For America, Decline is a Choice

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For America, Decline is a Choice

“In reality, decline is not a foregone conclusion but a deliberate political choice that builds from a failure to define what matters most to the nation.”

Editor's Note: The following is the third and final essay from Dr. William Martel on American Grand Strategy. We welcome our readers to review the first two parts of this series:

Part 1: America's Dangerous Drift

Part 2: A Roadmap For American Grand Strategy

Part 3: A decline in America’s leadership role and the emergence of a highly unstable world is a serious possibility. In reality, decline is not a foregone conclusion but a deliberate political choice that builds from a failure to define what matters most to the nation.

It is imperative for the United States to articulate principles to guide its foreign policy. This is precisely what grand strategy does. The challenges are too great, and the stakes too high, for the United States to fail to articulate and pursue its core foreign policy objectives.

A number of challenges around the world pose serious risks for the United States, its allies, and partners. The goal for American grand strategy is to outline principles that guide U.S. policies, as a way to help policymakers reestablish the balance between the ends and means.

The United States has no practical choice but to align the necessity for strong leadership in foreign policy with an equally strong need for leadership at home, in order to rebuild the national foundations of power. A crucial element of America’s actions abroad will be working more with others and having a clearer sense of policies the American public will support. To implement grand strategy, the United States must carry out policies that align with the three principles outlined in my earlier essay.

Sadly, however, the disorganized approach to grand strategy is emblematic of the episodic and uneven quality of how American foreign policy operates. What the United States needs is a strategy for implementing its foreign policy in ways that respond to the sources of disorder examined earlier and help prepare the nation to confront future challenges and opportunities. The failure to advance a positive agenda for America’s role in the world will promote the belief that the nation is in decline.

Implementation at Home

A fundamental source of American influence in the world derives directly from the free-market economic underpinnings of U.S. national power. In reality, America, first and foremost, must devote greater time, attention, and resources to rebuilding the domestic foundations of its economy and power. This is the starting point to rebuilding America’s global influence.

To put this principle into practice, the United States will need to take several steps. If we consider the work conducted from the 1930s to the 1960s, the United States built a model for national success. Consider what America accomplished during those decades: a world-class infrastructure of roads, bridges, electric power grids, communications, and so forth. The result was to modernize the nation, build first-class industries, and create a more promising future for all Americans.

Meanwhile, the nation developed a world-class public education system, which gave the American people the skills to be competitive and productive members of society. Armed with these tools, the United States for decades was an uncontested economic superpower. America used to produce a higher percentage of college graduates than anywhere in the world. Now, America ranks much lower. To put it succinctly, the “American dream” looks much different than it used to. 

Today, the United States has an extraordinary and long-neglected need to rebuild our economic and social infrastructure. In truth, America's once robust system of roads, bridges, electric power grids, and mass transit systems are falling apart. To travel in the Northeast is to see a transportation infrastructure in utter disrepair. In 2012, the World Economic Forum ranked the United States’ infrastructure 25th in the world – hardly superpower status.

To implement American grand strategy, policymakers must rebuild more than the infrastructure and educational foundations of national power. Just as important is fixing the health care and retirement systems that provide a social safety net and help to ensure broad opportunities for all Americans.

Currently, annual expenditures for Social Security and Medicare exceed $1 trillion. Ominously, there are 4.6 persons for every retiree, while within 25 years, this ratio could drop to 2.7. The system, which as currently structured is not sustainable, requires immediate attention from policymakers if future generations are to be productive knowing that they will share in the benefits from economic prosperity.

The nation, furthermore, cannot afford to lose power, heat, and electricity for weeks in some of its major cities after every hurricane and snowstorm. But this is precisely what happens. When Hurricane Sandy grazed the state of New Hampshire in 2012, it left approximately 15 percent of its residents without electric power. While some consequences of natural disasters are inevitable, America’s declining infrastructure and technological capabilities must be reversed.

Another item critical to American power is advanced communications and internet systems. Just as a national telephone grid was critical to building American power in the 20th century, so too is national broadband essential to reinforcing U.S. power and influence.

Before seeking to implement principles of grand strategy that guide America’s foreign engagements, Americans need to understand that rebuilding the national foundations of power will allow the U.S. to take a much stronger international leadership role. Being strong at home will allow America to work more effectively and credibly with alliances and partners to address the world’s greatest challenges.

The next several sections detail how American foreign policy should implement its grand strategy through principles and policies that respond effectively to these challenges, or sources of disorder. As outlined in earlier articles, these sources of disorder are the product of actions by great powers, destabilizing middle powers, the rising authoritarian axis, and unexpected sources of instability and chaos.  

Engaging Great Powers

The United States should pursue a two-pronged strategy for countering the challenges posed by great powers.

Foremost, policymakers must reinforce American and democratic principles in dealing with sources of instability, chaos, and war. An important first principle is that Washington should work to dissuade China from using its growing military power to intimidate and bully states in Asia. Similarly, American policymakers need to address China’s increasingly strong relations with Russia as both states seek to exercise their influence as a counter-weight to Washington.

One primary way to use American leadership effectively is for Washington to pressure Russia to refrain from using its oil and natural gas as a weapon against its neighbors, including Ukraine and Georgia. Forming and bolstering alliances and partnerships with states along Russia’s border effectively signals to Moscow that Washington will exercise leadership when Russian behavior pushes beyond the “limits of good taste.” Another way to effectively pressure Russia is to explore potential export markets in Eastern Europe for America’s own increasing domestic sources of energy.

In parallel, Washington should work to dissuade China from using its growing military power to intimidate its neighbors in Asia. America already has developed strong alliances, both economic and political, with many states in the Asia-Pacific. We see clear signs throughout Asia that our partners increasingly fear China’s military and economic rise, which many states fear might be used by Beijing’s to pressure and coerce them.

In dealing with China, Washington should pursue a multi-dimensional strategy. China provides a great example of why America needs to balance exercising strong American leadership with working among partners and alliances. As tensions between the Japanese and the Chinese escalate over the Senkaku Islands, America needs to reinforce its alliance with Japan to show that it will lend its political, and if necessary military, support to its close ally.

Hedging China is going to involve working with close American allies in the region, including ASEAN nations, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The essence of American grand strategy is to demonstrate that China's aggressive military and economic posturing in Asia will only help organize opposition.

Reinforcing our alliances with these nations also needs to be accompanied by stronger efforts to integrate China into the international system so that it can play a stronger and more responsible leadership role. This is going to require American policymakers to exercise effective leadership, which should begin with increased engagement with their Chinese counterparts.

A primary task for Secretary of State John Kerry is to accelerate diplomatic and political engagement with the Chinese leadership. While new to his office, Secretary Kerry has yet to travel to Asia, while he devotes much of his initial attention to America’s trans-Atlantic partnerships.

Restraining Destabilizing Powers

The United States also should pursue a multi-faceted strategy for dealing with the destabilizing actions of such middle powers as Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan. Current policies toward Syria and Iran do not provide positive evidence that American strategy is succeeding. To the contrary, these policies appear to be failing.

One strategy for the United States is to lead a coalition of allies and partners who strongly oppose the nuclear ambitions of states such as Iran. In line with reinforcing American leadership, American policymakers must restrain Iran from developing and deploying nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. America still has a number of capabilities at hand, including using already strong pressure from the international community, while leaving the military option on the table.

The situation has the potential to escalate at any moment in view of unexpected advances in Iranian nuclear capabilities and counter-moves by Israeli forces.

In the case of North Korea, it recently threatened to launch long-range rockets armed with nuclear weapons against the United States. The regime emphasizes the nation’s nuclear capabilities and ambitions, while committing atrocious human rights violations and ignoring North Korea’s already moribund economy. U.S. and U.N.-led sanctions do little to deter the provocative actions of North Korea’s leadership.

America might need a stronger approach sooner than we think. North Korea’s neighbors are central to this strategy, and the U.S. needs to persuade China to exercise stronger leadership.

As an ally of the United States, Pakistan presents a different challenge. Facing increasing civilian-military tension and the ever-present fear of terrorist attacks, Washington rightly fears the leakage of nuclear weapons and materials from Pakistan. The U.S. must use its influence to persuade Islamabad that its highest priority is secure control over nuclear weapons even in the face of convulsive political forces in the nation.

Geopolitically, Pakistan is an important nation with which the United States must build a stronger basis for engagement. As the U.S. winds down in Afghanistan, this presents serious implications for Pakistan. Furthermore, as mentioned previously with Russia, the U.S. has a strong interest in Central Asia because of the region’s oil and natural gas reserves. Both of these realities call for creative and pragmatic thinking about U.S. policy towards Pakistan, which must engage all levels of its government and civil society.

Managing the Authoritarian Axis

The American strategy for managing the various challenges that states in the authoritarian axis pose for the West rests on two core elements.

The first is to exercise American leadership to confront and restrain the growing degree of policy coordination between the authoritarian states. The problem for the United States is that it must deal with increasingly assertive authoritarian states, including Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

Today, American grand strategy for managing the authoritarian axis is largely weak, reactive, and ineffective. The axis states coordinate their policies precisely to keep the West on the defensive. In the end, while most authoritarian societies cannot compete effectively with the West in economic terms, for now the cohesion and increasing coordination among states in the axis is moving in a worrying direction.

The second element of America’s strategy derives from the principle that calls for greater alignment with partner states and institutions to manage the authoritarian axis. The West’s grand strategy should be to identify the challenges posed by the axis, while counteracting its policies in thoughtful and deliberate ways. The West’s resources, despite current economic difficulties, so vastly outstrip that of the Axis states that their strategic position is in doubt.

The West’s countervailing strategy rests on three tactics. First, identify regularly what the authoritarian states do, say, and stand for. Transparency is a powerful antidote to authoritarianism. Second, emphasize that the values of democracy, freedom and free markets, and human rights provide the only basis for real prosperity and power. Third, be prepared to engage the authoritarian states on the “playing fields” of democracy, freedom, and economic prosperity.

Confronting the Unexpected

The United States and its allies must be prepared to deal with unexpected sources of disorder. To confront instability and anticipate problems yet to emerge, America should pursue a parallel strategy.

The first is to address the Arab Spring and the challenges posed by democratization in Egypt and Libya, extreme violence, and displacement in Syria. When dictatorial regimes lose their grip on power, America must stand firmly on the side of democracy. This calls for more than rhetoric and recognition, while recognizing that armed support can be messy.

Egypt’s experiment in democracy keeps the nation hovering on the brink of chaos and civil war. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood struggle to legitimize their power while the constitution rolls back civil liberties and human rights. America must apply pressure by calling for democratic progress while allowing these states in transition to determine their own futures. Economic aid provides a powerful instrument to signal American interests.

America also must contend with non-state actors, such as Al Qaeda, whose ideology permits them to wage a global struggle. It has often been stated that America struggles to dominate the battle of ideas against organizations such as Al Qaeda. While we have made great progress in diminishing their power over the last decade, the U.S. can never cease to move forward on communicating its ideals, values, and principles.

If America uses its “soft power” to build with non-governmental and civil-society actors a world based on shared interests, values, and ideals, Washington can more effectively communicate and implement the foreign policy it seeks to achieve.                                     

The forces of rapid technological change and globalization effectively flatten power relationships between individuals, firms, and states. Consider cyber warfare in the hands of individuals and groups. Never before have non-state actors possessed an instrument that could, in theory, bring states to their knees.

The second element of confronting unexpected sources of disorder derives from the principle of building strong alliances and partnerships. Engagement and collaboration provide a powerful instrument for combating the corruption, poverty, and lack of hope that fuel extremism.

Consider the resurgence of extremists in Afghanistan’s impending political collapse. While the Taliban, Haqqani network, and Al Qaeda work to undermine the Afghanistan and Pakistan governments, NATO actively uses military force and works with international agencies and nongovernmental organizations to defeat the insurgency and improve the nation’s infrastructure and economy.

The consensus since 9/11—no state by itself can effectively restrain the forces that fuel extremism—compels states to work cooperatively to defeat extremism.


To be successful, American grand strategy must embody positive principles that match the circumstances of the moment, build a world based on peace and security, and are guided by the consent of the people. But simply having the right principles is only part of the equation. As most observers would expect, society and its policymakers must carefully balance how they put those principles into practice.

The first challenge involves rebuilding the domestic foundations of American power. This is the right moment for the United States to focus its efforts on domestic priorities. However, if the United States puts most of its emphasis on domestic concerns, it may appear to ignore its international leadership responsibilities. This is a prescription for self-imposed isolationism and decline.

While in an earlier era the United States could afford to disregard foreign problems, it no longer has this option. States in Asia, for example, tremble at the thought of America’s withdrawal from the Pacific, particularly with China’s increasingly assertive and aggressive actions in the near seas. A domestically oriented U.S. would signal to the world that Washington is less interested in foreign policy, which Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang likely would interpret as an invitation to take aggressive action and expand their reach.

However, if the United States fails to devote significant political and economic attention and resources to rebuilding the foundations of its national power, it will find that it is increasingly unable to compete in the world.

The greater risk is an erosion of the willingness of the American people to support a leadership role for the U.S. We already are seeing deepening weariness on the part of the American people to support the costs and burdens of global leadership.

This balance applies with equal force to the principle of reinforcing America’s leadership role abroad. To build a secure and peaceful world, it is essential for the United States to play a leadership role. No other state can fill this role, since a world without leadership is fraught with perils. Getting this principle right requires a particularly delicate balancing act.

If the United States pursues a leadership role with too much involvement and reach, it will antagonize other states, which rightly believe that America does not have the right or authority to dominate the globe. For some observers, the last decade suggested that the United States exerted too much interference – that Washington overplayed its leadership role.

The principle of American grand strategy that calls for working more cooperatively and collaboratively with other states and institutions raises similar challenges. To ignore or merely pay lip service to this principle will suggest that the United States wants to “go it alone.” States will respond by isolating the United States or limiting their support for solving problems that require collective action.

What emerges is a cautionary note. The unbalanced application of any one of these principles alone will inflict significant harm on U.S. priorities and those of its friends and allies.

Worse, to put too much emphasis on any two principles also will undermine America’s grand strategy. For example, policies that emphasize rebuilding the domestic foundations of power and relying heavily on the role of cooperation will reinforce the impression that the United States is unwilling to lead in the current and future international system. States will see this as a strategy for gradually disengaging from the world – until the next crisis occurs.

A strategy that deemphasizes American global leadership and promotes cooperation will weaken the ability of the United States to foster global stability. Strictly speaking, this describes the state of American policy today.

The inherent trap with all grand strategies lies in how effectively it is implemented. Policymakers simply cannot pursue any or several principles to the exclusion of the others. To do so will be completely self-defeating.

The only path to success is to implement these principles of grand strategy in a balanced and purposeful fashion. Any other approach will weaken the United States, embolden its adversaries, demoralize friends and allies, and eviscerate the world that America seeks to build.


When we step back from the language and imperatives of grand strategy, the case for the United States to rethink its grand strategy is fundamentally simple. It is designed to meet serious threats while creating and taking advantage of strategic opportunities. To continue on the present course of "drifting" from crisis to crisis effectively invites powers to believe that America is in decline. Worse, Americans, too, might believe wrongly that the nation’s decline is inevitable.

A strategic weakness with American foreign policy is the deep and enduring political polarization in Washington that complicates, and often paralyzes, U.S. policymaking. While the United States once conducted its foreign policy on a bipartisan basis, we now see divisions on virtually all issues. Washington’s failure to move beyond this polarized environment puts at risk its ability to act with one voice on foreign policy. Essentially, it puts at risk the entire enterprise of grand strategy because a deeply divided nation cannot implement its resources and interests effectively.

By definition, American grand strategy demands that policymakers and politicians take the long view. While it is an enduring challenge for policymakers in Washington to look beyond the next election, the nation has no choice. It must build a grand strategy that addresses how the United States deals with the future that extends beyond the coming months or years. Abroad, the nation must work with other states and institutions to shape the secure international order that all states desperately need. The alternative is a world marked by uncertainty, fear, and strife.

Such a strategy must evoke a positive vision of the peace, security, and prosperity to which American policymakers should aspire and the public energetically endorses. It should express, perhaps more than any other idea, the principles that Americans are more likely to embrace, which rest on democratic and shared values that are not unique to the United States.

To be successful, America’s grand strategy should demonstrate a sense of optimism that this state, while working with others, can build a more secure, peaceful, and prosperous world. This optimism is based on the simple, yet powerful, principle that all states need to work together to confront dangers in this world. These dangers call for reinforcing the foundations of American power, strengthening American leadership, and building strong and lasting alliances that can work cooperatively in promoting a better world.

A grand strategy must cultivate the resources, ingenuity, and tools of our irrepressibly innovative and dynamic society. As importantly, it gives policymakers and the public a positive notion of what American foreign policy seeks to accomplish.

It articulates a vision of the world we want to build and the risks we confront, while reassuring the American people that their nation’s foreign policy is organized on the basis of prudent principles. With such principles, the nation can avoid the dual perils of drift and overreach or fixating on tired arguments about the nation’s inevitable decline.

If we are to assure America’s future security and prosperity, we need a new national grand strategy that harnesses America’s spirit, sense of optimism, and perseverance to help the nation meet the challenges and grasp the opportunities of this era.

When we think about the alternatives, the United States simply has no choice.