What Happens When America Is No Longer the Undisputed Super Power?

August 17, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: AmericaCultureMilitaryTechnologyWar

What Happens When America Is No Longer the Undisputed Super Power?

Chief among the flawed assumptions undergirding American foreign policy is the belief that perpetual U.S. primacy is both desirable and possible, the “indispensable nation”—a cliché well past its sell-by date.

A rough balance of legitimacy and power—requiring periodic adjustments—persisted over the past seventy years. The bipolar world of the Cold War balanced two separate competing systems; from 1989 until recently, the liberal rules-based order, globalized with the demise of the Soviet empire, constituted a system that yielded unprecedented global prosperity and stability among major powers. Of critical importance, domestically, from Harry S. Truman to George H.W. Bush, there was a core bipartisan consensus for Cold War containment; from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, ample bipartisan support for the rules-based liberal order. Of late, the cumulative damage from the U.S. 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of China, a rejuvenated Russia, and the downside of globalization have torn the connective tissues of that world. The scales are tipped toward power, with diminished legitimacy.

Understanding the causality of an unraveling system is the first step toward shaping a viable order. But in sourcing the causes of a fraying order since 9/11, the authors attribute it to “a combination of great power ambition, American withdrawal and transformational changes that left many nations unmoored from old certainties.” They offer a long list of mainly Russian and Chinese transgressions—from Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, intervention in Syria, and the 2016 U.S. elections, to Beijing’s assertiveness in multilateral fora, economic coercion, and aggression in the South China Sea.

All true. But absent from the list is any U.S. agency: the hubris of the “unipolar moment” in “humanitarian interventions,” blind faith in globalization, expanding nato to Russian borders and discounting predictable consequences. Post-9/11, there was the invasion of Iraq, creating a cascade of events destabilizing the entire region; the 2008 financial crisis which helped foster the surge of populism; the Libya fiasco, and more—all certainly causal factors. Yet with regard to U.S. agency, only an amorphous “withdrawal” is cited as a factor. But from where, exactly? By any metric, U.S. roles in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East have not qualitatively diminished, however irrelevant to ameliorating the region’s multiple conflicts. Trump’s “America First” has certainly torn the fabric of the U.S.-designed post-World War II economic and security system and created perceptions of U.S. retreat. Yet all those pivotal developments of the previous two decades preceded it, and their interaction with, and impact on, other major powers certainly led to the current condition.

WE ARE told that the “fundamental strategic problem the United States faces with respect to world order is how it should respond to the breakdown in agreed arrangements between the major powers.” Yes, but all breakdowns are not equal, and in some respects, the United States is the outlier. Is there a breakdown in arrangements with Europe, India, and Japan? Is American retreat from otherwise functioning institutions (the Paris Climate Accord, UNESCO, WHO, Iran nuclear deal, TPP, etc.) a strategic problem requiring U.S. agency to fix, or an own goal? Is a world where China, Thailand, and the UK join TPP—an increasingly likely scenario as multilateral Free Trade Agreements continue to expand—a disorder problem? Similarly, the confrontations between Turkey and Russia to shape outcomes in Libya and Syria illustrate new geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East, sans Washington.

 These developments reflect a shifting global distribution of power, and a reality that American abdication of leadership and perceptions of unreliability have pushed many, including U.S. allies and partners, to develop post-U.S. coping/hedging policies. This is evidenced in frenzied EU free trade arrangements with Japan, ASEAN, Vietnam, Mexico, MERCOSUR, among others. Similarly, the growing intra-Asian security cooperation networks—Japan-India-Vietnam-Australia-Philippines—in response to concerns about China are unprecedented and exemplify this trend.

When it comes to Russia and China, an unsustainable, increasingly unrestrained economic and geostrategic competition is emerging. Let us put aside, for now, the wisdom of defining both China and Russia—two of the world’s largest militaries, nuclear weapons states, and in China’s case, the world’s number one trading power, capital exporter, and a leading high-tech state—as adversarial competitors. To be fair, both Xi Jinping’s radical totalitarianism and Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian chauvinist regime constitute problems for much of the world.

But what to make of the suggestion that reconstituting an inclusive world order may be too difficult, so instead, perhaps the United States should, the authors argue, “concentrate on improving its own ordering options in accordance with its values regardless of whether China, Russia or others go along.” The United States should,” they add, “rebuild the core coalition of like-minded liberal democratic states.” The appeal of an order of “like-minded” democracies as a default world order, a view gaining wide appeal, is well articulated by John Ikenberry in Foreign Affairs. It is worth recalling Henry Kissinger’s analysis of the post-Versailles Treaty world: 

Two overlapping and contradictory postwar orders were coming into being: the world of rules and international law, inhabited primarily by Western democracies in their interactions with each other; and an unconstrained zone appropriated by powers that had withdrawn from this system of limits to achieve greater freedom of action … the Versailles order achieved neither legitimacy or equilibrium.

Mobilizing U.S. allies and like-minded partners into a coalition to shape updated rules and norms is, indeed, the requisite beginning of any viable U.S. strategy. It could build the leverage to shape much-needed new rules, norms and the terms of competition/coexistence—China is only 16 percent of the global economy. But as a successor to the post-World War II order, it is deeply problematic. First, there is Lord Palmerston—nations have “permanent interests” rather than permanent allies or adversaries. Democracies may have a community of values—an important factor—but geography, economics, and culture are also powerful forces shaping perceived interests, often in tension with values. Look no further than the array of U.S.-Europe disputes, from climate policy, global health, Iran, China, the Nordstream II pipeline, and so on, to name a few. Not to mention, as the report points out, a trend of illiberal democracies—Turkey, Hungary, Poland, for starters. Then there is the underestimation of how much U.S. behavior has dissipated its legitimacy and reliability, the global perceptions of what the authors call a “dysfunctional superpower—one unable to pass budgets, manage its debt, ratify treaties, or carry out a coherent and consistent foreign policy.” Some might add, an inability to put medical science ahead of polarized, tribal politics.

More importantly, has there been a stable world order in the history of civilization that did not include some balance and shared assumptions about expected behavior among major powers? In the pre-nuclear, pre-automobile/plane/train, pre-information and communications technologies era, mostly separate, parallel orders were possible. For example, the peace of Westphalia did not include Russia or Chinese tributary systems or the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which largely operated in separate spheres. Even then, they bumped up against each other—consider the Ottoman invasions of Europe. But is that possible today? Can they find “another way toward a stable and acceptable equilibrium and marginalize major powers like China and Russia?”

Moreover, despite tariffs, sanctions, and a decoupling push, China remains the top U.S. trading partner. Similarly, Beijing is the largest trading partner of the EU and most U.S. allies and partners in Asia, as well as a leading exporter of capital, as its $1.2 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) underscores. How does a world order absent China work? The authors argue that the “gap between the U.S. and China is too large to bridge.” Perhaps. But has diplomacy to narrow that gap and define the terms of competition been exhausted?

Beijing’s policies are not necessarily set in stone. Xi Jinping’s radical revolution changed China’s policies, walking back from his own market-focused reforms agreed to at the 19th Party Congress. If the costs outweigh the benefits, they could be altered once more. The point is to test whether China’s unacceptable aspirations and what Beijing can ultimately live with are two different things. The current tit-for-tat, mindlessly escalating confrontation has, so far, precluded that.

The collective weight of the other 84 percent of the global economy could provide leverage to roll back some of Xi’s predatory mercantilist policies. By not assembling a coalition (e.g.; EU, Japan, Australia, Republic of Korea) to push back against China’s breaching of norms in the WTO, UN Law of the Sea Treaty, and other norms, the Trump administration has turned what should be a “China vs. the World” problem into a United States vs. China problem—even as a still inchoate global backlash against Beijing’s imperious behavior is surging.

Then there is the issue of nuclear weapons, which require some core accepted rules and redlines. The unraveling of the architecture of restraint vis-à-vis Russia, and the prospect of 1960s-like renewed arms races, though this time with China as a complicating factor, is a danger. The global commons—air, sea, space, cyber—are increasingly contested. Moreover, emerging technologies—AI, offensive cyber, anti-space, and hypersonic missiles—all create new threats to crisis stability, with the ability to put second-strike capabilities at risk. Not least, there are pressing transnational threats—pandemics, climate change, the oceans, food/water, natural disasters, terrorism, narcotrafficking—that are mutual vulnerabilities and require international cooperation to redress.

BUT ARE there competing visions of world order that obviate the possibility of finding a stable, minimally acceptable balance among the major powers? China has been selectively revisionist and what we would call invented irredentist, reclaiming territories—e.g.; in the East and South China Seas—it imagines were Chinese “since ancient times.” Beijing has largely accepted most multilateral institutions—the UN system, IMF, WTO, WHO, etc.—predictably seeking to bend the rules in its interests. Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for example, has so far appeared more as another regional development bank, working closely with the Asian Development Bank and World Bank/International Finance Corporation rather than upending established institutions. However, the BRI is a macro-example of Beijing’s efforts to build Sino-centric arrangements and influence on the Eurasian landmass, though the jury is still out on it.