Andrew J. Bacevich
When it comes to America’s role in the world, the 2012 presidential campaign was notable chiefly for what was left unsaid. Other than uttering platitudes or striking postures aimed at particular domestic constituencies, neither candidate had much to offer. Yet the absence of substantive attention given to foreign policy speaks volumes about the present-day condition of American statecraft.
THE $64 QUESTION
Could we have done better? Yes. Here’s the sixty-four dollar question that a presidential campaign worthy of the name ought to have addressed: Is the United States committed to remaining global Top Dog? Or are we willing to accept a diminished status of being one Big Dog (perhaps the biggest) among several?
Phrased somewhat more delicately: Should the United States attempt to sustain its position of global primacy, achieved as a direct result of World War II and seemingly affirmed by the outcome of the Cold War? Will conditions permit it? Does it serve U.S. interests even to make the effort?
INCURRING AN OBLIGATION
To answer these questions affirmatively is to incur an obligation to explain how the United States will pay the bill that primacy entails. Do the necessary means exist? Given the frustrations and costly disappointments of the past decade — above all those related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — where exactly are the troops and the money going to come from?
Given the frustrations and costly disappointments of the past decade, where exactly are the troops and money going to come from?
The means question is not an idle one given that preserving America’s dominant position in the Asia-Pacific and stabilizing the Greater Middle East— I cite these as two of the immediate challenges that Washington confronts — will necessarily be very costly propositions. Meeting those challenges will require lots of troops and by extension lots of money.
Yet to propose giving up on efforts to remain Top Dog is likewise to incur an obligation, namely to describe what a post-American order will look like and what its emergence will signify for U.S. prosperity and security. Given the ham-handed mistakes and massive miscalculations of the past decade, what’s the likelihood of Washington demonstrating a sufficiently dexterous touch to guide the American Century to a soft landing?
Given the mistakes and miscalculations of the past decade, what’s the likelihood of Washington guiding the American Century to a soft landing?
To abandon hegemony in the Far East implies accommodating the rise of new powers like China and India, granting them their place in the sun. It also implies persuading long-standing U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea (along with the quasi-ally Taiwan) that a U.S. policy of accommodation poses no threat to their own well-being.
To back away from the U.S. attempt to impose its will on the greater Middle East, inaugurated by the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine in 1980 and reaching its high water mark in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq, is to concede that Arabs, Iranians, Pakistanis, and others should be permitted to determine their own future, with the expectation that the ultimate outcome will be compatible with U.S. interests.
TWO HIGH-RISK BETS
Both of these approaches – accommodating rising Asian powers and allowing nations across the Islamic world to exercise their right to self-determination – qualify as high-risk bets. Neither one offers anything like a guaranteed path to peace.
Then there is this additional complication, dictated by humility and fortified by memory. I refer to that next surprise that even now is lurking around the corner, undetected by either our intelligence agencies or our intelligentsia and guaranteed to overturn the carefully constructed plan of even the ablest policy planner.
From the Cuban Missile Crisis to the overthrow of the Shah to the events of 9/11, it’s happened over and over again. Seemingly (if not actually) from out of nowhere, unexpected events throw U.S. policy off course.
In statecraft, unforeseen events are one of the few constants. You pay your money, you take your chance, and then Fate sticks in its thumb.
Just in the past decade we can add the post-invasion Iraqi insurgency and the Arab Awakening to the list of developments that found the United States looking the other way. In statecraft, unforeseen events constitute one of the few constants. You pay your money, you take your chance, and then Fate sticks in its thumb.
PREEMINENCE OR DEVOLUTION
Speaking for myself, I am increasingly persuaded that strategy is a fiction, an invention deployed by the policy world to sustain the pretense that the people purportedly conning the ship of state actually know where the ship is headed. Or perhaps that sustaining the pretense of strategy may keep at bay the forces of chaos.
At any rate: Preeminence or devolution. Place your bets.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a visiting research fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.