Limits of Power

With Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili trying to compare the current crisis to Poland in 1939, or Czechoslovakia in 1938, many are bemoaning the fact the West has done little to nothing to protect Georgia from Russian aggression. As I noted yesterday, the case is far more complex than the pro-Georgia crowd makes it out to be, thanks to Georgian aggression in South Ossetia, but nonetheless pundits and analysts are caught puzzled by and a bit disturbed by the fact that even if Russia were completely in the wrong, there is very little the US can do. What does that say about American power in the new century?

The United States is an overstretched power, which has tried to control politics in the Mideast and Central Asia through a mix of military power and economic aid. In the post-Cold War era where the US believed it was a “unipolar power,” the US initiated a bold strategy designed to achieve global dominance. It is late enough in the game to say conclusively that this strategy failed.

In the Mideast, democracy has not moved forward, and has arguably taken steps backwards in Egypt and Iran. Afghanistan remains in shambles, with the Taliban and its supporters more powerful than anytime since the regime fell, and war lords controlling much of the country. In Iraq the US is trying to find a way out so it can declare victory, but sectarian divisions remain, it is not a true democracy, and corruption is endemic. These signs point to continuing conflict and chaos, perhaps to be settled ultimately by partition or a new authoritarian. Moreover, the New York Times reported that the private sector economy is contracting rapidly in Iraq, while government jobs are on the increase, thanks to oil revenue. This makes Iraq look much more like states such as Saudi Arabia than any kind of western model.

In states around the world, from South Korea to Pakistan to Indonesia, US influence is waning, and anti-Americanism rising. Even America’s allies in Europe, still recovering from arrogant comments by former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld about “old Europe,” is moving away from an absolute embrace of the US to a series of global partnerships, including Russia and China. Economically the position of the US is most dire. The US sends billions of dollars to questionable states to pay for our massive energy needs, while clinging to a large current account deficit and budget deficit. (For more on all this, see “The Economic Storm.“)

The result: America’s huge military is not feared because its limits were shown in Afghanistan and Iraq, public opinion is loathe to any further military adventures, and so we’re all bark and no bite. Beyond that, our massive oil consumption and rejection of the Kyoto accord create the image that we’re a people screwing over the rest of the planet in order to satisfy our hedonistic lifestyle — rightly or wrongly, that fosters anti-Americanism which impacts political decisions everywhere. With our economy now weakened to the point that we no longer are able to shape economic realities, the US has been brought down a few pegs. Instead of being a unipolar power, we are now a large player in a multipolar system. Worse, we are a large player who is spent, and neither respected nor feared. I suspect this is a low point and we can rise up from here, but we’ll never be where we were at in 1990.

Why did the US use the ‘unipolar moment’ so recklessly? The US could have focused on protecting its sovereign interests and creating a diplomatic order reminiscent of the old Metternich system where national power and diplomacy led to stability. However, American actions have led to an overstretching of US power and a demonstration of America’s relative impotence. Why?

The simplistic response would be to blame “Bush and the Neo-cons,” but often foreign policy decisions, good or bad, transcend domestic politics. I think the reason for the US errors in overstretching its capacity come from globalization, and two complementary beliefs: a) that the US could and should be a force for democracy and markets now that the Cold War is over (idealism); and b) the US needs to maintain access to oil, especially as demand increases with uncertainties about future production. This created a perfect confluence: if we do what is morally right to try to expand liberty and markets, we’ll also get what is in our self-interest, an advantage in the competition for oil and other resources.

The other choice — to try to build a stable balance of power system that does not confront Russia, China or even Iran — was viewed as dangerous. As Charles Krauthammer noted in his piece “The Unipolar Moment,” America’s period of dominance was certain to be brief — a moment. If the US did not use this moment to try to assure that the international system would be shaped in a manner conducive to American interests and values — values such as democracy and freedom — other more ominous forces, authoritarians and religious extremists, would gain the upper hand. The wars from Desert Storm onward have been wars to try to use that unipolar moment to create a world environment friendly to America and western values. Given Russia’s slide back to authoritarianism and the specter of Islamic extremism, doesn’t such a policy make sense?

In a word: no. The US public may be nationalist, but they need a real cause to sustain any kind of sacrifice. The Clinton and Bush Administrations thought they could “win the world” on the cheap, with Americans benefiting from their efforts through globalization. But while on paper it looked like military action would be easy, in reality it runs into the fact that after the war, the US doesn’t get to shape the outcome. The naive belief that democracy would naturally come about because ‘everyone wants freedom’ was never tenable, even if many in high places believed it. Second, the economic realities are such that this was clear to set up real crises for the future. The cheaper and more effective path would have been the road not taken, to work to build a stable international system through diplomacy and without trying to be the geopolitical mover and shaker.

Russia’s move into Georgia carries risks for both the United States and Russia. As the US contemplates asserting its military rights in the region, including a presence in Georgia, the possibility grows that this little country best known for a line from a Beatles song could indeed be the Sarajevo of the early 21st century. When national pride (of which Russia and the US have loads) and military presence are combined, anything can happen. Russia also has to balance the diplomatic costs; for the all satisfaction they get for showing that they are the dominant regional power, this could be a fleeting benefit if they lose G8 status or suffer other diplomatic loses. If they play this right they probably won’t — most European states don’t take the hardline attitude the US does, and in fact seem to be playing a game of ‘good cop, bad cop’ with the Russians now. Russia has to be careful not to overplay its hand.

So both the US and Russia have to recognize the limits of their power, and not let this get out of control. The Sarkozy plan seems a good starting point. Russia should not do anything to goad the West further, and must not make it look like such plans are just meaningless ways of buying time to increase their intrusion into Georgia. The US must resist the urge to “punish” Russia. Besides the hypocrisy of such a call noted yesterday, this could also increase the chances the crisis could grow — and that would leave the US with only really bad options.

If anything, this case shows the need to take that road not taken, to back away from the assertive policies of the past 18 years and work closely with the EU, Russia, China and other states. Idealism feels good, everyone likes the rhetoric of spreading freedom and democracy. But in a world as complex and difficult as this, freedom spreads best on its own as people take power in their own hands, not from the guns of state trying to reshape the world. Because, once the US acknowledges and accepts the limits of its power, we will find that a cooperative, diplomatic and non-arrogant America will be more appreciated and powerful than we now imagine possible.

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  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on August 14, 2008 - 18:00

    Unfortunately, I don’t see this shift in political culture happening anytime soon. People in this country, and all over the world, are driven by emotion, and all too commonly are those types of reactionary emotions perpetuated by the media and government. Even if we did have some elected officials who do see past the emotional charge of many issues we face, they still have to pander to those emotional voter in order to be re-elected.

    So I support the idea of a more level headed population, but you are trying to fight a most basic instinct of humanity, good luck.

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