America’s global influence is in decline; so say numerous politicians, policy intellectuals, and academics. But there are two kinds of decline – absolute and relative. The former stems from a loss of strength, while the latter accomodates the rise of other powers. A power might rebuild its foreign policy prowess – say by strengthening its military forces – but even then, a relative decline in influence may occur as other powers grow stronger, faster.
Relative and absolute declines may also occur at the same time, and this seems to be the American reality. In some respects you could argue that overall U.S. military power has fallen on some absolute scale, but what is certain is that other powers are rising and, above all, the challenges facing America’s capacity to dominate are greater than at any time since the height of the Cold War. U.S. geo-strategic primacy is under siege in several regions at once, and in this sense it is globally stressed.
Washington’s challenge is not only to deal with the biggest adversary states and regional problems – China, Iran, Russia, and the Middle East – it also relates to strategic overload. The United States has to deal with every crisis at once and troubleshoot their many connections: An action in one theater creates secondary and tertiary effects in the others.
China’s challenge to American influence is now multifaceted, a combination of international economic competition as well as limited strategic conflicts in East Asian seas that pose the question of who ultimately will organize future Asian geopolitics – Beijing, or the United States and its allies. A growing debate in American policy discussions is asking whether Beijing’s long-term goal is in fact to replace America as the world’s pre-eminent power.
Iran is an American dilemma in two ways: through its nuclear program and through its rising influence in Middle East geopolitics. Negotiations for an agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program are at this point inconclusive. On the other hand, Tehran’s rising regional influence within the morass of overlapping Middle East conflicts is evident. America’s allies feel themselves under threat, and they believe that only the United States can guarantee their security. Yet with its growing energy independence, the U.S. national interest in the region – outside of its alliance with Israel – seems less compelling than it once was.
Russia challenges America with territorial aggression against Ukraine and with its implied, though improbable, designs on the Baltic States. Washington’s need here is to motivate more resolute reactions from the NATO/EU countries, since the United States has no interest in a war with Russia. A strong U.S.-Europe coalition could deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin from a position of strength while reducing demands on American strategic capabilities.
The Arab Sunni Middle East today is a morass of overlapping and intertwined wars; geopolitical rivalries; questionable governments; and the plague of jihadism. Unquestionably Washington, although still significantly involved, has stepped back from intervening as it once might have. Biding one’s time is not the worst option when military or other decisive action looks so unpromising at the same time as humanitarian aid is fundamental.
Less Is Often More
America is anything but isolated in the world’s major areas of geostrategic conflict. To the contrary, Washington is solicited by the Europeans, the Asian allies and various actors in the Middle East whose very survival might depend on American help. In the conflicts created by Chinese expansion into the East and South China seas, more willing and able allies are present (Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, perhaps Taiwan) because their own national interests are threatened, and they possess military capabilities.
What should U.S. President Barack Obama do? The primary goals of American foreign policy are to serve the national interest and to foster international peace and security. The definition of a national strategy, and the specific goals it pursues, therefore begins with analyzing circumstances in a broad arc to measure what Washington can and should try to achieve.
What are the most serious problems of world order? Who is involved, and what are their policies? An American grand strategy does not develop in the abstract – it emerges out of the challenges of a given structural situation. A strategy of containment and nuclear deterrence, for example, would have made no sense absent the Soviet threat. Putting liberal internationalism first makes sense only if international circumstances permit it. Then come decisions about how much to try to change unfavorable circumstances, and what actions to take regarding any one problem – not alone, but in the context of the various problems that are on the president’s desk. Today the American strategic position faces all the major challenges outlined above.
Let us analyze this from the point of view of the president, rather than that of critics in Congress or the media. Obama’s critics, if they take a comprehensive view as they should, and want bipartisan consensus as they should, can be critical of his policies. (I myself am unconvinced that the framework nuclear agreement with Iran is the best that could be achieved.) It is also fair to argue that Obama’s policy involves an unnecessary retrenchment, and that America needs to be more deeply engaged in pushing back Russia militarily in Ukraine, or in confronting aggressive Chinese expansion in the East and South China Seas. But how, exactly, and with what likelihood of success? It cannot be good policy to test the limits of American power everywhere. Less is often more.
A crowded agenda
The problem for any president is that America’s global geostrategic importance means that everything is on his or her desk at once. Only America has such strategic capacity, thus only America has this degree of geostrategic stress. No foreign policy is certain of success, and the debate over what to do is never finished. It is debatable, for example, whether an intervention by Obama in Syria a year or two ago would have softened the unfolding disaster. As things stand, however, there are no U.S. soldiers engaged on the ground in Syria, and few personnel remain in Iraq and Afghanistan. American public opinion would not have supported renewed heavy military action in the Middle East. Air strikes and drone attacks have had their effect; perhaps more would have been better. Extremist political Islam and jihadism may be contained or, to use the current phrase, degraded, but to some considerable extent it will just burn itself out over many years anyhow.
What can change to improve America’s strategic situation and the tasks the United States must undertake? The first priority is active allies. American allies in the Far East are stepping up, but Europe’s continuing weakness will take time to reverse – assuming it can. Setbacks among adversaries are second, because they translate into fewer and weaker challenges. China, Iran, and Russia are not immune from serious troubles, and a certain kind of coalition in the Middle East could push back against Iran as well as attack jihadist organizations.
The next U.S. president may arrive in office with very different policies and instincts than Barack Obama. But the new leader must reckon with circumstances and resources, with the constraints of means on ends. Without doubt, the so-called most powerful man in the world faces the world’s most difficult political constraints. Without doubt, the world’s greatest power must face the limits of its strengths.