If we reach the following highly unpleasant conclusion, what are the implications?
The United States has taken a political turn which, at least for the next four years, will guarantee that it does not play the role of a great power mindful of and willing to protect its own true interests, to support its allies, and to combat its real foes. On the contrary, through inaction or active effort the leadership of America will take counterproductive actions that achieve the opposite result. And there are certain factors — radical ideological hegemony, a weak economy and growing debt, structural social changes, the weakness and disorganization of the opposition — that may make this situation regarding America’s international behavior and policies a long-term, partly irreversible condition. In other words, we don’t know if America is finished as the world’s leading power, but we do know that it will not have leadership and certainly not leadership in a good direction for a while and perhaps will never fully recover.
So what do those outside the United States do to face this situation? (Please note that I am speaking here only of U.S. foreign policy and just remarking on the domestic situation.)
There are those readers who would contest the accuracy of this statement. They will say that Barack Obama is a great president, or at least a decent one, and there is no big problem regarding U.S. foreign policy at all. In fact, he and his team, which now includes Secretary of State-designate John Kerry, will be just fine, or at least okay. They will make the point — valid, but irrelevant — that the United States doesn’t control everything in the world.
Of course, but what about the things it can affect? Unfortunately, American allies and clients cannot afford the luxury of clueless optimism or wishful thinking. Some will grumble publicly and scramble to limit the damage. Others will smile, praise the president, and scramble to limit the damage.
To put it another way: it doesn’t matter whether you agree with me. I’m telling you what’s actually happening.
Other readers will want to debate endlessly on the cause of the problem. Why is this happening? Is it deliberate or due to incompetence and bad ideology? Various conspiracy theories will be raised, and time wasted on them. To put this another way: for the purposes of this particular article at least I don’t care who or what you blame or what you intend to do about it, I’m talking about what’s happening right now.
It is fortunate that in these post-Cold War times there is no candidate to replace America as world leader. Instead, we have candidates to be regional leaders: China in Asia; the European Union already playing that role in Western Europe; Russia trying to do this in Central/Eastern Europe; and Egypt, Iran, and Turkey competing for hegemony in the Middle East.
But here’s the real issue: things look bad. What does this mean specifically, and how can potential victims react? Let’s begin with a very brief survey of the world scene.
Latin America: there are now several radical regimes in the area — most notably Venezuela — alongside, of course, Cuba. America’s allies in the region are dismayed that the former group (except for Cuba) gets soft, even favorable, treatment by Washington. Fortunately, radical revolutions or major armed insurgencies don’t seem probable. So leaders in the region will worry a lot, be frustrated (why should we be nice to the United States when it doesn’t help us, and even rewards being anti-American?) but get through it. Ironically, of course, the current administration favors policies that are sure to fail in South America, so to the degree Washington has influence it will be to help sabotage the region’s economic progress.
Sub-Saharan Africa: what is truly remarkable is how the Obama administration has done nothing to change U.S. policy in the area. One might have expected that given its worldview and certain ethno-racial factors and ideas in the U.S. leadership, Obama would have wanted to make this region a showcase of how he differed from his predecessors; a model of reparations for past colonialism and racism. But no such luck for the Africans. They will continue to suffer economic and political hardship without significantly increased U.S. help. Bad, but not a change from the usual neglect. Let them eat rhetoric!
South Asia: the pro-Pakistan policy will continue; India will be mistreated. Again, bad but no big change. It will just be more watching Pakistan help conceal al-Qaeda terrorists, working for a radical Islamist Afghanistan once the U.S. forces withdraw, and sponsoring terrorism against India as Washington pays more billions in aid money. The Afghanistan issue might cause a crisis: why did hundreds of Americans die there? Someone — albeit not likely someone in the mass media — might ask this if and when Kabul is taken over by a new anti-American regime.
Also slated to be killed: Afghans who helped the Western forces. They will start seeking new protectors very soon.
East Asia: the smaller countries which want U.S. help and protection from what they perceive as an ever-stronger China won’t get it; this will make them very nervous indeed. Since I believe China doesn’t have aggressive geopolitical intentions, that situation won’t deteriorate too much in military terms. Yet in economic terms the U.S. government is ceding a great deal to China. Much or most of Asia may become a Chinese economic zone, and that will be costly to Americans since potential markets for American goods will in some cases go to China instead, further reducing opportunities for the U.S. economy. Leaders of other countries will scramble to get in the good graces with the new regional superpower, as they perceive the United States no longer matters very much. And we all better hope that North Korea doesn’t get too confident — hopefully Beijing will restrain the wacko dictatorship — and attack the South.
Western Europe: honk if you love Obama. Since European leadership is still obsessed with the EU project and seeks to varnish over rather than deal with their deep economic and social structural problems, they will have no big problems with Obama. He doesn’t attack them, just feeds their addictions.
We are familiar with the European stereotype of Americans as ignorant, irresponsible cowboys (applied to George W. Bush), but there is far less talk about the European stereotype of Americans as naive, blundering, would-be do-gooders who make a giant mess (Barack Obama). Yet there are elements of American decline that many Europeans and European leaders like. The day may come when they think otherwise. As I once remarked to a European ambassador, who agreed: they spent eight years trying to hold Bush back and now are spending four years trying to pull Obama forward.
Central/Eastern Europe: here is a potential big problem. Russian leader Vladimir Putin thinks he can do whatever he wants. He will continue to turn as much as possible of the ex-Soviet, now-independent states into a Russian zone of influence. If he ever decided he wanted to take over Belarus or Ukraine or to attack Georgia again, he knows this can be done without any problem from America. Similarly, the regional states know they cannot depend on American support. Have no doubt that people in countries like Poland and the Czech Republic think about this every day.
So we see in Latin America, Asia, and Central Europe that American allies have no reliable protector anymore. They are left potentially helpless to possibly voracious local powers that are more radical than themselves. And of course they are all hurt by the ongoing poor state of the American economy. Lesson: don’t make the bad guys angry if possible; move away, if possible, from relying on the United States.
Some, however, will benefit from policies that ensure the export of American jobs. But the Chinese — who seem on the surface to be the main beneficiaries — are horrified to find themselves holding so much American debt as a U.S. government inflates the dollar and goes ever deeper into debt. It is a very bad investment indeed.
The thing to watch for is if there’s a crisis: how well would the United States respond to wars, coups, invasions, revolutions, economic collapses? What kind of leadership would be shown in cases paralleling, say, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait? What would Washington do if massive repression breaks out in Egypt with the massacre of Christians? Or how would Obama respond if Putin were to grab some neighbor’s territory in part or in full? You can come up with a great many scenarios that could happen, and in each case the local leaders and a lot of people both think and worry about such scenarios becoming real. At a minimum, knowing they cannot depend on the U.S. makes moderates and democrats more reluctant to fight, more willing to concede or surrender, and certain to despair.
In short, this current (voluntary, not inevitable) decline of the United States places a lot of people at risk. The question is whether there will be crises in which bad and weak American performance makes things worse.
And this brings us to the Middle East, where we know such crises will take place. I don’t want to repeat what I’ve written many times, but to put the whole thing into three sentences:
Israel, relatively moderate Arab regimes (including, yes, Saudi Arabia), and real moderate opposition movements know they cannot depend on the United States for the next four years and perhaps for much longer. To make things worse, the U.S. government is aiding their enemies. Consequently, they must act on their own to protect themselves.
For the Saudis, this can mean supporting establishment (Bahrain’s government, Lebanese Sunni Muslims) or even Salafist forces (as in the Syrian opposition) that they feel can be turned into clients. We all have good reasons for not liking the current Saudi regime but imagine the country being run and the oil money being in the hands of someone like Usama bin Ladin or the Muslim Brotherhood, dedicated to overthrowing all the other regimes in the region and forcing out U.S. influence.
For Israel, lacking a chance to build real alliances with Arab states or oppositions, it requires unilateral action.
Everyone else — including Christian minorities and women who want equality — is pretty much up the creek without a paddle. The democratic oppositions (and that includes Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon as well as Turkey and Iran) will have their hearts broken as they see their own countries lost to a long reign of even worse tyranny and their hopes for better days dashed. Countries as diverse as Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan will have to maneuver and use force to keep Islamists from taking over. In other words, you may be very courageous, but you will give some serious thought to running away as far as possible, to Europe, North America, or Australia.
It is very scary and even tragic for a lot of people.
Here, however, is the main point I wish to communicate: Americans can debate whether this shorter-term vacuum of responsibility and longer-term decline is happening, but much of the world already takes this outcome for granted.