US battling against its own decline
WORLDVIEW: Can the US continue to exert leadership in the new reality of emerging and shifting powers?
IF THE US is to practise smart power abroad it has to create smart growth at home. This is the conclusion of two recent high-level US military studies of its global power. The link they make between the country’s domestic and international positions is clear-cut and instructive, and echoes many other analyses.
Debates about US decline have fed directly into the presidential election. Although US president Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney deny it is happening, whoever wins will have to come to terms with the reality expressed by an officer involved in one of the studies: “People forget that America’s military strength is because of our power. It didn’t cause it.”
That piece of realism needs to be considered alongside two remarks made by Romney earlier this year: “Our president thinks America is in decline. It is if he [Obama] is president. It is not if I am president . . . I will insist on a military so powerful no one would ever think of challenging it.”
Obama said in his state of the union address in January: “Anyone who tells you America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
The tacit agreement to deny US decline was echoed in Obama and Romney’s unreal policy convergence during the one presidential debate devoted to foreign policy. Remarkably it concentrated on only a few parts of the world and a few issues: China, Iran, the Middle East, Israel, Afghanistan and terrorism. This left Europe, Nato, Japan, other parts of Asia, climate change, energy and poverty untouched.
While it suited both Obama and Romney to agree on these issues, this is not to say they necessarily share a common approach or would not differ if in office. In particular, Romney’s reliance on overwhelming military strength enabled Obama to remind voters that the military has evolved and cannot substitute for other forms of power.
The complexity of what is at stake was emphasised this week in Dublin by Robert Keohane, one of the foremost US international relations scholars (you can see a video of his speech on iiea.com).
Keohane put the debate on US decline in a wider context of legitimate power and authority to influence world politics within a framework of changing multilateralism and international institutions – of which he is one of the principal theorists.
Can the US exert the leadership it still earns from its undoubted economic, military and political strengths in the new setting of emerging and shifting powers? Can it share power and convince others it is sincere?
As Keohane sees it, no single state can dominate on its own any more. George W Bush tried that and failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the US needs authority to provide multilateral leadership, for which its military power is not sufficient.