When Republican presidential candidates take the stage on Saturday night to discuss foreign policy, they’re sure to issue muscular calls for restoring American predominance in the world and to accuse President Obama of abandoning Washington’s traditional leadership on a range of global economic and political issues.
But the attacks will obscure a dispiriting truth: The world has become more dangerous and complicated just as America’s ability to shape events has waned to a historic low. The loss of American power didn’t begin with Obama, and it won’t suddenly reverse itself if he’s replaced by one of the GOP candidates vying for his job.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, the U.S. stood alone as the world’s preeminent military and economic power. Washington had the ability to assemble broad coalitions, as it did during the Gulf War, or to launch large military interventions on its own, as it did in Iraq in 2003. The strength of the American economy gave U.S. policymakers the moral and political standing to tell other countries how to conduct their own fiscal affairs. Trade was conducted according to laws written and enforced by the United States. Transnational institutions like the World Bank—established by Washington and led by American officials—held enormous sway around the world.
That’s no longer the case. With the U.S. military overstretched and its economy mired in recession, American power and influence has been shrinking for almost a decade. The U.S. still has the world’s biggest economy, but China will soon pass it, and countries like Brazil and India are registering growth gains that seem impossible to imagine here at home. The Pentagon wields the strongest military on the planet, but it has been unable to defeat poorly-armed insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq or curtail the rise of Islamist extremist groups in places like Somalia and Yemen. At the United Nations, American entreaties—to impose sanctions on Syria and hold off on recognizing Palestine as a state, for instance—routinely fall on deaf ears.
Consider the ongoing European financial crisis. For months, leaders there have been openly contemptuous of American calls for stronger action, with many arguing publicly that the weakness of the U.S. economy meant Washington had little credibility when it came to making recommendations to other countries. After a contentious summit in September, for instance, Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter told reporters that she found it “peculiar that even though the Americans have significantly worse fundamental data than the eurozone, that they tell us what we should do and when we make a suggestion ... that they say no straight away.”
Last week’s G-20 summit in France offered another illustration of America’s reduced standing in the world. President Obama used his time there to push European leaders to take steps to prevent Greece’s fiscal problems from spreading to other countries. But American involvement was limited to words; Obama made clear that the U.S. was in no position to offer actual financial assistance to any E.U. countries. That sent European policymakers running to China, which said it might contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to a roughly $1.4 trillion bailout fund. Beijing found itself playing a role long reserved solely for Washington, something which will happen more and more in coming years.
The realignment of global power—with America on the decline while China, India, Turkey, and Brazil seem on an inexorable climb—is already posing huge challenges for U.S. policymakers, particularly in the volatile Middle East.
Take Iran. Despite the democratic successes of the Arab spring, Tehran's de facto political control of Lebanon and Syria has remained intact while its political alliance with neighboring Iraq has grown even stronger. More troublingly, it continues to press ahead with its nuclear weapons program. The Obama administration, which fears the unforeseen consequences of a third regional war, appears to have largely discarded the idea of preemptively striking Iran’s nuclear facilities. But Washington’s call for tougher economic sanctions has been largely rejected by both Russia and China, which each do large amounts of business with Iran. That impasse is helping to give Tehran time to advance its program beyond a point of no return.
Israel, America's closest ally in the Middle East, poses other challenges for the U.S. The Obama administration pushed Israel to halt all settlement activity in the West Bank and all construction in Jerusalem; Israel rejected both demands, and has so far faced no repercussions for doing so. Israeli leaders, meanwhile, regularly tell their American counterparts that they are strongly considering military strikes on Iran, whose leadership they perceive poses an existential threat. The U.S. has urged Israel to hold off and allow more time for the sanctions on Iran to begin to bite, but it’s far from clear that the American requests will have much impact on the Israelis.
When pressed, Obama administration officials insist that they don’t believe China or any other single country will challenge the U.S. in the way that Russia did during the Cold War. Instead, many of them believe in the emergence of a “multipolar” world in which a handful of nations hold varying amounts of regional or global influence. Turkey, according to this view, will soon dominate the Middle East, while Brazil exerts similar influence throughout Latin America. The good news is that the U.S. won’t find itself staring down a global rival. The bad news is that Washington will instead have to deal with an ever-shifting constellation of countries which are friendly on some issues and hostile on others.
Tom Donnelly, a defense expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that it will be important for Republican candidates to do more than simply accuse Obama of squandering America’s traditional leadership role and promise to restore the U.S. to its rightful place by spending more on defense.
“Show me the money. Tell me what you’d be willing to give up to maintain or expand defense spending,” he said in an interview. “Asserting you’re going to find more money without backing it up is just empty words.”
That, in a nutshell, is the challenge facing both the Republicans and the country as a whole. Americans aren’t used to thinking of themselves as anything other than citizens of the world’s most powerful country. But the reality is that other countries have faster-growing economies, and China will soon have a bigger one. Our military is the world’s strongest, at least on paper, but it’s not clear how much that matters in an era of low-scale guerilla wars and transnational terrorism. The U.S. is far from a paper tiger. But it’s also no longer the most dominant nation in the world. And politics aside, it won’t resume that role anytime soon.