How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The United States emerged from the Cold War with unprecedented absolute and relative power. It was truly first among unequals. Not surprisingly, its leaders were uncertain about what to do with such advantages, and for more than a decade following the dismantlement of the Berlin Wall, U.S. foreign policy was conducted without much in the way of an overarching strategy.
The 9/11 attacks changed all this, giving Washington a surfeit of purpose to go along with its preponderant power. Within weeks, in the opening act of what became known as the “global war on terrorism,” the United States moved to oust the Taliban-led government of Afghanistan in order to prevent future attacks by al Qaeda and to send the message that governments that tolerated or abetted terrorism would not be secure.
Association with terrorism, however, was not the reason the United States attacked Iraq 17 months later. Nor was the reason preempting the use of weapons of mass destruction, for Iraq represented at most a gathering threat in that realm, not an imminent one. (Now, we know it did not represent even that, but at the time, it was widely believed that it did.) Rather, the principal rationale for attacking Iraq was to signal to the world that even after 9/11, the United States was not, in Richard Nixon’s words, a “pitiful, helpless giant.” Many of the war’s proponents also believed that Iraq would quickly become a thriving democracy that would set an example for the rest of the Middle East.
The decision to attack Iraq in March 2003 was discretionary; it was a war of choice. There was no vital American interest in imminent danger, and there were alternatives to using military force, such as strengthening the existing sanctions. The war in Afghanistan, in contrast, started as a war of necessity. Vital interests were at stake, and no other policy could have protected them in a timely fashion. But toward the end of the Bush administration, that conflict started to morph into something else, and it crossed a line in March 2009, when President Barack Obama decided to sharply increase American troop levels and declared that it was U.S. policy to “take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east” of the country. With these escalations, Afghanistan, too, became a war of choice.
Around the middle of his first term, however, Obama seemed to conclude that the effort in Afghanistan, like the one in Iraq, made little sense, at least on the scale that the United States was conducting it, accomplishing little but costing a great deal and with no end in sight. Local realities trumped American ambitions. And so just as he had moved to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq (even though it might have been possible to arrange for a small, residual force to stay there), so he also moved to wind down U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.
The drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan were part of a larger military distancing from the greater Middle East. When domestic upheavals rocked the region in the spring of 2011, the Obama administration tried to avoid getting deeply involved. Its participation in the operation to oust Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi was mostly limited to providing air and missile strikes and assisting the United States’ NATO partners with intelligence and command and control -- “leading from behind,” in the words of an anonymous administration official -- and the United States showed no appetite for participating in an effort to stabilize, much less rebuild, Libya in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s fall. U.S. policy toward the civil war in Syria has been even more cautious. The United States has resisted not just direct military participation on behalf of the Syrian opposition (rejecting, for example, calls to establish no-fly zones and the like) but also supplying weapons. Instead, Washington has helped coordinate economic and political sanctions designed to weaken the regime while providing “nonlethal” political, intelligence, communications, and economic support to the opposition.
Washington’s diplomatic involvement in the Middle East during these years was uneven. Efforts to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians more or less came to an end after Israel’s government rebuffed Obama’s pressure to rein in settlement construction, and by 2012, the administration appeared more anxious to block UN consideration of the Palestinian issue than promote progress in other venues. In early 2011, the Obama team unceremoniously pushed Hosni Mubarak to give up power in Egypt but appeared reluctant to demand changes from his successors and said little about the resistance to reform in friendly monarchies.
Policies on individual issues or cases can be debated, but the thrust of the administration’s approach has mostly been sensible. The greater Middle East had come to dominate and distort American foreign and defense policy, and a course correction was called for. The Obama administration’s vehicle for this correction was the announcement of a “pivot,” or “rebalancing,” toward Asia, a region home to many of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies and one likely to be more central than the Middle East in shaping the world’s future. A recognition that China was not just rising but becoming more assertive and even bullying gave the pivot some urgency, as did the sense that without it, other countries in the region, including some U.S. friends and allies, might soon start accommodating themselves to growing Chinese dominance or mobilizing their own, possibly destabilizing efforts to resist it.
By now, as the administration begins its second term, its argument for paying more attention to Asia has been widely accepted, and correctly so. The administration also faces major pressure to reduce federal spending, including on defense. But events in the greater Middle East are making it difficult for the United States to limit its involvement there. The irony is inescapable: a decade ago, Washington chose to immerse itself in the region when it did not have to, carrying out two decadelong wars of choice that involved a total of more than two million American servicemen and servicewomen and ended up costing more than 6,000 American dead, 40,000 wounded, $1.5 trillion, and enormous time and energy on the part of policymakers; but now that most Americans want little to do with the region, U.S. officials are finding it difficult to turn away. It is easy to imagine the president echoing Michael Corleone’s lament in The Godfather, Part III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
THE NEW NEW MIDDLE EAST
Six and a half years ago, I wrote an essay for this magazine titled “The New Middle East.” The piece argued that the era of American domination of the region was coming to an end and that the Middle East’s future would be characterized by considerable but reduced U.S. influence, an imperial Iran with growing regional sway, a messy post-Saddam Iraq, a stagnant peace process, and the further spread of political Islam. This has largely come to pass, although the reality is even grimmer than the prediction. Egypt is now led by a Muslim Brotherhood president seeking to consolidate power. There is a deadly civil war going on in Syria, unrest and polarization in Bahrain, and growing signs of disquiet in Jordan. Saudi Arabia is suffering from a prolonged succession crisis, Iran is closer to possessing nuclear weapons, and the prospects for a comprehensive and durable Middle East peace have deteriorated further.
The most immediate and difficult policy choice facing the United States in the region concerns Syria. The death toll in the civil war there has risen beyond 70,000; the conflict now involves several of Syria’s neighbors and threatens to spread to them. At the same time, the ouster of the Assad regime would be a major blow to its Iranian patron. But the government remains in place, the Syrian opposition is divided and its future agenda unknowable, and the sectarian nature of the conflict guarantees that any armed intervention to end the fighting would have to be large scale, long lasting, and skillfully managed to have even a chance of success. It would be hard to justify so potentially costly and difficult an undertaking for less than vital interests. This does not mean that Washington should turn its back on the human suffering in Syria. But humanitarian intervention should not be equated with or limited to direct military action, particularly with ground forces. Washington should use other tools -- such as tightening economic and political sanctions against the government, providing discrete military aid to opposition groups whose views it can accept, and diplomatic initiatives -- to help remove the current leadership. It should also help refugees and internally displaced persons, working with Syria’s neighbors, especially Jordan and Turkey.
Other challenges will arise from political turbulence in countries such as Bahrain, Jordan, and possibly even Saudi Arabia. In such situations, U.S. officials can encourage political and economic reform, but there is no guarantee that such advice will be accepted or that modest reforms would ensure stability. That said, the United States ought to give strong support to friendly governments that act responsibly and should think twice before distancing itself from regimes that fail to pursue desired reforms, given the important economic and security interests at stake and the strong possibility that successor regimes will be unfriendly and even more flawed.
Once political change has occurred -- as in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia -- the United States should establish a more conditional relationship with the new government. Obama had it right when he described the new Egyptian government as neither an ally nor an adversary. In such circumstances, U.S. economic and military support (and U.S. backing for support from international financial institutions) should be tightly linked to how the new government treats American interests, its neighbors, and its citizens. U.S. officials should be willing to take their criticism public when such a course is warranted and might be effective.
As for Iran, the United States has many good reasons for trying to stop it from acquiring nuclear weapons. An Iran with nuclear weapons, or the capacity to acquire them quickly and easily, would be more able and willing to shape the Middle East in its anti-American image. It might be tempted to transfer nuclear weapons or material to a group such as Hezbollah, could threaten Israel, or could motivate other countries in the vicinity to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, creating a situation of enormous instability and potential destructiveness. Repeated U.S. statements that it would be “unacceptable” for Iran to go nuclear, meanwhile, mean that American credibility is now at stake as well.
At the same time, Washington should try hard to avoid another costly war of choice. Before launching or supporting a preventive strike on Iranian nuclear assets, the United States should consider what the chances are that the strike would destroy much of Iran’s relevant capacity, the costs of likely retaliation, the implications for other American interests in the region, the prospects that a nuclear Iran could be confidently deterred, the possibility that the proliferation aspirations of other regional states could be managed though alternative policies, and the impact of an attack on domestic Iranian political development. It is conceivable that when all these considerations are taken into account, a strike might make sense, but this would be a high bar to clear. And if such a course were to be embarked on, it should be only after clear offers of negotiation have been made and rejected, demonstrating Iran’s unwillingness to accept a reasonable compromise.
As for the Israeli-Palestinian divide, the prospects for advancing reconciliation and peace are poor. But this is not an argument for standing pat; bad situations can and do get worse. Ideally, the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority would put forward a comprehensive peace proposal that would generate real excitement and support both at home and across the divide; failing that, the United States should articulate principles for establishing a sustainable peace settlement that would leave all parties better off. Hopefully, a political process and negotiations would then ensue. Hamas, which controls Gaza, should be able to participate in negotiations only if it eschews violence and demonstrates a willingness to coexist with Israel. Washington should do what it can to bolster moderate forces in the Palestinian community and discourage Israel from engaging in activities -- including, but not limited to, settlement construction -- that will further undermine what few prospects remain to create a viable Palestinian state.
The United States retains important and in some cases vital interests in the Middle East, including a deep commitment to Israel’s security, opposition to terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons, and a commitment to safeguarding access to the region’s energy resources. But today, the region is not an arena of decisive great-power competition, as it was at times during the Cold War, nor is it home to any major power. In addition, it is a part of the world where local realities can and often do limit the utility of military force, economic sanctions, and diplomacy. The fact that the United States is moving toward energy self-sufficiency gives it some added cushion (although not independence) from the consequences of the region’s turbulence.
For more than a decade now, American foreign policy has been both distracted and distorted by the greater Middle East. But myriad policy choices lie between preoccupation and disengagement. Military interventions to overthrow hostile regimes or prop up friendly ones are becoming increasingly untenable and should almost always be avoided, given their high costs and uncertain payoffs, along with the existence of competing priorities at home and abroad. More discrete armed action -- whether to help maintain the free movement of oil and gas, destroy or set back programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, or attack terrorists -- should be prepared for and carried out on a case-by-case basis. Where potential partners exist, Washington should also work to build up local government capacities to maintain order and combat terrorism. U.S. officials should push governments led by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements to follow democratic norms and procedures; failing that, Washington should do what it can to make it difficult for such groups to consolidate their power. The staple of American involvement in this part of the world should be the provision or withholding of various forms of diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and military support, to influence a country’s foreign policy and, in select cases, its domestic trajectory.
WHAT REBALANCING MEANS
In contrast to the Middle East, Asia is a locus of great-power competition, where U.S. military presence and action may prove extremely useful in heading off or handling many potential problems. The Obama administration was wise to place a greater emphasis on this part of the world in 2011, although it could (and should) have done better in articulating and implementing its new course. “Pivot” implied too sharp a turn, both by suggesting too dramatic a pullback from the greater Middle East and by overlooking all that the United States has already done over the decades in East Asia. “Rebalancing,” the administration’s second label for its policy, better characterizes both the substance and the rationale of the new approach. The military dimensions of the new policy were also overemphasized at first. Maintaining and perhaps even selectively increasing the U.S. military presence in the region has been important, but more significant than the deployment of 2,500 marines in Australia is the direction of U.S. diplomacy vis-à-vis China and its neighbors, the availability of economic assistance to promote political and economic development in the region’s poorer countries, and the ability to negotiate a new trade agreement (specifically, the Trans-Pacific Partnership) as quickly and inclusively as possible.
The best way to ensure Asia’s stability is for the United States to stay active, be a reliable strategic partner, and be present in every sense and sphere, lest other countries in the region begin to accommodate their stronger neighbors or become more nationalist and aggressive themselves. Thus, it continues to make sense for a sizable American force (now 28,000 troops) to be stationed in South Korea, even though six decades have passed since the end of the Korean War and the South itself has grown rich and strong. Deterring a renewal of the conflict is a high priority, and on-the-scene American troops help achieve that. Making clear that any future conflict would end with the reunification of the entire peninsula under the South’s authority should increase the North’s restraint, as well as reinforce China’s efforts to rein in its obstreperous ally. The United States could also try to reassure China that any reunified Korea would be nonnuclear and home to only a small number of U.S. troops, if any. Such reassurance might influence China’s policy at a time when the new leadership in Beijing is showing signs of weariness with the antics of its longtime North Korean ally.
The rationale for defending South Korea is relatively straightforward given U.S. treaty commitments, but what Washington should do in several other potential scenarios in the region is less clear. The United States has obligations to Taiwan, as well as to Japan, the Philippines, and Australia, but it does not want to be drawn into a regional conflict without excellent reasons. So American foreign policy faces a delicate balancing act: it must communicate enough resolve so as to discourage aggression against its friends and allies, but it must avoid signaling unconditional support (the diplomatic version of moral hazard) lest it encourage those friends and allies to behave provocatively or recklessly. In practice, this means continuing to provide limited military support for Taiwan while dissuading it from unilateral efforts to alter the political status quo. It also means consulting closely with Japan, the Philippines, and other regional friends in order to see to it that Chinese assertiveness does not go unmet and that crises are avoided or, failing that, dampened rather than escalated.
Managing U.S.-Chinese relations in such a context will be far from easy, but doing so successfully is essential. There will be no more important challenge for U.S. diplomacy over the next generation than working to integrate China into regional and global arrangements, be it managing the economy, limiting climate change, or combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles. China’s help is needed to reunify Korea peacefully, prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, and get Pakistan to change its ways. The original rationale for the rapprochement between Washington and Beijing (opposition to the Soviet Union) is no longer relevant, and the successor rationale (cooperating for mutual economic benefit) is too narrow to sustain harmony between the two countries by itself. Close cooperation on solving major regional and global challenges should be a crucial element in the mix.
Talk of a U.S.-Chinese “G-2” or of a “global condominium,” however, is unrealistic. Chinese leaders remain focused on China’s perceived internal needs and are busy raising the country’s profile throughout the region. The wisest policy for the United States and others is thus to hedge, cooperating where possible with the People’s Republic while maintaining a strong diplomatic, economic, and military presence in the region and a thick web of local ties. Such a stance will discourage China from acting aggressively, give local states confidence to stand up to their bigger neighbor, and provide the foundations for a robust response should China choose not to integrate into regional and global institutions and instead embark on a fundamentally nationalist and aggressive course. Still, given the high costs of containment, adopting it as policy before it is definitely required would be a mistake and might even help bring about an adversarial relationship that would serve the interests of no one.
The United States chose to immerse itself in the greater Middle East when it had little reason to dive in, and now that it has good reasons for limiting its involvement there, doing so has turned out to be difficult. But difficult is not impossible. There is not much to be gained by Washington’s doing more in the region right now, especially if more is defined in terms of large, prolonged military interventions designed to remake societies decidedly unripe for democracy. Where the interests at stake are less than vital and the likely risks and costs of acting on their behalf outweigh the likely benefits, the United States should learn to live with outcomes that are less than optimal. In Afghanistan, for example, it would be regrettable were the Taliban to stage a recovery, but it would not necessarily be intolerable, especially if al Qaeda or its offshoots were not allowed to operate from Afghan territory. Elsewhere in the region, it would be unfortunate if the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies came to power in several more countries, but that would not normally be grounds for armed (as opposed to other kinds of) intervention. This is not isolationism but strategy.
The old order in the Middle East is disappearing. The transition is still in its early phases, and what will follow (and when) is uncertain. But political Islam is sure to play a large part. Some borders are likely to be redrawn, and some new states may even emerge. Intra- and inter- state conflict are likely to be commonplace. The United States can and should try to influence the course of events, but it is unlikely to have much control, and doing more will not necessarily give it more say. Some of the wisest actions the country could take, therefore, would include insulating itself as much as possible from regional events, continuing its development of energy sources outside the Middle East, and making itself more resilient to terrorism.
Asia, however, does call for more U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic involvement. Other regions can also stake a claim to a share of Washington’s attention. Negotiating a transatlantic free-trade agreement (ideally, one involving both Canada and Mexico) would be a major economic and strategic accomplishment; so, too, would be negotiating and implementing a NAFTA 2.0 that would more closely link the United States with its immediate neighbors so as to better manage shared interests related to trade and investment, security, energy, infrastructure, and the flow of people. Narrowing the gap between global challenges and the current institutional arrangements for dealing with them is also an important issue, particularly in the case of climate change. Here and elsewhere, though, global accords with broad participation may not be possible, and it may be more realistic and rewarding to focus on agreements with narrower aims, less participation, or both.
Any U.S. rebalancing among regions and issues, finally, needs to be complemented by another sort of rebalancing, between the internal and the external, the domestic and the foreign. The United States needs to restore the foundations of American economic power so that it will once again have the resources to act freely and lead in the world, so that it can compete, so that it can discourage threats from emerging and contend with them if need be, so that it is less vulnerable to international developments it cannot control, and so that it can set an example others will want to emulate. The vast sums spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did not cause the nation’s current budgetary or economic predicament, but they did contribute to it. Spending more on national security now would only make it more difficult to set things right. The goal at home must be to restore historical levels of domestic economic growth, reduce the ratio of debt to GDP, and improve the quality of the nation’s infrastructure and human capital. During the next several years, facing no rival great power or existential threat, the United States is likely to enjoy something of a strategic respite. The question is whether the United States will take advantage of that respite to renew the sources of its strength or squander it through continued overreaching in the Middle East, not attending to Asia, and underinvesting at home.