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.

Essay Types: The Realist