I think I have finally figured out the essence of Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy. In a word, he is a "buck-passer." And despite my objections to some of what he is done, I think this approach reveals both a sound grasp of realpolitik and an appreciation of America's highly favorable geopolitical position.
In particular, the bedrock foundation of Obama's foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure. That statement doesn't mean we have no interests elsewhere, but none of them are truly imminent or vital and thus they don't require overzealous, precipitous, or heroic responses. There's no peer competitor out there (yet) and apart from the very small risk of nuclear terrorism, there's hardly anything that could happen anywhere in the world that would put U.S. territory or U.S. citizens at serious risk. We will inevitably face occasional tragedies like the recent Boston bombing, but the actual risk that such dangers pose is far less than many other problems (traffic fatalities, industrial accidents, hurricanes, etc.), no matter how much they get hyped by the terror industry and our over-caffeinated media.
Instead, the greatest risk we face as a nation are self-inflicted wounds like the Iraq and Afghan wars or the long-term decline arising from a failue to invest wisely here at home. Recognizing these realities, Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected. Unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists scorn this approach, because they never lose their enthusiasm for new and costly crusades, but most Americans don't seem to mind. Why? Because they recognize what the foreign policy establishment can't admit: What happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn't matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won't make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force).
After being burned by the Afghan surge (a decision I'll bet he secretly regrets) Obama has become more and more of a buck-passer with the passage of time. He's not an isolationist or even someone who favors drastic retrenchment; he's just the first president in a long while who understands that the United States is already remarkably secure and just doesn't have that much to gain by interfering in the world's trouble spots. He's even smart enough to recognize that having thousands of nuclear weapons isn't necessary for the U.S. to be safe and that we might actually be safer if the number of nukes around the world were lower and better guarded. As a result, he's happy to let local partners bear the main burden and to back them up as necessary.
The exception to the above, which still supports my main point, is his reliance on targeted assasinations of suspected terrorists. This policy is in fact consistent with Obama's basic approach, because the short-term costs are small and it insulates him against any charge of pacifism. Moreover, to the extent that nuclear terrorism is the one scenario where U.S. security could be seriously affected, keeping a full-court press on Al Qaeda (or like-minded groups) is undoubtedly tempting.
I have my doubts about the net benefits of the drone war and targeted assassination program, but the rest of Obama's approach makes eminently good sense to me. Indeed, I wish he could give one of his trademark speeches explaining this logic to the American people. He probably can't, alas, because this sort of realism cuts against the rhetoric of "global leadership" that has been part of the Establishment echo-chamber for decades, not to mention the self-conceit of American exceptionalists. So Obama will continue to sound like his predecessors when he talks about America's global role; he just won't do most of the foolish things that most of them would have. Good for him, and for us.
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I've made this point before -- here and here -- and I suspect I'll have to make it again. But whatever you think of the outcome of yesterday's Super Bowl, the unexpected second half power outage was a small blow against U.S. power and influence.
Why? Because one of the reasons states are willing to follow the U.S. lead is their belief that we are competent: that we know what we are doing, have good judgment, and aren't going to screw up. When the power goes out in such a visible and embarrassing fashion, and in a country that still regards itself as technologically sophisticated, the rest of the world is entitled to nod and say: "Hmmm ... maybe those Americans aren't so skillful after all."
Or maybe we've just spent too much money building airbases in far-flung corners of the world, and not enough on infrastructure -- like power grids -- here at home.
P.S. The other lesson of the Super Bowl is that strategy matters. As in: the abysmal play-calling by the 49ers when they had first-and-goal inside the ten yard line, trailing by less than a touchdown. Four dumb plays, and the Ravens were champs. Sigh.
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If you'd like to start 2013 by sinking your teeth into the debate on U.S. grand strategy, I recommend you start with two pieces in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Both are by good friends of mine, and together they nicely limn the contours of a useful debate on America's global role. It's also worth noting that there are realists on both sides of this particular exchange, which reminds us that agreement on fundamental principles doesn't necessarily yield agreement on policy conclusions.
The first piece is Barry Posen's "Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy," and the second is Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth's "Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement." (A longer version of the B, I & W argument can be found in the latest issue of International Security; Posen's argument is outlined at length in a forthcoming book.)
Dedicated readers of this blog know that I am largely in agreement with Posen's position, so I'm going to focus today on what I find lacking in B, I & W. Like all of their work, it's vigorously argued and the longer version is richly documented. But all those footnotes cannot save it from some serious weaknesses.
First, B, I, & W straw-man their target by lumping together a group of strategic thinkers whose differences are at least as significant as their points of agreement. The "proponents of retrenchment" that they criticize range from libertarian isolationists who want to bring virtually all US forces home to "offshore balancers" like Posen who support a robust but less extravagant defense budget and favor not isolationism but merely more limited forms of international engagement. Needless to say, there is a world of difference in these views (even if both are broadly in favor of doing less), and so many of B, I & W's broad-brush charges miss their mark.
Second, there is something deeply puzzling about B, I & W's devotion to what Ikenberry used to called "liberal hegemony," and what he and his co-authors now prefer to call "deep engagement." B, I & W argue that deep engagement has been America's grand strategy since World War II and they believe it was the optimal strategy for the bipolar Cold War, when the United States faced a global threat from a major great-power rival. Not only was the USSR a formidable military power, but it was also an ideological rival whose Marxist-Leninist principles once commanded millions of loyal followers around the world.
Here's the puzzle: the Soviet Union disappeared in 1992, and no rival of equal capacity has yet emerged. Yet somehow "deep engagement" is still the optimal strategy in these radically different geopolitical circumstances. It's possible that U.S. leaders in the late 1940s hit on the ideal grand strategy for any and all structural conditions, but it is surely odd that an event as significant as the Soviet collapse can have so few implications for how America deals with the other 190-plus countries around the globe.
Third, B, I, & W give "deep engagement" full credit for nearly all the good things that have occurred internationally since 1945 (great power peace, globalization, non-proliferation, expansion of trade, etc.), even though the direct connection between the strategy and these developments remains contested. More importantly, they absolve the strategy from most if not all of the negative developments that also took place during this period. They recognize the events like the Indochina War and the 2003 war in Iraq were costly blunders, but they regard them as deviations from "deep engagement" rather than as a likely consequence of a strategy that sees the entire world as of critical importance and the remaking of other societies along liberal lines as highly desirable if not strategically essential.
The problem, of course, is that U.S. leaders can only sell deep engagement by convincing Americans that the nation's security will be fatally compromised if they do not get busy managing the entire globe. Because the United States is in fact quite secure from direct attack and/or conquest, the only way to do that is by ceaseless threat-mongering, as has been done in the United States ever since the Truman Doctrine, the first Committee on the Present Danger and the alarmist rhetoric of NSC-68. Unfortunately, threat-mongering requires people in the national security establishment to exaggerate U.S. interests more-or-less constantly and to conjure up half-baked ideas like the domino theory to keep people nervous. And once a country has talked itself into a properly paranoid frame of mind, it inevitably stumbles into various quagmires, as the United States did in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Again, such debacles are not deviations from "deep engagement"; they are a nearly inevitable consequence of it.
Fourth, B, I, & W largely ignore the issue of opportunity cost. Advocates of restraint like Posen (and myself) are not saying that the United States cannot afford to intervene in lots of overseas venues, they are saying that the United States would be better off with a smaller set of commitments and a more equitable division of labor between itself and its principal allies. If the United States were not spending more than more of the world combined on "deep engagement," it could invest more in infrastructure here at home, lower taxes, balance budgets more easily, provide more generous health or welfare benefits, or do whatever combination of the above the public embraced.
Fifth, B, I, & W argue that deep engagement works because hardly anybody is actively trying to balance American power. In their view, most of the world likes this strategy, and is eager for Washington to continue along the same path. On the one hand, this isn't that surprising: why shouldn't NATO countries or Japan prefer a world where they can spend 1-2% of GDP on defense while Uncle Sucker shoulders the main burden? More importantly, advocates of restraint believe doing somewhat less would encourage present allies to bear a fairer share of the burden, and also discourage some of them from adventurist behavior encouraged by excessive confidence in U.S. protection (which Posen terms "reckless driving"). If the U.S. played hard-to-get on occasion, it would discover that some of its allies would do more both to secure their own interests and to remain eligible for future U.S. help. Instead of bending over backwards to convince the rest of the world that the United States is 100 percent reliable, U.S. leaders should be encouraging other states to bend over backwards to convince us that they are worth supporting.
Moreover, even if most of the world isn't balancing U.S. power, the parts that are remain troublesome. For instance, "deep engagement" in the Middle East has produced some pretty vigorous balancing behavior, in the form of Iraq and Iran's nuclear programs, Tehran's support for groups such as Hezbollah, and the virulent anti-Americanism of Al Qaeda. Indeed, the more deeply engaged we became in the region (especially with the onset of "dual containment" following the first Gulf War), the more local resistance we faced. Ditto our "deep engagement" in Iraq and Afghanistan. And given that those two wars may have cost upwards of $3 trillion, it seems clear that at least a few people have "balanced" against the United States with a certain amount of success.
Sixth, reading B, I, & W, one would hardly know that the nuclear revolution had even occurred. Nuclear weapons are not very useful as instruments of coercion, but they do make their possessors largely unconquerable and thus reduce overall security requirements considerably. Because the United States has a second-strike capability sufficient to devastate any country foolish enough to attack us, the core security of the United States is not in serious question. The presence of nuclear weapons in the hands of eight other countries also makes a conventional great power war like World War I or World War II exceedingly unlikely. Yet despite this fundamental shift in the global strategic environment, B, I & W believe the United States must remain "deeply engaged" in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in order to prevent a replay of the first half of the 20th century.
To repeat: most of the strategists who reject "deep engagement/liberal hegemony" do not call for isolationism, a retreat to Fortress America, or a slash-and-burn approach to defense spending. On the contrary: they favor continued U.S. engagement, albeit in a more restrained, highly selective, and strategically sustainable way. They believe the United States should seek to maintain favorable balances of power in key regions, but that it does not need to provide all the military muscle itself and certainly should not try to dictate or control the political evolution of these areas with military force. They believe this approach would preserve core U.S. interests at an acceptable cost, and would be far better suited to the current distribution of global power.
"Deep engagement" might have been a good strategy for the Cold War, though even that proposition is debatable. But as you may have noticed, the Cold War is now over. Isn't it about time that U.S. grand strategy caught up with that fact?
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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.
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A recurring theme in this year's presidential election is (fear of) American decline, with both candidates seeking to convince voters that they will reverse recent trends and foster an American resurgence. President Obama portrays himself as having repaired some of the self-inflicted wounds imparted by the Bush administration, and he pledges to do still more if reelected. For his part, challenger Mitt Romney promises voters that electing him will ensure that the next 88 years will be an "American Century" just like the last one. Both pitches seek to exploit the lingering fear that America's best days are behind us.
This is hardly a new concern. Americans seem to have been fretting about losing their mojo ever since World War II. We worried that communism was on the march in the 1950s, saw Sputnik as a grave challenge in the 1950s, and feared becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant" (to use Richard Nixon's phrase) in the 1970s. During the 1980s, Americans grew anxious about "Japan as #1" and thought we might succumb to "imperial overstretch" that same way Britain had. There was a brief burst of triumphalism following the collapse of the USSR, but it barely lasted a decade. Since 2000, the combination of 9/11, the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lingering effects of the financial collapse have reanimated the perennial fear that we are in an irreversible descent.
How seriously should we take this issue? Let's start by acknowledging that measuring the power of different countries is a very imprecise business, even among professional IR scholars. We don't have a clear consensus on how to define or measure national power, so we end up using various crude approximations like GNP or more complicated indices that combine GNP, population, military strength, technological capacity, etc. But such measures ignore geography, "soft power," national cohesion, quality of life, etc., and all the other intangibles that can help states to secure their interests and provide both safety and prosperity for their citizens.
Matters get even more complicated when we shift from power to "influence." Power is most usefully conceived as capability -- no matter how it is measured -- and stronger states can generally do more things and affect others more than weaker states can. But having a lot of power doesn't translate directly into influence, which is the capacity to get others to do what you want. Sometimes very powerful states can't convince weaker states to do their bidding, because the weaker powers care more about the issue in question and are willing to make greater sacrifices to get their way. And sometimes even very powerful states lack the capacity to dictate or shape events because the tools they have available aren't up to the task. Having a lot of power doesn't enable a country to defy the laws of physics, for example, or guarantee that it can successfully engage in large-scale social engineering in a distant foreign land. Among other things, this is why it is pretty silly to criticize the Obama administration for failing to "control" the Arab spring, as if any U.S. president has the capacity to control a vast and fast-moving social upheaval involving hundreds of millions of people.)
When we think about power, there's an inevitable tendency to look at trends over time. The question we tend to ask is whether Country X is getting stronger or weaker. Here in America, this approach is usually accompanied by a nostalgic yearning for some by-gone era where the United States was supposedly near-supreme and could do whatever it wanted. Leaving aside the obvious point that things were never really like this, the history of the past century does tend to make Americans more worried than they ought to be.
Why? Because there have in fact been a couple of historical moments when a combination of good fortune and skillful policy put the United States in a highly unusual position of primacy. The United States produced about 50 percent of gross world product in 1945 and had unmatched military power, mostly because the other major economies were mostly in ruins. This was a decidedly unnatural condition, however, and there was nowhere to go but down once the rest of the world recovered from the war. Similarly, the breakup of the USSR and the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in the early 1990s briefly put the U.S. back on top by a significant margin, and all the more so because other potentially powerful countries (e.g., Japan and the EU) had been free-riding on the US and were punching below their weight.
The point is that relative decline from these two lofty perches was essentially unavoidable, and especially because some less-developed countries like China, India, or Brazil were ideally positioned for rapid growth after 1990. America's relative decline was accelerated by Bush's blunders and the financial crisis, but it would have happened anyway regardless of who had been in the Oval office.
There is another way to think about America's power position, and it ought to give comfort to those who worry that the country is slowly sliding into a position of vulnerability. Just compare the U.S. to other countries today, and ask yourself which states are in the best position to defend their true vital interests (as opposed to all those optional objectives that great powers habitually take on). Which states are masters of their own fates to a considerable extent, instead of having to worry constantly that others might threaten their independence or territorial integrity? Put differently: If you were going to be put in charge of any country's foreign policy, which country would you pick?
From this perspective things still look pretty good for the United States. It still has the world's largest and most diverse economy, and its per capita income is much higher than China's, which means there is more wealth available to mobilize for shared national purposes. It has no serious enemies nearby. It has thousands of nuclear weapons, which means that no state could attack us directly without risking its own destruction. U.S. conventional military forces are far larger than needed to defend American soil, and that remarkable level of territorial security allows U.S. leaders to take on lots of discretionary projects in places like Afghanistan or Yemen or the Phillipines or Africa or Colombia or Libya and to have endless debates about whether we ought to be taking on even more.
The U.S. economy isn't doing great, of course, but it is performing better than most of the other industrial powers. And despite the current level of partisan rancor and a level of government dysfunction that ought to embarrass us all, there's virtually no risk of major political upheaval here.
If 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. The main reason American foreign policy looks difficult is because Washington keeps taking on really difficult objectives, like occupying Iraq, trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style state, attempting to coerce Iran into giving up all nuclear enrichment in exchange for precisely nothing from us. And that's just for starters. No matter how strong you are, you can make your job more difficult if you consistently try to do things that are both very, very hard and not necessarily all that important.
Now consider how the world looks to some other countries. If you were a member of China's leadership, you'd be deeply fearful of an economic slowdown that might trigger a major challenge to communist party rule. You have border disputes with many of your neighbors (some of them close allies of the mighty United States), and there's a least some risk that some of them might turn hot. You're dependent on trade that flows through a variety of maritime choke points. You have more power and more influence than your Maoist predecessors did, but you don't have any powerful allies and you don't have an attractive ideological model to offer the rest of the world. From a geopolitical perspective, you'd be thrilled to switch places with the United States, which has no serious rivals, no border disputes with anyone, and still has lots of allies around the world.
And if you were Japanese, Spanish, Iraqi, Iranian, Bahraini, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian, Vietnamese, or Indian, you'd have even more to fret about. So the next time you hear someone bemoaning American "decline," tell them to get a grip and be grateful for the country's good fortune. And while you're at it, remind them that most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary: They result from projects we've chosen to take on rather than ones that have been forced upon us by necessity. That's another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do (though it seems to be mostly the former).
In short, Bismarck may have been right when he said God had a "special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States." Which is not to say we can't make it harder for Him.
There are two must-read articles in today's press: Pankaj Mishra's "America's Inevitable Retreat from the Middle East" in the New York Times, and Edward Luce's cautionary "An American recovery? Don't believe the hype" in the Financial Times.
Mishra does an excellent job of tracing why U.S. involvement in the Middle East is likely to decline in the years ahead. Not only has the United States pursued policies that have alienated most of the people in this region, but it can no longer count on compliant dictators and monarchs to do our bidding. Instead, governments of all types are going to be more sensitive to popular sentiment, which bodes ill for U.S. efforts to shape the region's future.
But is this a bad thing? The problems that the Middle East is going to face in the years ahead -- social unrest, youth unemployment, contentious domestic politics, poorly developed institutions, etc. -- are by their very nature difficult for outsiders to fix. In fact, as we've learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, extensive and direct efforts to mold the politics of millions of people whose traditions differ from ours are likely to fail, and especially when most of the people are angry about our past policies. And as you've probably noticed, even our more well-intentioned failures tend to be very expensive. Luce's slightly gloomy prognosis just reinforces this point: A sluggish U.S. recovery will inevitably limit what the United States can do, and if we keep wasting lives and money on fool's errands, recovery will be delayed even more.
One should not overstate these trends, of course. Richard Nixon used to complain that the United States was becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant," which was wrong then and is wrong today. The United States is going to be the world's most powerful country for quite some time to come; it just won't have the same sort of influence it once enjoyed. The real question is how it will adjust to a slightly more modest role, and what strategies it will adopt going forward. To respond intelligently, the United States will have to overcome the psychological barrier of a somewhat reduced role, and to figure out how to take advantage of America's enduring strengths instead of constantly doing things that undermine them.
And that brings me to my main complaint with Mishra's article: his use of the word "retreat." If Americans view a reduced role as a "retreat" -- with all its defeatist implications -- they will be more likely to face a domestic backlash from neocons and other hardliners shouting "appeasement" and demanding increased defense spending and a renewed commitment to knocking heads together. Framing this trend as a "retreat," therefore, will delay the necessary adjustments and squander additional resources.
By contrast, if this trend is seen as a farsighted and voluntary adjustment to new conditions and strategic priorities, then the risk of backlash will be reduced and the shift won’t have much if any effect on America’s perceived credibility elsewhere. In this sense, the idea of a strategic "pivot" to Asia was smart rhetoric. We aren't being driven out of the Middle East; we're just choosing to assign resources where they can do us the most good.
More broadly, the key to making these adjustment lies in convincing Americans to think about their global role differently. Instead of harping on our "global responsibilities," Americans ought to focus instead on their national interests. The litmus test of any foreign policy commitment is not what it will do for others, but rather what it will do for us. (Doing both is perfectly ok by me, but first things first).
America's current global posture and its strategic toolbox were developed during the Cold War, when the main challenge was a well-armed and easily identifiable great power adversary. In that environment, it made sense for the United States to secure what George Kennan called the "key centers of industrial power." The U.S. achieved this goal through an active leadership role in NATO, its bilateral treaty relations in Asia, and its various security commitments in the Persian Gulf. The effort that the United States and Soviet Union expended in places like Indochina or Afghanistan was mostly wasted (and at great cost to these societies). Fortunately for us, we had a lot more resources to waste.
Times have changed. The United States may face a new peer competitor in the not-too distant future, but right now most security problems arise from regional rivalries, failng states, and local quagmires. In these circumstances, the main strategic objective should be to stay out of the quicksand. Better still, we could try to stick potential rivals with the burden of trying to solve intractable problems. Passing the buck to others isn't some sort of inglorious retreat; it's actually a smart strategy that will leaves the United States better prepared to deal with more serious challenges when they arise.
The Republican Party is big on leadership these days, and especially fond of demanding that the United States "lead from the front."This was a central theme in of John McCain's recent sally right here at Foreign Policy, as well as Condoleezza Rice's speech at the GOP convention in Tampa. Among other things, it reminds us that the Republican Party's foreign policy gurus aren't very good strategists. (The Bush administration's disastrous handling of foreign policy showed this all too clearly, but it's nice to have a reminder).
In fact, the idea that the United States should always try to "lead" is completely bone-headed."Exerting leadership" is not the central objective of foreign policy; it is a means to an end but not an end in itself. The central purpose of foreign policy is to maximize the nation's security and well-being. If exerting "leadership" contributes to these ends, fine, but there will be many occasions when the smart strategy is to hold back and pass the buck to someone else. Blindly declaring that the United States must always go to enormous lengths to lead, and must constantly strive to reassure allies who need us far more than we need them, is mere jingoistic hubris. It's an applause line, but not a strategy.
The United States would be well-served by a more selective approach to "global leadership." It is not a foreign policy achievement when the United States gets stuck dealing with an intractable quagmire like Afghanistan -- at a cost of a half a trillion dollars and 2,000 lives -- or when it finds itself waging drone wars in half a dozen countries. A real achievement would have been to find a way to shift the burden of this problem onto others, and especially onto the backs of potential U.S. adversaries. We congratulate ourselves on finally tracking down Osama bin Laden, but the real winners over the past decade have been countries like China, which have concentrated on building up power at home while the United States bled itself white in a series of pointless foreign adventures.
Furthermore, America's reflexive urge to be in charge has other negative consequences. It has allowed our most important allies to free-ride for decades, to the point that they are increasingly liabilities rather than assets. NATO's European members spend a mere 1.7 percent on average on defense these days (and that number is going down), and none of these countries can mount a serious military operation anywhere without a lot of American help. Why? Because Uncle Sucker has spent the last 50 years doing it for them. Much the same story is true in Asia, where countries like Japan want lots of American protection but don't want to spend any money defending themselves. Washington ends up with not with allies but with dependents, and we see it as a victory whenever some new country requires our protection.
This demand that the United States constantly "lead from the front" also makes it easier for other states to drag us into their quarrels. Georgia tried to sucker us into its dispute with Russia a few years ago (and if McCain had been in charge, it would have succeeded), and Israel is still trying to get America to bomb Iran on its behalf. Countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are trying to push the United States to confront China over issues like the South China Sea, and everybody seems to think the United States should "do something" about Syria. Perhaps we should, but first you need to explain why doing any of these things will make Americans safer or more prosperous here at home, and then you need to convince me that the countries who have a lot more at stake aren't up to the task. And if some other country wants me to spend American money and risk American lives, they'd better have a lot of skin in the game, too. Finally, if weaker countries want to demand my protection, they'd better be willing to follow my advice on other issues. Otherwise, they're on their own.
Don't get me wrong: in some cases the United States should be actively involved and it should exercise a leadership role. It is still the world's most powerful country, and a return to isolationism would have destabilizing consequences in some areas. But our overall approach to grand strategy should begin by recognizing that the United States is remarkably secure, with no great powers nearby, and most of our current adversaries are much, much weaker. This favorable geopolitical position is an enormous asset; it means that other states tend to worry more about each other than they do about us, and it means many countries will remain eager for U.S. support. Which in turn allows Washington to "play hard to get," and extract lots of concessions from others in exchange for our help. Those who pompously insist that America must always take the lead are throwing this diplomatic asset out the window, and guaranteeing that other states will take advantage of us instead of the other way around. And it should enable us to spend a lot less on national security, thereby easing our budget problems and allowing investments that will ensure our long-term productivity.
It is worth remembering that the United States rose to great-power status by staying out of trouble abroad and by concentrating on building a powerful economy here at home (which is what China is doing today). It also helped that the other great powers bankrupted themselves through several ruinous wars. The United States fought in two of those wars, but we got in late, suffered far fewer losses, and were in a better position to "win the peace" afterwards. The world has changed somewhat since then, and America's global role is and should be more substantial, but there is still a valuable lesson there. But don't expect Romney & Co. to absorb it.
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I enjoy blogging for Foreign Policy, and one of the strengths of this site is that there's clearly no party line. So permit me to take issue with several items recently posted by my FP colleagues.
1. Over the weekend, Oren Kessler had an interesting piece on the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline Jabotinskyite father Benzion, who passed away last week at the age of 102. I don't doubt that the father-son relationship has a lot to do with Bibi's political predilections, but too much emphasis has been placed on the role of the individual here. Specifically, there is a tendency to blame Israeli expansionism and intransigence on the Likud Party, or on Bibi himself, or even on the divided and fractious nature of Israeli coalition politics. If only Israel had a different PM, so the argument runs, we'd see a turn away from settlement expansion and renewed hope for a two-state solution.
This line of thinking ignores the simple fact that settlement expansion has occurred under every Israeli government since 1967: Labor, Likud, Kadima, unity coalitions, etc. And these activities haven't been mere passive acquiescence: Each of these governments actively backed settlement expansion with subsidies, military protection, and expanded infrastructure. It's true that some Israeli leaders have been more open to some sort of two-state deal (Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in particular), but neither leader put a completely acceptable deal on the table and both only got close to doing so when they were lame ducks about to leave office. And both continued to expand settlements while they were supposedly negotiating, which only made attempts to reach a deal harder.
Netanyahu just called for early elections, and he's likely to win a new term. But I'm not sure this development makes much difference, given the obstacles that have already been created to any meaningful form of two-state solution.
2. Dan Drezner has written several smart posts about the "surprising resilience" of Sino-American relations, as demonstrated by how the two governments handled the Chen Guangcheng case. I agree with his assessment of the diplomacy surrounding this particular incident, but I would caution against drawing any long-term conclusions from it. The real issue in Sino-American relations is not how the two governments deal with current bilateral, regional and global issues, but how they will be handled if the balance of power continues to shift. For all the publicity about China's rapid rise, it is still decidedly weaker than the United States is and it has considerable incentive to avoid major tests of strength. What worries realists is not what China might do this year, or even next year, but what a more powerful China might do in the decades ahead.
As I've emphasized before, it is entirely possible that Sino-American relations will continue to be handled in a sensible and mature fashion for many decades to come, if you assume that both sides are led by sensible and mature leaders and never by rabid nationalists, impulsive neoconservatives, or inexperienced officials who like to go with their "gut instincts." But over the longer term, how likely is that?
3. Last week Aaron Miller offered up five "bad ideas" for screwing up the Middle East. Rather than comment on his list (which I did find disappointing), I'll just offer a sixth: consistently placing U.S. Middle East policy in the hands of the same people who've repeatedly failed to achieve peace despite having lots of opportunities, and making reflexive support for the "special relationship" a litmus test for service in the U.S. government.
How many of you know what the phrase "rope-a-dope" means? For those who don't, the phrase describes the strategy that Muhammad Ali used to defeat the heavily favored George Foreman in their heavyweight championship fight in Zaire in 1974, the so-called "Rumble in the Jungle." Foreman had demolished former champ Joe Frazier in two rounds in a previous bout, and most observers expected him to make short work of the older and smaller Ali. But Ali had prepared a clever strategy, and he spent the early rounds of the fight covering up and leaning against the ropes. Foreman landed lots of ineffectual blows, punched himself out, and became exhausted. Ali came off the ropes and knocked Foreman out in the 8th round.
What, you ask, does any of this have to do with international politics? I'll tell you. The "rope-a-dope" is a nice metaphor for an effective strategy for great power competition, somewhat analogous to the strategy of "bait and bleed." During the Cold War, for example, it made good sense for the United States to let the Soviet Union waste blood and treasure trying to win meaningless victories in places like Angola, or Afghanistan. By the same logic, Soviet leaders were smart to let us fight for years in Vietnam. In both cases the outcome of these conflicts didn't really matter very much to the overall balance of power, so letting the opponent punch themselves out trying to win was a clever approach.
Today, one could argue that China (and maybe a few others) are employing the "rope-a-dope" against us. And like poor George Foreman, we are falling for it. We get the honor of pouring money and lives into fruitless state-building projects like the current Afghan war, while China concentrates on building a stronger economy, gradually reforming its political order, and cultivating good working relations with other countries. Remaining bogged down in Central Asia or distracted by Iran also diverts us from focusing more attention on China, and makes us less likely to do some over-due "nation-building" here at home.
If we were smarter, of course, we'd be looking to saddle potential rivals with a lot of expensive order-keeping activities, and let them bear the burden in difficult or intractable local conflicts. That would give foreign policy elites less to do, perhaps, but that might not be such a bad thing either. Case in point: Why not let China worry about Pakistan's future, and get itself embroiled trying to manage the various quarrels and blood feuds in Central Asia? They could hardly do a worse job than we have, and we'd probably end up with a better relationship with most of the region. It is astonishing how much more popular we might be if we played hard-to-get more often, so that others would be less resentful of our constant sermonizing and interfering. Heck, if we stood aloof more often, some states would quickly do a lot more to try to make sure we didn't forget about them.
One caveat: The key to the "rope-a-dope" strategy was Ali's ability to prevent Foreman from landing telling blows in places that did matter. To make it work in international politics, the United States would a clear sense of which areas were strategically vital and which didn't matter all that much. And we'd also have to be able to distinguish between areas where it is useful to retain a lot of influence, and places where our main interest is simply to prevent some hostile power from dominating.
This task won't always easy, but it shouldn't be impossible either. It does require a significant mental adjustment, however, back to a focus on U.S. national interest instead of vague and idealist notions about spreading our "values" and creating an American-centered "world order." American leaders have to stop thinking that the whole world is their responsibility and stop deluding themselves into thinking that we can and should "pay any price and bear any burden." From a purely American perspective, letting allies bear more of the burden in key regions and encouraging adversaries to blunder into sinkholes and quagmires, makes a lot more sense.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced yesterday that the U.S. is going to step back from a combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, and shift over to an "advise and assist role" instead. Assuming he means it, we'll be ending our combat role about a year before all U.S. troops are supposed to be out.
As regular readers know, I've favored a greatly reduced presence in Afghanistan for a long time, simply because I didn't think a COIN/nation-building campaign there was worth the costs, and because I don't think the outcome in Afghanistan makes much difference in the larger struggle against Al Qaeda. (In other words, I reject the "safe haven" justification for the war, largely because Al Qaeda has havens elsewhere and Afghanistan isn't an especially desirable one from their point of view).
But by a strange coincidence, we were discussing an aspect of this problem in my graduate course the very same day that Panetta made his announcement, in the context of a broader discussion on international cooperation. As some of you know, one of the basic principles of the literature on cooperation is that it is facilitated when there is a lengthy "shadow of the future." States are more likely to cooperate today if they anticipate being able to reap the benefits of cooperation far into the future; they will be leery of stiffing potential partners and foregoing that stream of long-term benefits.
What does this insight have to do with Afghanistan? Although I favor getting out as rapidly as possible, we ought to do so with the full knowledge that announcing a certain date (or even an approximate date) will reduce Afghan incentives to cooperate with us now and in the interim, and their incentive to cooperate will decline more and more as the date of withdrawal nears. Once they know that the stream of benefits is finite, they will be less willing to make adjustments or concessions to us in order to keep us in the fight. So by announcing we're leaving, Panetta was tacitly acknowledging that our leverage over the Afghan government is going to erode pretty quickly. Not that it was ever that great, of course.
Notice: This situation is different than trying to encourage greater Afghan cooperation by threatening to leave if they don't shape up, coupled with a credible promise to stay if they do. In this case, continued U.S. help would be conditional on Afghan cooperation and reform. But that's not what we're saying: Instead, we've made an essentially unconditional pledge to end our combat role (and eventually leave completely). In short: We've had enough of this war and are heading home, if not exactly briskly.
As I said, I think this is the right course of action. But actions have consequences, and we should be under no illusions about what it means for our ability to determine outcomes there. Washington still has a few cards to play (i.e., we can still empower different contenders by providing them with money, arms and training), but our long-term influence over decisions there is going to decline rapidly. But unless you're one of those people who thinks it's a good idea for Americans to try to steer the politics of an impoverished, deeply-divided Islamic country in the middle of Central Asia, this development really isn't so bad.
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As co-chair of the editorial board of the journal International Security, I couldn't be more delighted by the attention that Michael Beckley's article questioning China's rise (and America's supposed decline) is getting. See here, here, and here. But I fear that people who are seizing on Beckley's article to pooh-pooh fears of U.S. decline -- including our own Daniel Drezner -- are mostly asking the wrong question.
As I've noted elsewhere, the issue isn't whether the United States is about to fall the from the ranks of the great powers, or even be equaled (let alone surpassed) by a rising China. The world may be evolving toward a more multipolar structure, for example, but the United States is going to be one of those poles, and almost certainly the strongest of them, for many years to come.
Instead, the real issue is whether developments at home and overseas are making it harder for the United States to exercise the kind of dominant influence that it did for much of the latter half of the 20th century. The United States had a larger share of global GDP in the 1940s and 1950s, and it wasn't running enormous budget deficits. The United States was seen as a reliable defender of human rights, and its support for decolonization after World War II had won it many friends in the developing world. It also had good relations with a variety of monarchies and dictatorships, which it justified as part of the struggle against communism. These features allowed the United States to create and lead combined economic, security and political orders in virtually every corner of the world, except for the portions directly controlled by our communist rivals. And the U.S. and its allies eventually won that struggle too, driving the USSR into exhaustion and watching the triumph of market economies and more participatory forms of government throughout the former communist world.
The United States remains very powerful -- especially when compared with some putative opponents like Iran -- but its capacity to lead security and economic orders in every corner of the world has been diminished by failures in Iraq (and eventually, Afghanistan), by the burden of debt accumulated over the past decade, by the economic melt-down in 2007-2008, and by the emergence of somewhat stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere. One might also point to eroding national infrastructure and an educational system that impresses hardly anyone. Moreover, five decades of misguided policies have badly tarnished America's image in many parts of the world, and especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. The erosion of authoritarian rule in the Arab world will force new governments to pay more attention to popular sentiment -- which is generally hostile to the broad thrust of U.S. policy in the region -- and the United States will be less able to rely on close relations with tame monarchs or military dictators henceforth. If it the United States remains far and away the world's strongest state, its ability to get its way in world affairs is declining.
All this may seem like a hair-splitting, but there's an important issue at stake. Posing the question in the usual way ("Is the U.S. Still #1?", "Who's bigger?", "Is China Catching Up?" etc.,) focuses attention primarily on bilateral comparisons and distracts us from thinking about the broader environment in which both the United States and China will have to operate. The danger, of course, is that repeated assurances that America is still on top will encourage foreign policy mandarins to believe that they can continue to make the same blunders they have in the recent past, and discourage them from making the strategic choices that will preserve U.S. primacy, enhance U.S. influence, and incidentally, produce a healthier society here at home.
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I learned yesterday that my article "The End of the American Era" (in the current issue of The National Interest) was selected as one "ten favorite articles" for October by The Browser, a terrific online compilation service/magazine produced in Britain. Readers are encouraged to vote for their favorites among the nominees, and they announce the results at the end of the month. Here's a link to the list for October:
Sooooooo.... If you liked my article and want to vote for it, please feel free. There are plenty of terrific pieces on their list as well, so I won't be upset if I don't win. In fact, I'll be pleasantly surprised, if not downright shocked. But it is nice to have been included.
I like robust debate as much as the next person, but I'm leery of the tendency for bloggers to get into extended back-and-forths with our fellow commentators. All too often, this can rapidly degenerate into a lot of self-referential posturing and leave readers wondering why the debaters don't get a life. So I'm a bit reluctant to respond to Dan Drezner's reaction to my comment on his upbeat appraisal of Obama's foreign policy. If we're not careful, this response will provoke another rebuttal, leading to a follow-up rejoinder, then to a vigorous reply, followed by a stinging rebuke ... and before long you will all be asleep.
That said, Dan raises a good point at the end of his post, asking about the relationship between my comments about Obama's foreign policy and my recent article in The National Interest. His basic point is that I blamed Obama for his lack of success in my FP piece, whereas in the TNI article I attribute this to deeper structural forces.
I don't think there's much of a contradiction here at all. One can fail (or, more charitably, not achieve success), in at least one of two ways. One source of failure is making bad policy choices; a second source is simply that the task was just too hard given the specific circumstances at hand. (Contrary to what Americans often think, not every problem has an easy solution).
In this case, lack of success is attributable to both problems, depending to a large degree on which issues you're considering. I've argued repeatedly since 2009 that Obama faced enormous constraints in several areas -- consistent with my TNI piece -- and that his foreign policy "to do" list contained an array of hard problems that were likely to defy easy solution. Accordingly, I've argued that he had to be careful not to get overcommitted or distracted by peripheral problems. His lack of success on climate change, global trade, North Korea, or Iraq falls into this category: there just wasn't a magic bullet to aim at those targets. By contrast, his failures on Israel-Palestine or AfPak, and the broad deterioration of the U.S. image in the Arab/Islamic world, are due more to specific choices he made (greatly exacerbated by domestic political constraints both here in the United States and in the relevant foreign countries). And then there are cases like Libya where it's just too soon to tell.
In short, I think Obama was dealt a horrible hand to play, and at a time when broad forces were making it much harder for the United States to wield reliable influence on an array of tough problems. I think he's played some of his cards well (e.g., in East Asia), but he's also misplayed a few rather badly. And the result, as I said in my original piece, is a foreign policy record that doesn't have a lot of meaningful successes so far. It could have been worse, of course (see under: George W. Bush), but it could have been better too.
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Today I'd like to bring to your attention two recent
articles on America's role in the world. Although written from somewhat
different perspectives, they reach similar conclusions. This isn't surprising,
as both authors write from an essentially realist perspective.
The first article, entitled "The End of the American Era," is by yours truly, and you can find it in the latest issue of The National Interest. My core argument is that the era when the United States could manage political, economic, and security orders in almost every part of the world simultaneously is a thing of the past, due primarily to the rise of new power centers and several serious self-inflicted wounds. Although the United States will remain the most powerful state in the world for many years, these developments require a different approach to grand strategy. Here's a taste:
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.
The second article, "The Incapacitation of U.S. Statecraft and Diplomacy," is by Amb. Chas Freeman, and is published in the Hague Journal of Diplomacy. Freeman is one of the country's most incisive and wide-ranging strategic thinkers, and the piece is a tour de force of clear-eyed analysis and sharp writing. Here's how he begins:
The United States has long been the wealthiest and among the most assertive of the world's great powers.1 Over the century since the First World War, the United States' wealth - combined with the global appeal of its constitutional democracy and its unparalleled capacity to project military power to the most distant corners of the world - made it the central actor in defining a succession of ‘world orders'. The challenge to play this role is once again before the United States.
After the Second World War, the United States famously exemplified enlightened
internationalism. In consultation with Europeans, Americans led the way in the creation of successful new institutions, programmes and rules of international behaviour. The result was an ‘American half century' - Pax Americana in the space beyond the Soviet orbit. But the United States' diplomatic response to the challenge to lead global change has often fallen short.2 The current situation is a case in point, involving multiple failures of global governance amid rapid shifts in economic and political power.
In the post-Cold War era, the United States has yet to outline any principles, articulate any vision, or formulate any strategy for the reform of international institutions and practices, fiscal and monetary adjustments, or military retrenchment. So far, the United States has cast itself as the military defender of vested interests in a crumbling status quo rather than as the crafter of a new strategic order or a more effective international system. Why is this so? What might stimulate US strategic repositioning and leadership of the global response to change? What would it take to restore such leadership?
I believe the recommendations in these two articles point the way forward, and the United States is bound to move in this direction eventually. The question is not whether we will move to a smarter and more selective grand strategy; the only interesting question is how soon.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.