Managing conflict as America declines

Managing conflict as America declines

Those seeking to better manage America’s important but diminished role in the world need to consider a number of questions concerning, for instance, its own interests, capacities and vulnerabilities; trends in conflict and co-operation; and international commitments, the missions required to uphold them, and the mix of military and intelligence capabilities needed to pursue them.

 Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

By David B. Kanin

The United States has no international strategy.  It does produce a lot national security documents and slogans purporting to express an international strategy.  Terms like “reset,” “pivot,” and “transatlantic renaissance” get a lot of attention but do not have any content.  No matter what how much evidence builds of declining US influence, official rhetoric and think tank publicity tout American power, highlight the shortcomings of any potential challenger, and assert that the rest of the world cries out for US leadership.[1] Conventional wisdom takes comfort in statistics showing that the US remains at the top of the heap as an economic giant and military behemoth.  It also asserts the US retains massive cultural influence.

This defensive narrative misses the point.  America is in decline not because of absolute or relative measurements, but because its material and structural struggles are shrinking its margin for error.  Preeminence once enabled this country to absorb such costly mistakes as the Vietnam War [2] or relatively cheaper but ill-considered overturning of governments in the Americas and Iran (and such fiascos as the Bay of Pigs).  That no longer is the case.  America’s shrinking capabilities and influence lend global significance to rudderless adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, deer-in-headlight indecision over Syria and Egypt, and over-hyped deployments of force and diplomacy in Libya, Iran and the rest of the Middle East.  Widening differences with European allies over values and priorities also bring shrinking US clout into high relief.

The way the United States came to global power set the context for this decline.  This is one of the few things about America that really was exceptional.  During the nineteenth century, the United States could work out sectional problems and construct a continental wide, integrated economic engine without interference by outside powers.  Then, twice in the space of a generation, world wars of unprecedented destructiveness laid prostrate any potential rival to US material preeminence—whether friend or foe.  In a sense, 1919 marked the apogee of relative American power, given the conditions in other countries.  After 1945, the Soviet Union provided a military and ideological adversary, but never provided a serious economic challenge.  Meanwhile, the attraction of the idea that “America” meant “opportunity” and Wilsonian rhetoric about Democracy and freedom created what my old boss Joseph S,. Nye, Jr. termed “soft power,” the cultural attraction that magnified the appeal of a distant and exotic New World.

To a large extent, hard power is what the US has left.  Its economy remains strong and important to global trade and finance, but the rise of other centers of money, trade, and even innovation has reduced Washington’s ability to wield its wealth the way it did, say, when President Eisenhower could use a threat to the pound to help bring British and French adventurism over Suez to a halt.  America’s cultural attractiveness also has passed its peak, in part because governments and peoples elsewhere know us a lot better than they did a hundred years ago, when the United States appeared to others as young, vibrant, and exotically innocent.  The inability of Washington’s diplomacy to forge stable solutions acceptable to all sides to ongoing or frozen conflicts in the Middle East, Balkans, or Northeast Asia is self-evident.

These days, there is little evidence the US can accomplish much in the world unless it uses brute force.  Since at least the American Civil War (1861-1865), the US military has been a blunt club, pounding (or attempting to pound) enemies into submission through the bringing to bear of enormous amounts of firepower and supporting supplies.  As a tool, the US military resembles its former Soviet/Russian adversary more than the relatively rapier-like tool that was the Prussian/German army, which proved more successful in short wars than in multi-year fights to the finish.

The less than stellar performance of policy makers and diplomats since the end of the George H.W. Bush administration has accelerated the process of decline.  It is possible—even likely—that a future American administration will include individuals who will restore a measure of American credibility.  Nevertheless, not even an American Sun Tzu would return to Washington the margin for error that was its strategic luxury.  The United States will remain important in the world, but it also will remain in decline.

Where Does US Decline Leave the Other Great Powers?

The global security system is modeled after that of 1815, which is what makes it so difficult for social, economic, and environmental activists to graft onto it latter-day versions of the rhetoric of 1919.  No matter the proliferation of NGOs and international courts, the UN Security Council, like the arrangement among the Powers who defeated Napoleon, retains the power to enable or reject coherent international approaches to conflicts and disputes.  The veto those states enjoy, like the principle of unanimity maintained by the Great Powers in the nineteenth century, is meant to prevent any one of them from mischaracterizing unilateral action as speaking for the World.  This system limited Tsarist Russian advances toward Constantinople before 1914 and put paid to George W. Bush’s effort to pretend his invasion of Iraq in 2003 had global backing.  Like these earlier examples, future versions of collective security will be ad hoc and case by case, not structured and institutionalized.

One major change working against residual American influence is the shift since 1989 of the US-Russia-China triangle.  During the Cold War, the intensity of Sino-Soviet rivalry created an opportunity for the United States to play the Communist giants off against each other.  Now, however, Moscow and Beijing each is more at odds with Washington than with each other.  This is not likely to change, given US pretensions to being global top dog.

China and Russia will act alone when it comes to their near-abroad (and are now figuring out how to deal with each other when and where those near-abroads intersect).  American input to problems in conflict zones will remain relevant, but not decisive (again, except for those diminishing number of contingencies when Washington proves able and willing to bring to bear overwhelming military power).

Punitive efforts against the Chechens, the war against Georgia (a gift to Moscow from a Georgian government that made the mistake of thinking the US still was preeminent), and recent, skillful diplomacy regarding Syria demonstrate how comfortable Moscow is with traditional tools of international relations.  The Russians know these tools still matter, no matter the breathless rhetoric about social media and activists’ declarations of various revolutions.  Like their Soviet forebears, however, the shortcomings of their economic policies and social conditions will limit their clout and appeal outside that near-abroad.

One important measure of its global stature will be the outcome of Moscow’s ongoing struggle to regain control over Ukraine.  Unless the Russians can prevent a kleptocratic elite that once seemed safely in their pocket from shifting the focus of its informal, extractive business model to opportunities for plunder in the EU, Russia could find itself pushed farther east than any time since the reign of Catherine the Great.  Whatever happens, Russia will appear self-confident only when it recognizes there is no need for it to measure itself against a weakening United States.

China’s burgeoning economy is much less self-limiting than Russia’s, and Beijing has pretensions much farther afield.  The engine for China’s power is similar to that of nineteenth century America, an exploding domestic economy in the process of constructing an integrated, continental-sized market.  If it succeeds in its effort to leverage capital accumulation in its southeast to develop the country’s north and west, China eventually will garner enough influence to change the rules and norms by which international financial and economic transactions are conducted—just as the Americans did after 1919 and again after 1945.  China, however, does not enjoy the unique conditions of global self-destruction that enabled the period of US hegemony.

No matter how rich China gets, it still will have the problem of deciding whether to continue to free ride off US military power (assuming that liberal and center-right war-hawks do not lead Washington into some disaster that discredits that single remaining prop of American self-regard).  So far, Beijing has been content to use Washington’s defensiveness about its eroding global status to leave to the Americans the costly job of threatening force or actually using it to preserve or restore stability in places where Beijing has made important investments in resources critical to its economic future.  One challenge for Chinese authorities will be to convince increasingly nationalistic urban elites to remain willing to let a stressed US burden itself with the role of global policeman while China gathers its strength.

Europe is not and will not be a Great Power.  Different narratives of self-importance have been put together by Europe’s authoritarian elites, what is left of a Left that has proven unable to cope with the fall of a Soviet Union it once derided, and activists whose breathless rhetoric exaggerates the self-evidence and impact of various social and environmental causes.  These have in common the attempt to make replace lost power with the idea that the rest of the world is obligated to sit at the feet of a wise and just “Europe.”  Europe’s authorities and public intellectuals waste many keystrokes on denying the fact of their gradual diminishment, a pathology Americans would be wise to learn from.

Washington has Nothing to Offer Weaker and Poorer Communities

The use of either of two analogies signals a weak argument is to follow.  One is the Western cave-in to Hitler at Munich in 1938, which almost always is used in support of the formula “Me Tarzan, You Chamberlain.”  The other is more relevant to this discussion.  Whenever someone declares the need for a “new Marshall Plan,” just tune out.  There was only one Marshall Plan and there will be no other.  After 1945 Europe had lost its power, but still possessed educated work forces who did not have to compete with well-functioning economies elsewhere (other than the US).  A rich and powerful, America could provide the wherewithal with which Europeans could get back on their feet.  By forcing east Europeans to reject Marshall Plan assistance, Stalin set the stage for the comparative poverty and weakness that made Eastern Europe more than ready to lurch toward Western Europe when Gorbachev’s empire self-destructed after 1989.

Nothing that happened in Europe during the last half of the twentieth century has anything to do with the prospects for the rest of the world during the twenty-first.  The barriers of entry for any country seeking to improve its relative economic position is far higher than in 1945.  It is no secret that the most successful economic stories of the last 40 years involved protection and significant elements of patronage-based political and business opacity, no matter the American myths of free markets and rule-of-law transparency.

Africans, Latin Americans, and Asians might take a lesson from the Balkans, a region inside Europe that has gained neither security nor prosperity since Yugoslavia fell apart in the wake of collapse of Communism.  Serial US and EU declarations have informed local contestants for power and resources that the only way forward is whatever the West is telling them at a particular moment.  Western tutelage simply masks the truth that nothing is settled south of the Sava.  There remains a serious chance of future violence in various parts of the region if the current external security cap—like all those that have been placed on the region since 1878—eventually ceases to function.

Another lesson worth learning is being taught by the various sides in the Middle East—the other periphery of the former Ottoman Empire that has not found stability since that entity fell into decline.  Sunni jihadists, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Shi’a Houthis in Yemen, all realize they no longer have to listen to the United States.  They are using combinations of insurgency, negotiations, and distribution of resources to forge and implement strategies enabled by a precipitous decline of Western influence.  At the same time, Saudi and Israeli disillusionment with American indecision and lack of strategic direction likely will grow into realization that, going forward, even a better organized US will not be able to project power as effectively as it once could.

This goes for negotiations as well as lethal attacks.  Iran has been able to take advantage of Western weakness to embark on a diplomatic path that will lead to the removal of sanctions while Tehran seeks to emulate Israel’s anomalous approach to a nuclear weapons policy.  US desperation for a “success” is Tehran’s main source of leverage.

The same is true regarding Secretary of State Kerry’s effort to impose a deal on Israel and the Palestinians—if he succeeds it soon will become apparent that a two state agreement is not a two state solution.  The upheavals in the Arab world will continue to undo the Western imposed settlement of 1919.  The US and EU remain on the back foot throughout a region where all sides face a horror best expressed by Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov—now that the Western god no longer exists, everything is permitted.

Managing Decline

There is no shame in getting weaker.  It eventually happens to everyone and every institution.  What is too bad is that the US government and liberal institutionalists have concocted various forms of the “normal science” Thomas Kuhn once described as the effort by keepers of a dominant paradigm (his term) to beat off the challenge of the accumulation of theoretical and observed anomalies that eventually brings the old paradigm down.[3]

Doing better would involve ignoring the various, largely facile efforts by individuals to channel George Kennan.  None of the “X Article” wannabes that have appeared since 1989 have held up, and none is likely to.  In part, this is because fashioning a different approach to the world would require drawing on the skills and knowledge of people in many fields having little apparent relationship to foreign policy—anthropologists (to study us, not just other cultures), communications specialists, and many others.  Our foreign affairs elite, which spends so much time arguing over the merits of liberal institutionalism and the poorly named “realism,” is not worth much attention. 

Given the intellectual crust inhibiting useful work, those seeking to better manage America’s important but diminished role in the world would do well to answer the following questions in order—no shortcuts.

  • What trends in conflict, cooperation, ideas, and anthropocene developments are driving the world as it is becoming?
  • What are the interests, capacities, and vulnerabilities of the United States in the world as it is becoming?
  • Which international commitments are necessary—and which are not (does NATO really serve a purpose anymore?) to protect those interests in the world as it is becoming?
  • What missions much performed to uphold the commitments that protect our interests in the world as it is becoming?
  • What mix of military and intelligence capabilities are needed to perform the missions necessary to uphold the commitments that protect our interests in the world as it is becoming?  (The default approach is to skip ahead to this question while avoiding the work involved with tackling its necessary predecessors.)
  • Finally, how should we organize ourselves to do our work?  (Our nineteenth century bureaucracies are cracking under the weight of new technologies and hidebound hierarchies.)

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).


1) For typical examples of the standard line, see Ely Ratner and Thomas Wright, “Washington is broken, but America is still on top,” Washington Post, October 20, 2013, p. B1, and “The Rise and Fall of America’s Rise and Fall,” a Review by Carlos Lozada of Josef Joffe, “The Myth of America’s Decline:  Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies,” Washington Post, November 10, 2013, p. B1.  Much of the January 2014 issue of the journal Current History is a celebration of American hegemony, democracy, and liberal institutionalism.

2) Stanley Hoffman’s Gulliver’s Troubles:  Or the Setting of American Foreign Policy (Council on Foreign Relations/McGraw Hill, 1968) remains a very good starting point for those seeking to understand the flawed American “engineering” approach to the world.

3) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1962).

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