The world is still arguing about what was or what was not accomplished at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington this week. But one thing should be clear: for better or for worse, the United States remains the world’s leading power. The American century has not come to an end.
This was supposed to be the post-American era. A bruised and humbled America, crippled by two expensive wars and crushed by the greatest financial crisis since the 1930s, was supposed to be in retreat and decline. China, Russia, India, Brazil, the European Union: the world was full of new and rising powers who were going to push the old Cold War hegemon aside.
In President Obama, the United States had, people thought, found a president ready to preside gently over his country’s decline.
That’s what a lot of observers expected; that’s not what we have.
In 2010 the United States dominates the international arena and sets the global agenda. If the president of the United States wants to talk about nuclear disarmament this week, that’s what we talk about. If the president of the United States puts an Iranian sanctions resolution on the table at the United Nations, that resolution becomes the centerpiece of global diplomacy. If the president of the United States gets in a fight with Israel, the whole world tries to figure out what the United States will do; no other country has anything like this clout.
That doesn’t mean that the United States gets everything that it wants. Global leadership is like herding cats. The great powers like China, India, the European Union and Russia manage their own affairs and pursue their own interests. The United States cannot give them orders; it can nag, nudge, coax and persuade. Even lesser powers can thumb their noses at the United States when they wish; Brazil and Venezuela can tweak the tail feathers of the American eagle when they wish, inviting Iranian President Ahmadinejad for highly publicized state visits and making incendiary statements that thrill (some of) their citizens.
This is not decline; it’s normality. During the Cold War, a large majority of developing countries joined the “non-aligned” movement, whose chief concern was to criticize the United States and its allies. None of our European allies helped us in Vietnam; the French thumbed their noses at us throughout the Cold War and did their best to undercut and sabotage our foreign policy on some memorable occasions. Russia, China and India went their own way; Cuba defied us every day of the week. Turkey invaded Cyprus against our will; Pakistan, India, South Africa, Argentina, Israel and Brazil all had nuclear weapons programs underway despite our opposition.
America’s world role is not and never has been that of global dictator. We are more like a substitute teacher in an unruly class than a Marine drill instructor with a platoon of recruits, and we emphatically do not always get what we want.
Moreover, the Obama administration, like all of its predecessors, doesn’t always get its foreign policy right. Ronald Reagan, widely hailed for his role in bringing down the Soviet Union, not only presided over the Iran-Contra mess; he was responsible for one of the worst single blunders in post-World War Two American foreign policy when he sent the Marines into Beirut as peacekeepers, only to withdraw in ignominious defeat after suicide bombers killed 220 of them, along with 18 from the Navy and three from the Army. John F. Kennedy had his Bay of Pigs; Richard Nixon mismanaged the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and did not exactly cover himself with glory in South America. The list goes on, and the Obama administration will certainly make its share of mistakes — and some of them will hurt.
Foreign policy is like baseball: nobody bats 1.000, and most pitchers go a whole lifetime without a perfect game. If he was a combination of Babe Ruth at the plate and Cy Young on the mound, President Obama would still have bad days. He’s made mistakes already and will make more, some serious, but ultimately there’s a resilience to America’s position in the world that overcomes the missteps of our political classes.
It is not the brilliance of our foreign policy elite that has brought the United States to its current position in the world. The dynamism of American society and the structure of world politics and power are the true wellsprings of American power. Politicians can employ them wisely or foolishly undercut them, but American greatness (or failure) does not finally depend on whether the president gives the right orders to the secretary of state. Ultimately, the greatest danger to American power externally comes from within; if American society ever loses its dynamism, its culture of risk-taking and the odd combination of radical openness on the one hand and a deep attachment to its spiritual roots on the other, we will all learn what inexorable decline is really like.
But for now, the United States remains what it was. After a decade of relentless focus on American incompetence and American decline, and after an economic crisis widely blamed on the failures of its capitalist model, the United States remains exactly what it has been since the Second World War: the leading power in a global system of trade and political relations that is the most dynamic force on earth. This is exactly the kind of power Great Britain had been for the last 200 years; for a very long time now the trajectory of world history has been shaped by the influence of liberal, capitalist, English-speaking powers seeking to build the kind of global system that now exists. That global system is more powerful, better developed and more pervasive today than it was in 1910; it was in better shape in 1910 than in 1810 — and in 1810 it was bigger, stronger and more important than it had been in 1710.
Although this is going to be tumultuous and challenging century, the outlook for America’s continuing world role is pretty bright (assuming we maintain the domestic sources of our wealth and strength). The rise of China is not, or does not have to be, the kind of challenge to American power that, for example, the rise of Germany posed to Britain one hundred years ago. China is rising — but so are India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea and Malaysia. China’s destiny is probably not to leverage its hegemonic power in Asia into a global challenge to the American system. Rather, it is more likely to concern itself with building a stable Asian state system which will rest in part on America’s continuing presence as an off shore balancing power and guarantor of the peace.
It is not the cleverness of American foreign policy that makes this outcome likely; it is the geography and economy of Asia. Britain’s unique role in the 19th century European balance of power worked much the same way. Many European countries had larger populations and bigger armies than Britain did, but Britain’s offshore position and sea power enabled it to play a unique and global role.
Ultimately the United States plays the kind of role we do in the world for three reasons. First, our cultural affinity for capitalism and our ability to maintain a relationship with our roots even as our society experiences the shocks and disruptions that capitalism brings keeps us at the forefront of innovation and makes our economy strong. Second, our national interest (especially in the promotion of an open global trading system) corresponds better with the interests of other key countries than any competing world vision. Third, the facts of geography coupled with the global nature of our interests fit us to play a unique global role.
No president and no secretary of state have ever been smart enough to take full advantage of all our assets; neither has anybody been so foolish and incompetent as to throw them all away. Keep these truths in mind if you want to think clearly about American foreign policy; it will help preserve you from the mood swings and forecasts of imminent, onrushing doom that afflict so much of the punditocracy from time to time.
In any case, I think we are about to have a Francis Scott Key moment. “The Star Spangled Banner“, before it gave the lyrics to our unsingable but unforgettable national anthem, was a poem about the American flag over Fort McHenry in Baltimore. As the night fell and the British bombardment of the fort began, nobody knew whether the fort would still be flying the flag come morning. In the second verse, Key gives the answer — and it has nothing to do with decline.
On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
The smoke of battle blew away and the gloom of night faded, and the flag was still there.
This, I think, is where we still stand today.