Accepting Limits: How to Adapt to a Copernican World
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”
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