THE PAST century has seen a multipolar world through the end of World War II, a bipolar world through the end of the Cold War and a dissipating unipolar world since. Economic multipolarity is already a reality. And, in military terms, America’s unipolar dominance over the air and sea-lanes will not last forever, given the rise of naval powers across Asia. Moreover, the advantages that accrue to terrorists and insurgents, for whom war is a way of life and who kill indiscriminately, have put tremendous strain on the U.S. security establishment. America’s prospects for global primacy appear bleak.
But in spite of the seemingly inevitable and rapid diminution of U.S. eminence, to write America’s great-power obituary is beyond premature. The United States remains a highly capable power. Iraq and Afghanistan, as horrendous as they have proved to be—in a broad historical sense—are still relatively minor events that America can easily overcome. The eventual demise of empires like those of Ming China and late-medieval Venice was brought about by far more pivotal blunders.
Think of the Indian Mutiny against the British in 1857 and 1858. Iraq in particular—ever so frequently touted as our turning point on the road to destruction—looks to some extent eerily similar. At the time, orientalists and other pragmatists in the British power structure (who wanted to leave traditional India as it was) lost some sway to evangelical and utilitarian reformers (who wanted to modernize and Christianize India—to make it more like England). But the attempt to bring the fruits of Western civilization to the Asian subcontinent was met with a violent revolt against imperial authority. Delhi, Lucknow and other Indian cities were besieged and captured before being retaken by colonial forces. Yet, the debacle did not signal the end of the British Empire at all, which continued on and even expanded for another century. Instead, it signaled the transition from more of an ad hoc imperium fired by a proselytizing lust to impose its values on others to a calmer and more pragmatic empire built on international trade and technology.1 There is no reason to believe that the fate of America need follow a more doomed course.
Yes, the mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the United States’ own, but, though destructive, they are not fatal. If we withdraw sooner rather than later, the cost to American power can be stemmed. Leaving a stable Afghanistan behind of course requires a helpful Pakistan, but with more pressure Washington might increase Islamabad’s cooperation in relatively short order.
In terms of acute threats, Iran is the only state that has exported terrorism and insurgency toward a strategic purpose, yet the country is economically fragile and politically unstable, with behind-the-scenes infighting that would make Washington partisans blanch. Even assuming Iran acquires a few nuclear devices—of uncertain quality with uncertain delivery systems—the long-term outlook for the clerical regime is itself unclear. The administration must only avoid a war with the Islamic Republic.
To be sure, America may be in decline in relative terms compared to some other powers, as well as to many countries of the former third world, but in absolute terms, particularly military ones, the United States can easily be the first among equals for decades hence.
China, India and Russia are the only major Eurasian states prepared to wield military power of consequence on their peripheries. And each, in turn, faces its own obstacles on the road to some degree of dominance.
The Chinese will have a great navy (assuming their economy does not implode) and that will enforce a certain level of bipolarity in the world system. But Beijing will lack the alliance network Washington has, even as China and Russia will always be—because of geography—inherently distrustful of one another. China has much influence, but no credible military allies beyond possibly North Korea, and its authoritarian regime lives in fear of internal disruption if its economic growth rate falters. Furthermore, Chinese naval planners look out from their coastline and see South Korea and a string of islands—Japan, Taiwan and Australia—that are American allies, as are, to a lesser degree, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. To balance a rising China, Washington must only preserve its naval and air assets at their current levels.
India, which has its own internal insurgency, is bedeviled by semifailed states on its borders that critically sap energy and attention from its security establishment, and especially from its land forces; in any case, India has become a de facto ally of the United States whose very rise, in and of itself, helps to balance China.
Russia will be occupied for years regaining influence in its post-Soviet near abroad, particularly in Ukraine, whose feisty independence constitutes a fundamental challenge to the very idea of the Russian state. China checks Russia in Central Asia, as do Turkey, Iran and the West in the Caucasus. This is to say nothing of Russia’s diminishing population and overwhelming reliance on energy exports. Given the problems of these other states, America remains fortunate indeed.
The United States is poised to tread the path of postmutiny Britain. America might not be an empire in the formal sense, but its obligations and constellation of military bases worldwide put it in an imperial-like situation, particularly because its air and naval deployments will continue in a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world. No country is in such an enviable position to keep the relative peace in Eurasia as is the United States—especially if it can recover the level of enduring competence in national-security policy last seen during the administration of George H. W. Bush. This is no small point. America has strategic advantages and can enhance its power while extricating itself from war. But this requires leadership—not great and inspiring leadership which comes along rarely even in the healthiest of societies—but plodding competence, occasionally steely nerved and always free of illusion.
AMERICA’S MACROSTRATEGIC environment is chockablock with assets unavailable to any other country. If nothing else, the United States has an often-overlooked and oft-neglected bulwark of allies: the Anglosphere. This is Washington’s inner circle of defense ties, and it finds no equivalent in its competitor nations’ strategic arsenals. The Anglosphere is perennially—and incorrectly—declared dead or in decline by the media and politicians. Nevertheless, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States remain extremely close in their military and intelligence relations and exchange vast volumes of sensitive information daily, as they have for decades. On terrorism, virtually anything and everything is shared. The National Security Agency and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters have been nearly inextricable since World War II. The same is largely true of the CIA and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. The various English-speaking nations, in practical terms, even assign individual parts of the world to each other, and each worries about the others’ security equities.
The linguistic and other cultural links between the United States and these other English-speaking countries are so deep that the sharing of sensitive information 24-7 is practically an afterthought, even as the media and politicians highlight the narcissism of comparatively small differences. Of course, the values and national purposes of the individual countries are unique, owing to different geographies and historical experiences; yet that is something America can quietly manage. Given how close the United States is to the Anglosphere in most ways, when these allies resist what America is attempting to do, that should constitute a warning that perhaps the policy coming out of Washington is either outright wrong or needs adjustment. (Canada’s balking in the face of U.S. bullying to hop on board the Iraq War train is an obvious case in point.) The Anglosphere, in addition to everything else it provides, is a reality check that can facilitate American policy making.
With a combined population of 420 million, with strategic locations off the continent of Europe (Great Britain), near the intersection of the Indian Ocean and western Pacific sea-lanes (Australia), and in the Arctic and adjacent to Greenland’s oil and gas (Canada), the Anglosphere, if not abused or ignored, will be a substantial hard-power asset for the United States deep into the twenty-first century. China and Russia enjoy nothing comparable.
OF COURSE even this set of assets is not enough to ensure American primacy—nor its sway over the West. And not all alliances are created equal. For example, Washington can less and less rely on NATO to serve as its linchpin in Europe. NATO is of limited help in Afghanistan, was irrelevant in Iraq and simply does not matter in the larger Middle East. The defense budgets of member states in Western Europe are generally below the NATO standard of 2 percent of GDP, even as these same countries now brace for the steepest cuts in military spending since the end of the Cold War. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as prudent and low-key a public speaker as one can imagine, has publicly chided Europeans for being too reluctant to use military force. Nor does NATO, whatever the fine print of its documents, really guarantee the territorial integrity of its new member states in Eastern Europe against potential Russian aggression. The United States does that, and the Balts, Poles, Romanians and others know it. Plainly, the Poles and Romanians sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan (and any number of various African countries where the United States has had military missions) not because they necessarily approved of these deployments or were enthusiastic about them, but as a quid pro quo for this implicit security guarantee.Image: Essay Types: Essay