Despite Political Blunders, U.S. Still the 'Go-To' Nation
The United States has been acting as if it were trying to commit “preemptive superpower suicide,” foreign policy expert Robert Kagan said Aug. 16 at the Brookings Institution.
The debt-ceiling crisis brought to light a dilemma that the nation faces: Slash military spending and risk superpower status, or spare the Pentagon from budget cuts and continue to run up the debt. Kagan believes that it should not be an either-or choice, and that the United States for the foreseeable future will be seen as the only nation that can provide global security.
“If the consequence of the debt crisis is the unnecessary raiding of the Pentagon coffers at precisely the moment that people, particularly in Asia, are looking for the United States to continue playing its military role, that’s when the decline begins,” Kagan said. “I really worry that we are talking ourselves into a decline that needn’t occur and that we’re committing preemptive superpower suicide for fear of dying.”
Part of the agreement to increase the debt ceiling created a target for deficit reduction of $1.2 trillion. If Congress fails to come up with a rational way to do make these cuts, the back-up plan is a set of automatic reductions that includes $600 billion in defense spending.
Brookings experts described the debt-ceiling debate as unnecessary and embarrassing — a display for the rest of the world of a weakened superpower. Combined with slow economic growth and high unemployment, political ineffectiveness only fuels that perception, experts said. Although Kagan pointed out that predictions of U.S. decline are not new. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the American brand was tarnished by Vietnam, Watergate, Watts riots and a series of assassinations.
“I don’t even think we’re in that ballpark now,” he said. “The world is accustomed to American political dysfunctionality. I don’t think it’s quite that shocking.”
Besides, he wondered, who could fill the United States’ shoes?
Many European powers also are drowning in debt, and the stronger Latin American countries are just beginning to grow their legs.
“Who are we competing with but equally dysfunctional Europe and dysfunctional Japan?” said Fiona Hill, director of the Brookings Center on the United States and Europe. “Dysfunction seems to be breaking out all over.”
She noted that Russia is trying to spin a narrative about the United States being in the same position the Soviet Union was 20 years ago before its collapse — overextended militarily in unsuccessful wars, massively in debt with alliances in tatters, and figuring out a way to get out of Afghanistan.
“For Russia, it’s what goes around comes around,” Hill said.
But most eyes on are Asia. The perceived teetering of the United States has shifted more attention to China, which is now being viewed as the main driver of the global economy.
“Everyone in the region wants to benefit from China’s economic growth and to participate in that, and they all are,” said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings. “China is the largest trade partner of everyone in the region. As of 2000, we were.”
Despite concerns about China, everyone has an interest in that nation’s success, including the United States. Leaders want to see China flourish, but within a reasonable economic framework, Lieberthal said.
The last thing the world needs is a global economy flying with just one engine powered by China, said Mauricio Cardenas, director of the Latin America Initiative at Brookings. There is a group of emerging countries with low public debt and high growth that also are battling for position, including Brazil, he noted.
But the United States is still viewed as the “go-to” country. There are no legitimate challengers for the superpower title, Kagan said. Even with the country in financial turmoil, the world is still turning to the United States in times of crisis.
“Coming after Iraq, coming after George W. Bush, coming after the economic debacle, coming after the tarnishing of brand America, the Arab League and Europeans were practically begging the United States to use force in Libya,” Kagan said. That fact is “astonishing and noteworthy,” he said.
“What is more likely? The United States in a state of terminal decline that we’re going to be witnessing decade after decade after decade or China running up against some challenge which may seriously shake its system?” Kagan said he would bet on the United States bouncing back in either President Obama’s second term or a new president’s first term. And, unlike some of the other experts on the panel, he predicted the country would not shy away from engaging in a "moderately sized" military action within the next five years.
“The genius of our system is in recovery,” his colleague Lieberthal noted. “It’s not in avoiding mistakes. It’s recovering from those mistakes.”