Friday, November 28, 2014

Missing America

BERLIN – Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, once described the United States as the “indispensable nation.” Current developments around the world are proving her right. But the proof has been almost entirely negative: Today, America’s importance has become apparent from the absence of US leadership in one crisis after another – an absence that is most immediately obvious in Syria.

In fact, a post-American world is taking shape before our eyes, characterized not by a new international order, but by political ambiguity, instability, and even chaos. This is unfortunate, and could turn out to be so dangerous that even die-hard anti-Americans end up longing for the passé American century and the US role as a global force for order.

Both subjectively and objectively, the US is no longer willing or able to play that role. There have been many causes: a decade of war in the greater Middle East, with its enormous cost in “blood and treasure”; the financial and economic crisis; high public debt; reorientation toward internal problems; and a new focus on Pacific affairs. Add to this America’s relative decline in view of China’s ascendance and that of other large emerging countries.

I am relatively certain that the US will successfully manage its reorientation and realignment, but the relative weight and reach of its power will nonetheless decline in the new world of the twenty-first century, as others grow in strength and catch up. Certainly, America’s global role will not be called into question. China will be busy addressing its own internal contradictions for a long time yet. Nor is India or Russia likely to pose a serious challenge. And Europe’s din of conflicting voices appears to preclude it from claiming America’s mantle.

But, while none of these powers represents a serious alternative to America’s global role, the US will no longer be able to act unilaterally, as it did after the Cold War’s end, and it will be weakened substantially. This change has become particularly obvious in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.

In the Middle East, the regional order created by the colonial powers, France and Britain, following World War I, was maintained throughout the Cold War and the brief era of unilateral US domination that followed; the convulsions of recent years, however, could well bring about its end. The colonial borders are being called into question, and what will become of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan is difficult to forecast. The potential for regional disintegration and reconstitution – a process that can unleash untold violence, as in Syria – is greater than ever.

Moreover, while there is no new regional hegemon to follow America, there are numerous contenders for the role. But none – Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia being the most prominent – is strong enough to decide matters in its own favor. Given the lack of a new force for order in the region in the foreseeable future, and the old one’s unwillingness to act, the danger of long-lasting violent confrontation is growing.

Even if America once again pursued military intervention in the region, its power would no longer be sufficient to enforce its will. Indeed, it is precisely because the US, after more than a decade of war, understands this only too well that any American administration will think twice before intervening militarily in the region again.

Things look different in Asia, where the US not only remains present, but has increased its commitments. In East and South Asia, nuclear powers (China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and North Korea) or near-nuclear powers (Japan and South Korea) are all entangled in dangerous strategic rivalries. Add to this a regular dose of North Korean irrationality.

While the US presence in the region has so far prevented its numerous conflicts and rivalries from intensifying, sources of uncertainty are multiplying. Will China be wise enough to seek reconciliation and partnerships with its neighbors, large and small, rather than aiming for regional domination? What will become of the Korean Peninsula? And what implications does Japan’s nationalist turn – and its risky economic policy – hold for the region? Can India and China stem the deterioration in bilateral relations? Is state failure looming in Pakistan?

Imagine this situation without America’s military and political strength. The region would be dramatically more dangerous. At the same time, America’s straitened resources mean that its new global role will require more careful consideration of national interests in setting priorities. Clearly, the Asia-Pacific region takes precedence in US calculations.

This new, more focused and limited American role thus raises the following question for America’s European partners: Can they afford the luxury of being unable to defend themselves without US help?

Certainly, America’s guarantee of its NATO allies’ security will not become worthless; but it will become far more difficult to redeem it in full. And, if a post-American world entails greater risk of chaos and its consequences than hope for a new, stable order – a risk that affects Europe in particular – then perhaps Europe should reverse course on its apparent determination to dismantle itself.

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    1. CommentedBubba Umurka

      What I would like to see is Germans, in particular, staging "demos" in front of Chinese embassies at home and abroad, decrying the allegedly Texas-sized floating plastic garbage island they and their Asian neighbors are developing for fun and profit with the same fervor they mustered when protesting Cold War America's war crimes and for-profit global warming, all made in USA.

    2. CommentedRoman Bleifer

      You can not go back in time. Be the dominant force, it is a very expensive task. It requires a huge economic and political resources. Quite a number of countries would qualify for such a role. But they do not have this or necessary economic resources nor the political will to take responsibility for what is happening in the world. The processes of global development, implemented through the processes of the global crisis is changing the world much more than it seems at first glance ( ). There are new dividing lines, new lines of division and conflict. Changing the system itself geopolitical coordinates. There are new criteria for strength and power. These processes do look chaotic and threatening. Either the world will come to a non-polar world, in which there will be a single dominant state and function of maintaining order will take the union of the leading countries of the world, or will lead to the development of a multipolar world in which today's conflicts will look like child's play.

    3. Commentedshanmugham anand

      The present Grand Strategy of America is the best in the prevailing circumstances. Sure, America is maintaining a benign profile before the public, but surely behind the scenes from Tunisia to Libya to Syria as any pro-active role will only aggravate the situation. While U.S is licking its wounds after having eliminated arch rivals Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, Russia gets a breather to set its house in order for a seat among European Nations. America's present focus is where it should be in the coming decades.

    4. CommentedJean Pierre de Lutz

      The US could have continued the manage the binders that enabled the co-habitation and relative status quo between Sunni and Shia communities, but lost its moral compass under the neoconservative forces that pushed brash parochial strategic interests at a level unseen in the second half of the 20th century. It has unleashed forces that will take a generation of two and perhaps several substantial conflicts before there is any hope to see conflict subside.

    5. CommentedWim Roffel

      The US used to be a force for stability because its aim was to stem the expansion of communism. So it deliberately supported the stability of nations so that idealist (communist) trouble makers didn't have a chance.

      Since the end of the Cold War however, the US has started to side itself with idealist trouble makers. Some of those claim to be democratic - like in the color revolutions - while others are Islamists. But in all cases the effect is the same: destabilization.

      If Fischer believes that the US is absent in Syria he must be wearing black sun glasses. Saudi Arabia and Qatar wouldn't supply arms to the Syrian rebels without US permission. Let's not forget that Qatar is ministate with 200,000 citizens and a US Army base.

    6. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      The phase of “Us Vs Them” or “Good Vs Evil” that was an embodiment of self-righteousness is now passé; from the horns of dilemma that economic conditions would have negated and the values for which America stood for would have defended such allowances, we have today moved to a position of equanimity that America displays to the rest of the world’s views, permanence of this denouement would be tested as economic strife gains ground or subsides.

    7. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      The Americans were not a "force for stability" or "leadership" or "good". They are a world power using force and the threat of force allied to torture and death from the sky to terrorize others into compliance.

      The current arming of the Syrian factions despite evidence of their crimes is more of this.

      I can think of no place where they have intervened in a major fashion with a positive outcome for the majority.

    8. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      The article is precisely depicting the present situation.
      Indeed up to this point there was always one or two dominant powers in the world deciding the main direction of development, up to this point human evolution was the development of changing empires.
      What we see today, "the political ambiguity, instability and chaos" as Joschka Fischer puts is a transitional period.
      This is a very fragile phase, which could turn either way, could lead to a very dark, and unpredictable period in human history, or if read and acted out properly, could lead humanity to a new, different, much higher dimension than ever before.
      What has changed from before is the full completion of a global, interconnected human system which never existed before.
      Today humanity is locked into this integral, interdependent network where there is no place for a dominant power, as in such network only equal, mutually responsible and complementing governance and cooperation can succeed.
      This is totally different from what we are used to, different from the intricate "enemy vs friend" setup, where diplomacy, secret agreements, secret services, intelligence agencies, military deals and spending characterized the international status quo.
      Naturally individuals, nations do not want to accept their individual responsibilities for the whole system, they would rather run away, isolate themselves like the US from the Middle East as they become less energy dependent on them, or the UK from Europe, or other European nations trying to wiggle out of the Eurozone, and so on.
      But there is no escape, the system is closed and complete.
      Thus we have to learn how to use these inevitable interconnections in a mutually complementing, benevolent way not to blow the whole system up.
      This is not simple and requires great examination and understanding of the principles of the global, integral system and our own nature in order to know how to adopt into the system the most optimal way.
      But we have no options as not using the interconnections in the required way leads to explosion.
      But when used properly, full, global mutual responsibility and complementing could unleash human ingenuity, talent, capability without any boundaries, restrictions.

        CommentedBubba Umurka

        The US has been the closest thing to a melting pot in history to my knowledge, yet its alleged lack of diversity is what makes its appear "uncultured" in the eyes of many others. I didn't expect the EU to show us how its done. The disdain and mistrust of, say, neighbors in Germany - Bavarians, Swabians, etc. - of one another is ancient.
        A little Euro cash won't buy love and understanding.

        Indeed, when everyone is the same, then suddenly groups of people start crying for freedom, wanting to do their own thing again, be different. What now?

    9. CommentedCraig Hardt

      Perhaps the true story isn't that America has declined in power. Indeed, its military capability is still far beyond the imagination of any other nation, or all other nations combined for that matter.
      The true story is that America has realized that no amount of military power can guarantee American safety. The enemy is elusive, adaptable, and unclear. This makes intervening far more risky, as it's hard to quantify success in a meaningful way.
      The irony behind all of this is America's best interest is probably better served by staying out of regional conflicts in the Middle East, so even if it had the relative economic/military power it once did the wise decision would still be to stay away from another intractable war.
      With a lower reliance on the Middle East for energy, and more important trade and investment partnerships elsewhere, America can well afford to keep its nose clean. What remains to be seen is whether the humanitarian aspect of letting the war in Syria rage on eventually brings America to the point where it feels compelled to do something. War, however, is rarely the humane option.

    10. CommentedShankkar Aiyar

      A timely observation. But truly what are we missing here? America or that ephemeral thingy called leadership -- a Churchill, a Reagan, Charles De Gaulle. Leaders who were not led by aggregated wisdom of barbershop babble. Along with the cult of metrosexuals, the world is suffering a surfeit of theorists who words for action.