Memo to the Next President: How the U.S.'s Rivals Will Try to Undercut You

By Ali Wyne

Get ready for the emerging strategic environment.

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Mr. President-Elect, whomever you should be, when you take office on January 20, 2013, you will confront a pervasive perception of a United States in decline -- a perception that strikes Americans more acutely than, say, the Chinese, who see themselves as citizens of the world's next superpower.

This perception can be frustrating. "U.S. decline" is, after all, an imprecise proposition: It does not characterize the decline in question (absolute or relative); identify which metrics are being used to measure it (share of gross world product, share of gross world defense spending, or the ability to achieve one's vital interests, for example); or specify the baseline from which decline is being measured (the end of World War II, the end of the Cold War, September 11, or the onset of the global financial crisis, for example). Declinism has also been an unusually persistent idea. The United States was widely held to be in decline with the ascent of German and Japanese militarism in the interwar years, later with the rise of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and again with the apparent emergence of a Japanese manufacturing juggernaut in the 1980s.

Those predictions turned out to be wrong, and there is no doubt that you will want to prove today's declinists wrong, as well. What steps, then, should the United States take (or not take) to sustain its centrality in international affairs?

In this memo, I imagine what strategies certain actors might pursue if they were attempting to challenge America's global leadership. I'll begin with emerging powers, such as India or Brazil, that seeks to develop greater policy autonomy; while its positions may align with the United States' at times, it does not feel fundamentally beholden to, or bound by, U.S. foreign policy. Second, let's consider China, with which the United States has a concurrently competitive and cooperative relationship; although it continues to be classified as an emerging power in many quarters, China merits separate attention in light of the widespread judgment that the U.S.-China relationship may shape the 21st century more than any other. Third, we'll examine the United States' longtime antagonist, al Qaeda. I'll conclude with a section on the United States itself, for reasons that Graham Allison articulated when he assessed the U.S.'s strategic position early last year:

"The number-one problem for the United States is the United States. The major challenges to the future of American power are internal rather than external [...] American recovery and renewal are not inherent birthrights [...] For the foreseeable future, as the old Pogo cartoon put it: we've met the enemy, and he is us" [Allison's emphasis].

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The Emerging Powers

The United States occupies an unusual position: Although a burgeoning debt -- over $16 trillion (only public, not gross) and counting -- and military overextension strain its ability to underpin the international system, there is no country or coalition that can readily replace it in that capacity. The progress of emerging powers like Brazil and India has been, in recent decades, in considerable measure, a function of the global commons -- particularly in the air and on water -- that the United States has helped to keep open and stable, and emerging powers do not want to jeopardize it.

The more fearful citizens grow of decline, the more likely policymakers are to note America's exceptionalism, as though with hope that invoking that abstraction will prevent the country's challenges from growing more urgent.

While the emerging powers envision a world whose rules and arrangements are more reflective of its present strategic balance, they do not, for now, have a coherent alternative to offer to today's liberal international order. Their goal should be to grow as much as possible within that system until it becomes untenable, whether by way of U.S. abdication or exhaustion. They will hope to be strong enough by then to exercise a basically independent foreign policy -- independent not in the sense of being immune to globalization, but in the sense of being able to secure our vital interests without depending disproportionately on any country. They won't want to see the gradual erosion of a principally U.S.-shaped order only to see the emergence of, say, a principally Chinese-shaped one.

China

While China remains, in many respects, an emerging power -- hundreds of millions of Chinese live in poverty, the country's leadership has yet to converge on a sustainable economic model, and it has been unable to reconcile the imperative of maintaining the Communist Party's mandate with the challenges of governing over a sixth of the world's population in an era of pervasive social media -- it is difficult to portray China as "emerging" when most of the world, with some justification, views it as having the greatest potential of any country to become a peer competitor of the United States. That the strategic gap between China and the U.S. has narrowed should not lead us to exaggerate China's influence. As Shen Dingli argued recently, "China's rise makes the [U.S.-China] relationship less dependent on the United States than it used to be, but it is not yet the time when this relationship is more dependent on Beijing's actions than it is on Washington's."

True, China's economy will likely be the world's largest within a decade, and it is plausible that its defense spending will be the world's largest before the middle of the century. Absolute gross domestic product, however, is only one component of economic power, just as defense spending is only one component of military power. If we consider comprehensive economic power -- which weighs factors such as the role of a country's currency in global markets, the innovativeness of its citizens, the strength of its higher-education system, and the favorability of its demographic outlook -- and comprehensive military power -- which weighs factors such as the composition of the country's defense spending and the reach of one's capabilities -- then China will be unlikely to equal the United States in comprehensive national power for several decades, if not more.

That being said, China is in no rush to displace the United States. Beijing's impending leadership transition, while affording China an occasion to celebrate how far it has risen during Hu Jintao's time in office, also provides an opportunity to consider how much work China has to do to stabilize its domestic situation. In the interim, then, China should allocate as much of its efforts as possible to that imperative -- conducting foreign policy in such a way as to secure the raw materials, natural resources, and energy reserves that it needs to sustain its growth -- avoid challenging the United States directly whenever possible, and consider the viability of various asymmetric strategies to facilitate its relative decline. How can Beijing goad the U.S. into containing China -- not to the point of jeopardizing their mutual economic relationship, but conspicuously enough so that China's neighbors begin to believe that the United States, not China, poses the greater long-term challenge to their national aspirations? Given the United States' inexperience in anchoring an international system with another country or coalition, and the anxiety the anxiety with which the U.S. foreign-policy establishment tends to contemplate such a configuration, how can Beijing induce the United States to react to China's ongoing rise with defensiveness, even paranoia?

China engages in such calculations neither as an adversary nor an ally of the United States. It is doubtful that an enemy would have extended its hand to China 40 years ago and supported its accession to the World Trade Organization, let alone, more recently, take in more students from China than from any other country and emphasize the singular importance of cooperative U.S.-China relations. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which conflict with the United States -- whether a military confrontation, a trade war, or some version of the Cold War -- would enhance China's strategic position. Beyond undermining the interdependence between the two countries that is integral to China's economy, such a conflict would further undermine China's claim to be rising peacefully. At the same time, we should be realistic about the tensions that are inherent to a relationship between a leading power and its principal challenger. Just as China believes that the United States proceeds from a desire to maintain its superpower position, the United States should not be surprised that China proceeds from a desire to continue rising, especially considering that it was the center of international affairs in past centuries.

Al Qaeda

Even though the United States went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq, Osama bin Laden was unable to achieve his goal of sparking a clash between it and Islamic civilization. Unfortunately for al Qaeda, the U.S. will likely be averse to pursuing military adventurism in the near future. Shortly before stepping down as U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates echoed the feelings of many Americans -- citizens and policymakers alike -- when he quipped that "any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined'." For the time being, the United States will likely continue to use a combination of drones, sanctions, and cyberattacks to contain the threats from al Qaeda's various branches around the world. While our post-9/11 diffusion has made al Qaeda harder to eliminate, it has also complicated the terrorist organization's efforts to conduct large-scale attacks. Furthermore, the upheaval that continues to convulse the Middle East and North Africa represents a setback to al Qaeda's objective of establishing an Islamic caliphate (albeit one that could still evolve into an opportunity if it gets its act together).

Al Qaeda will want to continue to conduct small- and medium-scale terrorist attacks to remind the United States that it remains, at least, a formidable nuisance. It will also, however, want to identify several countries in which a critical mass of its mujahideen can reconstitute to the point of posing a 9/11-scale threat. Some have suggested Afghanistan and Iraq, but al Qaeda will not want to ignore other countries across the Islamic expanse. Al Qaeda's narrative -- that the United States is at war with the Islamic world and indeed with Islam itself -- would be more compelling if al Qaeda could lure the U.S. into invading a new majority-Islamic country, rather than simply persuading it that it needs to return to one where it has already been and "finish the job."

It took one large-scale attack to draw the United States into a "global war on terrorism" -- a war that, according to one analysis, had already cost it $3.3 trillion after 10 years. A second attack of comparable magnitude could do something far more powerful: undermine American resilience, which has allowed the U.S. to emerge stronger after virtually every crisis that it has faced. It's not difficult to imagine Americans asking themselves the day after a second 9/11: If over a decade of unrelenting efforts -- including fighting two wars; conducting over 400 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; establishing a Department of Homeland Security and an Office of the Director of National Intelligence; instituting measure after measure to secure our airways, ports, and infrastructure; and reorienting U.S. foreign policy and society to home in on the terrorist threat -- cannot make us safe from al Qaeda, what can? A U.S. decision to respond with even greater retaliatory force than it did after 9/11 would play into al Qaeda's hands, as would a U.S. decision to give up in resignation.

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Yes, Mr. President-Elect, this memo omits numerous important actors on the international stage: Turkey, Iran, Russia, Pakistan, and North Korea, to name a few. The actors I chose here are meant to be illustrative of the full array that the United States needs to consider in assessing how to secure its leadership in international affairs -- whether declared adversaries, competitors-cum-partners, neutral participants, or even strong allies. But I do want to conclude with some thoughts on the United States itself: While all sorts of actors can and will influence its actions in the years ahead, it -- through you -- alone will have the final say on what those actions are. If the United States fails to revitalize its economy, and if it fails to reinvigorate support for the liberal international order by giving great and emerging powers alike more responsibility for maintaining that order, it will only have itself to blame.

The mood among Americans has two aspects: a pervasive fear (stronger among citizens than policymakers) that the United States is declining, matched against a fervent conviction (stronger among policymakers than citizens) that the country is exceptional. Those sentiments tend to scale with one another: the more fearful citizens grow of decline, the more likely policymakers are to note America's exceptionalism, as though in the hope that invoking that abstraction will prevent its challenges from growing more urgent. To the extent that that defense mechanism renders it "impermissible to dwell on chronic, painful problems, or on statistics that challenge the notion that the United States leads the world," it will only accelerate America's relative decline.

The U.S. might be less fearful of decline if it defined its challenges rigorously. Which ones have always been challenges, and which are recent? Which are unique, and which are universal? Which cannot be met, and which can?

That past predictions of U.S. decline have proven wrong does not guarantee that today's will turn out the same way. There are legitimate reasons to be pessimistic about America's ability to lead in decades to come. Among them is the sort of political polarization that led to the downgrading of America's credit rating for the first time in its history: in Congress, and in the U.S. political establishment more generally, one senses that moderation is now synonymous with indecisiveness and opportunism, even betrayal. Unchecked, such partisanship could, in theory, progress to the point where the typical lawmaker of a given party, whether of his or her own accord or by virtue of electoral pressures, subordinates the safeguarding of vital U.S. interests to the perceived imperatives of maintaining party purity and stifling the other party's agenda. Appealing to exceptionalism will not redress this dysfunction.

On the other hand, the United States would likely be less fearful of decline if it defined its challenges more rigorously. Which ones have always been challenges, and which have arisen only recently? Which are unique to the United States, and which are universal? Which cannot be met, and which can? The good news is that many of the ones that preoccupy it today can be mitigated. Consider, for example, the debt, sometimes depicted as a figure that grows on its own, impervious to legislative intervention. As Joseph Nye reminds us, the debt problem is far from "insoluble": he cites the Simpson-Bowles commission and notes that "only a decade ago some people worried about the government surplus." Or consider the mounting evidence -- presented in Vivek Wadhwa's new book, The Immigrant Exodus -- that America's edge in the global competition for talent is eroding, partly because of the belief on the part of prospective and settled immigrants that its current economic woes represent a "new normal," and partly because its immigration policies continue to prove onerous for those who seek to come to the United States. Here is how Clive Crook conveyed his frustration with the latter: "If you sat down to design an immigration policy to erode U.S. prosperity, you would struggle to come up with anything better than the current rules." If it is simplistic to argue that the United States should just change those rules, it is hyperbolic to act as though such change is impossible when there are numerous well-conceived proposals on the table.

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No one should envy the global landscape that will confront you over these next four years, Mr. President-Elect. But no one should doubt, either, that the United States can continue to exercise global leadership for a long time to come. By "leadership," I don't mean unipolarity, dominance, or hegemony; I mean a role in which the United States, in collaboration with as many countries and non-state actors as is feasible, underwrites an international system that prevents great powers from going to war, allows commerce to function without systemic disruptions, and integrates new participants with ease -- a system that, on balance, continues to nurture greater peace and prosperity. If I might humbly conclude with a few propositions, they'd be these: Be as objective as possible in discerning how other actors see the United States; treat exceptionalism as an ideal, not a crutch; and take bold initiatives rather than debating whether the nation is in decline.

Good luck.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/11/memo-to-the-next-president-how-the-uss-rivals-will-try-to-undercut-you/264538/