, and other apostles of American "greatness" until we had addressed all of the obvious problems we are facing here at home. Let's first make that "shining city" really gleam, and then worry about which thugs are running Syria, or which politicians are fleecing depositors in Kabul.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
A frequent topic here has been America's position in the world and its future prospects. Today, my colleague Ali Wyne weighs in with his own upbeat take on why Americans should be fairly optimistic heading into 2013:
Ali Wyne writes:
With just over a month to go before New Year’s Day, Americans are divided. Following President Obama’s reelection on November 6th, USA Today that a “changing U.S. electorate split in two Tuesday -- not only along lines of political party and ideology but also by race and ethnicity, gender and marital status, region and religion, education and age. The divisions are even sharper than they were four years ago.” A Gallup poll taken shortly after the election found that while 94 percent of Democrats think that the United States will be better off four years from now (vs. just 4 percent who think that it will be worse off), only 11 percent of Republicans think so (86 percent think that it will be worse off). Some who belong to the 86 percent appear to be not just dispirited, but appalled: notable reactions include “America died,” “[w]hat happened on Nov. 6th was suicide by voter,” and “on November 6, 2012, America elected to end modern civilization.”
But leaving aside the partisan divides that are inevitably highlighted in the run-up to and aftermath of an election, Americans on the whole appear to be more pessimistic than usual about their country’s domestic condition and global role. to a mid-2012 poll by the Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, for example, 66 percent think that the U.S. economy is on the wrong track, and 63 percent think that the United States is heading in the wrong direction. Furthermore, several polls indicate that Americans regard the United States as a declining power. I cited some of them in an article for Zócalo Public Square this April, and corroborating ones have been conducted since then. According to a mid-2012 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, only 24 percent of Americans think that the United States “plays a more important and powerful role” “as a world leader” today than it did ten years ago; 43 percent think that its role is “less important and powerful.” In 2002, those figures were, respectively, 55 percent and 17 percent. Furthermore, whereas Americans judged the United States to be considerably more influential than China a decade earlier (9.1 vs. 6.8 on a ten-point scale), they predict that the two countries’ influence will essentially be equal ten years hence (8.1 vs. 7.8).
Despite feeling the blues, Americans of all stripes can still find reasons to give thanks as they celebrate the holidays and look forward to 2013.
First, the United States has endured far more trying times, dating back to its inception. As historians including David McCullough and John Ferling have documented, America’s victory in its war of independence was far from certain; in fact, in his farewell address to the Continental army in 1783, George Washington himself called it “little short of a standing miracle.” Furthermore, the United States bounced back -- indeed, emerged stronger -- after many events that may well have been judged fatal to its prospects for global leadership by the standards of some contemporary declinists: the Civil War, World War I, and the Great Depression come to mind readily.
Second, America’s economic picture is not entirely bleak. True, four years after Lehman Brothers’ collapse, unemployment continues to hover around 8 percent, and growth continues to sputter along at less than 1.5 percent per year. More alarming, the debt is over $16 trillion and growing rapidly. On the other side of the ledger, however, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) -- at $14.83 trillion -- accounted for a little over one-fifth of gross world product (GWP) last year. As of the second quarter of this year, 62 percent of the world’s allocated foreign-exchange reserves were dollar-denominated. According to QS, 31 of the world’s top 100 universities are in the United States; furthermore, the Institute for International Education found that there were a record 764,495 international students at U.S. colleges and universities in the 2011-12 academic year, marking the sixth consecutive year that that figure has increased.
Looking forward, there are reasons to be upbeat, even bullish, about the U.S. economy. Its demographic outlook, for example, continues to be favorable; thus, it is expected to remain the world’s third most populous country in 2050, after India and China. Furthermore, rapidly growing indigenous supplies of tight oil and shale gas could enable the United States to reduce its dependence on foreign energy and potentially even create new bases of employment in its energy sector; according to the International Energy Agency, it could become “all but [energy] self-sufficient in net terms by 2035” and become “a net oil exporter by around 2030.” Further down the pike, breakthroughs in a host of fields -- ranging from digital fabrication to “big data” -- could inject new dynamism into the U.S. economy; citing its recent strides in telecommunications and energy, John Gapper observes that despite its “economic problems” and “worries about its comparative decline,” the United States is using its “amazing, enduring capacity to reinvent itself through technology.” The existence of such opportunities -- in demographics, energy, and innovation -- does not, of course, entail the promise of their realization; it does, however, suggest that the current unemployment-growth-debt triad need not become a “new normal.”
Third, America’s relative decline is not as concerning as it might appear at first glance. It largely stems, after all, from actions that it has taken (many of which it can avoid repeating, such as conducting another large-scale ground war), actions that it has not taken (many of which it can still take, such as reaching a budget deal along the lines of what the Simpson-Bowles commission and numerous other task forces have proposed), and the growth of other countries (a phenomenon that benefits the United States, as Europe and Asia’s postwar recoveries benefited it over a half century earlier). Relative decline, furthermore, does not nullify its mixture of hard and soft assets. The United States remains the only country that can project military power globally. Less discussed, it continues to underpin -- albeit under growing duress -- a liberal international order. While the rules and arrangements that form that system are evolving, the system itself does not yet face a coherent alternative -- in part because many countries that bristle at its reach nonetheless continue to benefit from it. China, America’s putative superpower replacement, is perhaps the most compelling example. It welcomes U.S. decline, but wants that phenomenon to occur gradually, not rapidly. In the interim, in fact, as its dependence on Middle Eastern oil grows, it will likely become more dependent on stable and open global commons, which U.S. military power plays an important role in preserving.
If one believes that the United States was once able to dominate the course of international affairs, and evaluates its role in the world according to its ability to continue doing so, then it has indeed been declining -- absolutely and precipitously. In reality, while shocks (such as the global financial crisis) and surprises (such as the “Arab Spring”) may play a growing role in determining U.S. foreign policy, the United States has never been able to exercise hegemony. Even after World War II, despite accounting for over a third of GWP and having “an overwhelming preponderance in nuclear weapons,” Joseph Nye observes that it “was unable to prevent the ‘loss’ of China, ‘roll back’ communism in Eastern Europe, prevent stalemate in the Korean War, defeat Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, or dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba.”
There is no question that the Obama administration will confront a daunting foreign-policy inbox come January 20, 2013, arguably one of unprecedented complexity: a partial inventory of its imperatives would include stabilizing America’s relationship with China, whose GDP is likely to be the world’s largest within the decade, and whose defense spending could conceivably be the world’s largest before the middle of the century; helping the European Union stay afloat; responding to the changing strategic contours of the Middle East and North Africa; and reinforcing the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It would be simplistic, however, to adduce difficulty in dealing with a challenging world as evidence that the United States is a declining, even impotent, actor. As Stephen Walt argues,
[i]f all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy….[Americans should] be grateful for the country’s good fortune….most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary…That’s another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do.
If overestimating one’s influence and minimizing the urgency of one’s challenges can sow hubris, underestimating the former and minimizing one’s ability to respond to the latter can produce distress. Rather than fretting over the prospect of decline, Americans should strategize about how their country can adjust to the power shifts that are afoot -- and be thankful that the United States is better equipped than most to do so.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.