Is This America's 'East of Suez' Moment?

October 7, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: United States

Is This America's 'East of Suez' Moment?

America appears on the verge of a diminished global role. Yet there's a way out.

In Britain, the words “East of Suez” hold a special meaning. In 1968, post-WWII weariness with imperial adventures, a deficit of cash and political will and anticolonial hostility forced acceptance of a greatly diminished world role. Specifically, London retreated from positions ‘East of Suez,’ i.e. beyond the Suez Canal, leaving it to America to keep postcolonial order in a Cold War world.

Now looking at the Arc of Instability from North Africa to Pakistan, it is difficult to escape the question: Is the United States approaching its own East of Suez moment?

In the U.S. case, the result is not so much a consequence of decline, but rather, of radically altered economic and political circumstances.

Incompetent policy—from the initial response to the Arab awakening in Egypt to Syria of late—enmeshes with pointlessly prolonged wars after 2003, Chinese assertiveness, Russian opportunism and domestic political paralysis. Cumulatively, these facts are shrinking the U.S. appetite for global responsibility.

It’s easy to overemphasize current national disenchantment and the seemingly endless demands on attention, heartstrings, money and muscle. Yet just as we shouldn’t read too much into current afflictions, we mustn’t see too little in them either. Large and small, domestic or foreign, missteps since 1990 are starting to catch up with us now.

From the “deer in the headlights” U.S. response after the 2011 “Arab awakening” to Libya’s deteriorating mess, there seems no end to it. Syria’s deadly morass and Egypt’s ‘noncoup coup’ reflect iterative cycles, recurring with little or no forward movement.

If we needed proof of it, these dismal trends and challenges elsewhere show our declining ability to shape outcomes in the Middle East. President Obama’s Hamlet-like dithering over Syria simply capped the moment. Looking both at trends and track records, it’s not hard to see parallels between the U.S. and countries we view retrospectively as ‘obviously’ having overreached in earlier eras—Russia in Afghanistan, Britain and France in 1956, or India’s humiliating debacle with China in 1962.

Of course our parallels to Britain’s scaling back are far from exact. But the decade’s intervention in Iraq alone shows the idiocy and expense of social engineering in alien cultures and societies. None of this deflects the interventionists. Recent debates over Libya, and then over Syria, have summoned the same odd couple onto center stage—both liberal humanitarian interventionists and conservative neocon empire-builders stand ever ready to use killing force to chastise others.

Behind this lies, just as it did in Britain, a sense of mission civilisatrice and inflated exceptionalism. It’s all there even further back in history. All empires have succumbed to their siren call. Now it’s our turn to approach an inflection point.

The outcome is not fated, and we differ from British experience in important ways. Like diamonds amid the dust, some advantages unexpectedly have appeared, favoring a maintenance of U.S. power despite deflating experiences in the Middle East and elsewhere. Pioneered in North America, the Shale Revolution in particular offers a lifeline, fundamentally altering the geopolitics of energy.

As a Wall Street Journal front page recently proclaimed, America has become the world’s number one energy producer. The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) says the U.S. produced the equivalent of twenty-two million barrels of oil, gas and other liquid fuels in July.

This is huge. To an extent our paralyzed legislators scarcely realize, the center of gravity in global hydrocarbon production has already shifted from the Persian Gulf to the Western Hemisphere. Besides the United States, Canadian oil sands, Mexican reserves and Brazil’s ultra-deep-water prospects also confirm a post-OPEC world.

Unheralded and unnoticed, American oil producers are also helping stabilize global oil prices, which would be a lot higher if new U.S. oil supply, mostly from shale, weren’t reaching world markets. Geopolitical anxieties have seesawed up and down in recent months; apart from spillover risk from Egypt and Syria (themselves only very small producers), clan and tribal wrangling in Libya has cut daily oil exports there by over a million barrels a day.

Libyan supply problems thus enmesh with the Egypt/Syria risk overhang and, if this weren’t enough, simultaneous production declines in Nigeria and Iraq have also pushed prices. So have Malaysian, Mexican and Venezuelan production shortfalls in the past few years.

By contrast, total American oil production hit its highest level since 1989 in 2013. During last year alone, U.S. oil producers added an extra million barrels/day, the largest one-year increase in American history, an astonishing turnaround. Just seven years ago, domestic oil production had been seen for decades in seemingly terminal decline. To measure the sea change, consider that the State of Texas is now producing as much oil as Iran.

The IEA sees Canada and the U.S. as two of three new players putting sizeable new oil production into world markets over the next decade. (The third, more problematic, is Iraq.) Of course, it’s still a global oil market. But the Middle East sends three quarters of its product to Asia; China, India, Korea and Japan source their supply there, not North America.

On its own, the energy advantage can’t rescue us from largely self-imposed problems. Yet our greatest affliction lies not in postponed infrastructure investment or mediocre governance, but in our incessant desire to make the world reform, if necessary with compulsion and under duress.

This conceit must be the most luxuriant weed in the American garden. Despite recent experiences, those enamored of U.S. exceptionalism and righteousness advocate armed intervention—to stop a litany of wrongs and save people from themselves. Some even wish to enshrine R2P (the ‘responsibility to protect’) as a defense objective, ahead of hard-boiled considerations of national advantage.

Polling data shows Americans generally favoring a more participatory world in which governments, reflecting popular will, treat their people well. But the recent rejection in every poll of another shooting war in Syria shows a strong preference to steer shy of compelling others to be good.

Beyond that, the world now taking shape is a post-Western world, one in which the West’s cultural foundations and economic wealth are shifting underneath, to Asia, Latin America, the Middle East. Both our overt power and the underlying environment enable us to do little to affect outcomes in these places. The greater Middle East itself seems destined to undergo transition for a generation or more with the United States able, at best, to influence from the margins. Consider how Arab Gulf aid money in Egypt ($12 billion) dwarfs our own ($1.3 billion).

This is not a metric of U.S. decline. The quantitative lens shows only so much. When dollars are short, statecraft and cunning come into their own. In fact, our penchant for throwing good money after bad (as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan) traces its pedigree back to our funding of deeply unpopular anticommunist regimes during the Cold War. Some policy changes point to a way out of this morass—both current and immediate past administrations have signaled, by resources and diplomacy, that Asia (spelled ‘opportunity’) has far more enduring importance to American security and economic wellbeing than the Middle East (spelled ‘problem’).

In this, the proverbial man in the street has more common sense than the political elite. He or she seems in effect to be saying, “after $2 trillion and a dozen years of war, what’s the result? Meanwhile, we’ve plenty of problems here.”

They’re right. We cannot and should not try to bend the world to our will. Our own model, until recently, had worked fairly well. And we always did well when leading by example, being the “shining city on the hill,” rather than intervening abroad to promote our values. Hence the reason why John Adams’ 1821 Fourth of July speech still resonates:

“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be her [America’s] heart. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. But she is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Listen to the man. In that vision lies the formula for enduring success. Buttressed by new sway in world energy markets and chastened by experience, we may yet avoid an ‘East of Suez’ moment.

James Clad was U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia Pacific Affairs from 2007-09, and is now Senior Advisor to the CNA in Arlington, VA. Robert A. Manning is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He previously served in the State Department as a senior advisor to the assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific (1989-93) and on the secretary’s policy-planning staff (2004-08).