Issue #23, Winter 2012

Accepting Limits: How to Adapt to a Copernican World

To read the other essays in the “First Principles: America and the World” symposium, click here.

One of the most seductive deceptions of the Bush years was that once he was gone, America would regain its global reputation and place of leadership and all would be well. But the world was changing in many ways that would have held true even if there had not been a George W. Bush—and even with a Barack Obama.

For all the efforts to articulate these and related changes in the classic international relations parlance of unipolar, bipolar, and multipolar worlds, they are better captured as the transformation from a “Ptolemaic” to a “Copernican” world. Back in the second century A.D., Ptolemy developed a conception of the universe that held the Earth to be at the center, with all the other planets revolving around it. So was the United States seen by many, especially within the United States itself, as being at the center of the Cold War world—the wielder of power, the economic engine, the bastion of free-world ideology. International institutions were designed largely in America’s image, the terms of cooperation largely set by Washington. When the Cold War finally ended with the defeat of the Soviet Union, the world seemed even more Ptolemaic—the United States the sole surviving superpower, the U.S. economy driving globalization, democracy sweeping the world.

Not anymore. The twenty-first-century world is a Copernican one. The United States is not at the center. We have our own orbit. But other countries do too, and they all have their own interests, their own national identities, their own domestic politics. While we still have some gravitational pull, it’s not so strong that others orbit around us.

We see this in particular in two developments. One is the diffusion of power, especially evident in the eastward and southward shift in economic vigor. China is, of course, Exhibit A in this trend. But it’s not just China. As Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric CEO and now chair of the White House economic competitiveness advisory panel, acknowledged, “The billion people joining the middle class in Asia”—not U.S. consumers—are the “engine [of] global growth.” And it’s not just Asia. Overall, emerging economies will account for about 60 percent of global growth this year and next, up from about 25 percent a decade ago. The International Energy Agency projects that more than 90 percent of growth in world oil demand will come from non-OECD countries. In 2010, emerging market firms accounted for a third of the world’s $2.4 trillion in mergers and acquisitions.

Nor do we dominate the diplomatic stage as we once did. While we still take on lead diplomatic roles more often than anyone else, there’s been a “pluralization of diplomacy”—there are more states forging relationships with one another on a wider range of issues than ever before. We’ve been seeing new diplomatic brokers, states playing third-party roles such as Qatar in Lebanon and Darfur, Brazil in some South American conflicts, Turkey in the Middle East. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States will continue to have a role, but without the Camp David exclusivity of years past.

While U.S. military power remains vastly superior to that of any other state (or coalition of states), the military balance is much less central to overall systemic structure than during the Cold War. It bears heavily on some issues, such as Asia-Pacific and Persian Gulf regional security. But in a world in which there is much less of a shared and overarching threat, the currency of military strength is less convertible to other forms of power and influence than when such threats were more defining.

Even our soft power is not as potent as we like to assume. Electing Barack Obama President was seen by many around the world as a validation of America’s core claims of equal opportunity and commitment to diversity. But anti-immigration sentiment against Hispanics and increasing tensions with Muslim Americans cut in the other direction. And while our political system still stands out as a guarantor of individual freedoms, its capacity for making effective policy and addressing the many problems we face is hardly a model. Representative of the dim global assessment of the U.S. political system was an editorial in India’s Hindustan Times about our debt-ceiling fiasco last summer: “If routine has become Armageddon, the U.S. cannot be counted on when the tough decisions are being made.” Indeed, in which areas of public policy does the United States lead the world these days? Health care? Public education? Infrastructure? Job creation? We close museums while others build them. Even our vaunted Horatio Alger social mobility lags behind most other industrial democracies.

The second Copernican development is a twenty-first century version of nationalism and nonalignment that sees very few states today defining their foreign policies principally in a pro- or anti-American framework. Thus, the Indian national security adviser stressed on the eve of Obama’s November 2010 visit that while India seeks better relations with the United States, its foreign policy remains one of “genuine nonalignment.” The debate about whether Turkey has become anti-Western and pro-Islamist misses the ways in which a Turkish foreign ministry official expressed their new nationalist logic: “We have waited for the big powers to make up their minds on big issues and we just follow them. For the past several years we have made up our own minds.” In Brazil, while some anti-Americanism is sprinkled in, the rhetoric is much more about its own national narrative of greatness going back to its founding. While not as aggressive or antagonistic as in other eras, other countries and rising powers are asserting national interests and identities. As one recent study put it, “countries small, medium and large are all banking more on their own strategic initiative than on formal alliances or institutional relationships to defend their interests and advance their goals.”

These constraints on old-fashioned domination don’t just bear on the United States. They also bear on China. Even assuming it aspires to hegemony—an assessment on which China experts disagree—comparable dynamics of power diffusion and other hallmarks of a Copernican world make Chinese hegemony highly unlikely. The year 2010 was instructive in this regard. After two decades of generally cooperative Asian regional policies, China did much more regional muscle-flexing, including acting assertively in the East China Sea and South China Sea, defending North Korea despite its provocations, placing export limits on rare-earth minerals, and pressing border disputes with India. These moves spurred pushbacks from a range of neighbors and set up an almost classic balancing act for the United States. Globally, China’s threats to punish states that attended the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony for human rights activist and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo were largely dismissed as petulant. And its business-is-business approach has been inciting resistance in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere over labor, environmental, and other concerns. Peaceful rise is one thing, assertive dominance quite another.

The twenty-first century is going to be neither China’s century nor America’s. Conservatives may agree on the former but still deride the latter as declinism. It’s “wav[ing] the white flag of surrender… assert[ing] America’s time has passed,” Mitt Romney declared in his coming-out foreign policy speech in October. But it’s conservatives’ denialism of systemic change that is the real problem. Effective strategy requires a clear-eyed assessment of the world as it is, not as it was. Indeed it was none other than Hans Morgenthau, the grand old man of modern American realism, who warned against the power-sapping effects of “residues of formerly adequate modes of thought and action now rendered obsolete by a new social reality.”

Or to put it another way: If you don’t accurately assess the playing field, you can’t come up with an effective game plan. For America to shift to a strategy more suited to a Copernican rather than Ptolemaic world, progressives need to change how they think about foreign policy and how they talk about it in the domestic political context. There are four points that underpin such an approach.

U.S. Leadership: Beyond Rhetoric to Strategy

America as The Leader, still the bipartisan trope of choice, is much too Ptolemaic for a Copernican world. But “leading from behind” also clearly didn’t cut it; indeed it ranks among the most politically radioactive statements of recent vintage. While campaign strategists climb back up rhetorical heights, foreign policy strategists need to differentiate among three types of situations—and determine the proper course of action for each of them.

The first type of situation is one in which interests are shared by a broad swath of the international community but an impetus is needed for collective action. In such situations the United States is still the actor most able to provide the leadership needed for the world to act. Take Libya, for example: With the Arab Spring accentuating longstanding and widespread anti-Gadhafi positions, a broad consensus began to take shape about the need for action (particularly manifested in the Arab League resolution and British and French positions), the legitimizing basis for it (the emerging norm of the responsibility to protect), and the authorizing forum (the UN Security Council). But the world needed the United States to use its diplomatic standing and savvy to get the UN Security Council resolution passed, and its military capacity to get the intervention started. It was less about where the United States was leading from than about what it was leading toward: results.

Another scenario is found when other states regard their interests as different from ours. In these instances, U.S. diplomacy should engage in the give and take of hammering out genuine partnerships rather than just say, “Follow our lead.” Call it a “sweet spot partnership strategy”; think of it as a diplomatic analog to counterinsurgency warfare doctrine. A key factor in the success of our counterinsurgency strategy during the Iraq War surge was the shift in approach, from going in and imposing what we thought was right and in the Sunnis’ interests, to assessing the stakes and developing a strategy more attuned to the perspectives of those with whom we sought to work. A “sweet spot” strategy that takes account of differences in priorities and perspectives as well as personalities and politics seems applicable to partnership diplomacy as well. It means we do less talking past each other and try to find common ground. This is especially important with emerging powers such as Brazil and Turkey, given their more assertive nationalism.

A third kind of situation is one in which others believe their policy ideas for how to organize the international system are, to be blunt, better than ours. One area in which we can see this is in financial reform. It’s not hard to see why, in the wake of the U.S.-induced global financial crash, other nations are reluctant to continue ceding international financial leadership to Washington and Wall Street. Reforming the international financial system and reducing the near-monopoly position of the dollar, as pushed by the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and others, are examples. In such instances, it may not just be better for others, but better for us as well, if we showed some “followership.”

What this leadership strategy lacks in rhetorical resonance it makes up for in savvy and shrewdness. It remains true that few international problems can be met without the United States playing a significant role. But how we play that role—when we push, when we persuade, when we recognize that not all the best ideas are made in Washington—should be based more on what solves problems rather than what sounds rhapsodic. Indeed this is the essence of progressivism: forward looking, problem solving, true to tradition, but adaptive to changing realities.

Shake Off “Soft On”

Let’s be honest. Ever since Vietnam many Democrats have been wary of the accusation that they are “soft.” This has gotten in the way of sound strategic analysis about when to use military force and how to do so optimally. We saw the results in the mix of excessive deference and political calculation with which so many congressional Democrats approached the Iraq War vote in 2002. It also, frankly, was evident in the 2009 Afghanistan policy review. That debate was cast largely in terms of troop numbers and the corresponding counterinsurgency-counterterrorism military strategy. Missing from the list of options was a “diplomatic surge” emphasizing concerted efforts at regional diplomacy as an alternative to a military buildup or even as an integral component (not just the lower-priority element it has been) of a force-diplomacy strategy.

Yet no less than Henry Kissinger, hardly a dove, called for “a consortium of countries…protecting and guaranteeing” Afghan stability based on the shared calculus that “virtually no country within strategic reach of Afghanistan, or certainly in the region, has an interest in seeing a Taliban victory, the presence of Al Qaeda as a state within a state, and the potential splintering of the country into Pashtun and non-Pashtun elements.” Nothing about this strategy would have been easy—but nothing about the option chosen has been easy, either. And even with the best-case scenario of the current strategy, high-priority regional diplomacy is crucial for any prospect of sustainable security going forward.

Progressives can’t just leave it to conservatives like Robert Gates to show that it’s strategic, not soft, to have a high bar for another major war. As the drumbeat against Iran grows louder with the latest spate of warnings about the acceleration of its nuclear-weapons programs as well as the accusations of a terrorist plot inside the United States, we need to think smart, not just posture tough. It may well be that the use of force would achieve more than it would complicate. But the net assessment needs to be made, and made objectively without political coloration or fear of how conservatives will try to paint it.

The same goes for other use-of-force issues. More limited uses of force such as special operations—like the bin Laden raid—and drone strikes have their utility as part of a counterterrorism strategy, as do affirmations of the Responsibility to Protect such as in Libya, as long as they are used judiciously. Strategic assessments of whether a particular action will work, not political calculations of how it will look, are essential to conducting progressive diplomacy in a post-hegemonic world.

Moving Beyond “Our S.O.B.s”

Issue #23, Winter 2012
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Mayhill Fowler:

I wrote a very similar piece using the same contrast (Ptolemaic/Copernican), the same examples in much the same order, a month or so ago. Curious coincidence, Mr. Jentleson.

Dec 13, 2011, 11:29 AM

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