The Global Power Shift from West to East

The Global Power Shift from West to East

Mini Teaser: Pax Americana and the age of Western dominance are fading. Washington can manage this decline, but first it must acknowledge its reality. History moves forward with a crushing force and does not wait for the unprepared.

by Author(s): Christopher Layne

The United States has a legacy commitment to global stability, and that poses a particular challenge to the waning hegemon as it seeks to fulfill its commitment with dwindling resources. The fundamental challenge for the United States as it faces the future is closing the “Lippmann gap,” named for journalist Walter Lippmann. This means bringing America’s commitments into balance with the resources available to support them while creating a surplus of power in reserve. To do this, the country will need to establish new strategic priorities and accept the inevitability that some commitments will need to be reduced because it no longer can afford them.

These national imperatives will force the United States to craft some kind of foreign-policy approach that falls under the rubric of “offshore balancing”—directing American power and influence toward maintaining a balance of power in key strategic regions of the world. This concept—first articulated by this writer in a 1997 article in the journal International Security—has gained increasing attention over the past decade or so as other prominent geopolitical scholars, including John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Robert Pape, Barry Posen and Andrew Bacevich, have embraced this approach.

Although there are shades of difference among proponents of offshore balancing in terms of how they define the strategy, all of their formulations share core concepts in common. First, it assumes the United States will have to reduce its presence in some regions and develop commitment priorities. Europe and the Middle East are viewed as less important than they once were, with East Asia rising in strategic concern. Second, as the United States scales back its military presence abroad, other states need to step up to the challenge of maintaining stability in key regions. Offshore balancing, thus, is a strategy of devolving security responsibilities to others. Its goal is burden shifting, not burden sharing. Only when the United States makes clear that it will do less—in Europe, for example—will others do more to foster stability in their own regions.

Third, the concept relies on naval and air power while eschewing land power as much as possible. This is designed to maximize America’s comparative strategic advantages—standoff, precision-strike weapons; command-and-control capabilities; and superiority in intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance. After all, fighting land wars in Eurasia is not what the United States does best. Fourth, the concept avoids Wilsonian crusades in foreign policy, “nation-building” initiatives and imperial impulses. Not only does Washington have a long record of failure in such adventures, but they are also expensive. In an age of domestic austerity, the United States cannot afford the luxury of participating in overseas engagements that contribute little to its security and can actually pose added security problems. Finally, offshore balancing would reduce the heavy American geopolitical footprint caused by U.S. boots on the ground in the Middle East—the backlash effect of which is to fuel Islamic extremism. An over-the-horizon U.S. military posture in the region thus would reduce the terrorist threat while still safeguarding the flow of Persian Gulf oil.

During the next two decades, the United States will face some difficult choices between bad outcomes and worse ones. But such decisions could determine whether America will manage a graceful decline that conserves as much power and global stability as possible. A more ominous possibility is a precipitous power collapse that reduces U.S. global influence dramatically. In any event, Americans will have to adjust to the new order, accepting the loss of some elements of national life they had taken for granted. In an age of austerity, national resources will be limited, and competition for them will be intense. If the country wants to do more at home, it will have to do less abroad. It may have to choose between attempting to preserve American hegemony or repairing the U.S. economy and maintaining the country’s social safety net.

THE CONSTELLATION of world power is changing, and U.S. grand strategy will have to change with it. American elites must come to grips with the fact that the West does not enjoy a predestined supremacy in international politics that is locked into the future for an indeterminate period of time. The Euro-Atlantic world had a long run of global dominance, but it is coming to an end. The future is more likely to be shaped by the East.

At the same time, Pax Americana also is winding down. The United States can manage this relative decline effectively over the next couple of decades only if it first acknowledges the fundamental reality of decline. The problem is that many Americans, particularly among the elites, have embraced the notion of American exceptionalism with such fervor that they can’t discern the world transformation occurring before their eyes.

But history moves forward with an inexorable force, and it does not stop to grant special exemptions to nations based on past good works or the restrained exercise of power during times of hegemony. So is it with the United States. The world has changed since those heady days following World War II, when the United States picked up the mantle of world leadership and fashioned a world system durable enough to last nearly seventy years. It has also changed significantly since those remarkable times from 1989 to 1991, when the Soviet Union imploded and its ashes filled the American consciousness with powerful notions of national exceptionalism and the infinite unipolar moment of everlasting U.S. hegemony.

But most discerning Americans know that history never ends, that change is always inevitable, that nations and civilizations rise and fall, that no era can last forever. Now it can be seen that the post–World War II era, romanticized as it has been in the minds of so many Americans, is the Old Order—and it is an Old Order in crisis, which means it is nearing its end. History, as always, is moving forward.

Christopher Layne is professor and Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security at Texas A & M University’s George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. His current book project, to be published by Yale University Press, is After the Fall: International Politics, U.S. Grand Strategy, and the End of the Pax Americana.

Part of TNI's special issue on the Crisis of the Old Order.

Image: Pullquote: Periods of global transition can be chaotic, unpredictable, long and bloody. Whether the current transitional phase will unfold with greater smoothness and calm is an open question.Essay Types: Essay