How To Tell If America Will Remain A Global Superpower

Excerpts:

Now opponents are capitalizing on America’s faltering will and confidence. Unconstrained by the need to develop national consensus or exhaust diplomacy and politics before using force in a variety of guises, America’s enemies befuddle us. To take one example, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, aware of the economic and political costs of openly invading Ukraine, seems content to stoke enough turmoil to prevent the European Union or NATO from inviting that nation to join. He can sustain this indefinitely. Yet the United States remains a step behind, obsessing about economic sanctions and reacting to Putin’s feints and previous moves rather than anticipating his next one.

Still, the rumors of America’s demise may be premature. Because the United States still has the economic and military power to be a global superpower, some foreign policy and national security analysts expect several more decades of American leadership around the world. But this misses the point: The question is not whether the United States has the tangible resources to be a global superpower, but whether it has the will and the confidence.

How to Tell If America Will Remain a Global Superpower

By Steven Metz, April 30, 2014, Column

http://www. worldpoliticsreview.com/ articles/13741/how-to-tell-if- america-will-remain-a-global- superpower

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Following World War II, the United States reluctantly became a global superpower. By the end of the Cold War, Americans had so taken to the exercise of power that they found it unthinkable to be anything but a superpower. Preserving that status shifted from a necessary evil to an explicit objective. But now what was once unthinkable is back on the table. For the first time in decades, many Americans are questioning whether the United States wants to or even can remain a global superpower.

In some ways, the United States has always been ill-equipped to orchestrate the international security system. Geographic isolation spawned an American strategic culture more inclined to episodic involvement in great power conflict than the sustained management of world order. Unlike other nations with centuries of involvement in life-or-death national struggles, Americans saw force and diplomacy as discrete alternatives to be used sequentially rather than as an inextricable part of the power continuum. The American method for dealing with a security threat was first to attempt diplomacy and political pressure. With a few exceptions steeped in European statecraft like Henry Kissinger, U.S. policymakers only considered military force if diplomacy failed. Because Americans saw diplomacy and force as discrete alternatives rather than integrally linked, they resisted the use of the U.S. military for political “messaging” and sought unambiguous, preferably decisive, victory when force was used. National leaders who settled for something less than outright victory paid a heavy political price, sometimes one that damaged their entire political party.

While long an informal component of American strategy, this compartmentalization of diplomacy and force was codified in what became known as the Weinberger or Powell “doctrine.” While the Obama administration has not directly attributed its national security strategy to Caspar Weinberger or Colin Powell, who were, after all, Republicans, Barack Obama’s approach to the world very much reflects the doctrine.

The structure of the U.S. political system also hinders America’s ability to play the role of global superpower and manage constantly shifting regional balances. In the American political system, power is divided. Action requires a complex and time-consuming process of consensus-building among various powerbrokers. This was fine in the 19th century, when security crises and threats unfolded slowly. But it became a challenge in the modern world, where annihilation can be minutes away. Finally, the American strategic culture reflects the fact that few threats actually endanger the existence of the United States. In a sense, all of America’s wars are “wars of choice.” Disengagement from thorny problems, conflicts or commitments, then, is always an option.

During the Cold War, the United States found ways to work around these impediments. While foreign and security policy were certainly subject to partisan debates, both Republicans and Democrats agreed on the need for U.S. global leadership and thus were able to craft a working consensus. Most of all, the vast extent of American power meant that Washington didn’t need to be efficient in strategy, only effective. Policymakers could get away with throwing money at a problem and delaying the use of military force past the point where it would have the greatest impact for the least commitment.

These work-arounds allowed the United States to be a global superpower even though it was ill-suited for the job. But today the work-arounds are crumbling. The idea that politics should “stop at the water’s edge”-that there should be any constraints or limits on the extent to which foreign and security policy are used for partisan attacks-seems as quaintly old-fashioned as the costumes on “Mad Men.” Reflecting the disinterest of the American public, few members of Congress develop a deep expertise in foreign and national security policy. Even those who do seldom use it to build bipartisan agreement. In a very broad sense, the public constituency for a strong defense and international activism is crumbling. When problems arise somewhere in the world, token gestures seem to have replaced serious commitment. The primary objectives seem to be to get the issue off the front page and avoid entanglement. And most of all, the growing national debt makes it imperative that U.S. strategy be both effective and efficient.

Now opponents are capitalizing on America’s faltering will and confidence. Unconstrained by the need to develop national consensus or exhaust diplomacy and politics before using force in a variety of guises, America’s enemies befuddle us. To take one example, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, aware of the economic and political costs of openly invading Ukraine, seems content to stoke enough turmoil to prevent the European Union or NATO from inviting that nation to join. He can sustain this indefinitely. Yet the United States remains a step behind, obsessing about economic sanctions and reacting to Putin’s feints and previous moves rather than anticipating his next one.

Still, the rumors of America’s demise may be premature. Because the United States still has the economic and military power to be a global superpower, some foreign policy and national security analysts expect several more decades of American leadership around the world. But this misses the point: The question is not whether the United States has the tangible resources to be a global superpower, but whether it has the will and the confidence.

The 2016 presidential contest will be a crucial signpost. Foreign and national security policy will play a limited role in the campaign. That is not unusual, particularly if there is at least some agreement between the two parties on America’s world role. But if one or both of the candidates openly favors further U.S. disengagement from the world-if George McGovern’s “come home America” slogan from the 1972 election moves to the mainstream of political discourse-it will show that the United States is no longer willing to be a superpower and that a very different global security system is taking shape. This is particularly true if the Republican nominee accepts a diminished American role in the world. If so, it will be clear that the loss of will and confidence is not simply the “Obama effect” but a reversion to America’s historical norm of selective, episodic involvement in managing global security.

Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.
Photo: Aerial view of the Pentagon (public domain photo by the United States Geological Survey).

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