As it prepares to release a new national-security strategy, the Obama administration is working to counter the growing conviction that U.S. influence in international affairs is receding. At the recently concluded Munich Security Conference, for example, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that he could not “think of a place in the world [where the United States is] retreating, not one. ... This narrative ... is flat wrong and it is belied by every single fact of what we are doing everywhere in the world.”
While assessments of declining U.S. influence are exaggerated, few would dispute that it is experiencing relative decline. Strategic missteps have contributed, as have systemic economic weakness and a perception that the United States is increasingly incapable of competent self-governance. But the central driver of that phenomenon is one over which the United States has little control: An ever-growing roster of powers is ascending militarily, economically and politically.
While many events could slow or even disrupt “the rise of the rest” (such as a global recession on the scale of, or more severe than, that of 2008-2009), none will reverse it. It would thus be imprudent for the United States to focus on staying No. 1. Should it do so, it will conclude not only that it is in decline, but also that its decline is absolute and accelerating. After all, China already leads the world in many areas, including foreign-exchange reserves, manufacturing output and exports. Based on current trends, moreover, it will soon top the pecking order in consumer spending, stock market capitalization and gross domestic product. Further down the road, China could even overtake the United States in defense spending.
A more sensible foreign policy course for the United States would proceed from a simple but powerful proposition: America’s pre-eminence is inextricably linked to and contingent upon the health of the liberal international system whose creation it nurtured after World War II. Those who want U.S. leadership to remain a linchpin of international affairs should, accordingly, strategize to make that architecture more resilient, more inclusive and more nimble.
This focus – rather than an ill-defined and defensive preoccupation with maintaining hegemony – would enable the United States to forge a sustainable middle ground between isolationism and overextension.
The United States should embrace opportunities for its allies to contribute more to international security. In June 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously warned that NATO’s non-U.S. members would have to become “serious and capable partners in their own defense” for the organization to avoid “military irrelevance” and for the “trans-Atlantic security project” to endure.
To that end, the United States should welcome Germany’s desire to “find a more muscular voice in foreign affairs” (however unfortunate it may be that disillusionment with the United States was a catalyst for that judgment).
In the Asia-Pacific, it should encourage Japan, South Korea and other longstanding partners to develop greater indigenous military capabilities – not so that they are emboldened to coalesce in containing China, but so that they are less inclined to free ride on U.S. security assurances.
Integrating rising (and, in some cases, risen) powers into a system that overwhelmingly bears a U.S. imprimatur will be daunting. Some of those powers will be antagonists. Some will be partners-cum-competitors. Others will welcome occasions when their strategic priorities align with those of the United States but will guard their policy autonomy fiercely and reject any attempt to make them mere instruments of U.S. foreign policy. Yet others, scarred by Western imperialism, will be sensitive to the possibility of neocolonialism masquerading as partnership.
On the other hand, even the most revisionist minded of those powers recognize that they would jeopardize their own futures if they attempted to do more than mold today’s system gradually and transparently. After all, that system – a complex mosaic of norms, arrangements, treaties and institutions--has generated historically unprecedented gains in wealth and security.
Nonetheless, the United States cannot be complacent. As diplomat and historian Charles Hill observes, “no international order has proved immortal.” The United States must be bold and imaginative as it undertakes to strengthen emerging powers’ stake in preserving today’s system. Are their choke points in the global maritime commons, for example, that the United States can safeguard in partnership with China and India, rather than alone? What if it were to reduce its weight in international economic institutions in exchange for emerging powers’ commitment to greater trade and investment liberalization? Can it overcome tensions with China and Russia to forge rules of the road for cyberspace and outer space?
In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Stewart Patrick observes that “the existing international order” increasingly cohabitates with “complementary frameworks for collective action, including ad hoc coalitions of the willing, regional and subregional institutions, public-private arrangements and informal codes of conduct.” While the United States should continue efforts to revitalize established international institutions – such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund – it should also immerse itself in these alternative structures as thoroughly as possible.
To those who fear that U.S. leadership in the world is imperiled, consciously nudging other countries to play a more active role in international affairs might seem self-defeating. That concern would be valid if the United States pursued this course without a greater purpose. If, however, it does so with an eye toward updating the liberal international order for the 21st century, it will make its position in the world more secure, not less.
Ali Wyne is an associate of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat. He is a co-author of “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World” (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013). This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).