The Closer

November 2, 2007 Topic: Great Powers Tags: Bush DoctrineDiplomacySuperpower

The Closer

Mini Teaser: Every major presidential candidate is asking for more, more, more when it comes to foreign policy. Maybe what we need is less. The United States seems best suited for the role of last-minute hero, swooping in to solve global problems after all oth

by Author(s): Justine A. Rosenthal


Every major presidential candidate is asking for more, more, more when it comes to foreign policy. Maybe what we need is less. 


AMERICA USED to be the world's relief pitcher. The secret weapon trotted out in the ninth inning to shore up the win. With all this talk of great-power fatigue, the end of the American era, the squandering of U.S. power and resources, maybe it's time to return to truer and more tried methods. Taking a breather and solidifying our position as global leader-not giving it away by acting as the much-resented world policeman-may serve the United States well.

Ensuring our primacy means selectivity over promiscuity. It doesn't seem lately that we've asked ourselves: Where's the real competitor, and what's the real threat? We're consumed by every problem, every slight. Our vision is too clouded to see where we're welcome, where we're not and where someone else may solve the problem just as well-even if not exactly to our liking. This doesn't mean that we return home with our tail between our legs, but rather that we figure out where our fundamental interests lie before we decide to throw our weight around. It is not about giving up our position. Quite the contrary, it is about picking and choosing our engagements so that our leadership in the world is enhanced, not diminished. The current course seems unsustainable and often counterproductive.

It should come as no surprise then that rising and resurgent powers are looking to balance against us. This is realpolitik in the most classic sense. The threat of American power and our recent willingness to use force has created an environment ripe for associations where the United States is obviously absent from the guest list. Let's take a brief survey: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), encompassing China, Russia and much of Central Asia, with Iran and Pakistan hoping to become full participants; the Africa-South America Cooperative Forum and the fledgling hedging consortiums in South and Central America-our own backyard no less-with Iran knocking at the door for admission there as well. There are some older, standby competitors too: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the African Union and the various initiatives in the Arab world. Most of these organizations don't have bite yet, but intentions count. Besides, some of them are hardly toothless. The recent SCO summit in Bishkek was preceded by joint China-Russia military exercises, the first ever held in the former Soviet Union.

Even the EU's growing influence now limits the American ability to have its way. As countries like China replace their dollar reserves with euros, the EU erodes America's once-unbeatable economic might. And in the aftermath of the Afghanistan debacle, NATO is looking more like an alliance well past its prime than a military behemoth. Our continental military footprint is shrinking too.

If we seemed less belligerent, the balancing might abate. And if it didn't, in good time, as history has shown, when China, Russia or Iran gets scary enough, countries will be turning to us for protection. The United States might be better served waiting for the invitation. Right now America often appears big, angry and needy all at the same time. Like the non plus ultra of micro-managers, we can't leave any problem well enough alone. Countries, as they are wont to do, take advantage of our continued meddling. We are urged to intervene as soon as a problem arises-and when the situation goes awry, the blame is placed squarely on our shoulders as states join in finger-pointing unity. As Brent Scowcroft has said, "[W]e haven't received credit for our good intentions." It's a Hobbesian world out there.

OF COURSE, this is not to ignore that much of our faltering in recent years can be attributed to poor policymaking. But what's done is done. And it may be time to talk about trade-offs from our newly weakened position. If we want to maximize our power, or at least leave it intact, it may well behoove us to look at what it costs to act like the big kid on the block today when all the others kids are getting bigger-and fast.

What emerging powers will rise to the top of the heap? Russia may be getting a lot better at fighting poverty with a big infusion of petro-dollars, but its recovery is built on a rickety frame. Its infrastructure is literally falling apart, and whether the Russian elite can hold up teetering support beams while they gather resources is unclear. Tellingly, the recently rich upper classes continue to contemplate a flight to the greener, if rainier, pastures of England.

And China certainly faces its share of obstacles. As is so often the case, many of the state's strengths are also great potential weaknesses. A pretty big landmass with a population of 1.3 billion people is tough to rule. The central government has a difficult time exerting control over the provinces. Corruption and growing income inequality are breeding social unrest. China also continues to thrive in areas where mimicry rather than innovation leads the way: from Smart Cars to luxury SUVs, DVDs to designer accessories. Counterfeit products, China's economic tour de force, account for about 8 percent of the country's GDP. And many Chinese firms continue to depend on imported technology and foreign investment. The World Bank, in its five-year plan for China, lists "increasing the capacity for independent innovation" as a key focus area. As the world has witnessed recently, even the Chinese advantage of an abundance of cheap labor is not a panacea for global growth. Without stricter standards and regulatory bodies, China's booming export sector might take a serious hit.

In the other population behemoth, India, around 70 percent of its citizens live in poverty, with half those considered "extreme" cases-even if India does have a rapidly growing middle class. And the potential Middle East hegemon Iran is oil-rich, but as of 2001, the last time statistics were openly released, its population had an average income of about $60 a month, and civil unrest continues to simmer beneath the surface.

Lest we forget our so-far friendly competition across the pond: The European Union has steadily expanded its reach to new member states, but there's little in the way of a cohesive EU foreign policy. The idea that countries on the continent will cast aside sovereignty on core issues anytime soon seems questionable. The EU Constitution just suffered its second burial, and they haven't been able to come to terms on issues ranging from Iraq all the way to energy policy.

Each emerging power faces substantial barriers to a meteoric rise and each, for now, may pose a greater threat to its neighbors than to the United States. Though increasing economic interdependence may lead us to wonder if we're not better served abating wars and propping up our trading partners, why buoy potential challengers? Let's take the recent scares caused by tainted Chinese products. We're not the only ones being harmed, but it seems the rest of the world expects the United States to once again take the lead, providing China with the resources and expertise needed to make its exports safe. This could well help China-our most likely peer competitor in the near future-strengthen its economic might. Not a lot of sensible burden-sharing there.

And regional powers certainly have no incentive to solve pressing problems in their own neighborhoods if they believe that the United States will assume the onus for them. If we can buck-pass, why not? Take Russia: Moscow now has the ability to shut down supply lines and blackmail countries in its sphere of influence. Yet this recently reinvigorated state is more likely to be a European problem than an American one for some time to come. It is Europe's gas supplies that Russia controls, not America's. So perhaps we needn't strain our relationship with the Kremlin further by dealing with a continental concern-even if the Georgians keep calling us for help. And Europeans and Japanese still expect the United States to keep the Persian Gulf open for their oil exports. This means sailable sea lanes, pumping pipelines and regime stability, tyrannical or not. On every key issue in the Middle East, from the Israeli-Palestinian impasse to the Iranian nuclear program, the United States is expected to play the leading role. Principal regional actors-Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey-those who would be most negatively affected by an Iraqi disaster still want America to be commander-in-chief. And to be the scapegoat if efforts fail.

The United States need not be the world's teat, particularly when there's so much resentment of our efforts. We've made the mistake of thinking that our unipolar moment is best secured by aggression on the world stage. Falling victim to the "Myths of Empire", the United States is in a moment of overexpansion, believing we have limitless resources to expend and that the more we take on, the more we will be needed by others and the more the rest of the world will buy into the American paradigm.

Essay Types: The Realist