Is America committing ‘superpower suicide’?

Yes, claims that America is rotting like the Roman Empire are over the top, but two new books swing too far in the other direction.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Books

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It is clear that the US faces a number of challenges, especially with regard to its stagnant economy and gridlocked politics. But more and more, the country’s specific problems are overshadowed by creeping fears of national decline. This backdrop of decline extends beyond domestic economics to contemplating whether America’s influence in the world is diminishing, in particular relative to emerging powers like China.

Talk of decline has entered the political discourse in the campaign for this year’s presidential election. In December, the likely Republican candidate Mitt Romney said: ‘Our president thinks America is in decline. It is if he’s president, it’s not if I’m president.’ President Obama has sought to reject that label, and has adopted a robust, anti-decline stance. ‘Anyone who tells you that America is in decline’, he said in his January State of the Union address, ‘doesn’t know what they’re talking about’.

Two of America’s most prominent analysts have recently published books that address the subject of America’s role in the world, and they are gaining a hearing at the highest levels. Robert Kagan, author of The World America Made, is a so-called ‘neo-conservative’ who has the distinction of being claimed by both presidential candidates: Romney cites Kagan as one of his advisers, while Obama has reportedly praised his book. Elder statesman and Democratic Party foreign-policy guru Zbigniew Brzezinski, most well known for being ‘Jimmy Carter’s Kissinger’ in the 1970s, has written Strategic Vision, which is also said to be influential in policy circles, including the White House. Now 83 years old, Brzezinski plays tennis daily and, when regularly appearing on the Morning Joe TV show hosted by his daughter Mika, appears as fighting-fit as ever.

Although the Republican Kagan and Democrat Brzezinski start from different perspectives, they reach strikingly similar conclusions. Specifically, they agree on three major points.

First, both recognise that America and the world face serious challenges at the moment. Brzezinski argues that the world is at a critical juncture, due to three factors: the shift in the centre of gravity of economic power from West to East (Europe is becoming a ‘retirement home’, he writes, while China, Russia and other countries are on the rise); the global political awakening (such as the Arab Spring); and America’s economic and political problems at home (deficits) and abroad (recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Second, both Kagan and Brzezinski agree that a US that is less powerful and less active in the world would be detrimental – not just to the US, but to the world generally. Kagan says that a ‘surprising number of American intellectuals, politicians and policymakers’ greet the prospect of the demise of the American-led world order ‘with equanimity’. But Kagan argues that the key features of that order – ‘the democracy, the prosperity, the peace among great powers’ – depend on the power and influence of the US. If America committed ‘pre-emptive superpower suicide’ out of a fear of decline, then these favourable features would also be at risk. We would not then see the US usurped by China, but ‘multipolarity’ instead, with many nations asserting their interests, making ‘great-power war’ more likely.

Likewise, Brzezinski contends that if the US ‘falters’, then by 2025 the world will not see ‘the “coronation” of an effective successor’ such as China, but instead will descend into the chaos of competing nations. He, like Kagan, views this prospect as inherently dangerous. For instance, he predicts that regional powers (such as Russia) would start making claims on their neighbours (such as Georgia).

Third, and finally, both do not believe US decline is foreordained. Both make a plea for the US to resist turning inward, and instead reassert itself as the hegemonic, order-maintaining power in the world. Kagan says that the US-led world order is as ‘fragile as it is unique’, and ‘preserving the present world order requires constant American leadership and constant American commitment’. Brzezinski argues that the US can and needs to be actively engaged in the world. To play a positive role, Brzezinski says, America simultaneously needs to sort out its problems at home and adopt a global strategy that consolidates the Western powers and seeks to balance and stabilise the relations among nations in Asia.

The fact that the authors reach similar conclusions does not mean they are equally well-argued. Of the two, Brzezinski’s is the more rigorous and insightful analysis. Kagan, in contrast, adopts a sweeping, breezy approach, often substituting assertion for substantiated argument.

Take the debate over whether the US faces an imminent decline in status. Kagan is dismissive of the notion. He writes that the perception of decline is understandable given the dismal economic situation and deficits in the US, as well as the negative reception to US foreign-policy actions following 9/11. But this is just perception, not reality. He is blasé about today’s problems. ‘Anyone who honestly recalls the 1970s, with Watergate, Vietnam, stagflation and the energy crisis, cannot really believe the present difficulties are unrivalled.’

Kagan rests on a few basic facts to reject the claims that the US is declining. The US share of GDP has remained steady, he notes, citing US government statistics; the rise of emerging Asian powers like China and India has come at the expense of Europe and Japan, not the US. And the America’s military spending is more than the other powers’ spending combined. We have witnessed periods of American introspection and worry about decline before, he says (for instance, in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was Paul Kennedy’s ‘imperial overstretch’ theory and the idea that Japan would overtake the US), and today is just another one of those phases. Kagan is Panglossian about America’s prospects; there’s no need to worry because the US successfully faced problems before: ‘the American system, for all its often stultifying qualities, has also shown a greater capacity to adapt and recover from difficulties than that of many other nations’, he writes.

In contrast, Brzezinski is more detailed and cautious. He draws up a balance sheet, listing the America’s current strengths and weaknesses. Reading Kagan, it is as if the US has no weaknesses. In particular, Brzezinski is on the money when he identifies the inability of the political class to deal with basic governing issues as a key limitation.

Brzezinski is not only old, he’s old-school, too. His realpolitik approach, which includes Cold War concepts like containment, is actually refreshing in today’s age of flippant air-bombing humanitarianism. For example, he quite baldly comes out and calls for the US to lead an effort to expand the West (via NATO and the EU) to include Russia and Turkey. This, he says, is necessary to prevent Russia from striking out on its own, or allying with China. Brzezinski is also still very mindful that great-power politics have not disappeared, and could re-emerge more forcefully. More than once, he speculates that Asia today resembles Europe before the twentieth-century world wars, and argues for care to ensure that a new conflagration does not break out.

The two authors’ respective approaches to American relations with China illuminate their differences in approach. Kagan is blunt, arguing for an antagonistic stance. He calls on the US to ‘press for greater democratic and liberal reforms’ in China (and in other authoritarian nations), and to promote free trade and markets, and thus ‘push back’ against state capitalism in China. In contrast, Brzezinski urges a diplomatic approach, one that attempts to reach mutual agreement while preventing China from becoming a too-dominant regional power. He is opposed to the Obama administration’s recent ‘Asia pivot’, which calls for more US troops in the region. In an interview with Edward Luce in the Financial Times, Brzezinski warned: ‘We have to focus on Asia, but not in a manner that plays on everyone’s anxieties… It becomes very easy to demonise China and they will demonise us in return. Is that what we want?’

Reading Brzezinski, it seems old-fashioned of him to refer to US interests. Indeed, one of the more striking features of today’s US (and Western) foreign policy is a dismissal of the concept of interests. For example, when the US was considering intervening in Libya, there was little sense of what US interests were, and that lack of an anchor led to a confused debate over whether and how to intervene. While the US and other Western powers might feel good about bombing Libya and overthrowing Gaddafi , the war and its outcome have not been beneficial for the Libyan people, as Patrick Hayes points out. Brzezinski is no laptop bombardier, nor does he recommend the US seek to find moral authority at home via lashing out abroad.

Yet while Brzezinski’s is the more considered analysis, both his and Kagan’s work are ultimately unsatisfactory in explaining today’s dynamics.

This is illustrated by their treatments of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the surface, the two seem to take very different lines. Kagan was bullish at the outset of both wars and, consistent with his general style in the book, he quickly skates right past such awkward issues. Brzezinski, in contrast, is damning, highlighting how the wars have undermined America’s ability to project its power. But the fact is that neither author really spends much time thinking about them. This is telling: both prefer to speculate about the future rather than face up to the reality of recent foreign-policy moves. Oddly, neither author examines either President George W Bush’s record or President Obama’s record. When Brzezinski does address the Bush administration’s foreign policy, his analytics go out the window and he just sneers. We are left believing that the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were nothing more than purely subjective mistakes made by Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney.

But a proper analysis would engage with, and seek to understand, today’s reality. For instance, it’s true that the decision to intervene militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan had a subjective character, but that subjectivity itself needs to be explained. You could look at how the concept of national sovereignty had been eroded by humanitarian intervention over the prior two decades, paving the way for intervention. Or you could examine the popularity of the idea of pre-emptive strikes, which is in accord with the prevalent notion in our risk-averse society that precautionary steps are necessary. Of course, there are other avenues of analysis, too; but the point is that neither Kagan nor Brzezinski tries to comprehend the wider meaning of recent developments.

Moreover, in their desire to focus on the big-power politics of the future, Kagan and Brzezinski quite simplistically assume that America should continue its hegemonic role because it is a force for stability. But an examination of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya shows that the US today is a force for instability in the world. The US itself is the main driving force that is undermining the order forged after the Second World War. Asking the US to intervene more (diplomatically as well as militarily) effectively means asking for more instability, not less.

In vigorously rejecting the idea of US decline, you could say that Kagan and Brzezinski protest too much. True, America is not the Roman Empire, but its problems run deeper than these leading foreign-policy analysts are willing to consider.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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Topics Books


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