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October 25, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Is U.S. global power waning?

On a day when the White House is suddenly distancing itself from the previous "stay the course" rhetoric (see Tuesday's Washington Post) for fear of losing control of Congress, it is appropriate to step back and look at the Bigger Picture. What do all of the recent foreign policy setbacks mean? On Monday, Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby painted a bleak picture of the world situation, and the inability of the United States to defeat security threats in Iraq, North Korea, and Afghanistan, or even to halt the genocide taking place in Sudan. Meanwhile, prospects for freedom in Russia have turned so bad that hardly anyone notices when a leading investigative journalist is murdered, probably at the tacit behest of Putin's government. Mallaby calls this moment a "nadir of U.S. power," the lowest we have sunk since a quarter century ago, when Ronald Reagan roused our low spirits by declaring it was "morning in America."

North Korea is the most telling example of (apparent) U.S. weakness. Symbolic though it may have been (they're not very likely to actually attack anyone), North Korea's defiant nuclear test will probably mark a grim historical milestone. As more middle-rank countries go nuclear, the global balance of power will be reshaped. Iran is obviously "on deck," and will go ahead whether we like it or not, Japan will be getting ready to cross that threshold "just in case," and even Brazil may even decide to restart its mothballed nuclear program. President Bush had previously said that a nuclear test by North Korea would be unacceptable, but aside from a few wrist-slap sanctions, we seem to have accepted it. Now, I will grant the possibility that some much sterner U.S. retaliatory response to Kim Jong Il's provocation is being prepared, just as it is possible that we may be about to unleash a major new military effort in Iraq. It would be a clever way of baiting our adversaries, maximizing the psychological boost from such a coordinated counterstroke. Based on what is known to the public, however, it just doesn't seem very likely.

Why is the Bush administration so timid about exercising U.S. power at this critical juncture in history? The simple answer would be that we have already exhausted our resources in the war in Iraq, i.e. the Paul Kennedy "imperial overstretch" thesis has come true. There is another possibility, however, that State Department and Defense strategists are in the midst of recalculating U.S. interests in maintaining a free global trading system, as the (unappreciated) "hegemonic stabilizer." Having done all it could to enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions over the past few years, without much political benefit to show for it, the United States may come to favor a new, more pluralistic world order as the best way to balance our means and ends. Eventually, the American people will tire of straining to uphold a world order under that assumes -- dubiously -- that a degree of concordance exists among the great powers. Having to share power and responsibility with authoritarian governments such as Russia, China, and Iran is a disconcerting prospect, but without solid support from our traditional allies, we don't have much choice.

Unlike Mallaby, I don't think we are as bad off as we were in 1979 -- at least, not yet. In the worst-case scenario, some unexpected confluence of global crises might put the United States in an untenable position similar to that faced by the Carter administration, forcing the Bush administration to resort to a desperate threat of nuclear war similar to the "Carter Doctrine." More than ever, the President needs to shun ideologues and pay heed to the advice of foreign policy realists in order to uphold our national prestige and power. Otherwise, there is a small but real risk that Republican Party may squander its national security credentials just as the Democrats did in the late 1970s. It would be one of the bitterest, most ironic cases of role reversal ever.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 26 Oct 2006, 1: 04 AM

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