Uncle Sam and the new world disorder

Ultimately, the projection of global influence comes down to wealth. When America goes broke, it really isn’t all about the economy.

Is America’s role on the world stage being written out? Or is the country simply being forced by new realities to call its shots more carefully, perhaps even enhancing influence and credibility assuming it makes the right calls?

Leaning toward the second perspective requires at least an act of faith. Indicators are piling up that the nation that took the lead in vanquishing the Axis powers, was instrumental in rebuilding Europe and Japan, and which out-distanced a gasping Soviet empire, has taken so many slings and arrows that Uncle Sam is limping.

True, things are relative. Many countries are stumbling under the weight of their challenges, after the finance sector ran roughshod over the globe. But none has taken on the world class burdens the United States has. And some are proving very nimble in their priorities as a society, and will reap the rewards as America pays the price of domestic neglect.

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America will be pinching pennies, sooner rather than later. That growing awareness now makes the country nervous every time the phone rings for Captain America. Witness the angst over playing even second chair in showing Gaddafi the door in Libya, while President Obama carefully keeps US troops from harm’s way, and plays the artful dodger with the Declaration of War Clause and the War Powers Resolution.

New priorities, harder choices

Among those pushing for a more tempered foreign role is Michael Mandelbaum, director of the American Foreign Policy Program at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.

‘The growing fiscal burdens the United States will have to bear will impose restraints on foreign policy,’ says Mandelbaum. ‘In the coming cash-strapped era, I recommend that the country continue its active role in Europe, East Asia and the Middle East, while cutting back on the kinds of military interventions leading to nation-building that have become common in the post-Cold War era, from Somalia to Iraq.’

Mandelbaum notes that during the first two post-Cold War presidencies, the US militarily intervened in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Motives varied, but the resulting nation-building efforts were frustrating – relevant institutions are not quickly created – and were not a hit with the US public.


Domestic paralysis and gridlock undercuts our capacity to deal with our domestic problems and take on a leading world role,
Dr Zbigniew Brzezinski
US National Security Advisor to President Carter


The US role – often that of ‘the world’s de facto government’ supplying needed services many governments can’t – will be hamstrung by a loss of support from an increasingly strapped US public, says Mandelbaum. ‘America will do less, and international relations will be transformed.’

Already, the economic role is shifting. Mandelbaum notes that Americans are no longer the world’s consumers of last resort for buying other countries’ exports. The dollar remains the world’s principal currency, but if confidence in America’s economic dependability wanes, that status may depend on the lack of a viable alternative.

Mandelbaum, who wrote The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped World, sees downsides including a reduced ability to serve as a buffer among nations not actually hostile to each other, but that harbour fears hostility might bubble up. For example, reassuring Western Europe that Russia can’t intimidate. Drawing down US forces in Asia may increase nervousness among countries in that region that have depended on the US to counterbalance historical tensions. Antagonisms between Japan and China still linger.

In other words, a reduced American role has its perils, as ‘there is no other country or group of countries willing or able to do what the US does around the world,’ says Mandelbaum.

On the other hand, there are alterations in US domestic behaviour that might get more consideration because they can have international consequences, says Mandelbaum. ‘There is no single measure that could make the world less dangerous than substantially reducing the consumption of oil.’ He advocates a sharp increase in the gasoline tax as the easiest way to achieve that and to promote alternatives, a comparatively affordable and worthwhile sacrifice that would sustain some American clout even as its foreign policy retrenches.

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Spare a dime?

Ultimately, the projection of global influence comes down to wealth. When America goes broke, it really isn’t all about the economy. Consider a few bellwethers of America’s long-term prosperity.

US external debt – private and public debt owed to non-residents – exceeds US$14 trillion, more than the entire European Union owes. The sorry cha-cha played out over the congressional vote to raise the US debt ceiling served to undermine US financial credibility and the image of America as the safest harbour in stormy seas. The US ranks last in its current account balance – its net trade. China, Japan and Germany are top-ranked.

Civil rights struggles aside, America once revered public education as an egalitarian hallmark. It sent millions who served in the military during and after the Second World War on to higher education – vastly expanding the skills and productivity of its workforce and the overall quality of middle-class life. Now Americans are watching its educational accomplishments wither. Of 34 OECD countries, in the past decade and a half, the US education ranking has fallen from the top to the middle, and below average in maths.

Reading proficiency of 15-year-olds in China, which not long ago had over half its citizens below the poverty line, is better than those in the US.


The growing fiscal burdens the United States will have to bear will impose restraints on foreign policy,
Michael Mandelbaum
Director, American Foreign Policy Program, Johns Hopkins University


The slide in education will have profound effects on America’s future workforce and wealth. If the US could bring its students up to the average performance in Finland, now the top ranked education system, it would reap a gain of US$103 trillion over the lifetime of those born in 2010. There are few signs of that happening amid the budgetary slash and burn.

Even more embarrassing is health care, the cost of which impoverishes countless families. Americans spend the most on care, yet their health care system is ranked 37th, and access for many is elusive. Costly ailments, such as diabetes, are expanding as rapidly as waistlines.


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Bridges to nowhere, or anywhere - just fix them

The Fruits of America’s efforts in the Middle East

For American weavers of foreign policy there’s no solace in a poll released in mid-July, assessing the Arab world’s view of the United States. According to the Arab American Institute (AAI), favorable attitudes doubled with President Obama’s election, reinforced by his Cairo speech. They are now in free fall. Obama’s favourable ratings across the Arab world are 10 per cent or less. The poll found that in five of six Arab nations surveyed, America was less well regarded than Turkey, China, France or Iran. Instead of giving plaudits to the US for efforts in the post-Arab Spring environment, there is primarily resentment over ‘US interference in the Arab world’, seen as the greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East, second only to the continued Palestinian occupation.

When IBA Global Insight asked AAI president James Zogby how a majority of those surveyed could disapprove of the US killing of Osama bin Laden, a serial mass murderer who attacked the US and targeted innocents. Zogby says the revealed attitudes ‘have nothing to do with support for bin Laden, they have to do with his killing not being germane to issues of higher concern. After the context of the Iraq war, any display of American power is not well received, even though public attitudes toward bin Laden had turned negative long before his death.’

Zogby said that another survey under way reveals that Iran’s behaviour in the region is ‘seen as decidedly negative, with Iran viewed as a regional menace’. But when compared with the US, Iran is still viewed more favourably, and the Arab world would react strongly against the US if it bombed Iran.

‘The region paid close attention when the Prime Minister of Israel lectured President Obama after Obama’s May 22 speech affirming the need for a two state solution with an independent Palestine,’ says Zogby. ‘When Benjamin Netanyahu was then immediately invited to and cheered by Congress, it made America’s Government appear dysfunctional, as did Congressional attacks on Obama whenever he did outreach to Muslims.’

After the high initial expectations for real engagement and progress in Palestine, this dysfunctional image makes people believe America can’t deliver what it promises, says Zogby. ‘The survey numbers are a statement of the disappointment.’ To have influence in the Middle East, Zogby says ‘the White House has to show it is decisive enough to resolve the Palestinian conflict without being hamstrung by Congress.

Investment in a nation’s future infrastructure is another bellwether of future clout. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower launched a national highway system that may have doomed Route 66 but ultimately put America in high gear. Well-planned, long-term infrastructure planning has since fallen from political grace. The World Economic Forum published a report that ranks the quality of American infrastructure as 23rd in the world.

The deterioration in existing infrastructure is so profound that the estimate for getting roads, bridges, water lines, sewage systems and dams back to adequate condition is over US$2 trillion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. The US is spending less than 40 per cent of what is needed to meet basic infrastructure needs.

Embarking on such repairs would, of course, stimulate the economy and of employment, but it remains unlikely. There is a proposal in Congress, known as the Build Act, for an independent national infrastructure bank that would be modelled after the Export-Import Bank, which turns a profit. The government would provide a modest level of seed money, perhaps US$10bn, and the bank would start lending on portions of projects, bringing in other investors, from sovereign wealth funds to global pension funds. According to a bill proponent, Senator John Kerry, in the US the private sector currently provides only six per cent of the nation’s infrastructure funding. Global investors in infrastructure development invest in other countries.

Contrast US infrastructure lethargy with other nations now starting to stride the world stage. According to Kerry, Brazil invested over US$240bn in the past three years, with US$340bn planned for the next three years. Europe’s infrastructure bank financed US$350bn from 2005 to 2009. China’s 2009 infrastructure spending was nine per cent of GDP, or US$350bn, and grows at a rate of 20 per cent annually. The US spends less than two per cent of its GDP on infrastructure. In the next five years, China plans to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure. India is now completing a half-trillion-dollar highway phase and will double this by 2017. By 2014, Brazil will spend US$900bn on energy and transportation projects.

Every year, the American economy bleeds US$80bn just from blackouts on outdated transmission grids and traffic-jams. Like Sherman McCoy, the anti-hero of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and the epitome of the fallen ‘Masters of the Universe’, America is ‘haemorrhaging money!’ As Federal, state, county and city budgets become paralysed in the new era of austerity, proposals for alternative financing sources for essential projects ought to gain widespread support. Kerry points out that capital is fluid and what doesn’t flow to America flows to its competitors. And yet, as deficit negotiators argue about how many IOUs can dance on the head of a pin, the successful creation of even a modest national infrastructure bank is by no means imminent or certain.

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How to humble the last superpower

Mark Shields is a former Marine who was an operative for Robert F Kennedy and other Democratic Party icons. He has provided weekly analysis for PBS’s award-winning NewsHour for 23 years. Asked what upended US foreign policy, Shields answers, ‘America went to war against a nation that had never attacked America, represented no serious threat to America, and had done no harm to America. For the first time in 160 years, America went to war without a military draft and with multiple tax-cuts.’
A study just out from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies pegs the cost of US military action in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at US$3.7 trillion, perhaps rising as high as US$4.4 trillion. There will be at least a trillion dollars in interest payments and expenses. Of this year’s likely US$1.4 trillion deficit, a tenth is from war spending.


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The memory of pain

Perhaps the burn from Iraq and Afghanistan has been bad enough to reinstate what Shields calls the ‘Dover Test – if the American people are prepared for the sight of young Americans in flag-draped coffins coming home to Dover Air Force Base – a test Bush finessed by banning photographers and press.’

Marvin Kalb, a diplomatic correspondent during the Vietnam War who was promoted to Nixon’s ‘enemies list’, and his daughter, Deborah Kalb, have just published Haunting Legacy. It’s their measure of the lasting impact of America’s harried 1975 exit from what LBJ called a ‘raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country’, and from the first war the US lost. Despite George Bush Senior’s proclaiming the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ dead after the first Gulf War, the Kalbs maintain that the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ is alive and well, impacting policy-makers and presidents in the 36 years since, including Obama. No President wants another failure on his watch.


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No easy cure

In any case, the leader of the free world is busted. David Stockman, director of Ronald Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget, articulated it on a recent radio programme, ‘We have both parties in denial about the huge magnitude of this problem... we’re really rolling the dice if we think there’s indefinite patience in the global bond market for us to continue to issue six billion of new debt, day in and day out.’


America went to war against a nation that had never attacked America and had done no harm to America. For the first time in 160 years, America went to war without a military draft and with multiple tax-cuts.
Mark Shields
Analyst, PBS NewsHour


Despite his time in the Reagan administration, Stockman eventually disowned supply-side economics and the marriage of large tax cuts with large deficits. He advocates ‘a massive retrenchment of a defence budget that makes no sense at US$800bn in the world that we live in today. This is an obsolete approach to our security.’ Stockman says Obama should call in ‘the whole national security establishment’ and demand ‘a five-year plan to take down spending by 20 per cent, by hundreds of billions a year.’
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye recently made the point that defence and other war related costs – adjusted for inflation – have experienced substantial growth of 74 per cent, or US$364bn, since 2001. In contrast, taking into account inflation and population growth, non-defence discretionary spending represents no increase over what was spent in 2001, a year in which the US generated a surplus of US$128bn.

Domestic political forces are weighing in against foreign interventions. In a major shift, there’s a growing split in the Republican Party, with increasing numbers embracing a more isolationist viewpoint. Meanwhile, the US Conference of Mayors – a group influential with the Democratic Party, and concerned about the US spending US$2.1m on defence every minute – recently passed a resolution to end the wars as soon as strategically possible and to shift those dollars to domestic economic investment.


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An understudy for Uncle Sam

Institutions created to help provide a counterweight to the Soviet Union and balance during the Cold War are now less relevant. And it’s not just the US defence role that’s under pressure. At his last policy speech as US Defense Secretary, delivered in June in Brussels, Robert Gates left little doubt about his concerns of imbalanced burdens among NATO countries.

‘While every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all… Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they cannot. The military capabilities simply aren’t there’.

Speaking on Afghanistan, Gates noted, ‘Future US political leaders, those for whom the Cold War wasn’t the formative experience that it was for me, may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.’ This is particularly likely given that the US share of NATO expense has gone from 50 per cent of NATO spending during the Cold War to 75 per cent now.


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Diplomatic dispatches

Dennis Hays capped a diplomatic career by serving as ambassador to Suriname under President Clinton. He now runs The Emergence Group, advising on matters such as justice sector reform and anti-corruption policies in emerging nations. Hays notes that, as in most areas, ‘perception plays a major role in how much influence and credibility a nation has. A nation perceived to be dynamic, aggressive in advancing its agenda and willing to take risks often has things go its way – how could it not? If we are talking about counter-terrorism or the projection of military might we are talking about the United States. If we are talking about economic, commercial, or intellectual force we are talking about China.’

But increasingly, Americans are not feeling particularly dynamic. A June CNN poll found nearly half of Americans believing it ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ likely another Great Depression will land within a year. So, if the US military projection is adjusted? ‘The United States can appropriately be much more aggressive in promoting American business,’ says Hays. ‘And not just the Fortune 500 businesses, but also the medium and small businesses that can and should be exporting and manufacturing internationally.’

Needless to say, even when the US was flush with cash, it often missed the right bets and plays. Michael Ussery served as ambassador to Morocco under George Bush Senior. He laments the isolationist cries in Congress and recalls missed opportunities in post-communist Europe. ‘The West told the new nations that democracy and capitalism would bring them the lives they wanted and wished them good luck. We figured our interests were served as long as communism was gone. Some of these countries still suffer from failed transitions. With a more hands-on approach, East Europe might have escaped the corruption and mafias that have been hallmarks of certain nations.’


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A new narrative, a new signal?

Last Spring, a ‘Mr Y’ published a paper calling for ‘A National Strategic Narrative’. Mr Y turned out to be a pseudonym for two senior members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Navy Captain Wayne Porter and Marine Colonel Mark Mykleby. They decried the way America sets its priorities, relying far too heavily on military as the primary tool for engaging the world, while missing the vital connection between foreign policy and domestic policy. To become the most influential player in a deeply inter-connected global system, say the authors, America must invest less in defense and more in sustainable prosperity. The paper caught the attention of policy wonks and think tanks because such papers are rarely launched to the surprise of the powers that be.

Last century’s designs for containment required controlling events through deterrence, defence and international dominance in a closed system. Porter and Mykleby now perceive an open system constantly disrupted by unpredictable events. As control is elusive, the goal now is building credible influence by investing in sustainable domestic resources like education, energy, agriculture and infrastructure. The authors underscore that it is no longer a world of zero sum competition – China doesn’t have to lose for

America to gain – but one of interdependence that exacts a penalty for overreacting to perceived threats.

Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation believes power is a function of future expectations. If so, the rising challenge to American influence may be the expectations Americans have for themselves. Last year a National Journal poll found nearly half of Americans thought China the world’s strongest economy. But though China has six times the population of America, America’s economy is two and a half times as large.

If, as Porter and Mykleby contend, America’s future influence depends on domestic prosperity that allows the nation to lead by example, Americans have some work to do at home, starting with how they view their country.


National Security Advisor speaks

Dr Zbigniew Brzezinski served as US National Security Advisor to President Carter, and was instrumental in normalising relations with the People’s Republic of China and brokering the Camp David Accords. He recently took questions at the SCIS Global Security Forum 2011. Here are some excerpts of Brzezinski’s comments and reflections on international affairs:

On the impact of the debt crisis: ‘Where are we headed as a solitary actor?’ Brzezinski wonders. ‘How do we get out of the debt issue, into which we’ve slid as a kind of indirection? Domestic paralysis and gridlock undercuts our capacity to deal with our domestic problems and take on a leading world role.’

On the Arab Spring: ‘We can assist nations as they change themselves, perhaps we can help in Egypt. But let’s not go in and tell Egyptians how to suck eggs. They have their own sense of self and culture, we can’t impose on that.’

On the Middle East: ‘We didn’t enter the Middle East as a major power until after WWII,’ notes Brzezinski. ‘We were welcomed with open arms. All of that is changing… every relationship is now pointed in a negative direction one way or another.’

On Israel and Palestine: Brzezinski describes ‘the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which makes people in the region think we’re not serious about solving it.’ He says the two sides ignore the potential of a two state creation becoming the Singapore of the Middle East, a lost opportunity. This failure ‘works terribly against our interests’.

On Iran: ‘If we don’t engage in politics that encourage the fusion of Iranian fundamentalism with Iranian nationalism, the theocratic movement will be transitory. It’s based in the more backwards rural areas, and Iran is urbanising.’

On the importance of America: ‘We don’t have an intelligent discussion in this country about America in the world. One is desperately needed if we are to play a role in the world, which is necessary, because without us the world is going to be far more unstable.’

On post-cold war missed opportunities: ‘We blew it after 1991, when we were universally seen as the victor state in a peaceful but long Cold War. We were hailed as the economic model for the world. Then we took a leave of absence from global responsibility. Our society became preoccupied with domestic concerns. We failed to seize our opportunity.’

On America’s recent excessive aggression: ‘we became warriors with a distorted view of reality, driven by concerns and fears, instead of a realistic view of the international scene. We push countries to cooperate, but they’re not there out of conviction. Foreign policy in recent years is a mishmash of over-militarism, unilateralism, demagogy and deception, to put it mildly.’

On ill-conceived interventions: ‘A foreign army in a fundamentally different culture and religion is not an instrument for creating a nation,’ observes Brzezinski. ‘A country already exists, a foreign army can’t change that unless it crushes the country.’

On the future: ‘I don’t expect a dramatic reversal,’ says Brzezinski. ‘The combination of our insecurity, our lack of understanding of the world, and the absence of serious alternative leadership is a problem confronting us for some time to come.’

On Obama: ‘the speeches of Obama are fundamentally, historically correct. He understands what is needed, and how the world is changing today. What is lacking on his side is systematic, strategic implementation of his strategic analysis.’

On the Republicans: ‘On the other side, there is the absence of any alternative vision, (only) a rejection of Obama’s, and very irresponsible tangents by would-be presidential candidates,’ says Brzezinski. ‘Foreign policy prescriptions range from mystical to idiosyncratic to escapist to simply ignorant. Looking at some of the comments by potential candidates leads people to wonder if our country is in a state of some sort of delirium.’



Skip Kaltenheuser is a freelance journalist and writer. He can be contacted at skip.kaltenheuser@verizon.net.

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