Saturday, November 1, 2014

America’s Enduring Leadership

WASHINGTON, DC – Many observers have cited the crisis in Ukraine as yet another example of American retrenchment and declining global influence. Some have also interpreted it as evidence of a Russian-led effort to mobilize the major emerging economies – Brazil, India, and China – against the West. While there is a kernel of truth in both narratives, each is a gross exaggeration, as is the notion that America’s capacity to shape a secure and prosperous international system is in decline.

The US has had a rough few years. After two long, draining wars, its withdrawal from Afghanistan is inching along slowly. In Syria, Russian and Chinese intransigence have frustrated its efforts to find a diplomatic solution. And China’s growing assertiveness in the South and East China Seas is threatening US regional dominance, while raising the risk of a crisis with America’s close ally Japan.

Meanwhile, many of America’s European allies are mired in economic malaise. And, though the US economy is recovering from the global financial crisis, America’s treasury and reputation has been dealt a severe blow.

Nonetheless, the US remains the most influential global actor – not least because of the strong alliances that it maintains. All of the attention given to China’s economic rise – and, to a lesser extent, that of India and Brazil – has overshadowed the success of US allies like South Korea, Turkey, Indonesia, and Germany. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s strongest economies are allied with the US.

Moreover, far from coalescing into a united anti-Western bloc, the emerging powers remain sharply divided. There are far more overlapping interests between the established and the emerging powers than the “West versus the rest” narrative suggests; indeed, the rising powers often share as many interests with their Western counterparts as they do with each other.

Given this, even the economic powerhouses that are not US allies do not want to upend the existing world order, but rather to gain more space within it, such as through increased authority in international institutions. After all, they rose precisely by integrating themselves into the global economic system.

Even China, which arguably seeks to curtail US leadership in some domains, has no choice but to cooperate with the US and its allies on many foreign-policy issues. China can challenge American leadership only if others follow it, and so far it has found few takers. Only Russia has sought to play a more destabilizing role – during the global financial crisis, in Syria, and now in Ukraine.

To be sure, the emerging powers do share a strong inclination toward rivalry – or at least toward autonomy – which is rooted in what might be called the “psychology of rise.” But they know that an excessively aggressive stance toward the US would undermine their interest in a stable global economy and the safe passage of their goods and energy through international sea and air routes.

This is particularly true for China, because its domestic stability and international influence depend largely on its ability to maintain rapid economic growth, which demands ever-larger quantities of imported energy and other natural resources. To ensure unimpeded access to these critical resources, China needs stability in the countries from which it can extract them, in the markets in which it can invest, and in the routes linking China to its suppliers. But China’s capacity to maintain these conditions is extremely limited – and in some cases (as in the Persian Gulf), it is heavily dependent on US military power.

In short, striking a balance between the impulse toward rivalry and incentives encouraging restraint is the most important dynamic in contemporary international affairs. And, for now, the global balance is tipping toward restraint.

Of course, the US will invariably face new challenges, all of which are on vivid display in Ukraine. Countries will be torn between retaining their security ties to the US and building new economic linkages with China. The complex global systems in which America’s interests are enmeshed will test US diplomacy.

Perhaps the most dangerous challenge is the prospect of emerging powers leaning increasingly toward autonomy, instead of alliance. China and India may not have been happy about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but none of the emerging economies could bring itself to vote against Russia in the United Nations General Assembly, even though the vote was ultimately meaningless. (China took the strongest position in the Security Council by abstaining.) They are not sticking with Russia; but they are not joining a Western effort to isolate Russia, either.

Ultimately, however, the world’s relentless evolution plays to America’s most important strength: its unique ability to build broad and disparate coalitions. The range of alliances and relationships that the US has created, including with several of the rising powers, far surpasses that of any other global actor – and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This is perhaps the most enduring feature of American power.

There is no denying that the US no longer enjoys the unrivaled hyperpower status that it did at the end of the Cold War. But, for the time being, the international system remains America’s to lead.

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  1. CommentedTimothy Williamson

    If you have the time to read it, here's a short paper called 'The Rise of Regional Federalism.' Check out the authors other papers too - others are called 'The inevitability of Chinese Hegemony', 'Malignancies in our emergent world' and History's Lessons-Emergent or Entropic?'

  2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    I agree that America's leadership will endure. But there are limits to its foreign policy; there are international affairs that it can influence and those that it cannot.

    There will continue to be contradiction in human rights foreign policy and national interests or power politics policy. The United States, with its allies in many parts of the world, cannot turn undemocratic countries into democratic ones. punish all unhumanitarian countries or regimes.

    Suppose Japan were a authoritarian country like China; suppose she were the same as real Japan is in every other respect, she had a third largest GDP, sophistocated science, technology, and industry, her people were a hard-working peole, her society and politics were stable though her Prime Misnisters were on a weekly duty, she had foreign policy friendly to the United States and Australia, etc., South East Asian countries wanted closer and stronger ties between Japan and the United States and more Japanese interest in them, China and Japan were on historical bad terms as ever, but Japan did not entertain such historical ambition to be a No. 1 country in East Asia trying to expel the United States from the area as Chine does, etc.
    Should the United States break its ties. in this imagined case, with Japan because she was an authoritarian, undemocratic country?

    The free world cannot give a Middle Easten country or area social and political stabilty; it cannot turn Lybia or Egypt a democratic country unless these countries should 'voluntarily opt' for it. The United States and the free world cannot afford to fight in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and what not.

    George Kennan said, amidst everyone's euphoria and Henry kissinger was in this group of people, when NATO extended its military security umbrella to a few former Warsaw block countries, that it was the biggest mistake that the West had made since the demise of the Soviet Union.

    Each challenge posed by communist Russia, Nazi Germany, 1930s' Japan, and China to the supremacy of the United States is different in nature, intent and degree.

  3. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Bruce Jones says: "Many observers have cited the crisis in Ukraine as yet another example of American retrenchment and declining global influence". Indeed they would have said the same about Jimmy Carter's term of presidency. It can't be seen as "evidence of a Russian-led effort to mobilize the major emerging economies – Brazil, India, and China – against the West". Russia today is just a shadow of its former self. It relies on its oil and gas resources to be an ecnomic power. But Putin is bent on restoring Russia's old glory, lost with the demise of the USSR. On the international stage, he doesn't hold sway over other actors, other than those in Russia's backyard.
    It is true that "America’s capacity to shape a secure and prosperous international system is in decline". For decades its middle class had been the envy of the world. Yet in recent years, despite having the second highest income per capita, its middle class is no longer the richest in the world. Moreover the country lags behind in literacy and technological proficiency. The gap between best and worst students is very wide. It has nothing to do with the US performing worse than other countries have caught up and are performing better.
    The "two long, draining wars" had squandered over $4 trillion and the US was badly hit by the financial crisis in 2008. The US lost its top-tier AAA credit rating from Standard & Poor's in August 2011. It was an unprecedented blow to the world's largest economy in the wake of a bi-partisan political battle that took the country to the brink of default. Since then its economy is recovering and it is still the driving force behind the "global economic system". China may have to wait a little longer until it overtakes the US economically and militarily.
    It's true that America's European allies "are mired in economic malaise" and Snowden's revelations that the NSA snooped on heads-of-state had sparked public outrage. Yet the Europeans seem to be pragmatic and try to instead focus on getting their act together - the "Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership". The Ukraine crisis has driven the NATO members - especially those in Eastern Europe - into the arms of Washington, which has the highest military budget in the world.
    It's no doubt that "the US remains the most influential global actor" for a while, as other emerging economies don't see anyone else, which could serve as a global cop. Their prosperity relies on peace, stability and predictibility. Thanks to its human resources and ability to act in times of potential crisis, the US still has the "unique ability to build broad and disparate coalitions", as well as to mobilise the UN and its international institutions, that secure the "existing world order".

  4. CommentedEdward Ponderer

    Professor Jones certainly makes a strong supported analysis, but appears to miss the point. This as per the old joke about the man who fell off the Empire State Building, and when asked half-way down how he was doing, shouted back, "So far, so good."

    Of course America, like a huge melting glacier, still is a powerful center of mass. However, its web of influence is slowly adjusting around other poles of influence and is heading for a multipole distribution of influence.

    In terms of physics, globalization is a play of mutual need, and influence that even a slave and master share to a microscopic extent, that slowly (statistically) causes power to flow from the more influential to the less. In physics, once one has 3 sources of influence, say magnets upon a metal pendulum, the system forms a fractal basin and begins to fall to deterministic chaos. For even when two have much stronger fields of influence, there is a region between these to where their power is close enough to balance and cancellation that the weaker third force dominates and pull towards itself. The total effect is a fractal basin that expands out of the woodwork with the increase of poles and increase of their power.

    Thus globalization is a "feed forward" phase change--and quite unstoppable by any of the players (whose numbers grow to all stakeholders--laterally along the phase change), and vertically along the fractal scaling of organizations--private and public sector, from the international cartel and regional organization of governments, to the medium business and community, to the single proprietor on-line business and individual family/person.

    The only real control--the achievement of a homeostasis such as on countless smaller examples in natural vegetative and animal communities, even down to bacteria--comes from flexible distribution under conditions of mutual responsibility.

    But where natural communities can smoothly evolve into there higher-group, higher-being niches with a natural tendency towards member altruism towards group, and visa-verse, human ego requires a lot of work to overcome the type of ego that has destroyed the Communist, and now largely the Free Enterprise experiments. This can only be done by doing what a self-help organization like Alcoholics Anonymous does: Develop and follow and educational program (their "12 Step" program, or in this global case, "integral education."), and arrange a supportive environment (their meetings with inspiring stories, posters, and entire supportive culture, and with us, the potential use of mass-media to promote new social values).

    Like the excuses of the alcoholic or overeater, "Can't!" really means "Won't!" -- until "Have no choice" made them go on the wagon--the PAIN in a totally collapsed situation overcoming the perceived pain of leaving it. Much better is the PLEASURE intuited in the better life overcoming the presence sense of pleasure from within the decaying situation. The eyes of the wise are in their heads, those of fools are in their flesh.

    Shall we be wise, or shall we continue to be fools.

  5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    The opinion of the author is understandable from his point of view, and if we still viewed the world as before it could be true.
    In the fragmented, polarized world, where one "ism" was standing against another, where ruthless competition, succeeding at the expense of others was necessary, promoted and admired, alliances, "leadership" made sense.
    And in this "old" system the leader had to be the strongest, most heroic, loudest, proudest, basically the biggest "bully" to be able to lead.
    But the world has changed.
    We evolved into a globally interconnected, inter-dependent world where the previous worldview, thinking, alliances and "leadership credentials" have become not only useless but harmful.
    In a global, integral world, only globally mutual responsibility, and complementing cooperation can solve problems and serve as a basis for future building.
    In a global, mutually interdependent world a "leader" has to be the most ready to serve others above self-interest, showing a positive example how to place the interest of the collective above the interest of the self.
    Thus we will have to see if the US, or anybody else is ready for such "global leadership".

  6. CommentedDerrick Baragwanath

    As individuals we have a tendency to bitch about people we are comfortable with and stay quiet about people who really scare us. Nation states are no different. I have little doubt that most south east asian states are sometimes intensively irritated by the games that are sometimes played by the United States. This often spills out into an effluence of vitriol. Why does this happen? Because they can! They may be annoyed by America but they are not deeply threatened by America. None would dare do the same to China, why, because they are scared of the consequences. Vitriol toward your brother and silence toward the school yard bully does not mean the former is the bad guy.

  7. Commentedhari naidu

    The real fallacy of your intuitive pretense is the (declining) notion of American Exceptionalism. And as long as US pushes its strategic inputs without substance - eg. Syria, Crimea, - the notion of an enduring leadership is historically and fundamentally false - thus leading to inevitable decline and fall of American power.

  8. CommentedPaul Daley

    The extent of America's alliances might be a better measure of its power if all of its allies were powerful states in their own right. Too many, however, are weak sisters who bring nothing with them but potential enemies. They can be useful only if, like Rome 2000 years ago, you're seeking enemies and conquests. If that's not the case, if you're not seeking to dominate or seeking status as the world's "indispensable" nation, then too many allies can be just a problem.

  9. CommentedVelko Simeonov

    Yep, the romans probably had the same thoughts lingering in their minds shortly before their empire collapsed.