We’ve become accustomed to the view that globalization is a friend of American ideals, economic liberalism, and westernization. The cheery “world is flat” line from Thomas Friedman paints a picture of connections growing between countries and cultures, with self-interest and the material prosperity promised by markets trumping extremism and radicalism. Even those with a more negative view of globalization tend to see the US and “world capitalism” winning — they argued that the price would be exploitation of the poor third world states, with perhaps some uprising against the West “down the line.” Aside from the environmental concerns of global warming, globalization has generally been viewed as a positive development for American ideals, even if the transition to a better world might be difficult.
Increasingly globalization looks connected to the dissolution of the Cold War and its bipolar system into a multi-polar anarchy, with both Communism and Capitalism succumbing to major crises. The idea that economic liberalism “won” could in hindsight look like a fool’s fantasy, as if sailors ignorant that their own ship was slowly sinking cheered as their opponent’s ship sinks faster.
This does not mean that the US is not going to remain a power. Former superpowers such as Russia, Britain, France and Germany still play major roles on the world stage. The US has 300 million people, a high tech economy, a powerful military, and despite economic crisis, the capacity to grow and prosper. This does mean that the rules are changing, and that the emerging world order is going to be far different than the one people are accustomed to, and certainly much different than the “unipolar” world neo-conservatives like Charles Krauthammer envisioned.
The evidence is all around. It’s evident in the argument put forth by Walter Russel Mead about Brazil and Turkey. During the Cold War the range of actions of these states were limited by their need to maintain support from the US. In a more unorganized world, the United States is not as important to these states, and they have responded with assertive policies often directly countering US interests (Brazil with Iran, Turkey opposing Israel). The US can get mad, but there is little concretely that can be done to punish them. In the past American unilateralism had sting; now there are other places to turn, and many other middle and even slightly larger powers that want to assert that they no longer fear America.
China has already made that clear with even whiffs of refusal to finance on going American debt. Sure, China still needs our markets — but not as much as they used to. Alternates are growing, and a weakening US economy means it’s easier to get oil for the Chinese economy.
The US miltary increasingly looks anachronistic, even as it is as powerful and technologically advanced as ever. The reason is that warfare has changed. Much of US power is based on the ability to use nuclear weapons — yet that weapon is one of deterrence, perfect for countering Soviet power, but not useful on the messy chess board of post-Cold War world affairs. In all but the most fanciful and unlikely scenarios these weapons are simply unusable.
With terrorism and asymmetrical warfare becoming the dominant military strategies, more emphasis is based on economic policies and small regional conflicts. The US can get involved in these, but Iraq and Afghanistan show that the cost is high, the ability to project power limited, the public’s tolerance of such actions low, and locals can undercut US objectives. Currently that’s the problem in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Most think it’s highly unlikely the US will get involved in more such wars — we can’t afford it, and the public would oppose it — so fear of US military power has declined dramatically. The US can use air strikes, but few believe that can achieve anything but the most limited objectives.
So, despite the disdain of diplomacy and internationalism by many on the right, the reality is that the rules of the new international order demand multi-lateralism. There is very little the US can do on its own effectively. The US has to compromise more and can lead less, something different than the past view as the United States as the “leader of the free world.”
This change has been rapid and dramatic, and has not been digested by many who are used to and comfortable with the old order and a dominant United States. They blame Obama or Bush, think the US needs a more assertive foreign policy, but to support this they rely more on tough rhetoric than a reasoned argument about American capacities. The result of trying to maintain the old policy patterns would be a United States trying to act beyond its capacity to succeed, thereby looking even weaker and more isolated. By trying to push, demand, and force others to do things our way, we’ll be less effective and garner more ill will.
Yet, again, the US is still the dominant military power and has the largest economy. The problems within the EU recently, China’s emerging domestic dilemmas, and other tensions show that while the US may not be the undisputed “leader of the West,” it’s also not a has-been. The key to an effective foreign policy is to adjust to the need to “compromise more and lead less,” in order to still exercise some leadership, and still get others to compromise as well. If a salesman goes to his boss and demand she give him a huge raise because of all the sales he’s made, she might decide it isn’t worth it and fire the guy. If the salesman negotiates reasonably, he may get a satisfactory raise and stay with the firm. We can’t be the bombastic power making demands, we have to be the confident power building alliances and coalitions.
That still doesn’t solve the problem of figuring out just how the new order is going to look when the dust settles. A lot depends on oil supplies, how bad global warming really is, Mideast crises, and what happens over the next decade or so to the global economy. But we are in systemic transition, always an unstable and often violent time. It’s important to recognize that we have to let go of the assumptions and expectations of the past, and recognize that this is a new era. The US can still be a major player, but not as a “dominant leader” or “unipolar power,” but through cooperation, alliance building, and multilateralism.