United States of America – Still an Indispensable Power?

Posted in United States | 04-Dec-07 | Author: Dieter Farwick

WSN Global Editor Dieter Farwick with Jonathan F. Porter, WSN Editor U.S.A. "Will we continue down the path of recent…
WSN Global Editor Dieter Farwick with Jonathan F. Porter, WSN Editor U.S.A. "Will we continue down the path of recent years or begin the long and difficult ascent to rebuilding our credible role as a moral compass to the world?"
It was the former Secretary of State, Madeleine K. Albright, who introduced the term describing the United States as an “indispensable power” into the political debate on world affairs.

Since then, the US has been involved in numerous attempts to solve major conflicts around the world: Israel/Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Pakistan, The Balkans and Haiti. None of them has been solved in spite of US commitment.

Transnational Islamic terrorism – increased in the aftermath of 9/11- plays a decisive role in almost all worldwide conflicts. Human trafficking, organized crime and drug-related challenges add pressure.

The 2006-2007 Annual Report from the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, School of Foreign Affairs at Georgetown University, presents the results of various working groups about “America’s role in the world” and offers a wide range of challenges that the next US government will face:

“The next ten years are likely to be characterized by increased instability due to weakened multilateral institutions, the accelerated rate of globalization and the rise of transnational issues that are too large to be managed by state action alone….”

The report identifies six major assumptions that may characterize the future global environment:

  • The geopolitical context will be more complex and less centralized
  • The predictability of change will decrease
  • New challenges to US authorities will arise
  • Globalization winners and losers will continue to exist
  • Shifts in US regional focus will occur
  • Transnational issues outside of the control of states will lead to instability and governance challenges

In terms of security challenges, four significant security realities that will confront the next administration have been mentioned: “The Middle East, terrorism, proliferation and weak states.”

Domestic issues like immigration, environmental problems, faltering economy, a weak dollar, healthcare, education and infrastructure digest a lot of political energy and power.

In recent years, new and old competitors challenge US superpower status. The emerging world power of China, the declining but ambitious power Russia and a failing Europe are all neither willing nor capable of partaking in fair burden sharing and division of labor with the US. To make things even worse: The UN is failing in crisis management and decision-making.

Relief comes from allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific Region like India, Japan, Australia (at least so far under John Howard), Singapore, South Korea and the Philippines. Observers believe that the worldwide commitment of the US has lead to an “imperial overstretch” and that the US is in danger of losing its superpower status. It is obvious that the US is no longer capable of imposing its political will upon foreign countries, as it was able to do in the past. It is obvious that the US has to recognize a loss of power. But – is the United States of America still an “indispensable power?”

Which role can the US play in the 21st Century – a century observers are already referring to as the Asian or Asia-Pacific century? Has the pax Americana already gone as the pax Romana did almost two millenniums ago?

Politics starts with vital national interests

Any Realpolitik should start with defining the vital national interests. This is not an action against any country but leads to transparency at home and abroad and provides a yardstick to measure success and failure of current policy. Interests are aimed to come close to ideals. By definition, vital interests are far-reaching complex strategic interests asking for a comprehensive approach. They are the guidelines that enable any country to come as close as possible to the vision of the desired end-state. In the case of the United States, vital national interests had to be readjusted in the aftermath of 9/11.

In my view the vital US interests are:

To defend common values expressed in the constitution

To defend the homeland against any threat originated by internal and external forces

To remain a power second to none

To exploit the advantages of the geopolitical and geo-strategic situation of North America

To avoid any dangerous coalition of not-so-friendly states

To block any decision of worldwide significance that might hurt US vital interests

To use military supremacy as a deterrent – including nuclear weapons

To fight against terrorists who threaten the US and its citizens’ security abroad and at home

To ensure a stable economy, low inflation and a low level of unemployment

To enable US export and import without major barriers - an affordable import of raw material (i.e. oil and gas) is crucial for the US economy

To ensure that the 300 million US citizens can live their lives the “American way”

To establish stability and security wherever possible – including promoting pluralism and democracy

To establish a robust network of friends and allies around the world – especially in Asia and the Asia-Pacific region with overlapping vital national interests and a set of common values

To improve relations with Brazil, one of the so-called BRIC states (Brazil, Russia, India and China - countries that are considered to be ones that will play a more important role in the years to come)

To avoid unilateral commitments

To make the UN more efficient

To defend human rights – especially of minorities

To fight against proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

To fight against human trafficking and organized crime as well as against drug abuse

To ensure immigration of a highly qualified elite and skilled work force

To safeguard the high-tech end by supporting research and development

To try to stabilize failing and weak states

To enhance the image of the US in the world through improved “public diplomacy”

There are more US national interests that I do not rate as vital.

Which policies serve US vital interests the best?

WSN Global Editor Dieter Farwick with Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns. "USA have to engage in world affairs and have…
WSN Global Editor Dieter Farwick with Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns. "USA have to engage in world affairs and have to play a leading role in an intelligent and effectiv way"
With all the worldwide conflicts causing challenges and problems for the US – including the loss of lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - there is a temptation to get rid of those problems by turning one’s back to the outside world and seek “splendid isolation.” This is an understandable mood for the individual but not for the US government, as stated by Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns: “The US has to engage in world affairs and must play a leading role in an intelligent and effective way.” That “leading role” is under pressure abroad and at home. The vital national interests of some important countries are competing with US vital interests and those countries pursue policies designed to protect and promote their own vital interests.

I have mentioned in my introduction the external and internal issues and challenges that the present and future US government face and which make the pursuit of US vital interests an uphill battle.

To make any US administration more efficient in domestic and foreign affairs there is an urgent need to end intra-agency and inter-agency rivalries. This is a lesson learned from better cooperation between the various agencies in Iraq. Robert M. Kimmel, Undersecretary of the Treasury, expanded on this lesson at a seminar at Georgetown University on October 29: “That’s a lesson we have to learn from the mistakes we made in the past in Iraq. There is an urgent need for more inter-agency cooperation and more transparency.”

The problem for any government is the need for “simultaneous politics,” as Marc H. Grossmann, a former Undersecretary of State added. There is no longer the situation where various problems could be tackled one after another as all problems are tightly interwoven – abroad and at home. The Broader Middle East is the best example for this complexity.

The reminder “It’s the economy, stupid” - often used to underline the dominance of the performance of the national economy over other political issues -is still valid. After years of economic boom with positive effects for companies and most US citizens, 2008 might be the first year of recession in the aftermath of the real estate and bank crises. This would play into the hands of the Democratic Party and its candidates. Internal issues like illegal immigration, a faltering economy, problems in education, healthcare and infrastructure favor the opposition party and prevail meanwhile over external issues in the election campaign.

Polls show that there is a quest for change after 8 years of the Bush administration. There is obviously a quest for new faces and an antipathy against the establishment in Washington DC – against both the government and the Congress.

There is another question: Whether America should be governed another four to eight years by the “Clinton dynasty” which has governed in rotation with the “Bush dynasty” already for the last 28 years in a row. This makes the early caucuses in Iowa – January 3 - and New Hampshire – January 8 - very interesting. Some say that the voters in these two states are more informed politically and more interested in politics than the average American. There is a good chance for dark horses to take the lead from behind. Remember 2004 when the great favorite of the Democratic Party, Howard Dean, lost and John Kerry became the candidate.

Polls show, too, that domestic issues prevail over foreign affairs. One reason for this development is the perception that the situation in Iraq has improved gradually after the “surge.” If and when this early tendency is sustained and if and when a remarkable reduction of US forces is possible in 2008, then the Democratic Party might lose one top issue in its election campaign.

If and when light can be seen at the end of the tunnel in Iraq then the well-developed sense of US patriotism might ask to bring the US commitment to a positive end. A visible improvement in Iraq would change the perception of the casualties, the losses and the costs of the war in Iraq.

Whoever becomes the next president of the United States, he or she will not execute a quick and massive withdrawal from Iraq – regardless of what will be said in the election campaign.

Back to the domestic problems with the economy at the hub: It seems to me that in the last year of the Bush administration there will be no major breakthrough in any issue on the domestic agenda – looking at the majority of the Democratic Party in both Houses. The next president will inherit all domestic problems almost unchanged from now on. Following the idea of “simultaneous politics” in foreign affairs, all conflicts are interwoven. There is no chance for a time-out in handling foreign affairs.

In contrast, adversaries would exploit any US weakness. In foreign affairs, some positive developments might occur. A positive development in Iraq would bolster the fight in Afghanistan – even if some of the terrorists would be transferred from Iraq to Afghanistan.

The fundamental link between the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is the spread of Islamic extremism – mostly Arabic - and the border-crossing terrorism.

An additional problem for US politics in Iraq is the tension between Turkey and the Kurdish part of Iraq. A massive invasion of Turkey to fight the PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan/Kurdistan Workers’ Party) on Iraqi/Kurdish territory might destroy all positive developments in Iraq.

If and when the “coalition of the willing” can break the back of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Iraq there will be positive effects in Afghanistan and in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

In Afghanistan, NATO is in the lead. Some observers believe that a tipping point has been reached. I am personally convinced that NATO could defeat the Taliban militarily in a relatively short period of time if and when NATO nations and their allies and partners had the political resolve to achieve victory. The military victory over the Taliban is the prerequisite for nation and state building and for rebuilding Afghanistan’s infrastructure. The fact that the EU is not capable to train sufficient numbers of indigenous police force is a scandal. The Bush administration should press its NATO peers to do more – not in Brussels but on the ground in Afghanistan.

Closely related to Afghanistan is Pakistan – a US ally and partner. The US government should try to stabilize Pakistan since Pakistan has nuclear weapons. The proliferation of these weapons to terrorists would be a catastrophe for the whole world. In addition, Pakistan is the safe haven for terrorists fighting in Afghanistan.

The conference in Annapolis on November 27 might be a new starting point to mitigate this conflict – after many failures in the past including those of the Clinton administration. The fact that about 50 countries and international organizations have come to “Bush country” – including Saudi Arabia and Syria - gives some hope for the next year and beyond.

This conference has a hidden agenda, too. It should show Iran that there is resistance to its desire to be the regional power – perhaps with nuclear weapons. The conference has at least initiated a process that might bring some progress. What about Iran?

WSN Global Editor Dieter Farwick with Undersecretary of Treasury. "There is an urgent need for more inter-agencies cooperation and more…
WSN Global Editor Dieter Farwick with Undersecretary of Treasury. "There is an urgent need for more inter-agencies cooperation and more transparency"
The latest news that Iran might have stopped the nuclear weapons program already back in 2003 has to be verified. But the risk remains that Iran might restart the program whenever it suits their national interests. The five veto powers and Germany should keep the pressure on Iran to give up the nuclear weapons program - irreversibly.

One former hot issue might be brought closer to a positive outcome: North Korea. It might well be that North Korea will give up the quest for nuclear weapons – irreversibly. Such a possible success cannot be underestimated. It would ease the tensions in the region - especially for South Korea and Japan.

The Bush administration cannot concentrate solely on the issues I have mentioned. There is much more going on in world affairs.

One top issue is the emerging world power China. Is China a cooperative strategic partner or a dangerous rival? Perhaps both – it depends on China’s perception of US politics in Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. China always tests the waters as to how far it can go – in all directions.

Economic, financial and technological interdependency should be hardened. The US should continue to have a robust network of reliable allies and partners in the region. It remains to be seen which effect the new presidency in Australia will have for the region. With John Howard, the US lost a staunch ally. But Kevin Rudd has a reputation as an “Asian hand.” He speaks Mandarin and knows the issues at hand. The signing of the Kyoto protocol might be seen as a first sign of political change in Australia.

Many observers predict for China a steady march to the level of a world power – equal to the United States. In my view that is possible but not definite. China faces tremendous domestic problems – i.e. pollution, lack of fresh water, dictatorship – especially in the regions and communities, corruption, a huge social rift between the – still – few very rich and the many have-nots as well as a lack of free media in spite of the growing number of Internet users in China.

Why the capital punishment of thousands of Chinese is virtually not a topic for Western politicians and the media is a mystery for me.

What about India? After my visit to India in 2005 I wrote a WSN newsletter titled “India is the Better China” – not just because it is a democracy that is important. Today, India is lagging behind China on the way up. They face a lot of domestic problems, too. But India has political resolve and human resources that will help to pave the way – with some setbacks.

There is a well-educated and well-trained middle class that is missing in China.

It has to be seen whether Islamic radicals and terrorists gain ground. The conflict with Pakistan about Kashmir is not yet settled but mitigated. India was able to give up its foreign policy focused on the Kashmir conflict and was able to widen its geo-strategic perspectives.

It has become a strategic partner of the United States enforced by the nuclear deal between the two countries.

In summary, China and India are on their way to become more than regional powers. This is not true for Russia – in spite of Putin’s efforts to appear as a world power. The demographic factor is the decisive factor for Russia’s future.

A drastically shrinking and ageing population does not form the power basis for becoming a world power. The present richness based upon oil and gas is not sufficiently invested into the post-oil future. Corruption, greed and organized crime break the morale of the people. The investment in the military is lost money as the military has lost its significance in the power game. Soft power has become more important than hard power in the world power race. In this respect Russia does not have much to offer.

China, India and Russia are the powers the US should keep an eye on. To protect US vital interests it is paramount for the current and the next US government to avoid any coalition between the three or two of these powers. Unfortunately in my opinion, Europe does not and will not play a remarkable role in this great power game. The strategic partner India will play a decisive role. This cautiously optimistic view might be corrected by reality. If and when the US and NATO fail in Iraq and Afghanistan, the dominos would fall to the opposite side. It would cause even more problems than the world faces today.

Which role can and will the United States play in the 21st Century?

Our "Editor USA", Jonathan f. Porter, offers a view of the younger generation in USA:

"America stands at a crossroads. Will we continue down the path of recent years or begin the long and difficult ascent to rebuilding our credible role as a moral compass to the world?

As we consider the candidates for the Presidency, debate the presence of our troops in Iraq and address the economic and social dilemmas we face at home; Americans must fulfill their democratic duty to stand and have their voices heard. Whatever part the United States will play in future global relations, it is our obligation to reintroduce America to those skeptics who believe that Goliath has lost his way."

The abovementioned report from Georgetown University asks the crucial question about the next US president: “Will it be a central goal of his/her presidency to restore and maintain American global leadership and primacy?” The 300 million-plus people in the US with a still-strong economy and with an unquestioned military supremacy is too big to be isolated and too big to seek isolation.

The US is still the “city on the hill” – perhaps not for many Europeans but truly so for many people in Asia and Africa. Whoever becomes the next US president he or she will try to heed some of the lessons from the past seven years. One important lesson is to live with a relative decline in world power. The US can no longer impose its political will in all corners of the world. Stability and democracy should not be seen as competing factors, but democracy is often not the starting point but a desired end-state.

To protect and promote US vital interests the US needs to look for reliable partners with which there is a sufficient overlap of vital national interests and a set of common values – especially in Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.

After the hopefully successful end of the commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US will gain more leeway for adjusting its policies to the new world in which soft power plays a more important role than hard power.

A country as big as the US will never be loved by its inferiors but they will respect it. Many domestic and foreign problems will survive even the next government but it is worth mitigating and containing them. The US has to accept that the unipolar world is fading away, leading to a tri-polar world in the mid- and long-term.

WSN recommendations

  • As neither President Bush nor the Vice-President Chaney are candidates in the next election they should use their remaining time to prove that they are not lame ducks and they should play an active role in domestic and foreign affairs.
  • The Bush administration should play an active role to solve the crises in real estate and in the banks to avoid a dangerous economic recession.
  • The Bush administration should sustain the momentum coming from the conference in Annapolis to mitigate the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
  • The Bush administration should press the Israeli government to give up any settlement in the West Bank.
  • The Bush administration should fight for tougher sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council.
  • The Bush administration should expand the strategic partnership with India.
  • The Bush administration should strengthen the role of the US as a power in Asia and in the Asia-Pacific region.
  • The Bush administration should develop a modus operandi with China.
  • The Bush administration should convince North Korea to give up the development of nuclear weapons forever and irreversibly.
  • The Bush administration has no choice but to continue to fight the jihadists abroad and at home – based upon a fair compromise between collective security and individual rights at home.
  • The Bush administration should put pressure on the NATO member states to increase their commitment in Afghanistan.
  • The Bush administration should stay course in Iraq – handing over more responsibility to the Iraqi authorities and reducing their own troops mirrored against the criteria for success.
  • Politicians of both parties in the US and representatives of important institutions and organizations should show the world that the US will and can play an active role in world affairs and will remain an “indispensable power” in the emerging tri-polar world.