Wallowing in Decline

Americans have gone from gloating over their global influence to bemoaning the loss of it. They were wrong then, and they're wrong now.

In Super Sad True Love Story, the novelist Gary Shteyngart imagines a not-very-remote future in which the United States, having giddily spent itself into bankruptcy, falls into the hands of Chinese bankers, who call in their T-bills, precipitating armed warfare and state collapse. The comic apocalypse conjured by Shteyngart, a wry connoisseur of baroque states of decline, induces in the reader a peculiar sense of queasiness: Is that not, in fact, what lies ahead? In a recent column titled "Too Many Hamburgers?" the New York Times' Thomas Friedman offered a particularly stomach-wrenching version of the Spenglerian nightmare, in which America is personified by an overweight and overconfident boy who loses a footrace to a fiercely competitive Chinese kid. Declinism has begun to settle into our bones.

Nothing is foretold, of course. But you wouldn't want to bet the house, or even a sofa set, that the United States will overcome the rampant triviality of its culture, the self-righteousness of its national psyche, or the ideological paralysis of its politics in order to deal with the lack of critical investment, the decline of human capital, the looming tidal wave of entitlement spending, and the like. Another generation of this squandering of national assets, and Americans may find themselves clamoring for Shteyngart's "yuan-pegged dollars."

The United States remains unmatched in economic and military might. It leads because no other country -- and certainly not China -- aspires to the job, much less has the capacity for it. But the United States no longer enjoys the deference paid it only a decade or two ago. And the country has begun to run up against the limits of its resources as international commitments become increasingly mismatched with capacities. American hegemony has thus slipped both in relative and in absolute terms. Less than a decade ago, works like Walter Russell Mead's Power, Terror, Peace, and War celebrated the triumph of "millennial capitalism" and thus of American supremacy; henceforth we will be wallowing in the literature of decline. We should, of course, be as skeptical of this new narrative as we ought to have been of the triumphalist canon that preceded it.

The scholar Michael Mandelbaum has been first out of the gate with The Frugal Superpower: America's Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Age. Mandelbaum argues that the United States suffers not from "imperial overstretch" but from "entitlement overstretch" -- too many promised hamburgers without the ability to pay for them. Leaders will have to impose a foreign-policy diet, cutting out the gratifications of the past couple of decades of reckless abundance. The humanitarian interventions of Somalia and the Balkans "will not be repeated." The same is true of interventions designed to bring democracy to authoritarian states. Even peaceful intervention will come to be seen as an unaffordable luxury: "The enterprise of state-building ... will disappear from the foreign-policy agenda of the United States."

Mandelbaum holds the odd view that from World War II through the end of the Cold War, the United States deployed force to defend itself, and since then has done so in support of "worthy causes all over the planet," whether stopping genocide or promoting democracy in the Middle East. But a cash-strapped leviathan must return to being a status quo power rather than a "philanthropic" one. Here at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt argues, I think with more plausibility, that the United States has "chosen to do a few things that are very difficult" and has failed, while China has enjoyed the advantage of pursuing self-interest in the most narrow and straightforward fashion. Walt suggests that America stick to what it does best: "deterring large-scale aggression," "brokering peace deals," and "encouraging intelligent liberalization of the world economy."

Post-hegemonic America really sounds like a downer, even if the country doesn't get divvied up among sovereign wealth funds as Shteyngart imagines. Of course, American global deterrence prevented the Cold War from turning into World War III and still provides allies with crucial reassurance. But what the United States also does best is provide the kind of global public goods that status quo powers tend to shrug at: building multilateral institutions, championing liberal norms, and corralling states into collective action on global problems like nuclear nonproliferation. Are these, too, the unaffordable luxuries of our halcyon days?

I suspect that Mandelbaum and Walt are right about transformational undertakings like Iraq and Afghanistan, which have increasingly come to feel like acts of folly, or hubris. (In Shteyngart's novel, the United States has embarked on a catastrophic invasion of Venezuela.) But does the same reasoning apply to the civilian effort -- the state-building effort -- in Pakistan, as Mandelbaum argues? What about, say, the upcoming effort in Southern Sudan: Should the people of that region vote for independence in the referendum next January? Should a superpower living within its straitened means confine itself to encouraging market reform? After all, classic deterrence, which keeps American soldiers quartered all over the globe, is vastly more expensive than state-building. The real question is whether a post-hegemonic United States should continue to try to do the difficult things that do not enjoy a great deal of support from an increasingly agitated and impatient public, but are nevertheless extremely important.

Well, what else is leadership for? President Barack Obama devoted almost half of his speech to the U.N. General Assembly this week to the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad -- the very definition of the "philanthropic" policy that his predecessor so ruinously pursued and upon which the American people seem to have turned their back. China, of course, suffers from no such imperial distractions. But Obama's appeal, unlike George W. Bush's, focused on institutions the United States would support, rather than on American unilateral will and capacity. His administration, he said, would seek to foster civil society organizations around the world; would fund UNDEF, the United Nations' democracy program; and would promote transparency in closed societies. Obama specifically asked the emerging-power democracies to make a comparable pledge. It was a policy that acknowledged the limits -- though not the economic limits -- of American power.

The way I would put the post-hegemonic dilemma is that the United States must leverage the international system to produce outcomes that promote its national security: whether in regard to regulating the global economy, stopping nuclear proliferation, propping up weak states, or promoting democracy and good governance abroad; but that system has become less tractable as America's relative position has slipped. Washington cannot, for example, solve the problem of Iran on its own -- and only through the most lavish effort can it keep other key states in line. Newcomers to the international order like Brazil and Turkey, and above all China, feel they have more to gain than to lose by advancing their own interests when they conflict with Washington's. Yet what choice does the United States have, save navigating this turbulent system and seeking to shape it so that it better serves American ends?

Even more important, would much of the world really welcome a chastened United States which sticks to its knitting, pursues self-interest narrowly defined, and stows away the language of universal values? For a little while, perhaps it would. After all, Washington has committed a multitude of sins in the name of those values. But the celebration would die away soon enough: If the sole superpower won't take up the hard jobs, no one else will either.

Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Bashir Insanity

Team Obama has just offered Sudan's genocidal tyrant one last olive branch. A hickory switch might work better.

This past Tuesday, when the punditocracy was raptly focused on the electoral results in Delaware and New Hampshire, the U.S. State Department quietly issued a policy statement on Sudan that offered the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir a path to escape sanctions and restore normal relations with the United States.

Why no fanfare? Perhaps an administration highly sensitive to accusations of equivocation in the face of evil was reluctant to call attention to a policy that emphasized carrots rather than sticks -- or rather, to use the splendidly mangled metaphor of one administration official, offered to the regime in Khartoum "a carrot painted with a finer degree of granularity." Bashir, who has been indicted on genocide charges by the International Criminal Court, doesn't deserve a carrot. But the Obama administration has rightly concluded that absent strong inducements, deserved or not, from the United States and other key actors, the regime in Khartoum could well plunge Sudan back into a horrendous civil war.

In January 2005, the regime and the breakaway government of the south put an end to almost 40 years of war by signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The CPA gave southerners the right to choose independence or greater autonomy within Sudan. The referendum in which they will make that choice is scheduled for Jan. 10, 2011, and no one doubts that voters will overwhelmingly choose the former -- if the referendum is held, and conducted honestly. But Khartoum appears to have no intention of permitting that. Oil has turned Sudan into a boom economy, and 80 percent of the country's oil is located in the south. Moreover, the regime fears -- with good reason -- that granting independence to the South would embolden other regional insurgencies.

Suliman Baldo, a Sudanese scholar with the International Center on Transitional Justice, says that the Bashir government has been orchestrating a domestic media campaign to promote the fiction that all Sudanese seek national unity -- and thus that a vote for independence is intrinsically illegitimate. Baldo and others fear that if Khartoum blocks or refuses to recognize the election, provoking the government of the South to unilaterally declare independence, the decades-long civil war that led to the deaths of two million people will resume.

The Obama administration has responded to this apocalyptic prospect with a belated, but very concentrated, diplomatic surge. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor James Jones have spoken with Salva Kiir, the southern leader, and Ali Osman Taha, Sudan's vice president, urging them to make progress on the terms laid out in the CPA, which they have so far failed to do. President Obama announced last week that he would personally attend a U.N. Security Council session on Sudan chaired by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the upcoming General Assembly meeting; that in turn has persuaded other heads of state, as well as Kiir and Taha, to attend. The administration has beefed up its diplomatic representation in Sudan, in part by naming Princeton Lyman, a veteran diplomat with long experience in Africa, to work with the two sides. And last weekend Scott Gration, Obama's special envoy to Sudan, went to Khartoum to deliver the administration's new offer.

That offer is at the heart of the strategy document released earlier this week. Gration presented the regime with four ascending "stages" of granularized carrot. The administration will immediately change the rules governing the export of agricultural equipment to Sudan, now tightly controlled by sanctions. "Previously there had been an assumption of no," a White House official explained to me. "Now we're going to shift to an assumption of yes." This is, in effect, a gift for showing up -- no strings attached. If the regime permits the referendum to proceed and respects the outcome, the White House will lift further trade restrictions (though not on the all-important oil sector). If Khartoum also reaches agreement on key North-South issues, including the drawing of boundaries and sharing of oil revenue, Washington will appoint an ambassador (the last ambassador, Timothy Michael Carney, was withdrawn in 1996 after Sudan was declared a state sponsor of terrorism). Only, however, if Khartoum also resolves the Darfur conflict does the administration promise to seek full normalization and the lifting of sanctions.

Administration officials present the package as an "intensification" of existing diplomacy, but that is slightly disingenuous. After long, and reportedly heated, arguments inside the White House over the proper balance between carrot and stick, officials have produced a document that is highly specific about inducements and carefully vague about threats. Despite veiled references to "accountability," the statement is silent on the ICC indictments. And after much discussion over whether it's acceptable, or effective, to address the North-South conflict separately from Darfur, the administration plan will allow Khartoum to profit from compliance on North-South issues, though Bashir wins the jackpot only for restoring peace to Darfur.

Some, though not all, members of the advocacy community are appalled at the decision to, quite literally, let the regime get away with murder. John Norris, a Sudan expert at the Center for American Progress and former head of the Enough Project, calls the package "unseemly." Norris points out that in 2005 Western diplomats made a calculated decision to bless the North-South peace agreement even as the regime perpetrated mass slaughter in Darfur. Indeed, from the very beginnings of the killings in Darfur, in 2003, Bashir responded to pressure from the West by threatening to scuttle negotiations over ending the civil war. "Once again," Norris says, "you've got a bunch of diplomats saying that this current situation is so serious that we need to ignore all this other stuff."

So there is both a moral case and a strategic case against offering Khartoum goodies in exchange for behaving itself on the referendum. But if the derailing of the referendum really would lead to mass killing (and some experts I spoke to are skeptical on this score), then it's patent that the moral imperative is to give Bashir incentives to behave himself, and to leave the issue of just deserts to a future date. The only real question is effectiveness. A number of studies (pdf) have concluded that marginalizing Darfur to get the CPA signed was a disastrous mistake that sent Bashir a signal that he could do as he wished with the people of Darfur. Why is it correct now?

Gration was foolish enough to say earlier this year that what remained in Darfur, seven years after the killing broke out, was only "the remnants of genocide." He was quickly forced to retract the comment in the face of outrage from activists. But he was right. Civilians in Darfur still live in a state of terror, and millions remain displaced; but much of the killing now pits rebel groups, or Arab tribesmen, against one another. On the other hand, the steadily rising levels of violence in the South, much of it probably instigated by Bashir and his colleagues, could explode into the kind of mass ethnic reprisals provoked by the partition of India and Pakistan in 1948. As a State Department official puts it delicately, "There is a sense of urgency on both Darfur and the CPA, but there is a growing sense of immediacy on North-South issues." The situation in 2005 was the exact opposite.

That said, Bashir must be made to feel that there is a powerful, and imminent, "or else." So far, the Obama team has hesitated to make threats. Gration in particular has been far too willing in the past to accept the regime's bona fides, as if unaware of the bland reassurances and bald-faced lies that frustrated his predecessors. Even now, he and his team may be putting too much stock in the influence of "moderates" inside the ruling National Congress Party, whom Western officials have been banking on -- fruitlessly -- for years. Bashir is likely to "accept" the State Department's proposal, and then add onerous conditions of his own. A White House official insists that the administration is prepared for that eventuality, and adds that the ability to marshal an international response in case of rejection is "a very important part of the thinking" that went into the new offer. As with Iran, that is, the regime's rebuff of what is seen as a fair offer will help the United States build the case for tougher sanctions than those Sudan now faces.

Will Bashir be suitably impressed by that prospect? Over the years, he has blithely ignored Security Council resolutions, sanctions, threats of prosecution, and global public opprobrium. He has learned all too well how to exploit the weakness of international diplomacy. Now he holds a lit match over a vast bonfire. Perhaps he fears the consequences of flicking it on to the pyre, but the irresolute response of years past have ensured it's his choice -- and his alone.