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Is American influence really on the wane?

My recent post on the overstatement of American decline has probably been my most popular single non-zombie item since moving the blog to Foreign Policy.  It has also attracted some useful observations on Michael Beckley's International Security essay in particular -- see Phil Arena and Erik Voeten for some trenchant criticisms. 

My FP co-blogger Steve Walt has also weighed in, however, arguing that obsessing about the Sino-American comparison misses some larger points about the decline of American influence: 

The United States remains very powerful -- especially when compared with some putative opponents like Iran -- but its capacity to lead security and economic orders in every corner of the world has been diminished by failures in Iraq (and eventually, Afghanistan), by the burden of debt accumulated over the past decade, by the economic melt-down in 2007-2008, and by the emergence of somewhat stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere. One might also point to eroding national infrastructure and an educational system that impresses hardly anyone. Moreover, five decades of misguided policies have badly tarnished America's image in many parts of the world, and especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. The erosion of authoritarian rule in the Arab world will force new governments to pay more attention to popular sentiment -- which is generally hostile to the broad thrust of U.S. policy in the region -- and the United States will be less able to rely on close relations with tame monarchs or military dictators henceforth. If it the United States remains far and away the world's strongest state, its ability to get its way in world affairs is declining.

All this may seem like a hair-splitting, but there's an important issue at stake. Posing the question in the usual way ("Is the U.S. Still #1?", "Who's bigger?", "Is China Catching Up?" etc.,) focuses attention primarily on bilateral comparisons and distracts us from thinking about the broader environment in which both the United States and China will have to operate. The danger, of course, is that repeated assurances that America is still on top will encourage foreign policy mandarins to believe that they can continue to make the same blunders they have in the recent past, and discourage them from making the strategic choices that will preserve U.S. primacy, enhance U.S. influence, and incidentally, produce a healthier society here at home.

I disagree with Steve on multiple points here, so let's be thorough and go through them one at at time. 

First, I'd argue that developing accurate assessments about the power balance between China and the United States is actually super-important.  Miserceptions about a rising China or a declining United States can lead to a) toxic political rhetoric in Washington, which leads to b) rhetorical blowback, which leads to c) stupid foreign policy miscalculations.  As I wrote about a year ago

Exaggerating Chinese power has consequences. Inside the Beltway, attitudes about American hegemony have shifted from complacency to panic. Fearful politicians representing scared voters have an incentive to scapegoat or lash out against a rising power -- to the detriment of all. Hysteria about Chinese power also provokes confusion and anger in China as Beijing is being asked to accept a burden it is not yet prepared to shoulder. China, after all, ranks 89th in the 2010 U.N. Human Development Index just behind Turkmenistan and the Dominican Republic (the United States is fourth). Treating Beijing as more powerful than it is feeds Chinese bravado and insecurity at the same time. That is almost as dangerous a political cocktail as fear and panic.

The discussion of China in the GOP presidential campaign, as well as Obama's mercantilist State of the Union address, strongly suggest that political assessments and political rhetoric about Chinese power need a strong jolt of sobriety.  Walt is concerned that an overestimation of American power will lead to stupid foreign policy decisions, but I'd wager that an overestimation of Chinese power would lead to equally stupid foreign policy decisions. 

As for Walt's assertions about the decline of American influence... well, I must take issue with several of them.  First, the notion that the United States was able to exercise power more easily during the Cold War seems a bit off.  As Robert Kagan points out in The New Republic:

And of course it is true that the United States is not able to get what it wants much of the time. But then it never could. Much of today’s impressions about declining American influence are based on a nostalgic fallacy: that there was once a time when the United States could shape the whole world to suit its desires, and could get other nations to do what it wanted them to do, and, as the political scientist Stephen M. Walt put it, “manage the politics, economics and security arrangements for nearly the entire globe.”

If we are to gauge America’s relative position today, it is important to recognize that this image of the past is an illusion. There never was such a time. We tend to think back on the early years of the Cold War as a moment of complete American global dominance. They were nothing of the sort. The United States did accomplish extraordinary things in that era: the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance, the United Nations, and the Bretton Woods economic system all shaped the world we know today. Yet for every great achievement in the early Cold War, there was at least one equally monumental setback.

During the Truman years, there was the triumph of the Communist Revolution in China in 1949, which American officials regarded as a disaster for American interests in the region and which did indeed prove costly; if nothing else, it was a major factor in spurring North Korea to attack the South in 1950. But as Dean Acheson concluded, “the ominous result of the civil war in China” had proved “beyond the control of the ... United States,” the product of “forces which this country tried to influence but could not.” A year later came the unanticipated and unprepared-for North Korean attack on South Korea, and America’s intervention, which, after more than 35,000 American dead and almost 100,000 wounded, left the situation almost exactly as it had been before the war. In 1949, there came perhaps the worst news of all: the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb and the end of the nuclear monopoly on which American military strategy and defense budgeting had been predicated.

Kagan's essay is getting some attention in high places, so I'll be very curious to hear Walt's take on it. 

It Walt overestimates America's influence during the Cold War, he also underestimates American influence now.  The funny thing about the "stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere" is that they're siding with the United States on multiple important issues.  Coordination between Turkey and the United States on the Arab Spring has increased over time, and their policy positions on Iran are converging more than diverging.  Brazil has turned a cold shoulder to Iran and has been warier about China's currency manipulation and rising influence in Latin America.  India seems perfectly comfortable to be a partner in America's Pacific Rim pivot, as are Australia, Japan and South Korea. 

This is perfectly consistent with Walt's own balance-of-threat theory, by the way.  The actors that seem to be generating the most anxiety among the rising developing countries are the ones that seem to be exhibiting the most aggressive regional intentions -- namely, China and Iran.  Indeed, even countries with strong historical resentments against the United States are now trying to find creative ways to bind themselves to Washington.  Will these countries always march in lockstep with the United States?  Of course not -- but as Walt would surely acknowledge, America's NATO allies were not always on the same page with the United States on myriad Cold War issues. 

It seems that Walt's primary concern is that without better domestic policies, the United States might fritter away its great power advantages.  I'm sympathetic to that argument -- I'd also take the bold position that I'd like to see improvements in American education and infrastructure as well.  One of the points I was making in my original post, however was that even absent grand initiatives from Washington, the United States economy was finding ways to heal itself.  Indeed, compared to either Europe or China, one could argue that the United States has adjusted to the post-2008 environment the best.  This is not so much praise for Washington as an indictment of rigidities in Brussels and Beijing.  Still, power and influence are relative measures, and I see little evidence to support Walt's pessimism. 

Am I missing anything? 

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