Strength Through Restraint
America can scale back its global ambitions and still emerge stronger. In fact, it’s the only way.
The United States is still by far the most powerful country on earth but seems increasingly incapable of doing much with its power. The hopes of the Bush Administration for unilateral global domination backed by military power and “democratic” ideology collapsed in ruins. The Obama Administration has achieved limited reconciliation with Russia and prevented a deterioration of relations with other countries, but has proved incapable of resolving critical international challenges, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the dispute between India and Pakistan, the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, and the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, China continues to grow stronger, and other leading states seem less and less willing to follow America’s lead on key issues. At the same time, Americans are very far from ready to surrender their global primacy. A central question for the future of the United States and humanity is whether, and how, the United States can accommodate rising new powers without conflict and, if possible, cooperate with them to resolve regional and local problems.
Charles Kupchan’s latest book therefore comes at a most opportune moment. How Enemies Become Friends is a highly important contribution to the debate in the United States on how to manage U.S. foreign and security policy in a world of considerably reduced U.S. power. Above all, Kupchan provides the historical and theoretical underpinning for ideas of strategic accommodation: the need for America to take large-scale and visible steps to acknowledge the power and the interests of other states, and, when necessary, to scale back its own regional ambitions and roles.
The current widespread perception of U.S. decline is to some extent an illusion built upon an illusion: That is to say, for a brief decade between approximately 1992 and 2003, American fantasies—Republican-led, but more bipartisan than many progressives would care to admit—of unipolar dominance and unlimited possibilities were so overblown that everything since must appear a “decline,” even if it is in fact only a return to the historical norm.
The apparent stalemate in Afghanistan is in many respects only a lower-intensity, slow-motion replay of the U.S. defeat by guerrillas in Vietnam, the French in Vietnam and Algeria, and so on. As for the fact that the Russians and their local allies have been able to block the idea of NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, this too is a return to the historical norm, and something for which previous generations of U.S. statesmen would actually have been grateful—since an Eisenhower, Dean Acheson, or even Theodore Roosevelt would have regarded the idea of the United States making security guarantees to these countries as nothing short of barking madness.
For that matter, even in the Middle East, where a bipartisan consensus now exists that the United States must maintain both a heavy military presence and an absolute commitment to Israeli security, it is worth remembering that previous generations of the U.S. establishment would have disagreed radically. Until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, only a very small number of U.S. forces was stationed in the region. Despite that meager presence, America for decades managed to contain threats and secure at least adequate supplies of oil (quite apart from the question of whether it would not be better for the world’s climate and the U.S. economy for America to wean itself off it). As for the present level of U.S. commitment to Israel, Eisenhower could not have imagined this, and, if he could have imagined it, would have regarded it as monstrous. This was demonstrated, among other actions, by Eisenhower’s successful opposition to the British, French, and Israeli attack on Egypt in 1957, and his insistence on full Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai.
Nonetheless, so widely and deeply was the unipolar illusion shared that ratcheting expectations down from these heights will be a tricky business—as the most cursory examination of recent Republican foreign-policy rhetoric makes clear, whether it concerns continued pressure on Russia, threats of an attack on Iran, or advocacy of the containment of China. Indeed, managing this kind of scaling back has been extremely difficult for almost every country that has had to undertake it, and many, such as France in its handling of decolonization after 1945, have suffered disasters in the process.
Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University, served as director for European affairs on the National Security Council during the Clinton years. The idea of strategic adjustment is one that has interested him for a long time. In 1994, he published The Vulnerability of Empire, looking at how countries at the height of their power engaged in self-defeating behavior that helped doom them to decline. Kupchan therefore never shared the illusions that under George W. Bush did so much damage to America’s position in the world.
The greatest strength of Kupchan’s book is its extraordinarily wide-ranging account of different processes of strategic accommodation, restraint, and reconciliation through history—including a number of examples that are very rarely examined in international relations studies (the case of the Iroquois, for one). The drawback of this range is that it risks a degree of incoherence, and indeed, it would be a mistake to look in this work for detailed plans for how the United States should conduct its present foreign policy. Rather, Kupchan on the one hand offers a strong basis on which to argue against the classical realists that a stable, peaceful order is achievable, and that international anarchy is not the inevitable norm; and, on the other hand, to argue with liberals that this peaceful order does not depend (at least in the short-to-medium term) on the spread of democracy.
Kupchan’s work on strategic accommodation is of immense relevance to the single greatest issue in international relations over the next generation: the relationship between the United States and China. Can the United States adjust to growing Chinese power? Can China exercise that power in ways that do not drive both America’s and China’s neighbors into an alliance to contain China, with disastrous consequences for world peace? If this relationship can be managed successfully, then there is hope of maintaining a reasonably peaceful and consensual international order. If, however, America and China fall out seriously, then human affairs in general will suffer a grievous blow.
In terms of real competing interests between Washington and Beijing, the key issue of the future may be resources—especially energy, but quite possibly other vital raw materials as well. Indeed, if America cannot reduce its existing consumption, and if China continues to grow as it has over the past two decades without finding a new and very un-American model for its development, then at some point competition would seem inevitable. However, China will not be the only economy competing with America, and what form this larger competition takes will be profoundly shaped by the nature of the relationship between the two countries.
Two interrelated ideas current in the United States are especially menacing to hopes of a good relationship with China: belief in the need to maintain unilateral hegemony throughout the world, and belief in “democratic peace,” or the idea that truly peaceful and consensual relations can be assured only between democracies.
The first belief is characteristic of the neoconservatives and most of the Republican Party. Despite the severe damage suffered by the United States when the Bush Administration put this belief into practice, and despite the fact that it is so obviously beyond America’s resources, it remains extraordinarily powerful. It is related to a deeply rooted belief in America’s global mission to lead the world toward democracy.
This, in turn, has become tied up with democratic peace theory, an idea whose origins stretch back to Immanuel Kant and had nothing to do with America. Neocons have no monopoly on the idea—it is widely shared in the Democratic Party, especially among so-called liberal hawks such as Will Marshall and his colleagues at the Progressive Policy Institute. Both neoconservatives and liberals have put forward harder or softer ideas of an American-led global “alliance of democracies,” and for obvious reasons have found backing from the Israeli and Indian lobbies in the United States, who regularly use the (problematically) “democratic” nature of their states to argue that they are natural allies of America—which should then support them against their local rivals, including, in India’s case, China.
Kupchan’s book is a very cogent argument against these two ideas, as well as a valuable work of comparative history. Through close and acute analysis of a fascinating range of historical cases of reconciliation between former rivals, from the formation of the Iroquois Confederation and the creation of the United Arab Emirates, to the British empire’s agreements with America, France, Japan, and Russia in the 20 years before World War I, he shows how the foundations of lasting peace have been laid initially through strategic accommodation, and later cemented by compatibility of social and economic orders. Kupchan’s book has an explicit political intention: to support the diplomatic efforts of the Obama Administration and the wider tendencies in U.S. foreign policy that they represent; and to combat the notion that international peace depends chiefly either on unilateral American power or on the spread of American-style democratic institutions. Referring to two of his historical examples of successful international reconciliation and cooperation, he writes:
Although the Iroquois Confederation and the Concert of Europe are now historical artifacts, both amply demonstrate the potential for diplomacy to tame the geopolitical rivalry that often seems an inescapable feature of international politics. President Barack Obama appreciates this potential; he entered office determined not only to repair America’s frayed relations with traditional allies, but also to use America’s clout to address some of the world’s most intractable conflicts….The Obama administration clearly believes that enemies can become friends.
Kupchan argues strongly that shared democratic institutions are not necessary for countries to achieve good relations, though cultural and political compatibility do become vital at a later (and much rarer) stage among states moving toward political union. Drawing on the work of American scholars Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder on the relationship between nascent democracy and nationalism, Kupchan shows that far from being an essential underpinning of peace, democracy—or at least new democracies—can just as easily be a force for nationalist hysteria and aggression. Thus in the 1850s, the rise of democratic politics and the mass media in Britain, by bringing chauvinist pressure to bear on foreign policy, helped destroy what had been for the previous four decades a somewhat competitive but peacefully managed relationship between Britain and Russia. In today’s world, any American who thinks that a Chinese political system with a strong element of democratic nationalism would be a more accommodating U.S. partner than the existing China may be in for a very nasty shock, given the degree of militant nationalism that exists within the Chinese population at large. The implication for U.S. policy is clear, argues Kupchan: “[T]he United States should assess whether countries are enemies or friends by evaluating their statecraft, not the nature of their domestic institutions.”
f there is a key obstacle today to strategic accommodations between the United States and present rivals, it would seem to lie in domestic factors, two of which are especially significant. The first is the growing dysfunction of institutions and even, to a degree, of U.S. democracy itself. Integral to this is the great power of the Senate in foreign policy under the Constitution, coupled with the power of individual senators to defy party discipline and advance or block particular causes. Senators in turn operate in a situation where the indifference of the mass of the population to the details of foreign affairs gives tremendous power to particular lobbies. This helps create a scenario in which senators and congressmen have major political incentives to commit themselves rhetorically to ambitious and even aggressive foreign policy goals, and very little incentive to scale them back. Coupled with the strength of great-power nationalism in American culture, one might almost speak of a “path dependency” in congressional politics pushing America on some issues toward confrontation and not compromise. That was true of the quite unnecessary pursuit of aggressive and hostile policies toward Russia in the 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, things are not hopeless. Under Obama, a new détente has been achieved, and enough Republican senators proved willing to accept and pass the New START agreement.
The second domestic factor is the economic decline of the American middle class, coupled with what the conservative religious elements among them see as a permanent assault on their traditional values by forces of cultural modernity. The swath of the public that thinks this way also tends to support more and more irrational policies, including in the area of foreign affairs. A good deal of Republican rhetoric in this field suggests that this is what is happening now. Mitt Romney, generally viewed as a moderate and pragmatic Republican, offered a compendium of conservative shibboleths in an article in The Washington Post in which he argued against the New START Treaty and the Obama Administration’s strategy of accommodation with Russia, employing the kind of crafted statistics about the number of Russian missiles and saber rattling about a direct Russian nuclear threat to America as if we were still in 1960.
The United States has throughout its history repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to recover from episodes both of national hysteria and of economic crisis—as indeed the election of the Obama Administration and its very real achievements remind us. Nevertheless, the spectacle of the American right today gives additional support to Kupchan’s argument that democratic institutions in themselves are not a certain barrier to aggression in international affairs.
Accepting Kupchan’s views does not require American liberals to abandon their ultimate objectives as far as international affairs are concerned; indeed, Kupchan himself has not done so. Both democracy as an internal system of government and peace as an international order remain valid and legitimate goals, which cannot be abandoned without gravely compromising both liberalism and America’s national identity and claims to an enduring historical legacy.
However, if liberals wish to formulate a practical strategy that is clearly distinguished from that of the neoconservatives (and the liberal hawks, who are neoconservatives in sheep’s clothing), then they need to learn the following lessons from Kupchan: That democracy around the world is a long-term goal, not a short-term tactic; that in the short-to-medium term, peace and international cooperation (especially on climate change) have to be prioritized, which means accommodation with authoritarian regimes; and that this accommodation will require a conscious, deliberate, and clear scaling back of American ambitions and strategic posture in certain areas of the world.
This approach will be deeply uncomfortable for many Americans, including liberals. But the alternative is for the United States to exhaust itself in a hopeless attempt at maintaining global primacy, while at the same time destroying the possibility of peaceful cooperation with China and other powers. Such a future would be bad for the United States, bad for peace, and bad for the world.
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