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? 

Daniel W. Drezner

Realism, Episode III: Return of the Realist Critics

Following up on my rant against realist whinging and Rosato and Schuessler's non-whinging defense of realism, the following is a response by the managers of the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) surveys. Their basic argument: no matter what realism says as a paradigm, individual realists do not exactly advocate what Rosato and Schuessler say they advocate. 

Let the fight…continue!

Are There Neoconservative Wolves in the Realist Flock?

Dan Maliniak, Ryan Powers, and Michael Tierney

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. —Matthew 7:15

Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler recently argued that there is "a complete absence of bona fide realists inside the Beltway" and that if more policymakers employed realist thinking when making foreign policy, then we could expect the real "prospect of security without war." They bemoan the criticism that realist theory receives within both the academy and, especially, in foreign policymaking circles. "This is unfortunate, as realists seem to turn up on the right side of history as often as not -- the Vietnam and Iraq wars are prominent examples -- and may do so again if the Obama administration stumbles into a foolish war with Iran (a war that prominent realists have opposed)."

Leaving aside the notion that we ought to strive for a foreign policy that is only successful "as often as not," Rosato and Schuessler are correct that some prominent realists (e.g. Stephen Walt and Nuno Monteiro) oppose war with Iran. Several prominent realists also opposed the Vietnam War (e.g. Hans Morgenthau) and the war in Iraq (e.g. John Mearsheimer). But realists are not alone in their opposition. Many other non-randomly selected scholars representing other schools of thought also often oppose the use of force. For example, see liberals Joe Nye and Anne-Marie Slaughter or constructivists Marc Lynch and Colin Kahl who also oppose war with Iran.

Noting the policy preferences of a particular set of realists (or liberals/constructivists) does little to support the claim that having more realists inside the beltway would lead to fewer U.S. military interventions. An alternative way to assess the likely impact of inviting more realists into policymaking circles would be to survey all IR scholars and see whether self-identified realists are less likely, more likely, or no more or less likely on average than proponents of other IR paradigms to support the use of force abroad. As it happens, we've done that in a series of Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) surveys.

In 2004, we asked IR scholars in the U.S. a variety of questions about their support or opposition to the war in Iraq. Among dozens of other questions, we also asked scholars to report the primary IR paradigm that they employ in their research, their political ideology, and their substantive field of study. No matter how we asked the Iraq question (and we asked it four different ways), realists are no more likely than liberals or those who don't adhere to a particular paradigm to support or oppose the war in Iraq once we control for political ideology. If we leave ideology out of the model, realists are actually more likely to have supported the war in Iraq. Constructivism is the only paradigm that is statistically significantly correlated with opposition to the Iraq war after controlling for ideology. Here we plot the predicted probability of favoring the Iraq war by paradigm after controlling for ideology (error bars represent 90 percent confidence intervals):

The 2004 Iraq results are consistent with results from the 2011 survey regarding the potential use of force in Iran. We asked scholars "Would you approve of disapprove of the use of U.S. military forces ... if it were certain that Iran had produced a nuclear weapon." Again, realists were no more or less likely than adherents of other paradigms to support or oppose the use of force against Iran after controlling for ideology and field of study. Again, if we leave ideology out of the model, realists are more likely to support striking Iran (We discussed the results of the 2011 survey in more detail in a recent guest post on the Monkey Cage).

Our 2006 results differ. We asked scholars "If Iran continues to produce materials that can be used to develop nuclear weapons, would you support or oppose the U.S. taking military action against Iran?" In this case, realists are more likely to support intervention, even after controlling for ideology and a number of other factors.

So, our results from 2004 and 2011 fail to support the claim made by Rosato and Schuessler and our results from 2006 are the opposite of what their argument suggests.

Proponents of a realist foreign policy may rightly point out that our discussion above is about individuals who self-identify as realists, not realist theory. Perhaps there are just a bunch of respondents in our sample calling themselves "realists" who don't really understand the logic of their favored paradigm. And perhaps a more accurate reading of realist theory (as offered by Walt, Mearsheimer, Rosato and Schuessler) would lead to foreign policy prescriptions that are less bellicose and radically different from other IR paradigms. Perhaps. But it is individual realists — not some version of realist theory personified — who are appointed to policy posts in Washington to craft and implement policy, who write op-eds, blog posts, and journal articles to inform current policy makers, and who teach future policy makers at colleges and universities. And those realists (on average) were not less inclined to advocate the use of force in Iraq back in 2003 and they are not less inclined to advocate the use of force against Iran today.

In most of our tests above, it is only after controlling for political ideology that realists tend to fall in line with liberals and constructivists in opposing the use of force. The average ideology of self-identified realists in the sample helps to explain the gap between the realism that Rosato and Schusseler advocate and the "average" understanding of realism that is reflected in our surveys. As Brian Rathburn recently argued, there may be hawkish wolves within the realist flock — individuals who call themselves realists but who support policies that do not conform to the realism of Mearsheimer, Walt, Rosato, and Schuesster. As Rathbun explains, "The situation is...confused by the invocation of 'realism' as a guiding set of principles by both neoconservatives and conservatives."

To put our cards on the table, we find the Rosato and Schuessler version of realism both sensible and consistent with our own descriptions of realism to our students. We also agree that the Iraq and Vietnam wars did little to advance the interests of the United States, and that a war with Iran would also be a bad idea. We show that many IR scholars also agree for reasons related to their scholarly commitments and/or personal views. Currently, many scholars who self-identify as realists are also conservative and it may be their ideology, rather than the logic of realism that shapes their policy preferences. If that is the case, and they are dressing up their ideologically driven positions in realist trappings, Rosato and Schuessler are right to continue their efforts to better communicate the logic and implications of realist theory. But perhaps they also ought to warn their readers, "Beware those who come to you in realist clothing, for they may inwardly be ravenous neocons."

What do you think?