President Barack Obama: "The phrase 'leading from behind' has come to symbolise his policy" © Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

America's temporary retreat

A tangled mix of self-interest shaped by idealism will force America back onto the world stage
June 17, 2015

On nights when the house has gone quiet and I end up working late, I find myself sifting through the pictures and reports that have come in that day about Islamic State’s progress through the territory that used to be called Iraq and Syria. Not what you should do before going to sleep, sure, but I find the chronicle of atrocities and battles, jerking forward most days by way of brief news flashes or videos and personal accounts smuggled out from Mosul, Raqqa or Tal Afar, has the awful grip of a story where two futures are always simultaneously imaginable: one, where the nodes and webs of IS’s control are pushed back off the map, and the other, even more horrific than now.

Journalists and politicians are particularly susceptible to the delusion of trying to discern progress in a conflict where there may be none, where the contenders may each have just enough support to keep any resolution at bay and there is no future peace in sight to make present suffering in any sense “worth it.” One reason, though, that the outlook in the Middle East is so bleak at the moment is the reluctance of the United States to take a lead role in combating IS, and the silence of its president on whether he intends in any significant way to intervene.

“Today is the first Memorial Day in 14 years that the US is not engaged in a major war.”
Not that American intervention is always a prescription for peace, of course. The ugly lessons of Iraq hang over the region, not just the besieged and smouldering cities of Iraq itself. In 1991, two days after the US victory in the Gulf War, George HW Bush declared that “the spectre of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.” Yet 14 years after 9/11, the world remains transfixed—and parts of it, lethally exhilarated—by the spectacle of American discomfiture. The world’s richest country and biggest military power, spending more on defence than the next seven countries combined, not only failed to achieve most of what it intended in deploying that force, but made mistakes that wrecked its reputation for competence, judgement and commitment to its own founding principles, as well as ravaging its national finances.

But its retreat has left a vacuum into which IS and others are flowing and flourishing. Some of that reserve clearly comes from President Barack Obama himself; from the start, he defined his foreign policy goals as taking America out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and not going back. At the end of May, on the annual public holiday which commemorates those in the armed forces lost in conflict, he said: “Today is the first Memorial Day in 14 years that the US is not engaged in a major war.” The question for the US’s allies (and enemies) is whether it has now really turned its back on foreign intervention; the question for the US is whether it should.

That is the puzzle that Ian Bremmer has set himself in his new book Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World. At least, he calls it a book, and until you open it, that’s what it looks like, but it’s not what it is. A political scientist and professor at New York University, who runs a consultancy analysing global risks, he sets out three alternative visions of America’s future role in the world, and asks the reader to choose. It would work better as a Powerpoint presentation to corporate clients or a university lecture than it does as a book. The multiple-choice quizzes, Cosmopolitan-style, to force you to alight on your own view (“If you ticked (b) for question 7, then it shows that you favour…”) would be irritating even if you were listening to him in person; in print, without the ability to challenge him on the false alternatives they seem to present, it is more than that, and they do little to advance his argument. The presentation of essentially the same historical material to support three different arguments in turn is close to unreadable, and prevents his own voice coming through clearly, until he reveals (with again, much cheery showmanship) his own conclusion at the end.

But that’s a pity, because so much of his account is a sharply-observed, astutely-phrased analysis of the US’s painful recent experiences, the confusions of its foreign policy, and the predicament in which it now finds itself. The clarity of his condemnation of past mistakes and of his prescriptions for the future make it in the end a valuable and often hugely enjoyable exercise to read.

The three roles he has conceived are “Independent America,” “Moneyball America,” and “Indispensable America.” The first is the scenario in which the US stops trying to solve the world’s problems, denies even that it has that responsibility, and focuses on its own potential, still only barely developed (as he interestingly argues). The second agrees that the US cannot intervene in all foreign disputes, although expresses this more as recognising the limitations of its power (and finances), rather than a choice. It should then, this line goes, focus on its own interests and intervene selectively where it can improve these. The third holds that only the US can promote the values on which global stability depends, that it is morally right to project these and that to do otherwise would threaten its own future.

It is not a new observation that two recent wars which did not go to plan, plus the 2008 financial crisis, have left the US on the back foot. But the problem goes back further: the rise of new powers since the fall of the Soviet Union has shattered the model created after the Second World War, where the US could also shape the world through its dominance of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and the World Trade Organisation. As Bremmer puts it, for years these institutions “extended US influence into every corner of international security and the global economy.” He deploys striking figures to chart how new, rival institutions have eclipsed the old ones. In 2013, he says, the World Bank disbursed $52.6bn. Brazil’s development bank, BNDES, invested $88bn, and its Chinese equivalent extended loans valued at $240bn.

But he notes, importantly, that while its foreign policy is in decline, the US itself is not. “Its per capita income is more than eight times higher than China’s. It is the world’s largest exporter of goods and services… the largest exporter of food.” It is “blessed with an entrepreneurial culture that celebrates not what has been accomplished but what’s next.” Many buckets of giddy words have been poured into describing the US’s culture of innovation, but he is right to emphasise the point. In the late 1980s, there was a fashion for predicting that America had had its day and that Japan would rule the world. Then the US, essentially, invented the internet, and changed the game for everyone, forever.

What, then, has been the problem in foreign policy? It’s been incoherent since the Soviet Union fell, says Bremmer. Clinton, he says, “stumbled into Somalia as if moral outrage and a genuine desire to end suffering were good enough reasons to send American soldiers into a conflict his administration should have known it didn’t understand.” More seriously, “he did not understand that a strengthened economy in Russia would allow a future Russian president… to use America’s new world order to bolster his own domestic popularity and anti-western credentials.” Even more serious in its consequence, Clinton didn’t “see that opening China’s economy would strengthen, not weaken, the country’s authoritarian rule.”

But it seems unfair to compare the misjudgement of Somalia with the failure to anticipate the economic transformation of two rival powers over three decades, and the decisions of successive leaders there to become more antagonistic to the US. These are shifts in the plates of geopolitics, not tactical mistakes of a military campaign. Nor is it obvious that even if Clinton had foreseen it, he should have declined to court them in the way that he did. Bremmer seems to be pushing for a thematic neatness, with all the benefit of hindsight, that is never part of real policymaking. In any case, you might say, the luxury of incoherence was part of the “peace dividend” of the end of the Cold War. Clinton was right to experiment with talking to Russia and China even if it didn’t work.
"He is best on Obama: damning, but rightly so"
He’s on firmer ground being scathing about George W Bush in Iraq, although that’s an easy target. Still, he puts it well: Bush’s “inability or unwillingness to accept US limits grew from a conviction that the fear and righteous anger that follows the 9/11 attacks justified almost any expense of any kind in pursuit of justice and security.” But figures capture the scale of the failure better than words. In July 2014, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, in its quarterly report to Congress, found that “by the end of 2014, the US will have committed more funds to reconstruct Afghanistan, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it spent on 16 European countries after the Second World War under the Marshall Plan.” While Bremmer does not cite them, academic assessments also put the total cost to the US of the Afghan and Iraq wars at up to a third of the current $18 trillion national debt.

He is best on Obama: damning, but rightly so. In 2012, Obama said of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised.” When there was clear evidence of their use, he did nothing, saying “I didn’t set a red line, the world set a red line.” The evasion crossed all barriers of translation; the Saudi government was incredulous and scathing; the cost to his credibility was immense.

Even given Americans’ current desire to stay out of wars, Obama has been damagingly muddled. He was right to declare the intention to “pivot” America’s attention from its old preoccupations towards Asia. China is a great opportunity, and potentially a great threat, given its apparent determination to make “a Chinese lake” out of the international waters of the South China Sea. But on the Middle East, Obama has repeatedly contradicted himself. “Leading from behind” was a phrase actually uttered by an official, not the President, but it has come to symbolise his policy.

In sifting through his three options, Bremmer dismisses the “moneyball” case as too self-interested. But he has constructed a caricature, inevitably repellent, which corresponds only to fitful impulses in American administrations, rather than clear strands of policy, and which no one significant in either party is advocating in Washington. And he seems confused about whether restraint from conflict—Kennedy resisting the advice of his senior aides to invade Cuba in 1962 over the presence of Soviet missiles, for example, or Caspar Weinberger urging Ronald Reagan not to retaliate against Iran after a terror cell associated with the country attacked a US barracks in Lebanon in 1983, killing 241 servicemen—reflects the principle of acting in self-interest. Surely not; it might simply reflect realism about what can be achieved.

More interesting is his contrasting of “Independent” America with “Indispensable.” These are the twin peaks of retreat and activism between which American presidencies have oscillated. It is wrong, he concludes, to pursue a foreign policy based on the idea that America can solve every problem and should therefore intervene energetically, both to resolve conflicts and to promote its own values. These are, of course, the sunlit uplands of America’s old view of itself, saving Europe—and the world—from the cataclysms of two world wars, and confidently establishing democracy and the foundations of prosperity in Germany and Japan. This is the high-minded doctrine of global responsibility to police the world on which many postwar American schoolchildren—no doubt including George W Bush—were brought up.

But this is no longer possible, Bremmer argues, although he also admits that historical motives were not as clear-cut as his scheme would like to have it. America’s calculation in entering the world wars late, he concedes, owed something to self-interest.
"America’s democracy is creaking as much as its infrastructure"
His preference is for his option A: America should be “Independent,” focusing on developing its own potential, tangling with other’s problems reluctantly, if ever. He is right to note America’s creaking infrastructure—in a 2013 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers stated that “one in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient.” Even if the sprawling new cities of its southwest gleam out of the desert like a science fiction fantasy, the northeast looks like an old country; the crumbling ironwork and pitted concrete of New York’s roads and railtracks are hardly the image of the world’s superpower. It looks a century behind China, because it is.

One of his most interesting arguments in support of an “Independent” stance is that military action, led by the president using his executive authority to avoid consulting Congress, distorts the healthy functioning of American democracy. It is anti-democratic for the nation to embark on such huge, convulsive, and often unpopular enterprises, he says, without the assent of the legislative houses representing the people.

It’s an interesting assertion that America’s democracy is creaking as much as its infrastructure. The point is more usually made about the political gridlock in Washington preventing the passage of legislation (and too easily made by those other countries who overlook the extent to which the textbook point is true: the constitution’s checks and balances were designed that way). For all the rift between “red” and “blue” states, which runs right through Congress with a hostility that has destroyed traditional rules of engagement between Republicans and Democrats, the deadlock is easing. The surge of the population, much of that Hispanic, is breaking down the old predictable politics (see the profile of Marco Rubio in our last issue). But even if fears of gridlock are overstated, Bremmer is right in his more original point: that this internal transformation, which will see the US population surge to nearly 400m by the middle of the century, deserves to command national and presidential attention.

He is right, too, that the US needs to sort out its finances. The US shares the affliction of many of the older democracies: trying to pay down debt and deficits while the population is ageing, and while layers of accumulated entitlements in pensions and healthcare promise more trouble just ahead.

However, the choice he sets up—between the independence he favours and the active engagement he regretfully feels is unaffordable—is a false one. A bit of both, should be the prescription. The US does not want a fight with China, but if it ignores what China is doing in the South China Sea, it neglects its allies in the region, beginning with Japan. Nor does it want a military conflict with Russia—it needs its support too much in the Middle East—but could do a lot to prod Germany and France into a more assertive stance, that might discourage the Kremlin from leaning on the Baltics, the only members of the EU and Nato that were actually part of the Soviet Union.

It is in the Middle East that Bremmer’s false dichotomy comes most unstuck: the US is going to have to get involved, and the airstrikes against IS (and now, more military personnel) show that even Obama agrees. What is more, Obama has not been as disengaged as Bremmer suggests: his overwhelming focus has been on securing a deal with Iran to halt its nuclear programme. That is a hugely valuable goal if he achieves it, for all the shortcomings of the deal. It could forestall the spread of nuclear weapons across the region, beginning with Saudi Arabia, which otherwise looks like a certainty.

Yes, the US is tangled in contradictions in the region. In Iraq, it shares Iran’s goals of defeating IS, but is on the other side in Syria where Iran is backing Assad. Yet those reflect the conflicting web of allegiances in the region, not “confusions” of US policy; they are inescapable. It is true that Obama has relied heavily on sanctions in putting pressure against Russia and Iran but this is not a sign of weakness; we are, some argue, in a “golden age of sanctions,” where ability to shut off transactions through the financial system makes them far more effective than in the past (see box below). To employ them is not to avoid engagement, and here, the US has worked closely with the EU.

Incidentally, for those searching for a reference to the “special relationship”—a phrase one hears often, with sleeve-tugging anxiousness in London, but in Washington only within the hillside gardens of the British embassy, there is no reference to the UK whatsoever in Bremmer’s account. There is much discussion of other allies of all stripes and sizes, but the UK is conspicuous by its absence. There’s another book to be written on the retreat of “Little Britain” from the world stage, Bremmer might retort, but while I think that argument is often overstated too, I’ll leave it there.

The bottom line is that America cannot afford the stance of “Independence” that Bremmer suggests it should adopt. The traditional tangled mix of self-interest shaped by idealism will force it to take part in at least some of these conflicts. In answer to the three options in Bremmer’s questionnaire, any president will say: none of the above, or rather, a bit all of them. Obama’s decision to send new military troops back to Iraq, even if only a few hundred, shows that with every possible reluctance, he agrees.