In July 2014, Salon, the online magazine, loudly proclaimed that “the American century is over.” They were not the first to do so – numerous books and articles had made similar claims over the preceding years. Their arguments boiled down to this: America will continue as a world power, but not the dominant world power. In short, American power is declining while the power of states like China, Brazil, and India are rising. This growing chorus of “America is in decline” has spawned a vigorous debate on both sides of the political aisle, with little agreement. While pundits may continue to debate the issue, Americans are left to wonder, is American power truly in decline?
As if sensing that the end is near, many Americans see a nation beset by economic, military, and political challenges and can’t help but think there might be some truth to the pessimism they hear. Abroad, an increasingly bellicose Russia has invaded Ukraine; China has planted its flag in the South China Sea and is building islands as a display of power; and the Islamic State is spreading across the Arab world and even recruiting Americans to fight on American soil. In spite of these clearly undesirable events, there is good reason to believe things are not as bad as they seem.
While this may seem a strange position to take, the reality of our strategic circumstance is far more positive than world events suggest. What many seem to forget is that the United States is not alone in facing these new challenges. Instead, allies and partners are looking to the United States in ways we have not seen since the Cold War. Let us explain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin tasted post-Cold War globalism and didn’t seem to like what he found. There can be little doubt that Russian power is significantly diminished in a world where nuclear weapons are not the sine qua non they once were. After all, how does a nation with a declining population, little vertical economic integration, and powerful oligopolies that control a corrupt economic system make its way in the world? It doesn’t.
Therefore the next best thing is to go back to what you know. Unfortunately, we do not live in 1945 and despite Putin’s best attempts to make this a classic two-player game between Russia and the United States, the truth is much more complicated. Europe, while not militarily strong, is integrated and developed and has no desire to see the Iron Curtain fall again. The result of this is that Russia is isolated and the United States – despite all its foibles and missteps – is eminently huggable once again. Thanks to Russia, America is popular from Britain to Russia’s border, something not seen since dissidents covertly took courage from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts during the Cold War.
Perhaps Stephen Pifer of the Brookings Institute illustrates this change in perspective best when he writes of the NATO nuclear mission, “His [Putin] nuclear chest-thumping, on top of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and support for the conflict in eastern Ukraine, has consequences. Five years ago, many in NATO questioned the need to keep U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe. Today, that debate has largely gone silent, and plans are moving forward to modernize the bombs and their delivery aircraft.”
China, too, is playing its part in making America popular again. Yes, China is flexing its muscles as it moves toward its century-long plan of national rejuvenation, but in so doing it is spooking its neighbors. Despite China’s economic clout, the nations of the region want the United States to be a part of the future so that it can play a central role in balancing Chinese power and acting as a brake on Chinese aggressiveness. Here again, some try to place the United States and China in a two-player game. Yet American alliance relationships in Asia, which are now stronger than ever (thanks to China), must be considered when judging interactions in the Asia-Pacific.
China too is hedging. Its “One Belt, One Road” policy ensures that it has an alternative to conflict with the United States if the Chinese government cannot convince the U.S. to vacate the premises. Today, China faces the unenviable position of having numerous sea-lane chokepoints for its imports and exports – upon which its economy relies. It is probable that its efforts in the South China Sea are focused not only on defending their lines of commerce and communication (LOCCs), but are also a way to gradually push the United States out of the region – much in the way you boil a live lobster by slowly raising the temperature in the pot. Beijing is well aware of its own strategic weakness. China would not have to defeat just the United States in Asia, but the U.S. alongside its many partners and allies – a far more daunting task.
With the Middle East in turmoil and Iran close to a nuclear weapon, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) is essentially attempting to establish the eighth caliphate at a time when many governments in the region are seeking broad stability, which the United States can aid in providing. Rather than looking at recent American foreign policy in the region as the cause for the Islamic State’s rise, it is probably better to go back to the last caliphate. The seventh caliphate – the Ottoman Empire – ended in 1924. Its demise saw the rise of a secular Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He saw the abolition of the caliphate as necessary if Turkey was going to develop into a modern state. Meanwhile, the rest of the Middle East was divided by the victorious powers, in the wake of World War I, in ways inconsistent with the region’s long history. A number of dictatorships arose to keep the malformed borders of these new states from erupting into violence.
The Islamic State is seeking to return the region to a pan-Islamic form of government – the historical norm – and as such is presenting the region with the same dilemma that Ataturk faced almost a century ago: Will the Middle East see the universal application of sharia law or will the region adopt a more secular form of government like the one envisioned by Ataturk? Until this is decided by the eventual defeat or success of the Islamic State, and proper borders are delimited in the region, we can expect turmoil in the Middle East.
Whatever the outcome, there is one thing for certain – leaders in every capital from Riyadh to Tehran want America to remain actively engaged in the region, even if they don’t always like what it does. Thanks to the Islamic State, the United States has more friends in the region than ever. While the Arab world decides its fate, it sees America as a crucial player in any solution.
American Alliances and Partnerships
Early in World War II, Winston Churchill explained his desire to see the United States join the war against Nazi Germany saying, “There is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies – and that is to fight without them.” Even a cursory study of Churchill’s actions as prime minister clearly suggest that he valued allies and the United States in particular. Indeed it was the American alliance he felt was necessary to Britain’s survival. If Churchill could just convince the Americans to join the war, German defeat was certain.
Seventy-five years later, little has changed in the sense that many nations still look to the United States for the preservation of their security when things look bleak. Today, America has more allies and partners than it has the time and resources to support. With Russia, China, and the Islamic State flexing their collective muscles, the world looks to the United States to take the lead. Yet, it is not 1941 and not everything is possible through American power alone.
Some regions have the capabilities required to address their own security challenges. Europe, for example, is sufficiently united and developed to deal with Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine. The Indo-Asia-Pacific is also capable of balancing China’s rise. The Middle East is less capable of dealing with continued strife in the region, but the fundamental answer to the region’s problems must be answered by the nations and peoples of the region. In all three regions, America’s breadth of diplomatic, economic, and military power combine with like-minded nations to balance those who would return us to the days of power politics.
What then is America’s role in aiding its allies and partners? While the United States must always adhere to the specific obligations of its treaties, it can play a vital role in serving as a voice of reason during challenging times. By championing the values and institutions that led to the current wave of prosperity, which has endured for 70 years, the United States can ensure the continuance of prosperity at home and abroad. Promoting the institutions envisioned at the end of World War II is important for preventing future calamity.
When adversaries or competitors do seek to change the status quo through naked force, the United States must continue to stand with its allies and partners if it wants to remain the leading global power some have forgotten it still remains. Accepting the mantle of leadership being placed on American shoulders, from Tokyo to Berlin, may not always be easy, but the security and prosperity enjoyed over the past seven decades is built upon its willingness to do so. Cultivating friends and getting them to cooperate is as much for America’s benefit as theirs.
With a growing economy, world-class university system, innovative society, and the best military in the world, the United States is well placed to lead in the century ahead. It might not be called “the American century,” but the future will be one Americans can be proud of.
Col. Robert Spalding, PhD is a B-2 pilot and former military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Adam Lowther is a Research Professor at the Air Force Research Institute.