Saturday, July 18, 2009

Fly mighty

Today, America's eagle perches lonely, confused, and distraught at the tip of the global pyramid. It was not always this way. Back in 1947, with America emerging from the death and destruction of World War 2 as the newly crowned leader of the Free World, a young and astute diplomat by the name of George Kennan wrote the following in his infamous article 'X':

Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.

The excerpt is highly revealing, and helps make sense of America's foreign policy decisions for the next four decades. First, Kennan identifies the threat as 'Soviet pressure against the Western world', and by doing this provides a clear focal point for American cognitive, diplomatic and material resources. Secondly, he proposes a strategic plan for applying power via a Newtonian logic of action and reaction. Wherever Soviet pressures posed a direct and credible threat to American interests, the U.S. would apply a countervailing force to neutralize and possibility scale back Moscow's influence. Third, the operational theater was purposely kept fluid and vague because the struggle was understood to be of global proportions. Geopolitical hotspots focused on countries with ambivalent or uncommitted political loyalties to Washington or Moscow.

It is fascinating that this short excerpt can encapsulate so clearly American grand strategy for the next four decades. The message was clear: containment of Soviet expansionary pressures must be counteracted, but only in limited geographic 'pressure points', and with manageable effects on world and regional instability. Everybody, friend and foe alike, knew their role, understood the rules, and clearly understood the potentially disastrous consequences for breaking them - Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD.)

CIA and Western intelligence operatives played a sometimes dangerous, always twisted, and occasionally comical, game of cat and mouse with their KGB counterparts in almost every corner of the globe. But fundamentally, both sides committed to the rules of the game. In an ironic way, Kennan's containment policy was helpful for Soviets as well. It drew clear lines in the sand. Some areas were fair play for competition, others were absolute red lines. If the message wasn't clear enough, the Cuban missile crisis reiterated that fact in no uncertain terms.

But unless you've been living on Mars, the Cold War is over, the Soviets are history, and America is the only superpower standing. Its navy freely navigates and polices the seas, its economic system has been adopted by its former Communist adversaries, and its economy and military spending dwarf those of its closest competitors. Despite all this, America has no discernible grand strategy to speak of today.

Many strategic thinkers, both within and outside the American government, are no-doubt nostalgic for the days of bipolarity (two superpowers.) Things were much simpler then. As long as the Communism and Soviet threat remained, policy differences were a matter of style over substance.

But two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, America's eagle is confused and distraught. Debilitating wars abroad, a plummeting international image, gargantuan domestic economic problems, and increasingly confused military and diplomatic establishments, all underwrite the sorry state of contemporary American grand strategy. America seems to be wondering aimlessly with diminishing friends and increased resistance to its power around the world.

The fundamental problem lies in Washington's inability, or unwillingness, to respond to the changing nature of international relations. New powers are emerging on every continent demanding more autonomy, more respect, and a louder voice in the management of the planet's affairs. The Chinese, Indians, and Russians are pushing for a gradual shift away from the dollar and to a new international reserve currency. The Europeans are looking to solidify their political union in order to capitalize on the growing economic power of the continent. Brazil is becoming the unquestioned regional leader in South America - once America's jealously guarded 'strategic back yard.' Saudi Arabia and Iran are both cognizant of America's waning capabilities and influence, and have started taking more assertive stances in the Middle East.

If America is to regain its swagger, it will have to base its foreign policy on an entirely new grand strategy. This strategy will have to take into consideration America's capabilities and aspirations on one hand, and the capabilities and aspirations of the emerging powers on the other. America's fundamental geopolitical and geoeconomic interests need not be compromised in the process. On the contrary, reliance on diplomacy, cultural exchanges, scientific engagement, aid, and above all...humility, will go a long way towards engendering the kind of good-will and trust that will allow America to adopt a more flexible approach to international relations. Brute force, and an over-reliance on military power should only be considered a last resort.

It is heartening to see Obama desperately trying to turn the tide. He has spoken of order above idealist adventurism, and democracy by persuasion as opposed to gun barrels. He has steered away from dictating, and has spoken of shared responsibilities - basically telling countries such as China to try and handle all the international responsibility they could stomach. He seems cognizant of the fact that the Neoconservative dream for an unrivaled 'American century' is simply inaplicable to today's international environment. Regardless of its superiority in military and economic power, America cannot continue operating as if it was business as usual. America must once again become 'in' and not merely 'of' the international community.

Obama has kicked off his young presidency with a massive public relations campaign spearheaded by a number of historic speeches in Cairo and Ghana, among others. His political capital is unprecedented and it will be very difficult for foreign governments to say no to him if he comes to the table with sensible proposals for collaboration and shared commitments to make the world a better place. Climate change, peace in the Middle East, democracy and human rights, and the global economy, as well as a range of international issues are problems looking for solutions. America, after experiencing the debilitating policies of the Neoconservatives on climate change, the War on Terror and nuclear non-proliferation, can mitigate the harm done to its reputation and interests across the world. What Washington needs is a bipartisan commitment to turn rhetoric into action, and action into progress on a number of international policy tracts.

It is no longer beneficial for America to try to preserve its Eagle's superior, but increasingly lonely, position at the helm of the global power hierarchy. Getting it to fly again is what American grand strategy should really aim for, and this cannot be done without help from emerging powers. The question is, can Washington muster the political will to enter into a complicated grand bargain with the rest of the international community - as messy and complicated as this may be?

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