Shaping Things to Come: America's Role

April 22, 2014 Topic: Global Governance Region: United States

Shaping Things to Come: America's Role

Despite its battle fatigue, a U.S. withdrawal from the world would lead to chaos.

Can a significant change in American foreign policy be expected during such a moment? Will it produce a more modest role in the world for the United States? Is the world better prepared to respond to this reduced position? Here we go again: in the 1950s, these questions accompanied the Korean War; in the 1970s, they grew out of the Vietnam War; in the 1990s, they followed the end of the Cold War; and now, in the 2010s, they are prompted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even in a period of austerity, this is not just a matter of costs; it is also a matter of interest and efficacy. Insisting on “no more Iraqs” is all too obvious: never since the French invasion of the Ruhr in late 1922 has there been such a perfect example of strategic failure.

Iraq alone, however, hardly prescribes what comes next. For what if the emerging polycentric structure of power is not ending the world’s dependence on American power? Will the result be a greater degree of disorder; will such greater disorder place U.S. interests at greater risk without a reappraisal of their range and geography; and will such greater risk and narrower interests prove acceptable to the American public? In short, will the emerging post-American, post-Western world show the institutional discipline and adopt the democratic values we favor?

Answers to these questions remain elusive. Eager to move on, history does not grant its occasional partners any time out, and it is vital for them, therefore, to not lose sight of priorities because it is over such priorities that the threat is most imminent and the risks greatest. For Truman in 1949, the priority was Europe, and before long a newly reelected president concluded an unprecedented peacetime alliance that prepared the West for a new post-European world. For Reagan in 1985, the priority was the Soviet Union, and just as swiftly as Truman had faced it down nearly forty years earlier Reagan ended the “evil empire” and introduced the unipolar world that came next. In 2014, it is in the Middle East that Obama is summoned to become the transformational president he had hoped to be during his first term.

This is the region where Washington has the least historical experience, pursues the most contradictory geopolitical interests and faces the deepest cultural obstacles. But in a crucial moment this is also the undisputed pivotal region—the global Balkans of the new century. In short, whatever distaste Americans may have for the area, more disorder there would result from a lesser American role.

THE AGENDA FOR THE MIDDLE EAST is all the more daunting as the timetable is short. Indeed, the agenda for 2014 is so full that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict no longer looms as the priority it has been over the past sixty-five years. A few years ago it looked as though the Middle East was headed toward a new model—in 2011 the political awakening that had taken place in Eastern Europe in 1989 seemed to be living on in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. These revolutions seemed neither anti- nor pro-Western, neither religious nor secular. But the revolutions of 1848 were, of course, followed by the crackdowns of 1849. Soon after the revolutions said no to the oppressors, the new leaders dismissed the revolutionaries. What looked like a healthy democratic contagion turned into a pandemic of authoritarianism and anarchy in Libya, Syria, South Sudan and Egypt.

In addition, consider the messy aftermath of the war in Iraq and the ambiguous end of the war in Afghanistan; a critical confrontation with Iran, imminent should the six-month interim agreement painfully negotiated in late 2013 not satisfy, at least tacitly, the other regional powers; the unfinished business of the Arab Spring, in Egypt especially, but also its spillover in the Sahel region; the increasingly one-sided, no-happy-ending civil war in Syria, and its impact on Lebanon and Jordan; the disruptive potential of ever more fractured states like Sudan and Libya; the agonizing reappraisal threatened by some of the closest U.S. allies in and near the region, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey; and more, including the “known unknown” of an ever-possible act of terror in the United States or elsewhere in the West à la9/11 in 2001, or in the region or close to it à la Sarajevo in 1914. What all these issues have in common is their urgency: by the end of 2014 most of them will have gotten much better or much worse—but few will have remained the same as “framework agreements” alone will not suffice.

Thus, even as a post-American, post-Western world keeps coming, and even as it raises the prospects for change in the nation’s foreign policy, the Middle East is the region where the postwar equation of American power with world order continues to prevail: If not the United States, who? And if not now, when? Secretary of State John Kerry had it right, in Davos, Switzerland, on January 24, when he dismissed the “bewildering version” of the myth of disengagement from the Middle East during a moment, he said, “of American diplomatic engagement that is as broad and as deep as at any time in history.”

Admittedly, neither the region generally nor any of the issues that define it specifically can be addressed conclusively by the United States without the rest of the West, or by the West without (let alone against) the Rest. But this new reality extends beyond the Middle East. Rather, this is the sorry condition of a messy zero-polar world the like of which was last seen during the so-called interwar years when the twentieth century was at its worst: American power is indispensable to the making of a post-Western order, but it is no longer conclusive and must become inclusive of the non-Western powers that hope to influence it.

Simon Serfaty is a professor of U.S. foreign policy and eminent scholar at Old Dominion University and the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy (emeritus) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His most recent book is A World Recast: An American Moment in a Post-Western World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.)

Image: Flickr/Arlington County. CC BY-SA 2.0.