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In an era of diminished resources, rising powers, and increasing global instability, how can the United States project real authority?

Retreat! Marines will soon begin withdrawing from Afghanistan.(AP Photo/DoD)

photo of James Kitfield
November 17, 2011

For generations reared on the mother’s milk of “American exceptionalism,” each day brings a new affront. China, on the rise, stubbornly refuses to end its currency manipulation, distorting Beijing’s advantage in an international system of our making. Close allies in Europe and Japan slash defense budgets, further burdening Washington with the role of global police officer. In the face of repeated threats and sanctions, Iran still dares to build nuclear weapons and plot terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Syria’s despotic president lingers in power. Israelis and Palestinians blithely ignore presidential exhortations to make concessions for peace. A costly war in Afghanistan drags on toward … what, exactly?

Republicans lay the blame for those international woes on President Obama’s doorstep. They object to his squishy multilateralism, his willingness to engage odious adversaries in diplomacy, and his apologies for past American mistakes. They see insufficient fealty to Israel, indecision in Afghanistan, and a refusal to lead—out front, the way they’re accustomed to seeing—on Libya. They doubt Obama’s conviction that America is a “shining city upon a hill” and a beacon to all free peoples. “As president of the United States, I will devote myself to an American Century, and I will never, ever apologize for America,” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said during a recent foreign-policy speech. In it, he advanced the notion of America’s singularity, its role as a bulwark against tyranny, and its leadership of the free (and, by extension, the entire) world. “America’s strength rises from a strong economy, a strong defense, and the enduring strength of our values,” he said. “Unfortunately, under this president, all three of those elements have been weakened.”

Wait just a minute. Only three years ago, Obama and the Democrats blamed President Bush and his administration for failing to check China and deter Iran. They objected to Bush’s swashbuckling unilateralism, his decision to ignore diplomacy with disagreeable countries, and his with-us-or-against-us triumphalism that alienated even close allies. They questioned his one-sided fealty to Israel and blamed him for a war in Iraq that was dragging toward … what, exactly? They charged that he tarnished the American beacon by endorsing torture and conflating the spread of democracy with regime change at the point of a gun.


Why did two presidents with such different foreign-policy instincts run up against—and, in many cases, get foiled by—the same international challenges? In “George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and the Future of U.S. Global Leadership,” a recent article in International Affairs, James Lindsay wrote that presidents today, no matter their styles, must manage friends and foes who feel increasingly empowered to ignore or contest American dominance. “Americans have this ingrained notion that U.S. leadership and predominance is the natural state of world affairs, with Democrats thus concluding that gentle engagement will automatically cause countries to rally to our banner, and Republicans believing that firmness and consistency will have the same effect,” Lindsay said in an interview. “They are both fundamentally misreading the geostrategic environment.” The post-Cold War period was an era of victory that left the United States standing atop the global order—a superpower with unmatched military, economic, social, and diplomatic might. No wonder expectations are so high.

But things have changed. Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey, and especially China are clawing their way to the top of the international system, “insisting on all the privileges that come with their newly elevated status,” as Lindsay puts it. Revolution is sweeping the Middle East, the world’s energy basket. Revisionist powers (Russia) and perennial outliers (Iran, North Korea) sense opportunity and new room to maneuver. “If a unipolar moment ever really existed, it’s not just passed, it’s gone permanently,” says Richard Haass, the former senior official in the first Bush White House who now runs the Council on Foreign Relations. Partly, that follows from two costly wars, a recession, and political dysfunction that blocks a long-term debt solution or a bipartisan foreign-policy consensus. More than that, though, it flows from globalization. “Power is simply too diffuse now, and the challenges we confront are complex, transnational, and they defy the efforts of any one nation,” Haass says.

Americans can’t advance their interests summarily in this new universe, even if that’s what they’re used to; other nations won’t automatically fall in line. At the arguable height of American power, George H.W. Bush crafted a consensus at the United Nations and a military alliance of Western and Arab nations to liberate Kuwait in 1991; Russians acquiesced to NATO expansion. Little more than a decade later, George W. Bush had no hope for U.N. consensus, and he was lucky to have the support of even those few countries that joined his Iraq war coalition; Moscow invaded Georgia in 2008 rather than stomach the Westernization of Georgia and Ukraine. “We’re the only country that can mobilize collective international action to confront the big global problems like terrorism, proliferation, climate change, and access to energy,” says Brent Scowcroft, who was national-security adviser for George H.W. Bush. “But it will require a change of character in U.S. leadership.… We’ll have to lead more by persuasion than coercion or dominance. That’s an art, and I hope our strategic culture is still capable of it.”

Sustaining robust U.S. leadership will also mean making some tough strategic choices. Americans will have to rank core U.S. interests in order of priority; determine an affordable size for hard- and soft-power instruments (the armed forces, the diplomatic corps, foreign aid); rethink the forward presence of U.S. forces and the current alliance structure; and more carefully weigh the risks of action versus inaction in response to an endless list of global crises. “Our security challenges are growing in scale and shifting in form even as our resources decline,” says Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. “If that’s not a call for rethinking our national strategy, I don’t know what is. There’s an old military adage that if you try and be strong everywhere, you are strong nowhere.”

If the United States can no longer be strong everywhere—the “indispensible nation” in a world full of emergencies—then U.S. officials will have to choose where we can risk not having a presence and what we can reasonably decline to do. The experts who study this question roughly divide into supporters of Grand Strategy Lite, a minor rollback; Retrench and Restore, a strategic pause that allows leaders to focus American power; and Managing Decline, an attempt to accommodate the inevitable falloff in influence. These ideas represent a continuum, rather than wholly different strategies. In fact, the constrained Obama administration is already following some of these approaches; the next administration will almost certainly do the same, no matter which party wins the White House. What all of these strategies have in common is the assumption of additional global risk and the recognition that—with a $1.3 trillion annual deficit, a defense budget roughly the size of all other nations combined, and a war- and debt-weary public—the United States cannot simply maintain its current course.


The grand strategy that created the American Century was born in the United Kingdom and advanced by the United States after World War II and the Cold War. It was premised on the spread of a liberal international order, fueled by free trade and capitalism, that plays to the strengths of open and democratic societies. In his book The Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order, political scientist G. John Ikenberry of Princeton University argues that “the United States engaged in the most ambitious and far-reaching liberal-order building the world has yet seen.” More recently, he concedes, the U.S. has been beset by “a crisis of authority” as nations “struggle over the distribution of roles, rights, and authority within that liberal international order.” Globalization—and the information-age technologies that eased the free movement of goods, people, and knowledge—put the U.S. grand strategy on steroids.

The result has been a rapid passing of relative wealth and power from the developed West to the developing East. In its 2008 “Global Trends 2025” report, the National Intelligence Council predicted that “the international system—as constructed following the Second World War—will be almost unrecognizable by 2025.… [It] will be a global multipolar one with gaps in national power continuing to narrow between developed and developing countries.” The report concluded that China would likely have the world’s second-largest economy by 2025 and stood “poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country.” But China became the world’s second-largest economy last year, beating the NIC’s 2008 projection by 15 years. It also passed the United States as the world’s top energy consumer.

Any ordering of core national interests must give top priority to managing and counterbalancing this West-to-East power shift. China, with its fusion of a capitalist economy and an authoritarian government, is the power most likely to challenge the liberal order—and, by extension, the United States as its chief defender. That explains why, in a recent issue of Foreign Policy, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote that the 21st century’s Indo-Pacific region will displace Europe as the center of gravity for U.S. economic, political, and security interests.

That shift will also require the United States to rethink an alliance portfolio inherited from the 1940s and 1950s, with its emphasis on Japan and South Korea in the East and NATO in the West. That adjustment is already evident in the past three administrations’ diplomatic outreach to India, a democracy that can provide a hedge against Chinese hegemony. Washington will also need to build closer partnerships with rising democracies like Brazil, Indonesia, and Turkey, which have all become major regional powers. To counterbalance China and contain Iran, the U.S. will have to draw second-tier democracies in Asia and the Middle East into closer relationships, just as it cultivated Eastern European democracies in the 1990s to guard against Russia’s ambitions. Militarily, Grand Strategy Lite shifts the U.S. force structure to emphasize air and, especially, naval patrols in the Pacific, and to deploy forward forces to Asia rather than Europe.

As long as the United States and its allies are heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil, however, its free flow through the Persian Gulf will remain another top-tier strategic priority. That means that Iran—and its quest for nuclear weapons—will remain a primary focus of Pentagon contingency planning.

Under Grand Strategy Lite, the costly counterinsurgency and nation-building operation in Afghanistan and Iraq (even our involvement in Libya) would probably be seen as irrelevant to core national needs. “I don’t see how trying to make Afghanistan Taliban-proof … qualifies as a vital interest,” says Leslie Gelb, the author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. The Obama administration is already leaning heavily in this direction, pulling troops from Iraq this year and signaling that it might accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in anticipation of a 2014 exit. By announcing the planned reduction of 44,000 ground troops from the Army and Marine Corps, the Pentagon is acknowledging a shift in the fight against terrorism—away from wars of regime change and counterinsurgency, and toward the kind of discrete counterterrorism operations that recently killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. If that shift became formal military doctrine, it could allow the Defense Department to cut about another 50,000 troops, bringing ground forces back to their pre-9/11 levels.

In Libya, the administration decided that a humanitarian crisis and NATO solidarity were reasons enough to justify a limited intervention with no “boots on the ground.” Republicans criticized Obama for insisting that France and Britain (as NATO’s most ardent proponents of action) take the lead. But in Grand Strategy Lite, that insistence on burden-sharing would become a model. “When the United States doesn’t feel that its core interests are on the line, it must be willing to put less skin in the game,” says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


Some analysts argue that restoring the economic foundation of U.S. power requires an even more pronounced foreign-policy rollback. That retrenchment would include a withdrawal of U.S. forward-deployed forces in Europe and Asia—a less provocative and militaristic global posture. In an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, “The Wisdom of Retrenchment,” political scientists Joseph Parent and Paul MacDonald conclude that since 1870, 18 great powers have slipped in the rankings of top-tier nations. In 15 of those cases, the declining powers adopted some form of a retrenchment strategy. Half of those countries eventually recovered their former positions, including Russia in the 1880s and the United Kingdom in the early 20th century. Three declining great powers—France in the 1880s, Germany in the 1930s, and Japan in the 1990s—had no retrenchment strategy and never fully recovered. “Great powers that scaled back their goals in the face of their diminished means were able to navigate the shoals of power politics better than those that clung to expensive and overly ambitious commitments,” Parent and MacDonald write.

America’s last period of retrenchment, following the Vietnam War, offers some lessons. Shortly after assuming office in 1969, President Nixon unfurled a plan for “Vietnamization,” instructing the military to transition responsibility for combat to South Vietnamese forces and to slowly withdraw from the war. That policy was a precursor of “Iraqification” and the more recent attempts to hand off responsibility to Afghan forces.

Anticipating a period of broader retrenchment, Nixon went further. The “Nixon Doctrine” called for the United States to honor its treaty commitments but stipulated that, except for a nuclear-related threat, it would now ask “the Asian nations themselves” to take responsibility for their futures. The United States had no intention of becoming embroiled in another counterinsurgency war, Nixon was saying. That would be a fundamental tenet in any Retrench and Restore strategy.

Presidents Bush and Obama both ultimately agreed on “the need to pursue a more indirect approach—one that focuses on U.S. troops training and enabling indigenous security forces in partner nations to conduct irregular warfare themselves,” Krepinevich says. “In that sense, an updated Nixon Doctrine might make sense, because our advantage is still the quality rather than the quantity of our manpower.… The United States simply has to find ways to leverage our allies and partners more effectively and get away from the free-rider syndrome where they continue to minimize their contributions to the common defense.” Nixon’s doctrine even had an element of “leading from behind,” the sin that Obama supposedly committed. When a crisis erupted in Zaire in the 1970s, the United States used its air transports to ferry French and Belgian troops but refused to get heavily involved in the operation.

Still, the risks of having other nations do the heavy lifting became apparent in the 1970s. In Vietnam, a war-weary Congress eventually withdrew air support from the South Vietnamese army, which collapsed when the North Vietnamese invaded in 1975. Washington also threw its indirect support behind the shah of Iran, only to see him toppled by a revolution hijacked by anti-American Islamists. Prolonged cuts in U.S. military spending throughout that decade eventually led to the “hollow Army”—a perceived strategic weakness that lured the Soviet Union into an invasion of Afghanistan. “No American president since the end of the Cold War has been willing to do much less in the world,” cautioned Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “America likes running the world and throwing our weight around, and the world has gotten pretty used to it, because the international system we police has generally brought peace to Europe and unprecedented prosperity to Asia, to include lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. That’s a pretty good bargain for all sides.”


Somewhere on the strategic continuum beyond doing-more-with-less and doing-less-with-less, retrenchment risks becoming a self-fulfilling strategy of Managing Decline. That dynamic took hold in the 1970s, with those disastrous results. The problem is that no one knows exactly where to find the line between the prudent risks of retrenchment and the provocative weakness of decline.

The United States could reasonably cut total active-duty ground forces by 92,000 troops, or to pre-9/11 levels; withdraw 50,000 of the 135,000 troops deployed in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia; reduce the Navy from 11 to eight aircraft-carrier battle groups and from 10 to six Marine amphibious-strike groups; and cut two Air Force fighter wings. That math comes from a recent essay, “Strategic Adjustment to Sustain the Force,” in which Charles Knight summarizes a number of reports that have looked at “right-sizing” the military for the lean times ahead. Knight suggests that the United States pivot from a model of forward military presence to one of basing U.S. forces largely in the United States but preparing them to mobilize in the event of a crisis. “A much more defensive and restrained force posture would also be much less provocative to potential adversaries, such as China, which we don’t see as an immediate threat,” says Knight, codirector of the Project on Defense Alternatives.

The Pentagon is already mulling a potential $1 trillion cut in its budget over the next decade that would be triggered by the congressional super committee’s failure to find deficit reduction elsewhere. Meanwhile, Congress is weighing dramatic cuts to the “soft-power” instruments in the State Department budget. On the table: an 11 percent contraction in fiscal 2011, with further steep reductions proposed by the Republican-led House.

Before the United States can make any kind of cuts, it will need a strategic blueprint that aligns global ambitions with constrained means. Failing to think these things through carefully risks setting an unsustainable course toward overextension and imperial exhaustion, the traditional bane of empires; or precipitous, across-the-board cuts that cross the line from retrenchment into decline and perceived weakness. “Yes, we are entering an era of constraint and austerity at home, and our primacy will increasingly be tested,” says Eric Edelman, a former ambassador to Turkey who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “But China and other rising powers have their own challenges and weaknesses, and I don’t buy the argument that they are poised to inherit the global system and run it. When the rest of the world is looking for leadership, it still comes to the United States as the most powerful force for good on the planet, and we should try and maintain that primacy.”

The logical aim of U.S. grand strategy was always a world in which nations were so heavily invested in the liberal international order that the system would police itself and the American Atlas could lay down the burden. But that never seems to happen. After the Depression, the United States was hardly eager to take on fascism in World War II. The Cold War millstone ground America down in Korea, in the Cuban missile crisis, and then in Vietnam. The “peace dividend” that followed hadn’t even been cashed before U.S. leadership was summoned for service in the Middle East, Taiwan, North Korea, and the Balkans. Perhaps the chief lesson of the American Century—a good starting point for a strategic review—is the notion that leadership is not claimed but bestowed by others. And that, when the world comes knocking, it’s in America’s nature to answer the call. 

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