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September 24, 2013 8:31 AM America the Bystander - Or Not?

By Ali Wyne

Decline

Vladimir Putin’s proposal for mitigating the bloodshed in Syria has revived the allegation of declining American influence. Across the globe, but perhaps most intensely in the United States itself, news items and opinion pieces portray a bumbling giant, as liable to be rebuffed by allies as outmaneuvered by adversaries.

Whether one thinks that the U.S. is presently a bystander to international affairs, “America the bystander” has been a persistent theme over the past seven decades. One of the paradoxes of the postwar era, in fact, is that while the U.S. has managed to accumulate an inordinate amount of influence—reflected in its development of and centrality within a liberal international system—it has often appeared (and been characterized as) impotent at certain moments, and even during significant stretches.

Fears of Declining U.S. Influence
It is commonly observed that the U.S. enjoyed hegemony in the immediate postwar period. While its shares of military and economic power resources were indeed much higher then than they are now, disproportionate power did not yield commensurate influence:

  • Just four years after the war’s conclusion, the Soviet Union detonated a nuclear bomb, certifying the end of America’s atomic monopoly. One month later, Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China.
  • Joseph Nye notes that in the 1950s and 1960s, a supposedly omnipotent U.S. was unable to “‘roll back’ communism in Eastern Europe, prevent stalemate in the Korean War, defeat Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, or dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba.”
  • In the 1970s, Soviet inroads across substantial swathes of Africa and Asia alarmed the U.S. commentariat. Robert Tucker argued that “the impact of the events which have brought this decade to a close has been such as to make the fact of America’s decline very nearly a commonplace.”
  • In the 1980s, economic tumult and dubious forays abroad captured many headlines. In May 1988, David Remnick lamented that “American influence abroad makes the money picture [the post-Black Monday economy] look positively vibrant. The splendid military mission in the Caribbean…seems now a depressing event, merely another embarrassment in line with the jumbled efforts in Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Lebanon.”
  • The proposition of declining U.S. influence even survived the end of the Cold War (albeit with less force). As the 1990s came to a close, Samuel Huntington noted that “[o]n issue after issue, the United States has found itself increasingly alone, with one or a few partners, opposing most of the rest of the world’s states and peoples.”

Realism
Given the historical record, the notion of postwar U.S. “hegemony” is misguided; to the extent that it informs current discussion and debate, it can only produce policy misjudgments. For those who contend not only that the U.S. is in decline, but also that this decline is akin to a terminal illness—better to be accepted with grace than fought with vigor—it is likely to yield a policy of retrenchment. Countering threats to vital U.S. national interests, mobilizing coalitions to address the world’s most urgent challenges, and sustaining an international system that nurtures peace and prosperity all require robust U.S. engagement.

Paradoxically, however, the same starting premise—namely, U.S. influence is declining—can yield the opposite, equally fallacious, prescription: overextension. The more one believes that America once exercised hegemony; that it no longer does; and that it should undertake to reclaim that perch, since global order requires U.S. dominance; the more likely one will be to seize upon every outcome that runs counter to U.S. interests as evidence of its impotence, no matter how inconsequential that outcome is. The U.S. cannot extinguish every strategic fire; nor can it redress every moral outrage. As McGeorge Bundy explained nearly half a century ago, “what happens in the world is not determined by Americans alone….The role of the United States is seldom central in the internal affairs of other states.” Given the weakness of America’s economy, adopting a “do something!” posture would be especially unwise.

The Future
The preceding is not an effort to rationalize a complacent U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, the purpose of conceding limits to U.S. influence is to lay the foundation for prudent action, not to provide a cover for inaction. Realism should not be made into an alibi for passivity. However many strategic mistakes, even blunders, the United States has made, its position today would be far weaker had it principally been a witness to events rather than a shaper of them (consider the impact of far-sighted initiatives such as the Marshall Plan, the establishment of the Non-Proliferation Regime, and the opening to China).

As long as the international system evolves, however, the U.S. will encounter new circumstances in which it is incapable of advancing its national interests substantially or at all. As Paul Kennedy counseled a quarter century ago, and would likely reiterate today, “the only serious threat to the real interests of the United States can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order.” A fair comparison of 2013 and 1945 would suggest that the U.S. has done an impressive job of achieving what Paul Nitze and his colleagues called its “fundamental purpose”: fostering “a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish.”

The prospect of a great-power war has diminished significantly, as has that of a nuclear exchange in which tens, if not hundreds, of millions could perish. The U.S. no longer faces an implacable antagonist, and it benefits enormously from the system of global commons. While developments in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East are not encouraging from the perspective of U.S. strategy, it would be premature to conclude, if history is indicative, that U.S. influence abroad is in irreversible decline.

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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 coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (MIT Press, 2013).

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