Amid waning global clout
While assessments of declining US influence are exaggerated, few would dispute that it is experiencing relative decline. Strategic missteps have contributed, as have systemic economic weakness and a perception that the United States is increasingly incapable of competent self-governance. But the central driver of that phenomenon is one over which the US has little control: An ever-growing roster of powers is ascending militarily, economically, and politically.
While many events could slow or even disrupt “the rise of the rest” (such as a global recession on the scale of, or more severe than, that of 2008–2009), none will reverse it. It would thus be imprudent for the United States to focus on staying No. 1. Should it do so, it will conclude not only that it is in decline, but also that its decline is absolute and accelerating. After all, China already leads the world in many areas, including foreign exchange reserves, manufacturing output, and exports. Based on current trends, moreover, it will soon top the pecking order in consumer spending, stock-market capitalization and gross domestic product. Further down the road, China could even overtake the United States in defense spending.
A more sensible foreign-policy course for the US would proceed from a simple but powerful proposition: America’s pre-eminence is inextricably linked to and contingent upon the health of the liberal international system whose creation it nurtured after World War II. Those who want US leadership to remain a linchpin of international affairs should accordingly strategize to make that architecture more resilient, more inclusive, and more nimble.
This focus — rather than an ill-defined and defensive preoccupation with maintaining hegemony — would enable the US to forge a sustainable middle ground between isolationism and overextension.
The US should embrace opportunities for its allies to contribute more to international security. In June 2011, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously warned that NATO’s non-US members would have to become “serious and capable partners in their own defense” for the organization to avoid “military irrelevance” and for the “transatlantic security project” to endure.
To that end, the US should welcome Germany’s desire to “find a more muscular voice in foreign affairs” (however unfortunate it may be that disillusionment with the US was a catalyst for that judgment).
In the Asia-Pacific, it should encourage Japan, South Korea, and other longstanding partners to develop greater indigenous military capabilities — not so that they are emboldened to coalesce in containing China, but so that they are less inclined to free ride on US security assurances.
On the other hand, even the most revisionist-minded of those powers recognize that they would jeopardize their own futures if they attempted to do more than mold today’s system gradually and transparently. After all, that system — a complex mosaic of norms, arrangements, treaties, and institutions — has generated historically unprecedented gains in wealth and security. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Stewart Patrick observes that “the existing international order” increasingly cohabitates with “complementary frameworks for collective action, including ad hoc coalitions of the willing, regional and sub-regional institutions, public-private arrangements, and informal codes of conduct.” While the US should continue efforts to revitalize established international institutions — such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund — it should also immerse itself in these alternative structures as thoroughly as possible.
To those who fear that US leadership in the world is imperiled, consciously nudging other countries to play a more active role in international affairs might seem self-defeating. That concern would be valid if the US pursued this course without a greater purpose. If, however, it does so with an eye toward updating the liberal international order for the 21st century, it will make its position in the world more secure, not less.
n Ali Wayne is an associate of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
(In partnership with The Mark News.)
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