Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Reports of the United States' Decline Are Greatly Exaggerated

There has been a lot of talk lately about the decline of American power. In this argument, the United States is currently going through a period of imperial overstretch, in which the US commitments to global leadership is being undermined by the on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- which have squandered American soft power, sapped the will of the American public to sustain international leadership, and cost billions of dollars -- and the credit crisis -- which has discredited American economic leadership and slowed the American economy.

While this argument is not new, it is being forcefully made today by Andrew Bacevich in his book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Bacevich's argument is echoed in a piece by H.D.S. Greenway in today's Boston Globe. Greenway writes that:

There is a mythical American narrative, according to Bacevich, that the United States is a nation "providentially set apart in the New World and wanting nothing more than to tend to its own affairs," only grudgingly responding to calls for global leadership "in order to preserve the possibility of freedom." In reality, the United States has sought expansion, first by pushing west until it reached the sea, then through a brief period of direct colonialism, and more recently through a ruthless if indirect imperial policy of control. It worked spectacularly. The United States became a great power replete with material abundance.


The actions of the Bush administration after 9/11 may have been designed to make the United States safe from another attack. But the chosen method was nothing less than to "assert American power throughout the Greater Middle East . . . to transform this region, to employ American power, both hard and soft, to impose order while ensuring stability, order, access, and adherence to American norms - in essence to establish unambiguous US hegemony so that the Islamic world will no longer serve as a breeding ground for terrorists who wish to kill us."


This grand imperial overreach never had a chance. Transforming Islam can only be done by Muslims themselves, in their own due time. The new "liberated" Iraq has not changed the Middle East. The passions of the Middle East have transformed Iraq, perhaps more stable now than a year ago but in no way destined to achieve what Bush, Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, et al wanted and expected.


Militarily, we threw containment and deterrence out the window, banking on the "shock and awe" of preventive war. It hasn't worked. We are bogged down in two wars with an end to neither in sight.
This is a powerful argument, that has been made by many critics of President Bush from camps on both sides of the IR theory aisle. But it doesn't ring true. Despite the current woes of the US -- and there are, to be sure, many -- the US is still the only game in town when it comes to international leadership. And the rest of the world should be happy that that is the case.

First, despite the economic crisis, the US is still the global economic leader, and its market is still the most important in the world. One only need to look at the counter-intuitive strengthening of the dollar during the current credit crisis to see this. Even if the US approach is under siege now, it's not clear that there are any meaningful alternatives. Furthermore, the US economy still functions as the engine that drives the rest of the world. No other actor is powerful enough to exert the kind of control and influence necessary to control the global economy (no, the EU doesn't count...it's financial and economic strength is undermined by its lack of coordination and absence of serious military power).

Second, if the decline argument is true, one would expect to see other states rising to challenge American leadership. Where is that happening? Nowhere. There is no evidence of balancing of either the hard or soft variety by other states. The recent Russian invasion of Georgia doesn't count...Georgia is simply too close to Russia to count. More telling, the attempts by Russia to get international approval of its move into Georgia failed, as did the efforts by Russia and China to form a strategic partnership. The Russian military, and particularly its strategic forces are in decline. And while the Chinese are developing niche capabilities, they are not developing the full-spectrum military capabilities they would need to challenge US leadership. China is well aware that doing so would provoke regional balancing from Japan and South Korea. The Europeans can't even agree on a common security policy, their soft power is in decline, and their military capabilities are a joke. The US is still the unchallenged military might in the world and its leadership is still essential in global institutions.

And that is the way the rest of the world should want it. American leadership and military might provides untold benefits for the international system. The security guarantees provided by the US make it possible for states to spend less on weapons and more on their welfare systems and make it possible for the concept of sovereignty to erode and enable the doctrine of "Responsibility to Protect" and the current emphasis on human rights and international law. Do you think the UN even considers such a doctrine during the Cold War? Or that the ICC can exist in a bipolar world?

This is not to argue that the US is a saintly paragon of ethical leadership. Far from it. But, as Niall Ferguson argues in his excellent Foreign Policy article "A World Without Power" (rr):
Anyone who dislikes U.S. hegemony should bear in mind that, rather than a multipolar world of competing great powers, a world with no hegemon at all may be the real alternative to U.S. primacy. Apolarity could turn out to mean an anarchic new Dark Age: an era of waning empires and religious fanaticism; of endemic plunder and pillage in the world's forgotten regions; of economic stagnation and civilization's retreat into a few fortified enclaves.


The prospect of an apolar world should frighten us today a great deal more than it frightened the heirs of Charlemagne. If the United States retreats from global hegemony -- its fragile self-image dented by minor setbacks on the imperial frontier -- its critics at home and abroad must not pretend that they are ushering in a new era of multipolar harmony, or even a return to the good old balance of power.

Be careful what you wish for. The alternative to unipolarity would not be multipolarity at all. It would be apolarity -- a global vacuum of power. And far more dangerous forces than rival great powers would benefit from such a not-so-new world disorder.


Becky said...

Great post! It seems like everything I have read lately has been all doom and gloom. Your blog, as well as a book that I just recently read, "The Big Gamble," written by Jose Roncal and Jose Abbo, have been the only things I have read lately that have given me some hope.

Acumensch said...

I wish I had time to generate a good response, but for now I'll just say this. I don't understand why the "be careful what you wish for" argument against decline in US hegemony or imperialism is inevitably supposed to end with "disorder" and an "anarchic new Dark Age".