The End of American Power — Again

Posted on October 26, 2010

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From DoD Buzz…It’s not quite clockwork, but it looks like it’s time again for us to have the anguished debate — is America in decline and how stark are the limits on American power.

We had this familial argument when the Communist Party took over China. We had this argument when the Russians stunned the world by launching Sputnik. It recurred during Vietnam. President Jimmy Carter made his famous malaise speech just to keep the pattern unbroken. President Bill Clinton sought the peace dividend and pulled out of Somalia and refused to try and stop the genocide in Rwanda.

Then the last administration came along and resurrected American triumphalism. We would fix the Middle East. We would punish and contain the Axis of Evil. Saddam Hussein would be removed and punished for threatening the world and killing his own people with weapons of mass destruction.

Eric Edelman, former undersecretary of Defense for policy under President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, says variations of this debate occur about once every decade and that they get more rambunctious in hard economic downturns.

With Reps. Barney Frank and Ron Paul leading the charge for enormous cuts to the defense budget, Australia telling the world (and us) that it can’t rely on the US in the future, the Chinese sub surfacing in sight of an American carrier, and all the national anguish centering on Iraq and Afghanistan it seems we are once again in the cycle of questioning our exceptionalism, our global mission, even our very identity.

Here’s the intelligence community’s view of the situation, which Edelman takes as his point of departure: “In November 2008, the National Intelligence Council released Global Trends 2025 which argued that ‘the international system — as constructed following the Second World War — will be almost unrecognizable by 2025 owing to the rise of emerging powers, a globalizing economy, a historic transfer of relative wealth and economic power from West to East, and the growing influence of non-stateactors. By 2025 the international system will be a global multipolar one with gaps in national power continuing to narrow between developed and developing countries” [emphasis in original].‘This conclusion represented a striking departure from the NIC’s conclusion four years earlier in Mapping the Global Future 2020 that unipolarity was likely to remain a persistent condition of the international system.

Edelman, now working with the much-respected Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has penned a report for them titled, “Understanding America’s Contested Primacy.”

Edelman’s bottom line: having this argument usually results in our finding solutions to what ails us. And there is, for the foreseeable future, little likelihood that that the US will lose its place as “the leading state in the international system with a decisive preponderance in all the underlying components of power: economic, military, technological and geopolitical.” It may not mean, in Madeleine Albright’s felicitous phrase, that we are the “indispensable nation,” but the U.S. will be more than primus inter pares. In Edelman’s words: “Although the United States will face increasing competition from rising regional powers and potentially new nuclear weapons states, much will depend on how well the United States as a nation is capable of mobilizing its residual strengths and managing the policy challenges it faces.”

That will mean that the U.S. will have to rely more on allies and partners. “Australia will need to take on a greater burden with us in the western Pacific,” he said. Vietnam and Indonesia are also likely new close friends in that region.

I asked him if we are at a strategic turning point in global affairs. He said he thought we are “an inflection point.” In a fine bit of understatement, Edelman said “a lot will also depend on outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan.“

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