The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
In this podcast edition of Foreign Affairs Unedited, author Ian Bremmer and Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose discuss Bremmer's new book, Superpower: Three Choices for America's Role in the World, and the Obama administration's record. This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.
Rose: Well Ian, what are the three choices for America's role in the world?
Bremmer: Gideon, good to be back with you, always a pleasure and a privilege. Three choices as I see them, very different. One, indispensable America: The idea that we may not wanna be the world's policeman, but no one else is gonna do it, the world is only gonna be much more problematic and conflict oriented if we don't. And so we have to do as much as possible, both in terms of active leadership with allies and institutions, but also promoting American values around the world, democracy, the free market, and the like.
Second option: Moneyball America, from Michael Lewis' old book and the film later on. The idea that just like Billy Bean's Oakland A's, we need to be much less sentimental, focus much less on values internationally; that the Chinese don't wanna listen to you on free markets, that the Russians don't wanna listen to on democracy. Instead, focus on those investments that we think are gonna return actual value.
And then the third is independent America. And the idea there is we may like to talk about all the things we'd like to do internationally, but if we're not really going to adhere to these red lines, either selectively or globally, then it's much better to stop and instead focus much more on American values at home. In other words, don't demand respect, command respect and lead by example. All three I think actually feasible, all three real options for the world's still only superpower, but in choosing a course as opposed to continuing to have a much more incoherent path as we have over the last 25 years, I think is critically important in the 2016 elections.
Rose: Well some might say that we're really in option two, Moneyball America, but that we can't quite admit that for domestic and even international reasons, politically. And so we talk a bigger game while actually not backing up our talk. And so you end up with priorities being implemented in practice, but with bigger ideals that you occasionally spout but then don't back up. Isn't that where we actually are?
Bremmer: Look, I think there's a lot of truth to that, particularly in the last few years. I mean if you look at the debacle over Syria, there was a lot of talk, a lot of setting of red lines, and the reality was the Americans never were gonna put troops on the ground, they never were really gonna remove Assad. So that I think is an exact example of what you just said. But, if you look at other parts of the world, what you see is a real lack of consistency and cohesion from the United States. So I mean not doing any Israel/Palestine for the first few years of the administration, and then suddenly it's our top priority and now it's off the map again. The pivot to Asia was Hilary Clinton's real focus for the first four years of the Obama administration, but Asia getting much less shrift from John Kerry and from others in the second term. Russia, you had a reset and now... Then you had actually a fairly significant escalation with the American's clearly taking a harder line policy than America's allies in Europe.
I don't think it's only about Americans talking a big game and not living up to it, I think it's also about a lack of vision, a lack of their view of consistency, of follow-through, and truly not knowing what America wants.
Rose: So is your main criticism of the Obama administration one of strategy or one of execution? Or is it really both?
Bremmer: Oh I actually think the execution is less of a problem than the strategy. I think that the Obama administration has been very risk averse, they've been very reactive, and they've really been unwilling to set out a strategy because it's not their priority and they see mostly downside from it, certainly in the near term, and they're not thinking as much in the long-term on foreign policy. I mean one point that I bring out in the book, and I was really surprised to see this, so when Susan Rice finally came out with this national security strategy document last October, and she got a lot of criticism because it was supposed to come out first in March, and then in June and then in August, and what she said when they finally rolled out is, "Look, if we had rolled out our doctrine at any point over those months, it would have been out of date within two weeks." She actually said that. I'm like, "Well wait a second. If it's a strategy, then by definition it's not out of date in two weeks." And I think that really does describe the way the Obama administration looks at these things, which is what... We're not talking about something that really would be a lasting view of what the vision and mission for American leadership in the world, however bold or limited that would be for the next 10, 20, 30 years. It's really a question of, "Well the world's messy and crises pop up all the time, so we need to react to them."
Rose: So there's an old saying, "A fish rots from the head." Is this the problem of Obama himself, is it his team and the people that he's put together, is it the American domestic political context that forces you to go off whatever strategy you have, or is it just a reflection of a very messy international arena in which it's impossible to figure out what your priorities are?
Bremmer: There are lots of legitimate reasons why the United States is less interested in playing the super-power role that it has historically. You look at the backlash from those wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You look at the Energy Revolution and how the US feels like it doesn't need the Middle East the way it used to in traditional American allies, or Israel and their unwillingness to support a two state solution. And yet, foreign policy is an area that the President does have real influence over, irrespective of what Congress says.
Rose: Right now, there's some chaos in the Middle East, there's some chaos in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and there's some tensions in the Southeast China Seas, and in Asia more generally. Which of those regions' troubles do you think are the most significant and worrisome for the United States?
Bremmer: Short term, Russia, long term, China, and the Middle East is gonna be in between on both.
Rose: Why long term China?
Bremmer: Long term China because I believe that right now, China is the only country in the world with a global strategy. It is, as you and I have discussed on previous occasions, a geo-economic strategy, it is not a geo political strategy, but it's an effective one. It is... They're gonna spend well over a trillion dollars. They're gonna support international institutions that are run by China. They're going to invest enormous sums in infrastructure and in equities in other countries, both in their region and emerging markets around the World that will orient those countries more towards Chinese long-term interest, toward Chinese standards, towards Chinese currency, towards Chinese state-owned enterprises, and Chinese state capitalism.
Rose: So is something like the AAIB, the harbinger of a new Chinese alternative institutional structure for the world?
Bremmer: I think the Asian Infrastructure Bank, absolutely, is one such harbinger, and I think that, just more recently, the fact that the IMF has now come out and said that actually no China's not keeping... It's not devaluing the one, and in fact the IMF expects within two to three years they should and would be able to free-float their currency, acting as a reserve currency in the global stage. That is an example. I think that China going to Pakistan and throwing tens of billions of dollars. I think that what China is doing with Brazil and saying before Petrobras even comes clean with what exactly is going on internally, here's three and a half billion that we're gonna give you a lending facility. There are lots of ways that Chinese cash oriented toward strategic Chinese economic interest really is a game changer for the United States and the global, the US lead global economic order that we've all experienced.
Rose: You are facing a campaign season in the United States now, things are gonna get even crazier come 2016, and later after the election, do you expect any of these choices actually to be followed clearly and coherently, or will the muddle that is US foreign policy and grand strategy perpetuate itself over time?
Bremmer: There's good news and bad news. The good news is that I think it is apparent to most Americans that the United States is failing on foreign policy, and they don't like it when the Gulf States don't send their leaders to meet Obama. They don't like it when Netanyahu who comes here when we tell him not to. They don't like it when the Brits joined the Asia infrastructure bank as a founding member after we've said, "Don't you dare." They don't like it when the Chinese and the Russians do joint military exercises in the Mediterranean Sea for the first time.
So, I think foreign policy is becoming a real issue in this campaign. And Obama at 53% approval ratings right now has his lowest ratings on foreign policy. So we are gonna really have a debate and a discussion in a way that in 2012 Romney versus Obama was a huge nothing burger, right. But whether or not that's gonna be a strategic debate, that's interesting. Iraq, right? You absolutely now have Jeb Bush not wanting to be asked the question, certainly of, "Are you gonna put troops back?" and saying "I'm not sure they'd be very useful," a lot of hedging going on there. But you have candidates, Republican candidates. That are now saying, "You know what? We can actually put 10,000 plus US troops on the ground." You have Rand Paul saying, "We'd be better off if Saddam Hussein was still in Iraq," and you have Hillary Clinton saying, "The Iraqi's will help, but the Iraqi's have to really do this themselves." That's the beginning of a vastly better debate than this country has had since the last presidential election. And I think if we could do more of that on issues like responding to China, on Russia, Ukraine, on trade the Trans-Pacific, the Trans-Atlantic partnerships, those sorts of things, that would be great.
That doesn't quite get me to, will we have a presidential candidate that will coherently pick one of these up and... So I had to choose, ultimately, did the best job I could with trying to say which of these three choices I think would be best for America. And in the conclusion, I said, actually the one I came up with myself, reluctantly, was independent America, where, you know, as someone who spends his entire life thinking about foreign policy and global issues like you do Gideon, kinda hard for me to say that. And it wasn't because I like it as an option, it's because I am not convinced that there is a political candidate out there that is prepared not just to talk the talk, but actually walk the walk; on either money ball or indispensable coherently and consistently, in a way that...
Rose: So you're Paul-like by default?
Bremmer: I wouldn't say I'm Paul-like by default, because I don't think Paul is Paul-like by default. I think what I'm saying is, it is ultimately, if we are left with another president who is gonna, as you say at the beginning, talk a great game but not really wanna follow through, we are gonna be much better off not talking that great game.