American Power in an Age of Disorder
All of which is to say that American primacy, as we know it, is dead. Those who seek its restoration by doubling down in their support of “democrats” in trouble spots around the world are chasing a mirage, as are those who promise to make America great again by . . . whatever. America was great. It remains great. But it will never have the authority or power that it enjoyed following the Second World War, and Washington would be wise to husband the power it does have. To borrow a formula from Hans Morgenthau, America’s policymakers must learn to distinguish, first, between what is essential in foreign affairs and what is desirable, and, second, between what is desirable and what is possible. What is essential is for the United States to find ways to coexist with other great powers—Russia and China at the present time; possibly India, Indonesia, Japan and Brazil in the future—and that means understanding that those countries have national interests of their own that one ignores at one’s peril, even when they clash with American values. To view compromise and accommodation as diminutions of power while invoking images of Munich is a dangerous exercise.
To try to slow the tide of devolution, meanwhile, may be desirable—it is surely not in the national interest to sit passively by as the European Union disintegrates—but it may not be possible, since it is not clear what can be done to oppose demands for self-determination. In some cases, devolution might not make much difference: Is anyone in Washington losing sleep over the possibility of Scottish independence? In other cases, defining the desirable is not easy: Are American interests best served by supporting the creation of a Kurdish state, opposing it or promoting a solution somewhere in between?
From a longer perspective, however, the growing demand for self-determination and independence can be viewed only with suspicion and anxiety. The more states, statelets and autonomous regions there are in the world, the greater the prospects for instability and conflict. Israel offers a valuable lesson here. Surrounded by hostile and irredentist neighbors, it has taken whatever steps it thinks necessary to insure its security, and its existential ace in the hole is its nuclear deterrent. Other newly created states will find themselves in similar situations, and we should make no mistake: self-determination is a recipe for nuclear proliferation. It is probably only a lack of technological knowhow that prevents South Sudan or Eritrea from building nuclear weapons—and that will change. As a general policy, therefore, it is desirable to discourage devolution, and it may even be essential at times. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to be possible.
This is the fifth in a series of essays on the future of American primacy. You can read the previous essay, “The High Costs and Limited Benefits of America’s Alliances” by Barry R. Posen, here.
Barry Gewen is an editor at the New York Times Book Review.
Image: Dust storm at Forward Operating Base Kushamond, Afghanistan. Flickr/U.S. Army