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Is America’s Mind-set the Greatest Threat to Its Future?

June 1, 2015 Topic: Politics Region: United States Tags: AmericaForeign PolicySuperpower

Is America’s Mind-set the Greatest Threat to Its Future?

Overreacting to every perceived threat could make America's decline a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

After the Cold War, and particularly in the early part of the this century, the United States came to overestimate the extent to which its power—military power, especially—could produce strategic outcomes in its national interest. The pendulum has swung considerably in the intervening years. Respected commentators see a world in flames and fear that the United States is incapable of extinguishing them, let alone rejuvenating the liberal world order over which it has presided for the past seven decades. Perhaps the most notable aspect of those assessments is that they transcend partisan lines: consider the warnings of liberal thinkers such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and George Packer; those of their conservative counterparts, including Robert Kagan and Bret Stephens; and, finally, those of more centrist observers, including Richard Haass and Mathew Burrows.

Concerns about growing world disorder are especially compelling in view of the carnage engulfing an ever wider swathe of the Middle East and North Africa. Beyond the four principal foci of that violence—Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—a broader struggle for regional influence is crystallizing between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The United States “finds itself,” The New York Times observed in late March, “trying to sustain an ever-growing patchwork of strained alliances and multiple battlefields in the aftermath of the Arab Spring four years ago. The momentary moral clarity of the demands for democracy across the region has been replaced by difficult choices among enemies and unappealing allies who have rushed to fill power vacuums.” Beyond the Middle East, Boko Haram and al-Shabab are destabilizing central Africa, Russia is pursuing the piecemeal dismemberment of eastern Ukraine, and China is using a combination of economic pressure and land reclamation to shape an Asian-Pacific order that weakens America’s alliance system over time.

Given these realities, it would seem difficult to dispute that the United States is increasingly a bystander to world affairs. In his new book Is the American Century Over?, however, Joseph Nye renders a more nuanced judgment: American preeminence “will continue in the sense of the centrality of the United States to the balance of power and American leadership in the production of public goods,” he explains, “but it will look different from how it did in the latter half of the last century.” A professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and one of the most esteemed analysts of world affairs, Nye has been countering declinism for a quarter century, beginning with his 1990 book Bound to Lead. The brevity of his latest text belies its sweep, and judging by the reception it has received, even among those who are considerably less optimistic about America’s prospects—Gideon Rachman and Amitav Acharya, for example—one suspects it will endure as a central text of the anti-declinist oeuvre (full disclosure: I read and critiqued a first draft of the book).

Before addressing the declinist charge that U.S. influence is receding—it is important to discuss some features of the emerging strategic context.

First, contrary to the zero-sum assessment in which relative U.S. decline translates neatly into relative Chinese ascent, many of the phenomena testing U.S. influence are also creating headaches for China. Indeed, protracted U.S. weakness would present it with a number of dilemmas. True, China bristles at the extent of U.S. influence, and it welcomes the long-term trend towards a more competitive world system. Still, as the late Lee Kuan Yew explained, “China knows that it needs access to U.S. markets, U.S. technology, [and] opportunities for Chinese students to study in the United States and bring back to China new ideas about new frontiers.” Relative U.S. decline risks those benefits; it also risks the security of the global commons upon which China increasingly relies for the vital commodities—energy, especially—that power its growth. On the flip side, China’s rise introduces many difficulties of its own, including coping with environmental degradation and demographic decline; addressing growing tensions between the political and economic aspects of its governance system; and reassuring its neighbors, some of whom fear the prospective resumption of a Sinocentric regional order.

Second, as Nye often observes, there are two major power shifts underway: a transition between states (principally from west to east, but also from north to south) and a diffusion away from states to nonstate actors. Those shifts are fundamentally realigning world order and regional orders, with consequences that affect all countries, not just the United States. Which of America’s competitors benefits from turbulence in the Levant? Which of them is not struggling to handle the growing power of nonstate actors—whether Internet hackers or terrorist outfits?  The same point can be made about global challenges: which country is immune to the threats posed by nuclear proliferation, climate change, and resource shortages?

Third, while a good case can be made that world affairs have never been more complicated—particularly owing to the multifaceted advance of technology and the growing power of nonstate actors—it is facile to equate greater complexity with greater danger. Indeed, most evidence suggests the world is becoming safer. Steven Pinker generated great controversy with his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that “violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” Today, however, most observers agree that the long-term trends in both the number and lethality of wars and genocides are favorable. The prospect of an apocalyptic nuclear exchange has also gone down significantly since the end of the Cold War. Finally, there is no longer an overt contest in ideology and armaments between two antagonists. Meanwhile, real world GDP per capita is growing, the rate of extreme poverty is falling, life expectancy is increasing, and the rates of infant mortality and clinical malnourishment are decreasing. A world that is becoming safer, wealthier, and healthier in the aggregate should be more conducive to the advancement of U.S. interests.

What, then, of the increasingly commonplace conclusion that U.S. influence in world affairs is declining? For starters, the United States has scored some significant foreign-policy achievements, one whose transformative potential is sometimes obscured in our preoccupation with the day’s crises: consider the climate agreement with China (this past November), the opening to Cuba (this past December), and the tentative nuclear deal with Iran (in April). They demonstrate that patient, sustained diplomacy can make inroads, even in settings where historical animosities and strategic divergences would seem to have calcified to the point of immutability.  Should the United States successfully conclude negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, moreover, it would go a long way to countering the perception that it is ill-equipped to conduct geoeconomic statecraft.

The more important point, though, is a banal one: foreign policy has always been hard. The influence the United States has wielded in the postwar era has never scaled linearly with the power resources at its disposal. Declinists often note how much lower America’s shares of global military spending and economic output are today than they were seven decades earlier. Less observed is that that gap in power resources hardly allowed the United States to dictate the course of world affairs: Nye reminds us that “the United States often failed to get what it wanted [when it is said to have been a hegemon]—witness Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons; communist takeover of China and half of Vietnam; stalemate in the Korean War; Soviet suppression of the revolts in Hungary and Czechoslovakia; [and] Castro’s control of Cuba.”

If one focuses on day-to-day developments and particular crises, the United States has often appeared hapless. If one takes a bird’s-eye view and considers a longer stretch of time, it has accumulated a remarkable amount of influence: it anchors a liberal world order whose contributions to human welfare exceed all those that occurred before 1945. While the challenges to that order are self-evident and ubiquitous, obituaries for it are premature. Indeed, Ryan Evans makes a compelling case that Russian revanchism might actually entrench it in the long run: “NATO allies are recognizing the importance of strengthening their defense capabilities; the states of Europe have drawn closer together; and countries elsewhere are seeing the need to offset regional powers by strengthening their own military forces and forging alliances.”

The declinist case also tends to downplay the facts and trends in America’s favor. Its military remains the world’s most formidable. Its economy is recovering. It stands to accrue considerable strategic benefits from trends in tight oil and shale gas. Its demographic outlook is arguably more favorable than that of any other major power. It retains an unmatched ability to integrate the world’s most promising students and entrepreneurs. Finally, if one accepts Stewart Patrick’s proposition that influence is increasingly exercised through “a bewildering array of issue-specific networks and partnerships whose membership varies based on situational interests, shared values, and relevant capabilities,” then America’s extant centrality in today’s liberal world order and its residual margin of preeminence should allow it to position itself smartly and widely in that patchwork.    

Nye suggests that the greatest threat to U.S. influence may not be debt, political gridlock, or even the resurgence of China, but America’s own psychology. Near the end of his book, he identifies two scenarios that could cause it to enter “absolute” decline, which he defines as Roman-style “domestic deterioration or decay”: “the United States becomes too fearful and overreacts to terrorist attacks by closing inwards,” or it overreacts “by becoming overcommitted and waste blood and treasure as it did in Vietnam and Iraq.”

America’s reaction to the progression of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) suggests that Nye’s concern is justified. The AIIB is a fledgling enterprise, after all, not an imminent challenge to global economic governance, and it responds to a pressing global need for high-quality infrastructure. The United States should have welcomed the institution and asked to play a role in shaping its norms and arrangements. By lobbying vigorously against it—only to see 57 countries sign up as founding members, including close allies—the United States inflated the Bank’s strategic significance and compounded the apprehensions of its Asian-Pacific allies that it seeks to thwart China’s continued economic rise.

America’s comprehensive national power will long surpass China’s. If, however, the United States reacts defensively to every indicator of Chinese progress, failing to discern between Chinese actions that compromise vital U.S. interests and those that do not, it will distort the magnitude of the Chinese challenge and render itself more susceptible to making the sorts of miscalculations that have precipitated great-power conflicts in the past. How the United States handles the continued ascent of a country that proclaims its own exceptionalism will be a multi-generation, perhaps even multi-century, litmus test of its psychology. Two others come to mind:  

·           The application of military force, the asset in which the United States has the greatest comparative advantage, is producing diminishing strategic returns.  After nearly 15 years of principally U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, those two countries’ prospects are highly uncertain. The global terrorist threat continues to diffuse—and, in certain quarters, metastasize—despite an intensified campaign of U.S. drone strikes (Reuters reports that the United States carried out 2,320 strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) between August 8 and March 12). Will the United States double down on its application of conventional military power, or will it make greater use of diplomacy and geoeconomics? As it emerges that the United States is playing more of a role in supporting Saudi Arabian strikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen, and given extant pressure by some policymakers to deploy troops against ISIL and/or bomb nuclear facilities in Iran, the United States must guard against getting dragged back into Middle Eastern quicksand. Nye argues that because “revolutions [in the region] may last another generation, smart application of force will be essential….a Kennan-like policy of containment may have more promise than efforts to occupy and control.” 

·           Some of the principal challenges to regional orders across the world are incremental, not existential: consider Iran’s nuclear odyssey, Russia’s slow-drop incursion into Ukraine, and China’s “salami-slicing” campaign in the South China Sea. The dilemma: opposing them without precipitating an escalatory spiral from which there would be no easy avenue of extrication. Will the United States convince itself of its impotence if it is unable to win quick, decisive victories or if it goes through occasional rough patches of strategic setbacks?

The balance of power has always been in flux; so, too, have the contours of world order; and so, too, has the nature of the challenges that that order poses to U.S. interests. The United States has always adapted—even if sometimes clumsily—and, in view of its prodigious resources, there is no reason why it cannot do so again. It is ironic that perhaps the most sensible advice in this regard comes from the most famous declinist, Paul Kennedy: in his 1987 classic The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, he concluded that “the only serious threat to the real interests of the United States can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order.” Here’s to hoping that the United States heeds that judgment.

Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a global fellow at the Project for the Study of the 21st Century. He is a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013).

Image: Flickr/Bob Jagendorf