Rebuilding America's Stock of Power


In the latest issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, former Clinton administration National Security Council staffer and Georgetown University international affairs professor Charles Kupchan has published an interesting essay titled "Grand Strategy: The Four Pillars of the Future."

The Kupchan essay is partnered in a set considering the future of US grand strategy featuring contributions by Rosa Brooks of the Georgetown University and Law Center and New America Foundation; Truman National Security Project co-founder Rachel Kleinfeld; former Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello; and Duke University professor and co-author of The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas Bruce Jentleson.  I will be chairing a session with several of these thinkers along with Democracy editor Michael Tomasky from 12-2 on 11 January 2012 at the New America Foundation(Those interested, drop me a note, and I'll forward an invitation.)

Kupchan suggests a recipe to rebuild American leadership and power in the world.  His four pillars:

1.  Restore the domestic consensus on national security and rebuild the economy at home

2.  America must judiciously retrench and deal with the problem that its commitments abroad have extended far beyond its interests

3.  The US needs to work with emerging powers (like the BRICS plus Turkey) to create a more representative global order that preserves a rules-based international system

4.  The US should resuscitate a flagging, choking Transatlantic relationship

Kupchan concludes his grand strategy contribution with this graph:

Progressive leadership at home is essential to the nation's political and economic renewal, which in turn is the foundation for progressive leadership abroad.  Since World War II, the United States has been dramatically successful in making the globe more stable, prosperous, and liberal.  The recipe for ongoing success in this mission is no different than in the past:  a solvent and centrist America reliant on a progressive combination of power and partnership to safeguard the national interest while improving the world.

My sense of what America's strategic course needs to be rides closely to Charles Kupchan's thinking -- but his neatly drawn pillars distract I think from the dire situation America finds itself in today.

First, there are no magic wands to remedy the ailments Kupchan has outlined.  Building out the US economy and resuscitating America's social contract with workers and the non-financial sector will require a massive shift in thinking and policy about industrial and domestic innovation policy.  China is is driving realities in the global economic sphere today; not the United States -- and America, to revive its economy, needs to figure out how to drive Chinese-held dollars (along with German and Arab state held reserves) into productive capacity inside the United States while not giving away everything.

America must knock back Chinese predatory behaviors by becoming more shrewdly predatory and defensive of America's core economic capacities.  Without a shift in America's economic stewardship -- which also means a shift in the macro-focused, neoliberal oriented, market fundamentalist staff of the current Obama team -- the US economy will flounder and on a relative basis, sink compared to the rise of the rest.

Also, while I strongly support Kupchan's call for a principled, centrist, non-partisan approach to foreign policy affairs -- the problem is not one between progressives and conservatives, or Democrats and Republicans.  The problem is that both parties are deeply divided within, split among five and perhaps more camps.  Realists or some version of the school of thought that thinks that America must tend to its stock of power first and judiciously apply its national security and economic capacity in a way that either advances US national interests, or at a minimum, doesn't diminish its power capacity, populate both political parties.  Realists today are one of the buried, subordinate personalities of America's schizophrenic national security psyche today.

The dominant personality of the Republican and Democratic parties runs under two monikers -- but is essentially tied to the notion that the US has a moral responsibility to re-order the internal workings of other nations that constrain the freedoms and rights of their citizens.  The liberal (or humanitarian) interventionist school dominates the progressive foreign policy establishment and more significantly populates the power positions of the Democratic Party today than its rivals; and in the Republican Party, various strains of neoconservatism (there is now competition among the heirs of Irving Kristol, Albert Wohlstetter and other founding fathers) dominate.  Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists put a premium on morality, on reacting and moving in the world along lines determined by an emotional and sentimental commitment to the basic human rights of other citizens -- with little regard to the stock of means and resources the US has to achieve the great moral ends they seek.

I would put the late Richard Holbrooke in this school of liberal interventionists -- but what made Holbrooke such an outstanding global policy practitioner was his willingness to deal with the devil and to hammer out playbooks that were tenaciously committed to results.  Holbrooke was a Nixonian progressive -- and this is what both the neoconservative and liberal interventionist schools have been too short of, a results oriented global progressivism that assured that US national power grew with its achievements and was not squandered on high cost, low return causes that may have been morally gratifying for policymakers to pursue -- but disasters when it came to the national bottom line.  Think Iraq and Afghanistan.

On his second point, Kupchan is absolutely right.  America must judiciously retrench and strategically re-organize its national security assets.  Isolationism is not the answer here -- but extracting America from commitments that make its allies doubt its ability to help them in times of need or that embolden the ambitions of foes is a vital step.

Withdrawing from Iraq has already been painful.  Perhaps the political deal-making among Iraq's various hate-thy-neighbor factions that Vice President Biden and his team, particularly Antony Blinken, along with former UN Iraq Representative Ad Melkert will hold, but the Iraq invasion and then nation-building enterprise there was nonetheless a major strategic mistake that helped undermine the US economy while removing the cork in the bottle that is Iran and its growing regional aspirations.  Iraq has cost trillions of dollars and never mattered nearly as much as Iran does -- and today, America is in a significantly worse position to deal with an ambitious and not easily deterred Iran.  Afghanistan needs to be next.

When the Obama administration came into office, I believed that his rhetoric about laying new track where other US political leaders had not gone was correct.  Obama talked about outreach to leaders in Cuba, North Korea, Iran and elsewhere.  But what he mustered on the whole were halfway efforts.  His Cuba policy doesn't surpass that which was in place during the Clinton administration -- and if he goes back and looks at the secret files historian Peter Kornbluh is assembling is of what every US president since Gerald Ford (except G.W. Bush) wanted to do on Cuba, Barack Obama will see that despite his lofty pre-presidential vision for a new US-Cuba relationship, his vision pales in comparison to what they were trying then to orchestrate.

Whether it was with Cuba, or setting solid track on Israel-Palestine peace, Barack Obama had an opportunity to show that he was setting the terms of a new global gravity -- starting with some of the seemingly intractables and solving them.  This could have contributed to the perception of revitalized US power in the world.  It is true that Obama and Joe Biden did successfully reset US-Russia relations.  Also with Biden's back room orchestration, Obama pulled off a key global nuclear materials and WMD summit that is far more important historically and internationally than many have issued credit for.  But at the same time, Obama has repeatedly let Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly embarrass him and show his weaknesses.  When Obama did flex US muscles on one occasion, it was over inane posturing about Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, Japan which eventually knocked out Japan's then prime minister Yukio Hatoyama and undermined Japan's first real test of genuine democracy and transition between political parties.  Obama took out the wrong prime minister.

Thus, strategic, judicious retrenchment only solves part of America's geostrategic mess. Smarter policies, deployed well, must replace what has been a line of mistakes not all of which were inherited from the Bush administration.

Kupchan is right that it would be wise for the US to work with the rising powers -- but history is showing that calamity and shocks are what drive America's limited innovation on global governance.  The shift to the G20 was out of necessity given the global financial crisis -- not smart advance planning.  My sense is that Brazil, Turkey, China, and India are not waiting for the US and the West to cede them seats at the table.  They are taking them through new economic might and a 21st century rationalization of what is right.  America's influence on global problems has diminished rapidly in the last decade -- and the relevance of the rising powers increased.  Striking a new "global social contract" with these powers would be smart and forward-looking but there is little chance of this happening short of the emergence of new crises that focus the mind of warring factions inside Congress and the Executive Branch.

Lastly, on Kupchan's point about reviving Transatlantic relations.  OK.  Sure.  Would be nice. But the bottom line is that Europe is internally dissolving and becoming more fragile, less dependable and a drag on global economic growth and stability.   I hope Europe changes these trends and saves itself -- but Germany has decided to engage in a one-upsmanship with its siblings and has driven a deadly internal mercantilism within Europe that will consume the passions and attention of Europe for a very long time.

Chalmers Johnson used to lampoon NAFTA by pointing out that an economic alliance including the world's then two largest net debtor nations, Mexico and the US, hardly sounded like a threat to other economic powerhouses at that time.  To some degree, restoring and revitalizing a Transatlantic relationship that produced the world's last great global institutions to which they have been overly devoted to preserving is not a recipe for the kind of change and institutional innovation needed today.

In my mind, getting things right with the BRICS plus Turkey are vital to all national security challenges in the future -- and managing the reality that China matters more than all the rest -- is the vital challenge that matters.  Whether or not the US has a track to restoring the Transatlantic relationship is second tier to this much more important task.

Again, I will be discussing the Kupchan paper and others of the series in a program that will stream live on this site from 12-2 pm on the 11th of January.