Voice

America, Limited

How the U.S. went from the world's CEO to just another shareholder.

My dad was an old artillery officer. Having escaped Hitler as a teenager, he was fighting for America in Europe five years later. You would think this would have had a profound impact on him. You would think it would produce great lessons he could pass on to his kids. It probably did. But he didn't pass them on. Rather, he said that the most important lesson he learned in the field artillery was, "If you can sit down, sit down. If you can lie down, lie down. And if you can sleep, sleep."

It's a lesson I took to heart. Interestingly, the spirit of this lesson now infuses all American foreign policy. With regard to America's approach to the world today, the version of my father's maxim would be: "If you can do little, do little. If you can do nothing, do nothing. And if you can get the heck out, get the heck out."

It used to be that America distinguished itself from every other nation because we were the only country in the world that when almost anything happened, our response would be "What should we do?" While for most other countries, the responding question would be "Should we do something?" Today, however, the idea of taking action is so anathema or difficult or risk-laden or all of the above, that when something happens, the question America seems to grapple with is "What should we say about this?" 

The United States has gone from being a hyperpower to becoming the equivalent of a mere commentator on world affairs. Too often, it seems we practice foreign policy by Twitter. In our hugely president-centric system it looks like the president and his views are our primary foreign policy deliverables. He disapproves. He approves. He imposes a red line in Syria. He moves the line, and then he moves it again. He seems to forget about the line even as evidence of repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrians seems to mount. This is how America throws its weight around these days.   

How do we deal with a problem like Egypt? Lay on the adjectives. Russia got you down? Throw in a crack about Vladimir Putin's posture. Oh sure, we can take modest action. In Russia, for instance, we cancelled a meeting with our president. In Egypt, we pull the plug on joint military exercises that seemed likely to be cancelled anyway. I've seen more meaningful gestures in a conversation between two old Jewish guys on a bench in Miami Beach. And within days even what actions we did take with regard to Egypt were obscured in a bizarre set of conflicting messages -- first aid to Egypt was under review, then possibly suspended, but secretly, but maybe not, but... Well, none of it mattered anyway because the Saudis said they would provide whatever financial support we withheld. So in the end, our meager influence was negated and virtually all our real allies in the region alienated, left to doubt our resolve.

What we are doing in Egypt is the opposite of policy. It is confusion wrapped in chaos shrouded in incoherence. It doesn't demonstrate influence, it undercuts it. Many of the president's most stalwart supporters are starting to worry that -- following the departures of strong voices like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and former CIA Director and SecDef Leon Panetta -- America's standing is deteriorating. One former top Democratic National Security official said to me, "The result of repeated ineffective incrementalism is impotence. I'm afraid Ben Rhodes may have been half right when he called what we were doing ‘leading from behind.' Because in many instances now, we're not leading at all."

Now, given that in our very recent past we have paid a high price for over-reaction and over-reach, more measured, thoughtful, and nuanced responses are certainly welcome in principle. Furthermore, in some cases -- despite public outcry and justifiable indignation (as in Egypt and in Russia) -- it is important to remember that nothing is as simple as the talk show moralizing makes it out to be. For example, while murdering protestors in the street is deplorable, it is important to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood abused power and committed human rights violations on such a widespread scale that it's hard for any fair-minded observer not to welcome their removal from office. And while Putin may be a relentless provocateur, issues like nuclear disarmament still require open dialogue between our countries and shutting down relations now would be extremely foolhardy. 

That said earlier examples of our "less is more" foreign policy helped create the dilemmas we have with both Egypt and Russia. Both instances illustrate how strong action was called for and its absence exacerbated serious problems that dog us today. In the case of ousted president Mohamed Morsy, we were comparatively quiet as he ran roughshod over the Egyptian constitution. Had we had a serious conversation about revoking aid or had we, in concert with our allies, applied greater pressure on him, perhaps we could have influenced events so they wouldn't have deteriorated to the point that a military overthrow of his government was not only inevitable but welcomed by so many Egyptians. That we failed to take action against Putin as he enabled Bashar al-Assad's slaughter of his own people in Syria, but instead felt compelled to punish him for granting asylum to Edward Snowden, speaks volumes about our priorities. (We could make the same argument for earlier, more decisive action in Syria, the benefits of which could have included more support for the anti-Assad opposition. And given today's fresh allegations coming from Damascus of chemical attacks, this early action should have included targeted, limited but potent use of air power once it was clear Obama's erstwhile "red line" had been crossed months and months ago.)

As Joe Biden predicted during the 2008 campaign, Obama has been tested by foreign leaders. And, after each challenge, the resulting message -- sent again and again -- has been clear: you may get a stern talking to but these days the United States doesn't really have the appetite for bold foreign policy moves. 

(One notable exception to this has been the U.S. effort to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- a worthy endeavor to be sure. Though the United States stands to lose as much for not doing it as for doing it and the outcome in either case is very likely to be the same. Indeed, it could be construed as a way of sidestepping the region's more difficult and important problems. My friend David Sanger of the New York Times has observed that important as Kerry's efforts are, these recent negotiations echo a previous era -- when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at the center of Washington and the world's agenda. But today, Sanger notes, it is at best the fourth priority in the second most important region of the world. First priority and the top region is Asia -- the land of economic opportunity, innovation, and the rise of a huge middle class on which American growth depends. Then, back in the region of old problems, the No. 1 priority is a nuclear Iran, the No. 2 and No. 3 priorities are the arc of instability created by Egypt's upheaval and Syria's potential explosion. According to Sanger, this means that the secretary of state is devoting a huge amount of political capital and diplomatic bandwidth to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- a problem that, even if miraculously solved, will not help America manage China's rise, halt proliferation, or bring stability to the region. There may have been a time, he suggests, when Israeli-Palestinian peace promised at least some of that, but this is not that time.)

While I was in Asia last week, a point that was repeatedly emphasized to me was that America's lack of engagement (or apparent strategy) in the region was raising concerns from Canberra to New Delhi, from Seoul to Manila. The problem was compounded by the fact that while America leans back, others are stepping up. Geopolitics abhors a vacuum. China is already reaching out to its neighbors in Southeast Asia offering to build ports and roads and other big projects that will knit economies together and breed interdependency. China has a plan to consolidate influence even as ours fades from lack of effective use. What our partners in the region would like is for us to have a plan for a regional architecture that offers more balance. President Obama will have two chances to explore such options during trips to Asia later this year ... but how can he given the lack of groundwork and thinking that's been done in this area to date?

But if some of the administration's overall caution is directly traceable to characteristics of the president and his team, there is a host of other contributing factors turning us inward -- the aftermath of catastrophic involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, our financial problems at home, and the polarization of American politics. And despite howls to the contrary, left and right wingers -- as evidenced by policy visions offered by the president and Senator Rand Paul -- share some striking similarities. Both men and the political parties they represent seem more comfortable with America lite, both men would effectively rebrand the country America, Ltd., with the emphasis on the limitations.

While the modern Middle East contains several case studies in the folly of American over-involvement, we are perhaps predictably now swinging in the other direction. And as a result, we are creating a new set of case studies that reveal the consequences of America's reluctance to work hard, with friends where possible, to take real action or maintain a presence when necessary.

Currently, America is very nearly immobilized by guilt, risk aversions, the president's naturally cautious nature, lessons learned (and some mislearned), financial distress, and political dysfunction. And though we are still the most powerful nation on earth, power is nothing without the will or the know-how to use it. That doesn't mean we should engage in a new wave of military adventures. As one Middle Eastern leader said in a meeting I attended, "We don't need America to be on the playing field. But we would welcome them as a coach with a clear plan and position." First and foremost the answer lies in reasserted presidential leadership. In addition, it requires an adjustment in attitude and a level of administration-wide effort as well as the discipline and high-level commitment to develop and implement strategies, delegate authority appropriately, listen to and work more effectively with our allies, and all the other elements required by actively managing a multidimensional foreign policy. 

In the near term, many of our closest allies are concluding they can no longer expect this of us. Just like our president who made a quick statement on Egypt and immediately returned to the golf course last week, this is one superpower that is on vacation. How long the break will last will go a long way toward determining whether the decade ahead will be seen as a period of protracted U.S. decline or a time of rebound, one that so many of our allies (and even some of our rivals) recognize the world needs if it is to be a safer, more stable, more prosperous place.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Pacific Standard

America needs to learn from Asia or get used to following it.

SINGAPORE — There is nothing like a trip to Asia to put Washington's lack of perspective on the great global issues of our time into perspective. I'm not saying this in that typical snarky self-hating American abroad tone often found in media commentaries. I say it because every place I've visited on this trip still actively and respectfully looks to the U.S. government for leadership. Allies and rivals alike still consider our role in international affairs to be a special one. Rather, the concern I've heard mentioned repeatedly during this past week (in Australia, Singapore, and in talking here to friends from both China and Japan) is about the political dysfunction and distraction in Washington and whether or not it's still possible for us to lead as we once did.

That is not to say that unease about structural problems and slow growth in the U.S. economy doesn't also factor into concerns about the United States. Nor does it minimize the shift in momentum that continues, even amid a regional slowdown in Asia, as this part of the world sees mounting evidence that it, rather than America, will lead global growth for decades to come. The television commercial I saw this morning in my Singapore hotel room -- a slickly produced promotional ad for the city of Chengdu, China, boldly touting the fact that half the world's Fortune 500 companies have operations there -- was starkly illustrative of this. So too have been the other data points, factoids, anecdotes, and insights that have punctuated virtually every conversation I've had here on this trip. That most leaders in Washington still have never even heard of Chengdu, the Szechuan capital that is considerably larger than New York, is, of course, unsettling. But this trip has made it clear to me that pervasive ignorance of the great realities of our time is only one of the problems we face.

It is just as striking to see how America's policymakers are falling behind in terms of creativity and vision compared to their counterparts. Our gaze is too firmly locked on our political navels and our energies too devoted to impeding our domestic political opponents' success for us to thoughtfully consider the challenges ahead. In Washington, it seems, "tomorrow" is the day that will never come, a place to which problems are punted and where we assume solutions will magically present themselves. Here however there is a daily sense that "tomorrow" has already arrived. It's a mindset that has even the blandest of bureaucrats thinking ahead. "Say what you will about the Chinese," said one senior official from a close U.S. ally in the region, "they are always grappling with the implications of tomorrow, of growth, of demographic change. They have yet to undertake many reforms that are needed. But they are at least having an ongoing conversation about strategy. You don't get that sense from the U.S." A senior Southeast Asian diplomat offered this: "The concern isn't about a shifting balance of power at the moment.  The U.S. remains militarily strong.  It is about a shifting balance of influence." Hillary Clinton's "pivot" of the first Obama term sent encouraging signals in that regard. There are, however, widespread concerns that the resolve to keep that momentum going has noticeably faded in recent months.

It's not that other countries don't have political distractions or dysfunction. In Australia, last Sunday's political debate between party leaders seemed dedicated to the proposition that what their country needs now is a robot prime minister.  Nonetheless, there was plentiful evidence at a conference I attended that, in their day-to-day work, political leaders from both parties recognized Australia was at a turning point and that greater open-mindedness and creativity were called for.

It was, to choose one example, particularly striking as an American to hear leaders from both parties accuse one another of moving too slowly to advance an Australia-China free trade deal. Now the mere mention of such a thing between the United States and China would cause seasoned Washington heads to burst into flame, but China is now Australia's primary trading partner and, clearly, trade with Asia is its future. They see the Chinese as being as challenging to deal with as we do. But they also recognize that deal with them they must and there is an openness to anything that enhances their competitive chances in that market.

While one of the uglier elements of the current campaign is over how Australia should handle the influx of boat-borne illegal immigrants coming in from the rest of Asia, there is an apparent bi-partisan sense that the country's future lies in its ability to make the transition from being not just in Asia but actually of it. (Mandarin is already the second most widely spoken language in Australia.)

Singapore, while earning brickbats over the years for the authoritarian dimensions of its evolution as an independent city-state, has always led the region in terms of policy creativity. As a small island economy it feels the constant need to reassess and reinvent itself in ways that more self-sufficient economies do not. And some of its recent innovations are particularly striking. For example, the country has just concluded an unprecedented "national conversation," a series of some 6,000 local meetings in which politicians did something very uncharacteristic for their professional counterparts in the United States -- they listened. These were not staged town-hall meetings but workshops in which local citizens not only grappled with complex policy issues but worked to find solutions the government might actually put to use. (And later this week some of the resulting conclusions from that conversation will translate into new policy approaches.) Senior local officials give credit for the initiative to younger members of the government who were seeking a new way to generate ideas and interact with citizens. Politics also played a role, of course, as the ruling party is trying to revitalize its support among voters. Still, it's hard to imagine taking this kind of approach in a country like the United States and not just because of our size. How many Americans know or care enough about core issues of public policy to come together to tackle the big questions we face? How many politicians and executive branch officials would take the time to really hear what they were saying? We often talk about participatory democracy, but can we really envision such innovative participatory policymaking happening in America today?

One of the current American political imbroglios occupying the attention of senior officials in Asia is that surrounding the selection of the next Fed chairman. "How could the process have come to this?" asked one with genuine concern and bewilderment. "It has dragged on and become so political. It seems it will lessen the position... and it is too important for that, not just to the U.S. but to the world." Everyone I spoke with said they felt that regardless of whether it was Lawrence Summers or Janet Yellen -- the two leading candidates for the post -- the monetary policy consequences would inevitably be the same.

But one smart finance official from the region added, "One issue I don't think has been raised is who will better be able to deal with [the other tough members] of the Fed board and bureaucracy. My sense is only someone as strong as Larry could keep them in line." He went on to argue that Summers would probably add greater value as both an independent and potentially creative voice in an American economic policy landscape -- one that lacks stand-out, strong voices save that of outgoing Fed chairman Bernanke. In particular, this official argued that America has failed to address the core reforms needed for fiscal policy, tax policy, underfunded public pension liabilities, underfunded healthcare liabilities, and bigger issues like the growing income gap in the country and the disconnect between corporate growth and job creation. 

Adding a more global perspective, the same official noted that recent Fed policy -- such as quantitative easing, coupled with Chinese growth -- has produced conditions that have made it easy for countries around the world to avoid reforms they too needed to make. Ten trillion dollars of added liquidity and a global commodity price boom made it possible for countries like Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey, and Indonesia to think they were succeeding on their merits. But really, he argued, it was the tailwinds created elsewhere that were providing momentum.

Now, at the critical moment that the United States must manage the tapering process it has its "weakest international economic team in years" and that consequently it is suffering from a "leadership vacuum." (China was cited as being sui generis because it -- unlike some of the other big emerging economies -- was actually enjoying growth fueled by genuine and consistent productivity gains. That said, and as noted earlier, the country is also widely seen as in need of major reform.)

But leading the world in the failure to make the reforms that circumstances require is not exactly what people were hoping for from the United States. So we face a choice. Either look to Asia (and wherever else we might find it) to discover inspiration for the kind of creativity and open-mindedness our own policy process needs for us to lead again ... or learn to look to this part of the world for the leadership we once provided.

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