US battling against its own decline

WORLDVIEW : Can the US continue to exert leadership in the new reality of emerging and shifting powers?

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

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.

Leaders define a set of goals for a group and lay out acceptable strategies to achieve them, as the US did after the second but not the first World War. Naturally, outcomes reflect leaders’ interests, but these must be expressed in institutions that facilitate co-operation and are less costly than war.

Power, authority and influence and relative or absolute decline must now be assessed against six criteria, Keohane suggested.

Geography still matters, since physical boundaries reduce authority. Demography too remains central, since size confers it. Economic resources are crucial determinants of power, but they are hugely affected by reliability and policy coherence. Soft power – the ability to project values others accept – is arguably as important as the hard military kind. And, finally, nationalism, meaning the ability to accomplish great things together with emotional solidarity, mobilises and empowers leadership.

Measured against these criteria Keohane evaluated the prospects of the US, the EU and China as world leaders over the next 10 to 20 years, the three most plausible candidates for that role. On geography the order is US, China, EU; on demography China, EU, US; on economics US, EU, China; on reliability and coherence US, China, EU; on soft power US, EU, China; and on nationalism US, China, EU.

On this rough but useful benchmarking the US remains predominant over the coming period. But there are many uncertainties, including China’s fate, the outcome of the global financial crisis, whether Iran and Israel will be prudent or reckless – and not least whether the US itself can be sufficiently coherent to exert the leadership otherwise available to it. That will depend on overcoming its endemic political gridlock, raising taxes and finding compromises on welfare entitlements.

This is a relatively optimistic scenario for the US. It probably underestimates the sheer pace of China’s recent economic catch-up. One writer has described the US’s loss of some 30 per cent share of world output as a far greater loss of relative power in a shorter time than any power shift among European great powers from the end of the Napoleonic wars to the second World War. It may also underestimate the EU’s ability to repair itself, though Keohane doubts it can. Historically such transitions are dangerous and can lead to wars.

The two US military studies call for a radical cut in the US military budget, major compromises with China, withdrawal from Europe, and boosting infrastructure and education to regain smart growth. It’s a tall and perhaps unachievable order.