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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.