Imperial Understretch and the Fall of Great Powers

The sad, dangerous lessons of America's budget standoff.

I've been thinking in recent days about doctrines of national decline. The fact that at the eleventh hour the U.S. Senate managed to paddle the canoe of state away from the thunderous cataract of default is hardly a sign that the United States has preserved its global standing. For one thing, Americans will find themselves witnessing the same melodrama in three months unless Congress agrees on a long-term fiscal plan, which seems, to put it gently, damn unlikely. For another, Americans have been stumbling in a fog of their own devising for the last generation or so. The end is not nigh; but the decline is.

The United States is exhibiting extremely idiosyncratic symptoms of great-power decline. Take the classic account of the subject, Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Kennedy describes a syndrome, which afflicted the Roman Empire, imperial Spain, and Victorian England, among others, in which regional or global aspirations outstrip national capacities. Writing in 1987, Kennedy projected the United States as the latest victim of "imperial overstretch," because "the sum total of the United States' global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country's power to defend them simultaneously."

That feels like the wrong diagnosis. First of all, unrestrained defense spending in the aftermath of 9/11 has not come close to bankrupting the United States, though it has certainly squandered precious resources. Second, Americans have contracted a severe case of indigestion from President George W. Bush's vain attempt to swallow significant portions of the Middle East; they are now spitting out the remnants. Empire is an unnatural condition for the United States, and withdrawal to its continental fortress is an almost inevitable response to fears of overstretch. If anything, it is the new national suspicion of engagement, the mood of sullen disenchantment, that marks the country's decline. Americans don't want to shoulder the burdens of global leadership; they want the world, along with its demands, to go away.

We need a word more like "understretch" to describe the national condition. The problem does not lie with too-muchness abroad but with too-littleness at home. And the source of the problem is not an overambitious state but an implacable hostility to the operations of the state. Kennedy also writes that while America's laissez-faire culture and economy make it better able to adjust to rapid change than are more dirigiste societies, doing so "depends upon the existence of a national leadership which can understand the larger processes at work in the world today." The deliberations of Congress -- not just in recent days but in recent years -- vividly show the danger of wrongheaded leadership.

The near default, the shutdown of the government, the sequestration of budget funds -- these are just the latest symptoms of a political, but also psychological, disease. The leadership of the Republican Party -- and not just the Tea Party faction -- believes that the federal government is bad. It has believed that at least since Newt Gingrich overthrew the party's moderate leadership in 1994. In 2012, Mitt Romney, a Republican centrist, ran for president on a platform that would have reduced federal spending to 20 percent of GDP, 2 percentage points lower than it was during the time of small-government apostle Ronald Reagan -- even though Medicare costs were a small fraction then of what they are today. (Matt Miller of the Washington Post has long been an eloquent voice on this madness, as for example here.) To accommodate deep tax cuts, Romney would have eliminated much of the federal government beyond the Pentagon. That is now the orthodoxy of one of America's two political parties.

Meanwhile, the United States is falling behind in crucial areas where it led not long ago. The national store of human capital is diminishing as average rates of literacy and numerical understanding plummet in comparison with rates in other countries, as a recent OECD report demonstrated. A smaller percentage of Americans now both attend and graduate from college than in many Western countries. Crumbling infrastructure increases transaction costs; just compare the trip to JFK airport to the commute to almost any other global airport. The United States still leads the world in spending on research and development, but China has closed much of a formerly immense gap, and many countries now spend more as a percentage of GDP.

The United States is losing its position of global leadership because it is refusing to make investments that its competitors are making. In this regard, congressional Republicans may have lost the battle, but they've won the war. President Barack Obama agreed to accept the massive tax cuts his predecessor instituted in order to conclude a budget deal in 2011; since then, he has played on the Republican side of the field. Obama has never found, and perhaps will never find, the language needed to convince Americans that they cannot offer decent prospects to their children without a drastic change in priorities.

The best nibble at the edges, while the worst play with fire. In This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart catalog more than 70 cases of default on domestic debt over the last two centuries. On average, they note, in the year of default, inflation runs at 170 percent and the economy shrinks by 4 percent. In other words, default is so appalling a prospect that countries do it only when the economy is near collapse. And many of those countries, the authors note, are kleptocracies. The United States, by contrast, has a growing economy and no shortage of fiscal resources. No democratically unaccountable class was forcing the action. Washington came within a whisper of default on a whim: Political figures who do not believe in the government were delighted to throw a spanner in the works. Maybe they just wanted to see what would happen.

Great powers of the past have fallen behind when they failed to keep up with technological progress, as happened to 15th-century China; others have succumbed to invasion or disease. America faces none of these problems. The United States is a dynamic country that continues to attract immigrants and thus to grow and renew itself. It offers a unique scope to individual achievement. These great strengths certainly place a floor on any possible decline; perhaps they even argue that the United States can survive self-inflicted wounds that would doom a lesser nation. But another way of putting it is that America is posing a very dire test of its own powers of resilience.

If it's not disease or invasion, then, what is it? Historian Edward Gibbon argued that Rome ultimately fell for moral reasons -- because an ethos of patriotism and civic virtue gave way to selfishness and apathy (and lost out to the otherworldly focus of Christianity). Americans from the time of George Washington have worried that citizens would sink into a Roman torpor. That hasn't quite happened either; Americans remain wedded to their republican virtues. Yet they don't believe in the United States as an ongoing national project as they once did. Perhaps extreme inequality has loosened the strong stays of shared purpose so that we are predisposed to believe that virtue resides only in the individual, not in the community or collective. Thus, we redistribute resources to the individual, which of course only reinforces inequality. We respond to leaders who address us as separate, indissoluble atoms. Gibbon, who distrusted democracy, would probably say that Americans have become too individualistic.

I would say, instead, that there is a fine balance between the profound laissez-faire impulse that has made American the home of political and economic freedom, and the sense of shared citizenship that has fostered great collective efforts in the past -- and that the country seems to have lost that balance. I would like to think that this latest brush with disaster will help right that balance -- but I don't believe it. Things will have to get worse before they get better.

Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Civil Surge

Can Syrian moderates prove they'd do a better job of governing liberated areas than the Islamist opposition?

It is all too easy to tick off the things the United States and other Western actors might once have been able to do, but no longer can, to help the people of Syria in their nightmarish struggle against the regime in Damascus. They won't establish a no-fly zone, because there has never been any will to do so. They won't seriously arm moderate rebel brigades, because those moderates are swiftly losing out to extremists who would be almost certain to seize advanced weapons. They will, however, speak about -- and perhaps even hold -- a conference to discuss a political transition. But it won't work, both because President Bashar al-Assad won't leave power and because the extremists won't accept a ceasefire.

One thing the West can do, however, is to help Syrians try to govern the liberated cities of the north, now threatened by the regime, by the foreign jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and by the chaos that comes with the collapse of municipal government. The one place where you really can find moderates is in civil society, which is full of dedicated young activists and trained professionals (as well as parasites, grifters and incompetents, of course). And the best way, or at least the most likely way, to tip the balance between moderates and extremists is to show Syrians that the former can provide better governance than the latter.

This is a threat which foreign jihadists recognize. When an ISIS brigade took control of the city of Raqqa earlier this year, they arrested as many as 3,000 local activists and confiscated their computers and other equipment, much of it provided by the United States. This so incensed local people that even ISIS got the message: the jihadists now tolerate (though they do not help) the local council which provides basic municipal services in the city. And the jihadists are themselves competing to provide basic services: According to a recent account, Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist fighitng group with a strong presence in Raqqa, picks up the garbage, supplies water and electricity, bakes bread and distributes food. Local governance, in short, has become a prime site for the battle for Syrian hearts and minds.

The Obama administration now spends $250 million on non-lethal aid to Syrian groups, much of it to train and equip local councils and civil society activists like those in Raqqa. In some ways, the effort seems sadly marginal, since civilians cannot stand up either to regime shelling or to ISIS's terror tactics. But the stark fact is that Syria is locked in a bloody stalemate which could last for years, and the millions of Syrians now left to govern themselves must learn to do so, and get the help they need to do so.

Virtually every liberated Syrian city now has a local council providing rudimentary services, and myriad private groups which receive and distribute food and medicine, document regime atrocities, and sometimes operate radio or even television stations. Part of the Obama administration effort, conducted by the State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), is to coordinate that effort so that goods and services flow through the local councils and thus enhance the legitimacy of local government. The CSO and other agencies provide grants of up to several hundred thousand dollars for councils in big cities like Aleppo so that they can open schools or health clinics or build basic infrastructure, as well as lesser sums in small towns.

It is, by necessity, a bottom-up effort. Nagham Ghadri, an activist who runs an organization called Bahr (The Sea) told me that it's all too clear that the Syrian National Coalition, the official political representative of the revolution, is not about to form a government inside Syria. Rather than wait, she's hoping to reform local councils by holding democratic elections. She plans to start in Darkoush, a city in the northwest. Ghadri will send activists from village explaining such unfamiliar ideas as "election" and "citizen." She concedes, however, that she will instruct her canvassers not to use the word "democracy," which the medieval lunatics of ISIS view as Western devilry.

Indeed, very few of the many activists I spoke to during a week in southern Turkey put much stock in the Syrian National Coalition, though most also blame international donors for starving it of funds. I got a powerful dose of this acrimonious relationship at a conference for lawyers, judges and police officials held in the provincial capital of Gazientep. Laser al Zakri, a local representative of the council, asked for the floor and proceeded to insult everyone in the room.

"Our only true friend," he declared, "is Turkey. The others are just playing with us. Their tools are the civil society organizations in Syria, which are just trying to get more money from foreign donors." It turned out that al Zakri was miffed that he hadn't been invited. One of the judges shot back, "The Syrian National Coalition does not represent the Syrian people; it does not represent the revolution. And we don't need to get a security agreement from Turkey to open up a falafel shop."

It took an hour and a half for the fury to abate.

The conference, convened by the Syrian Emergency Task Force, helped clarify what outsiders can and cannot do. Several of the lawyers and judges I spoke to had been sidelined by the sharia courts established not just by ISIS but by other Islamist rebel groups. They proved to be less interested in proposals to re-establish judicial systems in their cities than in advice on documenting crimes by the regime and getting the attention (not very likely, they were advised) of the International Criminal Court.

The police, however, are a different matter. The major northern cities all have large contingents of police officers and ranking officials. Aleppo has 1,200 policeman, according to Steven Heydemann, a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace who attended the conference. Heydemann believes that the police can serve as "the leading edge of the effort to consolidate some kind of moderate presence" in liberated areas. Indeed, one of the chief eminences of the event was former Brig. Gen. Imad Dohra, who had served as chief of police of the Alawite enclave of Latakia before defecting in 2012. Dohra was now working to cultivate local police forces in his home province of Idlib, and to tie them into a single administrative unit.

The Obama administration is already channeling operational funds through the Aleppo provincial council to the city's Free Police, and supplying them directly with communications equipment. But Heydemann suggests a much more ambitious effort involving vehicles (for which the administration has yet to authorize funds) and weapons (which at the moment are not at all in the cards). The most essential service local government can supply, after all, is security, which in liberated Syria now depends almost entirely on local military commanders. Creating an effective police force, Heydemann argues, would not only provide a space of security in terrifyingly insecure cities but would help legitimize local government and might even create opportunities for lawyers and judges to start doing the work they trained for.

Every Syrian you speak to has a conspiracy theory to explain why the United States hasn't come to their side: Syria has no oil. Syria is Israel's enemy. Washington has cut a deal with Moscow. And so on. The reality is that it's probably too late to win any hearts and minds among the Syrian people, anyway; in any case, the Obama administration has no intention of intervening decisively, or even dramatically, on the side of the rebels. But it can intervene more decisively on the side of the activists who are struggling desperately to sustain a decent and democratic vision of their wrecked country. It's not enough; but for now, it will have to do.