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John Collins

November 30th, 2011

Is America’s Role as the World’s Leading Power Now Coming to an End?

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

John Collins

November 30th, 2011

Is America’s Role as the World’s Leading Power Now Coming to an End?

1 comment

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Last week the LSE’s Department of International History hosted a public debate on the future of American global leadership, Chaired by its Head of Department Professor Nigel Ashton. Speaking for the motion that America’s role as the world’s leading power is now coming to an end was Dr. Steven Casey, a specialist in U.S. foreign policy and public opinion. Speaking against the motion was Professor Alan Sked, an eminent historian of empire as well as numerous other fields. IDEAS Transatlantic is pleased to present the debate in two installments. This week we provide Dr. Casey’s arguments, to be followed by those of Professor Sked next week. To join the debate, email your comments or submissions to ideas.transatlantic@lse.ac.uk

 

“America’s Role as the World’s Leading Power is Now Coming to an End”
By Dr. Steven Casey:

This week started with 2 significant events that shed much light on the question of whether America’s role as a world power is coming to an end. The first was Obama’s return from his Pacific tour, where, according to the Washington Post, he ‘cast himself as a leader determined to protect American interests and spread American values, willing to project power and take political risks for the sake of a better future.’

The other, however, is the deadlock in the congressional super committee charged with finding a solution to America’s burgeoning budget deficit.

Although I will return to Obama’s Asia tour at the end of my brief talk, I naturally want to start by exploring the deeper ramifications of this deficit deadlock.

Viewed in the most straightforward way, this inability of Congress to address the deficit highlights America’s current—and probably deepening—economic woes. This is highly significant. America’s status as a world power was always underpinned by its raw economic strength. In the wake of World War I, the United States became the world’s leading creditor nation. In the wake of World II, it emerged even stronger—the producer of no less than half the world’s goods and services. Because of this raw power, European states looked to Washington to deal with the economic problems caused by the two world wars: hence the Dawes and Young plans in the 1920s and the Marshall Plan in the 1940s. The United States also used its economic strength to underwrite the international economic regimes that emerged after World War II.

But these days are now past. America’s current economic woes have made it an inert bystander in the recent policy debates surrounding the European debt crisis: Berlin, not Washington, is now the focal point. Furthermore, the United States is not only facing a long recession that restrains its actions at international economic summits. It also faces a major potential challenger. Economic analysts now predict that China will have a larger economy than the United States by 2027. China, moreover, is already the world’s leading exporter. And Beijing also holds a large proportion of its $3 trillion reserves in US dollars.

Washington’s current inability to tackle its deficit – and associated economic – problems are important for another reason. Being a world power means not just possessing raw economic capabilities. It also requires having a state that is strong enough and united enough both to confront major problems at home and to mobilize resources to project influence on all continents.

The American state has often faced problems with domestic mobilization. The reason dates back to the Revolution. The Founding Fathers, suspicious of centralized power, created a weak state in which power was dispersed between three competing and co-equal branches—and this often had a profound impact on its foreign policy.

Even at times when America was materially strong, it often punched well below its weight in international politics for the simple reason that dynamic presidents were blocked by a suspicious Congress. This was certainly the case in 1919, when Wilson was unable to get the Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty, which meant American non-membership of the League of Nations. It was also true in the 1930s, when the Neutrality Acts prevented Roosevelt from playing a more active role to help the Spanish Republic in its Civil War and Britain and France against the looming Nazi threat.

However, during periods when the United States has punched its weight, presidents have been able to overcome congressional opposition. The reasons were various, but one was crucial: they could work with like-minded, bipartisan-inclined legislators who were prepared to cut deals and who could persuade their rank-and-file to vote the desired way. This was particularly true during the Cold War when the White House and Congress shared the same basic animosity towards communism. Then, presidents like Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson worked with powerful senators like Arthur Vandenberg, Lyndon Johnson, and Everett Dirksen to pass the vital legislation that enabled the United States to mobilize its resources and project its power.

The situation now is quite different. For one thing, the two parties are far more partisan and ideological than in the past (and I say this as an historian of the Korean War, when partisanship was so acute Republican senators accused Truman of harbouring traitors in the State Department).

In recent years, both Democrats and Republicans have preferred to posture and attack in public rather than trying to resolve problems in private. At the same time, congressional leaders have often struggled to get their rank-and-file to support any bipartisan deals. The result this year has been three major crises over the budget deficit, which have left the United States with a lower credit rating and the economy suffering as a result. Obama has been conspicuously unable to resolve this impasse. But it is highly doubtful that any successor will prove any more adept – the most likely successor, a President Romney, would, after all, start with no credit on either side of the partisan aisle. And I leave the prospect of a Gingrich presidency to your fertile imaginations.

In terms of America’s ability to project its influence abroad, perhaps the biggest danger in the current congressional deadlock surrounds military spending.

When it was a superpower, American presidents were able to translate raw economic might into a massive military complex. During the 1950s and 1960s the United States often invested around 10 per cent of its GDP in defense. Similarly, in the past three decades, the United States has regularly accounted for between 30-40% of the entire world’s expenditure on defense. The current legislative deadlock threatens this spending. Indeed, with the failure of the supercommittee to agree on a package of reforms, the Pentagon currently faces massive cuts of no less than $600 billion, which the Leon Panetta, the Defense Secretary characterizes as ‘devastating.’ According to Panetta, if implemented these cuts would leave the United States with its smallest army since 1940 and its smallest navy since 1915.

Now, of course, even the current ideological partisans in Congress are likely to find some way to avoid implementing such massive cuts. But the Pentagon will still shrink. The economic logic of the past decade makes this inevitable. The Bush tax cuts, two expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, costly extensions to Medicare, and the banking bailout have all seen the American deficit balloon out of control. Even before the current crisis, Pentagon experts agreed that it faced what one called a ‘frugal future.’ Gone are the days when money was lavished on the military. And gone, too, are the days when the United States had the political will to use its military power effectively.

Indeed, congressional deadlock is only one restraint holding the United States back. Another is growing opposition to the human—as well as economic—costs of wielding military power.

When the United States was at its height, there was—broadly speaking—an interventionist consensus. Truman, Johnson, and Bush could count on overwhelming domestic support when they sent troops to fight in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. But these wars had two consequences. First, because Vietnam and Iraq were sold on false pretences, the public became increasingly suspicious of presidential leadership. Second, the domestic backlash against the Vietnam and Iraq wars was so intense – especially when casualties mounted – that it created a domestic ‘syndrome,’ summed up by the conventional wisdom that Americans are casualty intolerant. In the wake of Vietnam, even a Cold War hawk like Reagan admitted that the public would not accept the deployment of ground troops in Central America. 9/11 and Bush’s war on terror initially weakened this Vietnam syndrome, but it soon reemerged with a vengeance. Indeed, by 2010, Americans were so tired of war that only about 30% supported Obama’s decision to intensify the war in Afghanistan.

In short, then, the United States not only faces economic problems, which clearly suggest that it needs to scale back the size of military. It also faces political gridlock, which exacerbates these economic problems, and a loss of political will, which provides a further restraint on its ability to wield military power.

The result of all these factors was most most readily apparent in Libya earlier this year. Here, Obama saw the wisdom of the interventionist case. But acutely aware that the Treasury’s coffers were empty and the public was intensely war weary, he was keen to see France and Britain out in front. The American role – as one of Obama’s advisers told the New Yorker magazine – was to ‘lead from behind.’

Leading from behind may well become the new trend for an America facing such straitened circumstances, but it is not the only role the United States will adopt on the world stage. Indeed, we need to return to the second recent event – Obama’s Asian trip – to understand more clearly how America’s world role is shrinking.

Obama is not the first president who, when stymied by Congress at home, sought to play the role of the statesman abroad. This is what Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan all did at the end of their terms of office. But Obama’s recent Asia trip does have three, much deeper, implications.

First, with little chance of getting Congress to ratify or support new international arrangements, American presidents will seek to breathe new life into its existing international commitments, especially its long-standing treaty alliances, with countries like Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Second, as Obama’s trip also demonstrated, these long-standing treaty allies themselves see the value in America as a dominant partner. This is partly because so-called American soft power – the basic attractiveness of its way of life – still lingers. More importantly, though, it is because both sides still have clear strategic reasons to continue their alliances.

Nevertheless – and this is my concluding point – Obama’s Asian trip also implies a scaling back of America’s geographical focus. We can quibble with the definition of a world power. Was the United States – indeed has any state – ever been a truly world power with influence in every corner of the globe? Still, at its height, the United States certainly intervened extensively in the affairs of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Now, however, America’s ‘frugal future’ is forcing it to prioritize. I anticipate that it will seek to maintain its commitments to long-standing allies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia—indeed, NATO and the Israeli, Australian, South Korean, and Japanese alliances are not about to wane anytime soon. It will also generally refocus towards Asia, where the rise of China provides the biggest long-term challenge. And at the same time, this is likely to mean a gradual retreat from areas like the Middle East and Central Asia – although here, of course, Iran is the wild card.

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John Collins

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