[Re-posted from earlier today]
My old friends at The Economist have their nickers in a twist (look it up) about the loss of American “credibility” because there has been no military response to Ukraine, little follow-up in Libya, and a crossed red line in Syria. The leader (look it up) makes some vague and confusing statements along the way. It argues that “international norms, such as freedom of navigation, will be weakened,” if the US doesn’t somehow throw its weight around more, while simultaneously acknowledging that “America towers above all others in military spending and experience.” They concede that on Ukraine, military force would be insane and Germany and Britain have made stronger sanctions impossible as of now; they also misstate what happened in Syria. They claim that “The Syrian dictator [used chemical weapons], and Mr Obama did nothing.” Nothing? So how is it that Syria has now peacefully relinquished almost all of its chemical stockpile? And wasn’t resolving that question – and not the broader problem of Syria’s sectarian implosion – the entire point of the threatened strike? Are we supposed to prefer an option that would have dragged the US into the Syrian vortex and not guaranteed any actual success to a policy that kept us out but largely solved the problem?
The first thing to say about this is that The Economist is fundamentally a British paper. It has a vast US readership, but its DNA is British. And being British for the past several decades has meant being reliant on the US to protect its security. Of course the Brits want the US policing every nook and cranny of the world. They don’t have to pay for it; yet they get to enjoy its fruits. They argue, of course, that these are fruits for America as well. And so they are. And if anyone were even thinking of reducing America’s maintenance of international trade routes, for example, they might have a point. But policing the world with the US military is not cost-free at all – either fiscally or in more basic human terms.
Think of the Vietnam War and the Iraq War – both conceived under the influence of the hubristic fumes and the idiocy of the “credibility argument: (see Peter Beinart’s take on that particular fallacy here). Look at the country’s debt – a huge amount of which can be traced to the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us so presciently about, and one that went on steroids in the first decade of this century. And look at average living standards – stagnant for three decades at least in some part because of globalization. You can argue that the US should not withdraw from the world (and I would) – but withdrawal from the world is not the same thing as prudent and sensible recalibration of resources in a debt-racked, over-extended and thereby less effective country on the world stage.
We are not, pace The Economist, still living in the post-Cold War era, when the US ran a surplus. We are living in a post-post-Cold War era where America owes inconceivable sums to China, a soon-to-be-bigger economic power. And if you want to see American influence really decline, then the best way to do that is to maintain unsustainable over-reach. You’d think Brits would have taken this lesson to heart, since that was one core reason they lost their empire as well. And history is littered with the demise of other over-stretched powers, like the Soviet Union or Imperial Spain. The future is littered with other potential over-reach victims, the most obvious of which is Greater Israel, run by many of the same neocons who drove the US into a ditch only a few years ago.
More to the point, it seems increasingly clear to me that this post-post-Cold War era is one destined to last for the foreseeable future. And the fundamentals of that era are increasingly opposed to the concept of American global hegemony. No one can police the world today as the US did in the 20th Century. The rationale of the world’s policeman has thus radically changed. As Millman notes in a superb piece:
The rise of Japan was followed by the rise of smaller east Asian states and now the rise of the Asian mega-states, China and India. Latin America and the Muslim Middle East have grown into substantial regions, demographically and economically, and are no longer obviously under Western control (or even influence). Africa’s demographic momentum, meanwhile, will carry that continent to far greater prominence by the end of the century than it has ever achieved before.
Not only are these other powers much stronger relative to the US – an inevitable function of the success of US foreign policy in the past – but they don’t accept America’s right to dictate the contours of the global order. Russia is the most obvious example, right now. But that was the deepest lesson of the Iraq catastrophe: the Iraqis didn’t actually want the things that Americans (including me) reflexively thought they wanted. They live by different values and different priorities. The [indigenous] sect beats the [imperial] nation every time; and authoritarianism trumps democracy every time. And our attempt to force them to be live by Bill Kristol’s values only guaranteed the failure.
America’s reflexive belief that its way of the world is superior to everyone else is also increasingly, tragically, attenuated.
It will take decades to recover from the state-authorized torture and detention policies of the Bush administration and the Obama administration’s refusal to adhere to the Geneva Conventions. American democracy is widely seen across the world (and not without reason) as an oligarchy of the super-rich; its Republican hinterlands are regarded as a repository of know-nothingness; its virulent opposition to providing access to healthcare for all is seen a psychosis; its NSA is viewed as a threat to allies; its police-state airport borders the sign of a society less free than many in Western Europe. And there is no Soviet Union to point to when America is challenged on these grounds. The alternative is not obviously much worse.
Now you can go on pretending that this hasn’t happened – and isn’t still happening – as the Economist and the Beltway hand-wringers do. You can topple the Libyan regime on humanitarian grounds, just as in the olden days (except Reagan was much less interventionist). But you’ll leave a nest of Jihadists in your wake. But all this has happened – and America’s collapsing infrastructure has become an emblem of a polity in steep decline. Obama has mitigated this to a heroic extent – but the underlying reality remains. We have to let go of control; we have to stop seeing every crisis in the world as one that America has to resolve; we have to tend to ourselves before we lecture to anyone else. And this the American people understand, as poll after poll tells us. And without the American people squarely behind it, no American foreign policy can succeed.
In the Ukraine crisis you see this most vividly. We supported the Maidan revolution but its practical effect has been to render order and peace throughout the country close to non-existent. Ukraine’s reformers have some responsibility for their predicament. They pissed away the post-Soviet era in rampant corruption, military decline, and economic stagnation. They removed a democratically elected government by violence, something inimical to any hope for democratic reform. They have no coherent plan for resisting Putin’s foul expansionism. Like Morgan Stanley, they expect to be bailed out – and that helped create this crisis. I’m far from exonerating Putin. But if we fail to see the arguments behind the propaganda of the other side, we will fail.
Of course, this process of letting go will be anxiety-producing. Relative decline is never easy for a hegemon, especially one drunk on the fumes of its own self-love. There will be a backlash. But you’ll notice how few of the current critics of Obama’s vastly under-rated foreign policy don’t actually have much to say specifically about how they would better defuse these myriad ructions across the globe (and they are mere ructions compared to the past, it’s worth remembering). At some point they will begin to see that their lack of alternatives is a function of something other than their nemesis in the White House. And at some point, one can only hope, they’ll grow up.