The Exceptional Empire: Why the United States Will Not Decline — Again
Is the United States inevitably in decline? After the foreign policy controversies of the George W. Bush years, a new consensus declares the end of American dominion. In this article this conventional wisdom is challenged. The US constitutes an ‘exceptional empire’ and, despite the recent rise of powers such as the EU, China and India, the four foundations of this distinctive empire remain robust. First, the US still exhibits global predominance in hard power. Second, the essentially unipolar international order shaped by Washington remains resilient. Third, neither the rise of ‘anti-Americanism’ nor the alleged decline of US ‘soft power’ endanger its predominance. Fourth, the US political class is committed to preserving American primacy after Bush. No other power is currently in range of competing with the US for global influence. Moreover, each faces powerful internal weaknesses and external threats at least as significant as those facing the US. America's global predominance in hard and soft power do not translate into omnipotence. Nor does predominance promise an error-free foreign policy. The US nonetheless continues to defy both history and theory.
Keywordsexceptional empire hard power George W. Bush unipolar US foreign policy decline
Despite the efforts of some scholars to discredit and discard them, two ‘e-words’ continue to feature heavily in discussions of the United States of America: exceptionalism and empire. Until recently, the terms in which they have been discussed have differed markedly. Americans have mostly accepted that their nation is exceptional — if not unique, then certainly different to others. Whether one locates this distinctiveness in a vibrant civic nationalism, a special historical providence and geographical security, an anti-government political culture, religiosity or otherwise, the ‘right nation’ appears different — if not superior — to many of its citizens (Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 2004). At the same time, few of those citizens have been able or willing to accept that their nation either constitutes or acts like an empire. Outside the US, however, many non-Americans have taken the opposite approach: America is not really qualitatively different to comparable industrialized democracies in its internal dynamics but its imperial role is markedly similar to that of past empires. If one were to try to bridge this gulf in comparative perceptions, perhaps one could posit a synthesis: that the US is an exceptional empire, a ‘first new empire’ — a nation-state more powerful than any in history inhabited by relatively insular people mostly unconscious of, and uninterested in, their expansive imperial domain.
Of the many foreign policy controversies of the George W. Bush years, one of the most curious academic ones was the revival of the term ‘empire’ to describe the nature and extent of American primacy. While there was nothing remotely novel in the terms ‘empire’, ‘imperial’ or ‘imperialism’ being levelled at the United States by the academic and activist left, there was something altogether new about the terms being used by some on the intellectual right as ones of approbation or commendation. In effect, a more or less universally agreed rule on the part of the American political class (or, more precisely, its elite practitioner, academic and journalistic cohort) had been broken, namely, to deny that the American republic either was, or could act as, a new global empire in the 21st century.
There was, of course, no consensus whatsoever on this notion, either on empirical or normative grounds. Many scholars denied that the US either was, could or should be an empire (Bacevich 2002; Colas and Saull, 2005; Mann, 2005). Others sought to redefine the concept so as to better capture the extent of American power despite its lack of direct territorial control (Cox, 2004). Still others rejected the entire empire debate as a largely irrelevant and unhelpful sideshow, distracting analysts from more important and urgent questions of US grand strategy, tactics and substantive foreign policies. America's woes in Iraq and Afghanistan added particular weight to the latter approach. If Washington, DC was indeed a new Rome on the Potomac, its inability to best the diverse barbarians at its various gates suggested that the zenith of its power was surely now past.
In the pages that follow I argue that this claim remains a little premature, even in the midst of international controversies over Iraq and Iran, fissures in NATO, $100 per barrel oil prices, a falling dollar, a growing credit crunch, US housing market instability and the apparent onset of recession. While, as Michael Cox has noted, the scholarly debate over American ‘decline’ has once more returned to prominence as that over empire has receded, a plausible case can be made that an exceptional empire remains operative and robust (Cox, 2007). This is not to suggest that the days of American empire will last indefinitely. Nor does this assertion deny the substantial negative impact of Iraq on American public confidence and related elite disagreements on the most appropriate strategic adjustments to US grand strategy after Bush. Limits to America's power exist and, like empires previously, at some point the sun will no doubt eventually set on Washington's. But viewing the question of the future of American power through the particular lenses of Iraq and the 2008 presidential campaign offers at best a partial and misleading picture of the resilient strength of the US military and the American political economy, the relative weakness of other (even ‘rising’ and rival) powers, and the basic bipartisan consensus supporting America's imperial role post-the Cold War, post-9/11 and post-Bush.
As Robert Kagan (2008) notes, contrary to the hopes, expectations and declarations of a post-Bush return to traditional realism by his many critics, the world has not become ‘normal’ again. It remains essentially unipolar, albeit that increased international competition among major powers vying for regional influence has vividly returned — an order that Kagan cites Chinese authorities as describing as ‘one superpower, many great powers’. Contrary to the ‘new declinism’ that confidently pronounces the end of ‘American dominion’ (Haass, 2008), America's predominance is set to persist for the foreseeable future and, however much the next administration may craft foreign policy in softer tones more palatable to international ears, none will abjure in principle the options of pre-emptive or preventive military action, the promotion of open market democracies and a diplomacy that is multilateral when it can afford to be but unilateral when it cannot (Lynch and Singh, 2008). Whatever the public position, personnel and stylistic changes, Bush's successor will — like Bill Clinton before him — be committed to preserving American primacy.
The remarkable extent of American predominance.
The resilience of an essentially unipolar international order.
The questionable political significance of ‘anti-Americanism’ and the alleged erosion of America's ‘soft power’.
The commitment of the US political class to preserve and enhance American primacy.
Rising and Falling Powers: The ‘American Century’ No More?
Realist theorists have long maintained both the unsustainability of US hegemony, in theory and history, and the undesirability of a world with only one superpower. Geo-economics has threatened to eclipse geo-politics since the Cold War's end, with the EU, Japan, Russia, China and India increasingly challenging the US. If opinion surveys are to be believed, the post-9/11 world is also mostly hostile, in some cases (the Middle East, Latin America, Africa) intensely so, towards America. For Washington, according to Cox, ‘The question then is not whether decline is going to happen — it already is — but how successfully the Untied States will adjust to the process’ (Cox, 2007, 653). The obvious indicators of such decline include continued violence and instability in Iraq, broad and deep levels of anti-Americanism, the rise of competing powers to limit US options, choice and capabilities, and the fact that ‘nearly all the economic indicators in the early twenty-first century point downwards’ for America (Cox, 2007, 651). In addition, the more hubristic analyses and triumphalist prescriptions of the post-Cold War and post-9/11 years — from ‘unipolar moments’ to celebrations of an imperial America — have become noticeably less common and more muted. Taken together, America's dominant position in the world is seen to be inexorably ebbing away. Only its pace — gradual or precipitate? — seems in doubt.
But despite Iraq, anti-Americanism and more, on the key dimensions of hard and soft power, Washington's exceptional empire remains remarkably robust in terms of its preponderant power. There remain five reasons to step back from current US woes and to treat the ‘new declinism’ with a degree of caution.
First, in spite of Iraq and the immense stresses that the occupation has imposed on its volunteer personnel and National Guard units since 2003, the US military remains far and away the world's largest and best, unique in its capacity to project force rapidly around the globe and peerless in its superiority in conventional warfare and command of the global commons. The official annual US defence budget is now well in excess of $500 billion, excluding the supplemental appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan (over $100 billion). The global presence of US overseas bases, personnel and bilateral training programmes is without precedent. At just over 4% of US GDP, not only is such a budget much lower in proportionate terms than during the Reagan build-up of the 1980s (still less the Cold War's height under Truman and Eisenhower) but it is also sustainable in economic and political terms over the long haul. Indeed, one important consequence of Iraq has been to consolidate a broad bipartisan consensus in Washington endorsing the further expansion of the US Army and Marine Corps by a minimum of 6% over current personnel levels and a substantial year-on-year increase in the Pentagon budget into the 2010s. In 2008, serious presidential candidates competed not for ‘peace dividends’, as in 1992, but as to exactly how much more needed to be devoted to defence to wage the global war on terror effectively.1
The ramifications of this military supremacy and its underlying political consensus are profound. Not only does further expansion of the armed forces increase even more America's singular capacity to meet rising global security challenges (whether ‘hard’ or ‘soft’) but it also augurs a multiplier effect on the existing technical and logistical superiority of the US military. In the context of competing powers that are either cutting or not increasing their defence budgets and military personnel or that, as in China's case, are increasing them at a steady but comparatively modest level, the fact of American military supremacy through the 2010s remains unchallenged. There has never existed a nation-state with such preponderant global military power at such low financial cost.
Second, but related, while serious concerns about ‘overstretch’ now exist among the uniformed military and mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike, there is minimal prospect of US forces being required to mount another major occupying war in the mode of Iraq. The challenges confronting America that plausibly will demand military action during the next decade — from the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands and possible ‘failed states’ in both, through Iran's nuclear programme to Chinese threats to Taiwan — are serious and urgent, but they do not point to an ‘Iraq Mk II’. Moreover, although they have mostly turned against the Iraq war, it is difficult to depict Americans as exhibiting a new ‘post-Iraq’ pacifism. Even in the midst of the worst of the Iraq occupation in 2006, Americans of both parties evinced more belief in the utility and justice of military force than did Europeans, by decisive margins (Kagan, 2006a). Among critics of Bush, the most forceful case against Iraq was not a pacifist opposition to war in principle but rather the pragmatic case that the invasion was a distraction from the war that the US should have been completing emphatically in Afghanistan.
History confirms that a ‘defeat-phobic’ American public is not synonymous with a peaceful one. America consistently remains true to its historical pedigree, as more a ‘dangerous nation’ than a docile one (Kagan, 2006b). Less than one decade after peace was reached on the Korean peninsula in 1953, for example, a Democratic president, John F. Kennedy, initiated America's prolonged and costly commitment to Vietnam. Five decades after the respective conclusions of their wars, tens of thousands of US troops remained in Germany, Japan and South Korea. Five years after America's first and worst military defeat in south-east Asia, Americans elected Ronald Reagan to the presidency to restore and reassert US strength against an ‘evil empire’. More recently, no nation has gone to war so frequently in such a short time frame as the US since the Cold War's conclusion. Between 1989 and 2003, America engaged in military interventions nine times: in Panama in 1989, Somalia in 1992–1993, Haiti in 1994, Bosnia in 1995–1996, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq three times (1991, 1998, 2003) — an average of one major action every 18 months (Daalder and Kagan, 2007, 1).
It is therefore difficult to herald the Iraq war — whatever its ultimate course –as the last major US conflict of the early 21st century. The likelihood is not whether there will be further US military interventions after Bush but rather where, when and how. Moreover, such wars will likely continue to be waged through ‘coalitions of the willing’ rather than through formalized multilateral organizations, the limits of which Afghanistan now attests to in addition to Kosovo previously. The costs of military action in a unipolar world, and the incentives towards it, are mightily different from the bipolar Cold War. Beyond this, the superiority of US forces and technology — with a growing ‘interoperability gap’ even with Washington's closest allies — ensures that a unilateralism of necessity, not choice, is now a fact of life for many American military interventions. Whether or not the war on terror provides a macro-securitization paradigm comparable to the Cold War, the historical record is not one that suggests that the US will indefinitely refrain from violence in support of its interests and ideals.
Third, and despite Iraq, America's extensive network of global alliances remains formidably impressive. As Bradley Thayer observes, ‘Far from there being a backlash against the United States, there is worldwide bandwagoning with it’ (Layne and Thayer, 2007, 106–107). Of 192 nations in the world, Thayer identified only five as ‘opposed’ to America: China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. Eighty-four states are US allies, comprising most major economic and military powers, including 25 members of NATO, 14 major non-NATO allies, 19 Rio Pact members, seven Caribbean Regional Security System members, 13 members of the Iraq coalition not in the other categories, along with Afghanistan, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Tunisia. A ratio of 17 to 1 (84 to 5) represents a rather positive outcome for the world's primary power. The brute reality remains that most countries wish to align with the US, actively do so, and benefit directly from its security guarantees, open markets and international trade. Even — especially — in relation to rising powers such as China and India, national interests typically point in the direction of either actively supporting or passively acquiescing in the American-led international system rather than challenging it. Iraq was an aberration, not a norm, in this regard.
Simply put, there has been no hard balancing against Washington of consequence since the end of the Cold War. Despite the setting-up of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Sino-Russian hostility to the US has not produced a concerted balancing effort, limited as it is by mutual distrust and suspicion, traditional great power rivalry, divergent capacities and strategic goals and — in Beijing's case — dependence on the critical US market for its exports and growth. Such hard balancing as has occurred has been aimed not at Washington but Moscow and Beijing: by, respectively, East European and other EU states and Japan, Australia, India and South Korea. America may be unloved in parts of the world, if opinion surveys are to be believed. But it is not generally opposed.
Fourth, contrary to Cox's claim, it is not the case that American economic indicators are universally and intractably negative. Not only is the US the world's largest (estimates vary between 20 and 30% of world GDP) and most efficient economy but also the dollar remains the world's reserve currency despite the euro's rise. The Bush years have seen America continue to experience historically low levels of inflation, unemployment and interest rates and — until this year — strong rates of growth. The twin deficits of the federal budget (at some $250 billion) and current account (6% of GDP) do make the US the world's leading debtor, as it was previously at the end of Reagan's two terms as president. But the economic health of both China and Japan relies heavily on their continuing to purchase dollars and securities based on the dollar to keep their currencies weak and the US market for their exports strong. The US economy remains huge, robust and the world's most productive, competitive and innovative (not least in information technology), just as its research institutes and universities dominate those of other nations. American takeovers cause a tremendous productivity advantage over non-American alternatives for firms outside the US ‘as if the invisible hand of the American marketplace were somehow passing along a secret handshake to these firms’ (Van Reenen et al., 2007). America's strength rests on the fundamental soundness, openness and innovative energy of its dynamic economy. Consequently, as the end of the first decade of the 21st century approaches, the enormous, productive and flexible US economy remains central to the international economic system, the dominant source of its operating rules, and the best positioned to take advantage of coming changes precisely because it is so consistently adept at adjusting.
Fifth, if these hard power resources of the US remain potent, those propelling the rise of its potential rivals are by no means clear, coherent or reliable. Much of the commentary on America's principal competitors effectively assumes their linear rise and an inevitable disharmony with US interests (and ideals) accompanying a concomitant erosion of American predominance. But such assumptions are not necessarily well founded.
American Primacy: From Unipolarity to Multipolarity, Bipolarity or Non-Polarity?
If an ‘American Era’ of unipolarity and primacy could be said to exist, it began at the Cold War's conclusion (Lieber, 2007). Less than 20 years on, however — as Haass (2008) describes it, ‘little more than a moment in historical terms’ — might we now be witnessing the end of that era?
There appears good reason for doubt. One such reason is simply that we have been here before on more than one occasion, when such prognoses proved ill-founded. International relations theorists have had a chequered record of predictive accuracy. Even recently, the rapidly changing consensus on America — that ‘superpower’ underestimated US power and ‘hyperpower’ was more fitting in the late 1990s, that ‘hyperpower’ and ‘hegemon’ were insufficient and ‘empire’ more vogue-ish in the early 2000s, only for ‘overstretch’ and ‘decline’ to win favour post-Iraq by the late 2000s — is arguably suggestive of not fully seeing the forest for the trees.
The difficulty is that nobody today has any real experience with a how a genuinely multilateral system might work. And the more you think about it, the more potential obstacles you begin to see in the passage from unilateral hell to multilateral heaven.
The US political class has, however, never collectively viewed heaven as being necessarily multipolar and inherently multilateral. Moreover, factors both internal and external to America mean that even critics of Bush's foreign policy who would like to see a more plural international order arise have found optimism about the feasibility of such an alternative difficult to come by. While advancing a well-received case for ‘ethical realism’, for example, Anatol Lieven identified powerful forces inhibiting its prospects. The absence of a serious foreign policy ‘opposition’ in the US reflects that ‘on the great majority of issues — the environment being a partial exception — the Democratic establishment stands squarely behind the official line of the Bush administration’ (Lieven, 2006, 12). This bipartisan ‘establishment’, comprising ‘American nationalists’ convinced of America's civic virtue, leads them to be ‘American imperialists’ animated by maintaining US primacy and an intimate identification with the state of Israel. A revolt against established foreign policy therefore ‘would have to enjoy huge support from ordinary Americans, and in particular the most important political constituency, the white middle classes of the “heartlands”’ (Lieven, 2006, 13). Such a revolt has no political champion currently (though another 9/11 could perhaps advance one). Or, as Andrew Sullivan (2007, 4) phrased it, while Iraq informs ‘neo-isolationist’ impulses on the left and right, ‘It's hard to see a tectonic shift that draws the US away from its late 20th-century unipolar role’.
One problem is measuring when and how an essentially unipolar order becomes an essentially multipolar one. William Wohlforth (2007), in cautioning about how power is operationalized and assessed, rightly argues that an appropriate power analysis does not yet indicate the eclipse of an essentially unipolar world. Power as a relational concept and power as resources are distinct notions. The relative power of a particular state is not necessarily indicated by its capacity to realize certain international ends. The Korean war's ultimate stalemate did not negate America's superpower position in the Cold War. Defeat in Vietnam did not precipitate a multipolar order. US power has not been able to establish a stable constitutional democracy in Iraq any more than it could achieve a decisive victory in Vietnam. But predominance is not omnipotence. The fact of American primacy remains ‘after Iraq’, even in the face of an intervention that did not secure its original objectives. To reiterate, the key indicators of a serious challenge to an essentially unipolar world — a counter-balancing of other major powers or a substantial increase in defence spending — have not yet occurred.
Beyond this, evaluating US power by its ability to achieve global public goods or resolve outstanding global challenges from climate change to HIV/AIDS does not offer a solid perspective on unipolarity. The US did not cease to be a superpower after the Bay of Pigs failure or ejection from the UN Commission on Human Rights. Even relying on empirically verifiable indicators of national power is typically unsound in evaluating overall power balances. Analysis of budget and trade deficits highlights weaknesses in the US economy, to be sure. But on other indicators such as inflation, unemployment, productivity, innovation and competitiveness, the economy remains impressively healthy. A falling dollar inhibits US consumption of imports but assists American exports. Moreover, even in terms of the financial position of the US, growing interdependence means that states that hold the most dollar reserves are themselves exposed should they abandon them. There exist few, if any, states with a consequential relationship with the US (i.e. most developed states) that would not be materially worse off if America suffered a serious and prolonged economic downturn. When combined with its function as provider of global public goods, Washington's role as the monetary pivot of the capitalist economic order commands a large ‘rent’ that other nations remain content to pay.
Finally, latent power — the degree to which resources can be mobilized by a government — should not be overlooked in assessing American predominance. Despite Bush's declaration of a global war on terror, it has been the US military rather than America that has been at war since 9/11. Americans at large have neither been requested nor required to make serious material sacrifices to secure the homeland or assist the offensive struggle against radical Islam abroad. After two wars during which taxes were cut rather than raised, the overall tax burden remains low, the armed forces — while strained — remain exclusively volunteer and the many American fatalities and casualties in Iraq do not compare in either absolute or relative terms to those of Vietnam or Korea previously, let alone to WWII. The costs that America's imperial role has imposed on ordinary Americans have been consequential but not nearly so burdensome as to prompt a domestic revolt against the Pax Americana. At least as important, America possesses ample reserves with which to defend its global role and primacy, if required.
In looking to the future, while it would have been difficult to have designed an American president more likely to antagonize international opinion than George W. Bush, what much of the world will seek from his successor is unlikely to be the ‘un-Bush’. Previously, in Vietnam's aftermath, America's democratic and non-democratic allies alike took little comfort in a weak and vacillating Washington under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. What they sought instead was reassurance that America would remain strong, engaged and committed to defending their security and material prosperity. An America that was, and is, engaged and capable of acting decisively in support of global public goods is typically the end sought by US allies and feared by American enemies. Iraq undoubtedly makes the issuance of such reassurance by Washington, and placing genuine faith in such reassurance from allies, more difficult in the short term. But those allies will nonetheless seek, and the White House almost certainly will issue, a credible restatement of American purpose in a perilously dangerous world. Until the distant day when a substitute for US security and economic guarantees is found, dozens of nations on every continent will continue to look to Washington for leadership.
Admittedly, there are those who contend that such a day is nearer for many nations than in 2001. But, if an alternative order is seriously emerging to constrain American power, what are its principal players and operating rules? Moreover, are America's enduring strengths and attractions contradicted or complimented by the weaknesses of its potential rivals, reinforcing rather than compromising the basic solidity of the structural underpinnings of unipolarity?
Three possible orders conceivably could supersede that of an essentially American one. The most commonly suggested is a multipolar world in which a limited set of great powers exercise a benign and stable balance of power, wherein security issues become the domain of the key regional powers most directly concerned. On this conception, the question of whether Islamabad imposes a state of emergency, Taipei declares national independence or Caracas invades Colombia will be resolved by reference to the salient regional power player, not to the likely response from Washington. But such an order has yet to emerge. The US remains the key regional player in every region of the world, one under pressure from competitors in some (not least China in Asia and Iran in the Middle East) but one whose response is integral — albeit not exclusively so — to the calculations of major powers across the globe.
Moreover, with state borders becoming weak and the leverage within them of transnational enterprises, companies, non-governmental organizations and other movements becoming strong, rallying nationalist or anti-American ‘resistance’ is a decreasingly effective political strategy for weak or pressured national leaderships. America's clients and allies are as likely to be on the receiving end of nationalist revivals against the forces of globalization as Washington itself, not least when — in the absence of a credible great power sponsor offering comparable international support — the costs of more than local resistance appear unreasonably prohibitive.
Aside from its elusiveness currently, however, this multipolar vision also has grievous normative problems. Prior balances of great powers have rarely been either stable or benign (think of the years preceding WWI and during the 1920s and 1930s leading to WWII). Even were some new concert of major powers to be thrashed out, however, it is doubtful that such a set of rival powers would resolve the humanitarian crises, ethnic cleansing, genocides, failed states and Islamist movements that together threaten the contemporary international system. At least as pointedly, the main potential rival powers to the US are themselves inhibited by all manner of problems ranging from energy needs and environmental decay to the threat of pandemics, acute socio-economic inequalities and demographic stresses. In each, the internal tensions and strains of social, economic and political change may be as likely to retard as to advance the various emerging powers’ routes to great or superpower status.
In the near future, the European Union (EU) will be a structurally-crippled geopolitical actor. It has expanded too fast and speaks in 23 tongues. Too much of the leaders' time is spent on discussing how Europe should make its decisions. The patchwork accords reached under the German presidency in June 2007 have not solved the fundamental problem. It would only be a mild exaggeration to say that the perpetual European discussions on seating arrangement are akin to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The geopolitical environment around Europe has worsened while the EU has focused inwards: it faces a more troubled environment in North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus and even vis-a -vis Russia. This is a pretty dismal record. (Mahbubani, 2007, 203–204)
Whether one regards European attitudes to war and peace as a Venusian function of de facto weakness or a more principled end point of Europe's long familiarity with conflict, the eclipse of the willingness and ability to use violence that was once central to European statehood has condemned the EU's ambition to be limited to that of becoming a super-state (a super civilian state), not a genuine superpower (Sheehan, 2008).
A second alternative, perhaps 15–20 years hence, envisages a return to a bipolar world of two superpowers: the US and China. As with the Cold War, such bipolarity might see the entire world stabilized through ties to the superpowers' respective spheres of global influence. But even if such a bipolar world were to arise — a prospect vastly complicated by the probability of economic crisis and political turmoil in China — the likelihood of its benign character is minimal. The Cold War's stability witnessed numerous moments of destabilizing actions and at points the potential for global conflagration. China has, like Russia, shown little enthusiasm for the UN's recent endorsement of a ‘responsibility to protect’ against ethnic cleansing, one reason why Beijing has proven so congenial to tyrannies from North Korea to Sudan. While affirming non-proliferation as a goal, its autocracy has proven a key supplier of arms and technology to states such as Iran, Pakistan and Sudan. Cooperation may be as plausible an outcome as confrontation between Beijing and Washington, but the former has shown minimal interest in advancing a global balance of political and economic power that favours freedom. A rising China poses as many problems as it does potential solutions to international order.
But, like the EU, China's continued rise is not inevitable. Some analysts assume that, with a military that does not approximate America's and an overarching interest in economic growth, Beijing's dominant incentive is to avoid conflict. As the appeal of communism ebbs still further into the distance, however, the attraction of nationalism as a last unifying force suggests potential dangers and conflict, not least given the salience of on-going territorial disputes with Japan, Russia, India and Vietnam. The possibility of war over Taiwan is also a constant (Bush and O'Hanlon, 2007). The likelihood that China, Japan and India expend more energies and resources preoccupied with their own rivalry, rather than in challenging or constraining the US, is one accorded too little attention by proponents of American decline (Emmott, 2008). Asia is as much divided against itself as against the West or America. In addition, an aging population, an acute gender imbalance caused by the ‘one child’ policy, declining birth rates, corruption, high energy costs, epidemics like SARS and HIV/AIDS, and the fragility of its financial system together pose major challenges to the Chinese state and society. A simple linear rise in Beijing's geo-political heft is possible but far from foreordained.
A third unattractive alternative to an essentially American order is an era of non-polarity or apolarity. An absence rather than a balance of power may develop in a dangerous and disorderly world where power is distributed more diffusely among multiple actors — one that both reflects and reinforces global violence, ethnic and religious strife, environmental insecurity and economic stagnation. With an aging EU increasingly dependent for its energy upon a single-source supplier in an increasingly bellicose and authoritarian Russia, a crisis ridden China issuing nationalist warnings to its regional neighbours, an Islamic civilization in the throes of a generational civil war and a proliferation of the most lethal technologies in the hands of apocalyptic sub-state terror networks, that disturbing era cannot yet be dismissed. In addition, if post-Iraq exhaustion leads Americans to succumb to the three deficits of manpower, budgets and attention span that Ferguson identifies as reliably inhibiting decisive imperial action by Washington, such a new world disorder may prove difficult to resist or shape (Ferguson, 2004).
To avoid these three alternative eras, each of which is a feasible but unappealing prospect, Washington needs to recalibrate its hard and soft power resources. But while the extent to which America lost a crucial component of soft power under Bush is unclear, it is not apparent that Bush's successor will pursue new strategies to effectively reclaim it.
Disrespecting the Opinions of Mankind? Anti-Americanism and the Erosion of ‘Soft Power’
The Declaration is a public relations document designed to explain and justify the colonists' actions. This is the opposite of the spin put on it by international lawyers, who say it shows that we ‘learn from others.’ Rather, the Declaration seeks to teach other nations.¦ In 1776, there was no basis in international law for throwing off the rule of a sovereign monarch. Doing so contradicted the dominant opinion of nations, which were themselves monarchies. Had the colonists taken the court's approach (in Roper v Simmons), they would have said, ‘Well, everyone else is doing taxation without representation, there must be something to it’.
American leaders can brush off these findings as simple anti-American envy. But that would be a mistake. Although negative attitudes towards the United States have spiked in recent years, world opinion is not intrinsically anti-American. There is still a reservoir of goodwill toward the United States for its good deeds in World War II and, in its aftermath, for promoting multilateral institutions and international law. Indeed, the current upset with America comes from a bewildered felling that the United States (with its recent unilateral impulses) is not living up to the cooperative ideals that it promoted for so long (Kull, 2005).
If anti-Americanism can partly be explained by the changed international realities of the post-9/11 world, and America's central place within it, many contend that Bush powerfully compounded the cost that the US would inevitably suffer in this environment (O'Connor and Griffiths, 2007). According to Joseph Nye (2005), the chief proponent of soft power's virtue in international politics, one of the main costs of the anti-Americanisms stoked by US ‘unilateralism’ was the erosion of America's good global image. The considerable soft power accumulated since 1945 was unnecessarily squandered. This less coercive and most seductively potent form of power — the ability to secure support or acquiescence by being attractive to others — was in steep decline.
Like many theoretical constructs in social science, ‘soft power’ has its appeal and adherents. But it is not unproblematic. Realists typically have had little time for such ephemeral notions as the popularity of nations as being especially consequential in international relations. In addition, there exists a paucity of empirical evidence that substantiates the premises and prescriptions of soft power. Soft power is not a commodity that governments can actively deploy in pursuit of discrete foreign policy goals, unlike hard military or economic resources. Moreover, to the extent that America is attractive, most of this soft resource is supplied not by the state but the private sector — Hollywood, television and the music industry to universities, research institutes and businesses. The influence of government on whether, where and how these resources are deployed is limited, uneven and indirect (probably for the good).
A plurality or majority in five of the six countries polled agreed that a strong American military presence around the world increases the chance of war. The fear of American military power was greatest in Mexico. Only one country, Brazil, ‘approved’ — and by a bare 31 to 29 percent margin — of US government policy. There was ‘heightene[d] scepticism about American power and intentions — And there was too much cultural influence’ (Joffe, 2006, 70).
And this long before Bush occupied the White House, in 1983.
Might it nonetheless be consequential for America if its soft power was in freefall? If governments refused cooperation with the US in the face of public antipathy towards America, this would indeed be a serious development. Undoubtedly, those governments — France, Germany, Russia — that opposed a second resolution at the UN over Iraq in 2002–2003, and other members of the UN Security Council such as Mexico and Chile, were responding partly to their citizens' vocal anti-war stance. But, as we know, several governments — the UK, Spain, Italy, Poland — steadfastly ignored similar anti-war public sentiment to support the US. Although some of these nations ultimately lost their Prime Ministers in part (indirectly) due to Iraq, elections after 2003 saw the return of markedly pro-US leaders in Berlin, Paris, Ottawa and Canberra, including the most overtly pro-American president in French history in Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 and Silvio Berlusconi's return to the Italian premiership in April 2008. Precisely how anti-Americanism affects national elections and policies seems more akin to art than science at present.
Moreover, the ‘squandered soft power’ thesis suffers from ignoring factors that realist scholars have traditionally been acutely concerned with, namely, the material interests of the relevant state actors. Was the US of 1948 really more globally attractive than that of 2008? Did West Europeans, South Koreans and Japanese mass publics really side with the US during the Cold War because it provided an especially ‘attractive’ economic or social model? Most of them decisively rejected the American economic model of raw capitalism in favour of social welfare and state dirigisme, steadily embraced secularism over religiosity, found America's approach to firearms and criminal justice unfathomable, and rejected entirely its state-sanctioned racial segregation. The brute self-interest of these states in a clear, reliable and enduring US security guarantee and market was at the core of their support for Washington — support that was never unconditional even in the case of such stalwart allies as Japan and the UK.
As such, there exists no causal or reliable relationship between America's global presence and its influence. America is a ubiquitous cultural force. American movies, music, food and clothes are a pervasive presence, but attractive as these cultural products clearly are to billions, they do not seem to result in US power. They provide symbols and images of ‘things American’ but do not result in a mass identification with America. Moreover, there exists a ‘dark side’ to soft power: the resentment that America, so often denigrated by sophisticates as lacking ‘culture’, seeks gradually to transform indigenous cultures worldwide into an homogenized American whole.
No coalition of European universities could dethrone Harvard and Stanford. Neither can all the subsidies fielded by European governments crack the hegemony of Hollywood. To breach the bastions of American ‘soft power’, the Europeans will first have to imitate, then to improve on, the American model (Joffe, 2006, 107).
The American Political Class and Domestic US Politics
If America's preponderance in hard power, its competitors' internal limits and the resilience of American soft power together suggest that there is still life in the exceptional empire, so too do the contours of domestic US politics.
It was hardly surprising in 2008 that no candidate for president ran on a platform offering ‘more Bush’. Iraq has been a bitterly divisive issue in America, as have most dimensions of post-9/11 policies from NSA wiretaps and water-boarding to enemy detainees and homeland security. The strongest assertion of executive privilege and prerogative in the post-1945 era also generated intense, albeit not especially effective, opposition from Congress, especially after Democrats won control of both houses in the 2006 mid-term elections. But partisanship has been a constant in US foreign policy. American politics never stopped at the water's edge. The intensity of recent divisions over Iraq strongly echoes prior ones, Vietnam and Korea. To treat either the intensity or the depth of contemporary divisions as of an entirely different order of magnitude to those of the past would be an error. Equally, to take at face value the inevitable mantra of ‘change’ and ‘hope’ offered by competing candidates in the 2008 elections would be hasty. The apparent clamour for change should not obscure three deeper forces suggestive of a foreign policy after Bush that may resemble more of 2001–2009 than his critics would prefer.
First, neither party wishes to be viewed by the 9/11 generation as ‘soft’ on national security. In part, this represents a legacy of the reliable advantage on national security that the Republicans have profited from in presidential elections since 1968. But it also reflects the Bush administration's success in exploiting the terrorist threat for electoral advantage in the 2002 and 2004 elections. Appeals to ‘security moms’ after 9/11 assumed potent salience. With majorities narrow, elections expensive and prospects for change in partisan control of one or both houses of Congress resting on a handful of competitive seats, both parties could be forgiven for inverting Tip O'Neill's famous dictum about congressional politics. Far from being simply local, or even national, US politics after 9/11 bore a heavy international imprint. But although the polarization, division and partisan attacks have been strong since 2003, these should not obscure the breadth of agreement that exists on foreign policy more broadly. Whoever occupies the White House and Congress into the 2010s, we should not anticipate a serious abandonment of the American political class's commitment to maintaining US primacy and the exceptional empire that it facilitates.
Crucially, while the Bush Doctrine has attracted widespread academic criticism, no competing paradigm for American grand strategy has won decisive support across both political parties. According to Campbell and O'Hanlon's typology, the Republican and Democratic parties are each divided into four competing factions on foreign policy (Campbell and O'Hanlon, 2006, 241–5). The Republican Party coalition comprises ‘Oldsmobile conservatives’ (Wall Street Republicans and James Baker-style realists), neo-conservatives (journalists and think tank experts who argue strongly for hard power and are deeply sceptical of the UN), ‘America Firsters’ (paleo-conservatives such as Pat Buchanan, focused on immigration and protectionism) and ‘faith based interventionists’ (advocates of humanitarian intervention and the moral purpose of foreign policy). Democrats are divided among ‘hard power’ advocates (who view the flaw in the Bush Doctrine as its implementation, not its design), ‘globalists’ (focused on problems caused by globalization, broad definitions of security and uneasy about military interventions), ‘modest-power Democrats’ (who advocate retrenching and refocusing American energies and resources at home, viewing Clinton Democrats as ‘Republican-lite’) and ‘global rejectionists’ (leftists, unionists, environmentalists and activists prevalent in the blogosphere and academy).
That both parties are coalitions of distinct tendencies is neither new nor remarkable. Nor should this lead us to expect a rapid realignment in US foreign policy. In terms of mainstream Democrat and Republican elected public officials, the substantive differences in worldview between McCain, Obama and Clinton are less on foreign affairs than the inevitably sharp-edged partisan rhetoric of election year campaigns might suggest. The notion, for example, that a serious presidential aspirant of either party would reject the premise that the world is more prosperous and secure with America as its major power, or would deny that America's number one foreign policy priority should be winning the struggle against radical Islam (however it may be re-branded after Bush), or would repudiate the claim that America is ultimately safer when more of the world's nations are mature constitutional democracies, is not credible. Such an aspirant would be unable to win a presidential election.
Moreover, however much economic issues impinge in 2008, national security remains the key presidential election issue: ‘It's the war, stupid’. Bill Clinton once observed that Americans will invariably elect as president a candidate who is ‘strong and wrong’ on security over one ‘timid and right’ (Campbell and O'Hanlon, 2006, 2). Critics of Bush mostly rested their hopes this year with the Democratic Party, but the prospects for a foreign policy realignment are modest. In the Democratic Party primaries and caucuses, there were candidates such as John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich who appealed to the party's activist base of global rejectionists and retrenchers to promote a different grand strategy. But their prospects for success were slight. Of the two major contenders, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton shared their positions. While pitting ‘judgment’ against ‘experience’, respectively, both offered to wage a more effective war on terror, repair a ‘broken’ military and revive US alliances in order that more allies contributed blood and treasure to the cause of global security (most especially NATO in Afghanistan).
Appearing ‘strong and right’ was a shrewd, if unsurprising, tactical gambit. Serious Democrats ambitious for a presidential victory recognized that perceived weakness on national security has been an Achilles Heel of more than one presidential contender since 1968. In casting themselves as ‘hard power Democrats’, who view multilateralism as a means to an end, not an end in itself, Obama and Clinton projected a milder version of Bush's ‘distinctly American internationalism’. The internationalism may have received more media emphasis in their speeches and statements, but the American imprint remained equally emphatic. However much Democrats may therefore sign onto the Princeton Project on National Security's plea to replace unilateralism with multilateralism to advance a ‘world of liberty under law’, the extent to which such a project fundamentally parts company from the course set by the Bush administration can be doubted. Even Bill Clinton, after all, exhibited a ‘weak multilateralism’, such that treaties like the International Criminal Court were only signed in the last days of his administration in the knowledge that their ratification was not possible.
When Obama, in a speech on terrorism at the Wilson Center in Washington, said ‘If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets (in Pakistan) and President Musharraf won't act, we will,’ he came under attack not only from Hillary Clinton but also from Senators Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd. It turned out, though, that their objection was not to what he said — which they agreed with — but to the undiplomatic indiscretion of saying it out loud (Hertzberg, 2007, 24).
In not repudiating the Bush Doctrine (but, of course, not endorsing it either), Obama and Clinton were in good company among their fellow Democrats. In terms of preventive war, for instance, Bill Clinton considered this against North Korea in 1994. Former Defence Secretary William Perry criticized Bush for not taking such action against Pyongyang in 2006. Hillary Clinton criticized the administration's efforts to check Tehran's nuclear ambitions by enlisting the assistance of the EU3 (the UK, France and Germany) as ‘outsourcing’ US security in 2006. In the 2004 election, while John Kerry declared that he would restore ‘respect’ for America in the world, he nonetheless stated that a Kerry presidency would not allow other nations to exercise a veto over US national security. Kerry's first choice for vice-presidential candidate was, memorably, a John whose surname was McCain, not Edwards.
By comparison with the Democrats, the hawkishness of the Republican Party in 2008 was unremarkable. With the exception of the libertarian Texan, Ron Paul, the Republican field in 2008 was uniformly and unequivocally in favour of a strongly assertive US world role, a greater commitment of American ground troops in Iraq to secure ‘victory’ and a clear commitment to winning the war against terror (what Giuliani termed the ‘terrorists' war against us’). Indeed, among a field of staunch supporters of the war, it was ultimately the earliest and most forceful advocate of the ‘surge’, John McCain, who benefited most from that steadfast advocacy and ultimately prevailed.
Thus, in terms of the mainstream of both parties, the centre of gravity was firmly behind the broader war, whatever their particular disputes over the decision to invade Iraq and the merits of a strategic withdrawal. Americans may want a different president after Bush but they still do not want to outsource foreign policy to the United Nations, NATO or the European Union. While issues like trade, the environment and enemy detainees may likely witness important shifts after January 2009, the military dimensions of the struggle against radical Islam are not going to cease under either a new Democratic or a Republican president.
A second factor underpinning continuity in US policy is that most of the domestic divisions over the war on terror have been relatively modest and marginal ones. This is not to diminish either the significance of the issues concerned or the seriousness of the political disagreements they caused, but to contextualize them in terms of American primacy. Controversies that erupted over surveillance and data mining, for example, did not see Democrats reject the notion that NSA should monitor suspect phone calls. For the administration's critics, the concern was the programme's legality under statutory law and the established requirement of gaining FISA Court approval for its activities. That is a significant and substantive disagreement but it is not one that reflects or reinforces a fundamentally different strategic perspective about the war on terror among Democrats and Republicans. Conflicts over the PATRIOT Act, Guantanamo, homeland security, extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques were similar — important tactical disagreements over how best to wage the war on terror but not fundamental differences over whether to fight that war.
The basic bipartisanship of the war on terror therefore remains intact. Changing that would, in any case, be difficult for a third reason: the institutionalized fragmentation and competition of American government. It is possible that the Democrats could win not only the White House but also both houses of Congress and achieve a filibuster proof majority of 60 in the Senate in the 2008 elections — but unlikely. As such, the features that helped Bush to dominate foreign policy making, even in his second term, are likely to remain in place for his successor. Congress formally remains a co-equal partner in foreign policy-making but the legislature is invariably weakened by its bicameralism, decentralized structures and cumbersome procedures, arcane devices such as the filibuster, and the constant threat of a presidential veto and presidential unilateralism: the ability to exercise ‘power without persuasion’ (Howell, 2003). Factor in narrow congressional majorities and unrelenting partisanship and decisive action remains more the exception than the rule from Congress. Continuity is mostly the norm in foreign policy and, as we saw after 2006, congressional elections rarely influence the broad contours of foreign policy, instead operating at its margins to modest — though not unimportant — effects. As such, the domestic forces making for continuity in the key elements underpinning US primacy seem destined not to atrophy but continue.
The US continues to defy history and theory. America's global predominance in hard and soft power remains fundamentally intact. That does not translate into omnipotence. Important limits exist to US power. Nor, as we have seen since 2001, does predominance promise an error-free foreign policy. But, as one leading historian of empire recently argued, American power ‘on almost any criterion…now transcends the limits of empire that we have observed in force since the early fifteenth century’ (Darwin, 2008, 485). No other major power is currently in range of competing with the US for global influence, nor is any likely to become so for a generation. Each — whether strategic competitor or partner — faces powerful internal weaknesses and external threats at least as significant as those facing the US. Moreover, for all their apparent differences and partisan rivalries, mainstream Democrats and Republicans are committed to strategies — however distinct in tone, emphases and symbolism — to preserve and enhance US primacy. As such, whatever new or old clothes the next emperor dons after January 20, 2009, he will continue to preside over the indispensable nation and an exceptional ‘empire of liberty’. And just as the academic debate about American decline is again on the rise, it may as rapidly recede once more.
For example, Obama endorsed expanding the army by 65,000 and the Marines by 27,000. Romney pledged to increase army numbers by 100,000 troops, annual growth in the defence budget of $35–40 billion for several years and a minimum expenditure of 5% of US GDP on defence. Giuliani prescribed 10 new combat brigades for the army as a ‘baseline’. See: Barack Obama, ‘Renewing American Leadership’ and Mitt Romney, ‘Rising to a New Generation of Global Challenges’, Foreign Affairs July/August 2007; Rudy Giuliani, ‘Towards a Realistic Peace’, Foreign Affairs September/October 2007.
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