The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
In“Hegemony and After” (July/August 2012), a review essay of Robert Kagan’s The World America Made and of my recent book, Power and Willpower in the American Future, Robert Keohane does a worthy job of setting out his own views about the future of the United States’ global role. But he does not offer a reliable understanding of my arguments.
Keohane takes both Kagan and me to task for a “refusal to accord due weight to multilateral institutions and material power” in assessing the U.S.-sponsored global order and for our “overconfidence in making assertions about the future.” Kagan can speak for himself, but in relation to Power and Willpower, Keohane elides several distinctions important to understanding my work. Regarding the role of international institutions, for example, Keohane might have pointed out that his disagreement with the books reflects a fundamental divide within the community of international relations scholars and practitioners. His optimism about multilateral institutions, moreover, seems oddly out of place in light of the international community’s recent failures, including its lamentable record in responding to problems in the humanitarian sphere, such as the conflicts in Syria and Sudan; the economic sphere, such as the mismanagement of finance and trade; the environmental sphere, such as climate change; and the security sphere, such as Iran and nuclear proliferation.
Keohane writes that I slighted NATO’s operations in Kosovo in 1999 and Libya in 2011, but my description of both cases provides compelling evidence of the indispensability of American support and the increasing limitations of European capabilities. In doing so, I cite the authoritative testimony of then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates documenting the inability of the Europeans to carry out their missions in Libya without the United States’ provision of smart weapons; airborne refueling; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and other advanced capabilities. This is not a snub of NATO’s operations but a realistic and concerned assessment of what NATO can and cannot do.
In addition, a number of Keohane’s key points virtually restate the arguments of Power and Willpower. Keohane begins with the observation that “in the absence of leadership, world politics suffers from collective action problems.” This specific topic is fully discussed in two sections of my book. He adds that “states other than the leader have incentives to shirk their responsibilities.” But in addition to noting the decline in burden sharing by NATO countries, my book also discusses numerous examples of this occurring among the emerging powers, especially the so-called BRICS -- Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. I include telling examples of irresponsibility regarding environmental policy, proliferation, trade, human rights, humanitarian intervention, and intellectual piracy. Keohane echoes yet another main point of my book when he argues that “in the absence of immediate threats, the public’s willingness to invest in international leadership will tend to decline.”
Then, after criticizing both Kagan and me for our “failure to distinguish between what is known and what is unknowable,” Keohane sets out what he terms “half a dozen things relevant to the future of the U.S. global role that can now be said with confidence.” Many of these observations are unexceptionable, but Keohane misses a key point captured in my book’s subtitle: Why the United States Is Not Destined to Decline. Had I wanted to make an unqualified assertion about the United States’ future, it would have been Why the United States Will Not Decline.
Finally, Keohane’s concluding words about the strengths and weaknesses of the position of the United States and the need to “summon the political coherence and willpower to devise and implement a sustainable leadership strategy for the twenty-first century” are so close to my own thinking that they could virtually have been taken from the pages of Power and Willpower. I plead guilty to cautious optimism about the future of the United States, finding evidence for that position in many of the very factors Keohane mentions: its size, material capacity, ability to rebound from difficulties, demographics, openness, and innovativeness. In addition, I cite the country’s lead in science and technology, its unique research universities, its entrepreneurial immigrants, the depth and breadth of its markets, its military strength, and its immense natural resources.
Since the founding of the United States, the country’s experience has been one of unusual flexibility and adaptability: it has had a raucous but robust political system with both liberty and the rule of law, a record of overcoming repeated foreign and domestic crises, a slow but ultimately successful policymaking process, and a capacity for responding to grave threats with great vigor and even ferocity. These traits, observed by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s and Winston Churchill in the mid-twentieth century, among others, are unique to the history and character of the United States. They do not guarantee that the country will once again overcome its considerable problems, but together with the material evidence, they provide a reasoned basis for the concluding words of Power and Willpower: “Much remains to be done in domestic as well as foreign policy, but the robustness of American society coupled with its unique capacities for adaptation and adjustment are likely once again to prove decisive.”
Robert J. Lieber
Professor of Government and International Affairs, Georgetown University