Symposium | The Election & the World

Where in the World Are We?

By Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

Tagged Foreign Policynational security

To judge from the Republican primary campaign as it played out over late 2015 and early 2016, the United States is a pitiful giant in decline, outmaneuvered by Russia and China and besieged by barbarians. Terrorists have captured our politics. A late-2015 poll showed that one in six Americans identified terrorism as the most important problem the country faced, the highest percentage in a decade. The effect was particularly strong on the Republican presidential primary, with calls for the exclusion of Muslims and carpet-bombing Syria, and descriptions of our situation as World War III.

We should not allow ourselves to become too convulsed by terrorism; more on that anon. The next President will have far more than that to deal with, from China to Russia to bolstering global institutions. But let’s begin with some historical context—always useful, but especially so in a campaign season when both candidates and the public tend to lose a sense of perspective.

The current conventional wisdom is that we live in a world of unprecedented disorder. But as Henry Kissinger has written, no truly global world order has ever existed. In 1949, at the peak of American power—when the United States represented nearly half the world’s economy and had sole possession of the atomic bomb—the Chinese Communist Party took control of the world’s largest country, and Stalin’s Soviet Union broke our nuclear monopoly. In the 1950s, which many proclaim the height of American hegemony, President Dwight Eisenhower could not prevent Ho Chi Minh from capturing Dien Bien Phu, nor could he prevent the Soviet invasion of Hungary or the British/French/Israeli invasion of Egypt. In 1968, the Vietnam War led to riots in our streets that caused one of our strongest Presidents on domestic policy not to run for reelection.

We oscillate between triumphalism and declinism. Charles Dickens wrote that Americans always think they are in “an alarming crisis.”

Many pundits bemoan the absence of a “grand strategy,” but pretentious slogans do not a foreign policy make. In a world as complex as the one we face, foreign policy does not fit on a bumper sticker. Indeed, the much-vaunted “containment” strategy of the Cold War years came in many flavors that often led to conflicting policies, some (like the Vietnam War) quite counterproductive. What a President needs is a clear concept of America’s place in the world in order to protect our interests and project our values.

As I wrote in Is the American Century Over?, Americans frequently misunderstand our place in the world. We oscillate between triumphalism and declinism. Charles Dickens wrote that Americans always think they are in “an alarming crisis.” After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, we believed we were in decline. When Japan’s manufacturing outstripped ours in the 1980s, we thought the Japanese were ten feet tall. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, a majority of Americans believed that China was about to overtake the United States. The result is a foreign-policy debate that is often divorced from reality. Yes, the Middle East is in turmoil, and American influence has diminished. But the causes are the revolutions in the Middle East, not American decline, and conditions in the rest of the world are far more propitious. It is a mistake to generalize from the Middle East to the rest of the world.

While the United States has many domestic problems, America is not an empire in decline like ancient Rome, which had no growth in productivity and suffered from bloody civil wars. Thanks to immigration, we are the only major developed country that will not experience a demographic decline by midcentury; our dependence on energy imports is decreasing rather than rising; we are at the forefront of the major technologies (bio-, nano-, information) that will shape this century; and our universities dominate in international rankings. Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, we are not a pitiful giant in absolute decline.

The United States is not about to be overtaken in overall power by another state. Europe lacks unity. Russia is suffering demographic and economic decline. India is growing at an impressive rate, but its $2 trillion economy is one-ninth the size of the United States’s. (The ratio is similar for Brazil and Russia.) The only possible challenger among the “BRICS” is China, a $10 trillion economy (compared to our $18 trillion), growing at something like 6 percent a year.

Managing the rise of China is one of our greatest foreign-policy challenges of this century, and while President Obama’s original term “pivot” had a mistaken implication that we could turn our back on Europe, he was correct to refocus or “rebalance” toward Asia. [See “Pivotal Moment,” Issue #39.] President Bill Clinton’s dual-track China policy, which I call “integrate and insure,” remains the right approach. China was welcomed into the international economic system, but at the same time we reaffirmed our security treaty with Japan as an insurance policy.

Even if the total size of China’s economy (properly measured at exchange rates) were to pass ours in the 2030s, as has been forecast, its per capita income (a better measure of the sophistication of an economy) would still lag well below ours. Moreover, China will not match our hard military power or our soft power of attraction. Unlike a century ago, when a rising Germany (which had passed Britain in industrial production by 1900) created fears that helped precipitate the disaster of 1914, China is not about to pass us in overall power, and we need not succumb to fear. We have the capability to manage the rise of China. As former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once told me, so long as the United States remains open and attracts the talents of the world, China will “give the U.S. a run for its money,” but it will not replace us.

The real challenge the United States faces could be called the “rise of the rest.” Even though the growth in emerging markets is unlikely to create a single challenger that will overtake the United States, the rise of the rest creates a more complex world. In the 1960s, the United States and Europe together represented two-thirds of the world economy, with Japan adding a further 10 percent. Today these three make up less than half. Moreover, the number of countries in the world has grown by more than 20 percent. There are more demands for seats at the table, and that means that diplomacy has become more difficult. One could call these trends “relative decline,” but that description confuses the situation with the rise of identifiable challengers, and it seems more useful to refer simply to the rise of the rest.

As I wrote in my recent book, the American century is not over—if by that we mean the extraordinary period since 1945, in which American preeminence in military, economic, and soft-power resources made us central to the global balance of power and to the provision of global public goods. Contrary to those who proclaim this the “Chinese century,” we have not entered a post-American world. But the continuation of the American century will not look like it did when Henry Luce proclaimed it on the eve of America’s entry into World War II.

Now, with slightly less preponderant influence in a much more complex world, the United States will need to make smart strategic choices both at home and abroad. We will face an increasing number of new transnational issues like climate change, terrorism, cybercrime, and pandemics, whose solution will require power with others as much as power over others. Fortunately, we have more allies and are the center of more networks than any other country. The United States has some 60 treaty allies, China very few.

Fighting terrorism is an important component of foreign policy, but it is not a foreign policy. Campaign rhetoric is rarely a good predictor of policy, but the next President may want to consider a few simple truths about terrorism. Experts estimate the annual risk of an American being killed by a terrorist at one in 3.5 million. Americans are much more likely to die from drowning in a bathtub (one in 950,000). Radical Islamic terrorism kills fewer Americans than attacks by school shooters and disgruntled co-workers. World War II killed some 400,000 Americans. Today’s terrorism is not World War III.

Transnational terrorism is not new, and history shows us that it often takes a generation for a wave of terrorism to burn out. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the anarchist movement killed heads of state in Europe. In the 1970s and ’80s, the “new left” Red Brigades and Red Army Factions in Western Europe and Japan hijacked planes across national borders and killed civilians. Today’s radical jihadist terrorists are a familiar political phenomenon wrapped in religious dress. Many of the leaders are not traditional fundamentalists but people whose identity has been uprooted by globalization and who are searching for it in the imagined community of a pure Islamic caliphate. Defeating them will require time and effort, but ISIS will be defeated.

Terrorism is like jujitsu: The smaller actor uses the strength of the larger actor to defeat him. No terrorist organization is as powerful as a state, and few terrorist movements have succeeded in overthrowing a state. However, if they can lure the state into self-defeating actions, they can hope to prevail. Al Qaeda succeeded in luring the United States into Iraq in 2003. ISIS was born in the rubble of that invasion.

Terrorism is a serious problem that disrupts the quality of our daily life and deserves to be a top priority of our intelligence, police, military, and diplomatic agencies. And it is crucial to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists. But the next President should not let the actions of thugs hijack his or her foreign policy. That would be to fall into the terrorists’ trap.

Some politicians worry about the return of isolationism under Obama, but we have not seen anything like the true isolationism of the 1930s. A better way to understand the past seven years is to see the period as part of a swing of the foreign-policy pendulum between what Columbia University scholar Stephen Sestanovich has called “maximalist” policies and “retrenchment” policies. Retrenchment is not isolationism, but an adjustment of strategic goals and means. Presidents who followed policies of retrenchment have included Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Carter, the first Bush, and Obama. While Nixon believed the United States to be in decline, others, like Eisenhower, did not. They were all strong internationalists when compared to the true isolationists of the 1930s.

As I have argued for some time, periods of maximalist overcommitment have done more damage to America’s power than periods of retrenchment. The domestic political reaction to Woodrow Wilson’s global idealism produced the intense isolationism that tragically delayed America’s response to Hitler. Kennedy’s and Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam produced an inward-oriented decade in the 1970s, and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq helped to create the current popular mood. Lurking behind the political polemics, however, are serious policy debates and strategic choices that the next President must balance as the pendulum swings and we emerge from a period of retrenchment.

For one, how much should the United States spend on defense and foreign policy? A good case can be made for reasonable increases in both. Some believers in imperial overstretch argue that the United States has no choice but to cut back on both, but this is not the case. As a portion of GDP, the United States now spends less than half of what it did at the peak of the Cold War. The problem arises when one looks at budgetary rather than macroeconomic constraints. The problem is not guns versus butter, but guns versus butter versus taxes. Unless the budget is expanded through an increase in taxes, defense expenditures will be locked in a zero-sum trade-off with important investments such as education, infrastructure, and spending on R&D. This can hurt both defense and domestic reform.

Military force is an important component of American power, but it is a blunt instrument. Smart power is the reinforcement of our hard military power with the soft power of attraction. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates often pointed out, we greatly underinvest in our soft-power instruments, such as diplomacy, information, and aid. An American strategy that holds the military balance through alliances and forward-based troops in Europe and East Asia is an important source of influence, but trying to occupy and control the internal politics of nationalistic populations in less developed countries is a recipe for failure.

Another important debate is over intervention. How and when should the United States become involved in the internal affairs of other countries? Obama has said that America should use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our security or that of our allies is threatened. When that is not the case, but conscience urges the country to act—such as when a dictator kills a large number of his citizens—the United States should not act alone and should use force only if there is a good prospect of success. These are reasonable principles, but what if forbearance in a civil war like Syria’s allows a terrorist group to establish a safe haven? And what if that safe haven is not only a humanitarian disaster, but has spillover effects on significant interests, such as in the case of the migration crisis in Europe?

Finding degrees of intervention that do not become a slippery slope will not be easy. Despite his early transformational rhetoric, Obama has made prudence his hallmark. The Hippocratic oath of “first, do no harm” is as important in foreign policy as in medicine. The next Administration must try to influence outcomes by hard and soft-power means, but it should stay out of the business of invasion and occupation. In an age of nationalism and socially mobilized populations, foreign occupation is bound to breed resentment. Eisenhower wisely reached that conclusion in Vietnam in 1954. Particularly in the Middle East, the smart application of military force will be difficult.

The Middle East is undergoing a complex set of revolutions stemming from artificial postcolonial boundaries, religious sectarian strife, and the delayed modernization described in the UN’s Arab Human Development Report. The resulting turmoil may last for decades. It took 25 years after the French Revolution for stability to return to Europe, and interventions by outside powers made things worse rather than better. Even with reduced energy imports from the Middle East, the United States cannot turn its back on the region, because of our interests in Israel, nonproliferation, and human rights, among others. But our policy should be one of “containment plus,” nudging and influencing from the sidelines rather than trying to assert direct control, which would not only be costly but also counterproductive.

Sometimes the search for a grand strategy becomes too grandiose; indeed, the best foreign-policy Presidents have been pragmatists.

In contrast to the Middle East, the regional balance of power makes us welcome in Asia. The rise of China has created concern in India, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries, which have welcomed closer relations with the United States as a result of China’s actions. We do not need a policy of containment of China. “Integrate and insure” remains valid. The only country that can contain China is China.

Other regions also present a favorable outlook for the United States. Europe is troubled by migration and slow economic growth, but it remains vital to our interests. Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine has revived NATO. The danger is not a Europe that becomes too strong, but too weak. If Europe and America remain allied, our resources reinforce each other. Despite the inevitable friction that is slowing the negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, economic separation is unlikely. Direct investment in both directions is higher than with Asia and helps knit the economies together. At the cultural level, Americans and Europeans have sniped at each other for centuries, but we share common values of democracy and human rights more with each other than any other regions of the world.

Latin America resents too heavy an American hand, but the underlying values and economic opportunities there are generally favorable. Africa will have the most dramatic demographic growth over the coming decades and presents a mixed picture of economic and political successes and failures, but our policy can help tip some balances. Despite China’s major investments and trade in both continents, recent polls in African countries show that American soft power still exceeds that of China. And we should not neglect North America, where immigration, energy, and economic trends hold enormous and as yet untapped potential. The next President will make a serious mistake if his or her foreign policy becomes bogged down in the Middle East turmoil.

Russia, a country in decline, is a special case because it is the one country with enough missiles and nuclear warheads to destroy the United States, and because of its proximity to Europe, which remains America’s closest partner. Dependent on its energy resources, Russia is a “one-crop economy” with corrupt institutions and significant demographic and health problems. The average Russian male dies at age 64, a full decade earlier than in other developed countries. Some might be tempted to rejoice at Russia’s decline, and at how Putin’s strategy is making the country’s situation worse. But they would be mistaken. Declining countries often take greater risks and are therefore more dangerous—witness the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914.

This has created a difficult policy problem. On the one hand, it’s important to resist Putin’s challenge to the post-1945 norm that states should not use force to take territory from their neighbors. At the same time, it is just as important to avoid the complete isolation of Russia, a country with which we have overlapping interests in nuclear security, nonproliferation, fighting terrorism, the Arctic, and regional issues like Iran and Afghanistan. Financial and energy sanctions are necessary for deterring further violations in Ukraine or on other Russian borders. Reconciling these objectives is not easy. But no one will gain from a new Cold War, and so a limited transactional approach should be our objective.

Another debate is over how to bolster institutions, create networks, and establish policies for dealing with new transnational issues like climate change or cyber terrorism. Leadership by the largest country is important for the production of global public goods, but our domestic political gridlock often stands in the way. For example, the Senate has failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, despite its being in the national interest and despite the fact that the United States needs it to bolster our position in the South China Sea. Similarly, it took Congress five years to fulfill an American commitment to support the reallocation of IMF quotas from Europe to China. And in terms of leading on climate change, even though President Obama gets credit for working with China and helping to make the Paris climate conference more successful than expected, there is strong domestic resistance to putting a price or other limits on carbon emissions. Similarly, there is growing domestic resistance to international trade agreements, resistance that will limit our influence in Asia and Europe.

Sometimes the search for a grand strategy becomes too grandiose; indeed, the best foreign-policy Presidents have been pragmatists who know when to be prudent. Nonetheless, a President needs a concept of America’s place in the world. Since World War II, the United States has led, albeit imperfectly, in the production of global public goods such as a balance of military power, international monetary stability, an open trading system, and freedom of navigation, and that approach should remain the heart of our strategy. Liberal hegemony is too ostentatious a set of words for it, but creating and maintaining an architecture for liberal leadership should continue to be a central purpose of our foreign policy. The United States will remain the most powerful country for decades to come, and if the largest country does not produce public goods, we and others will suffer from their absence. Such a policy could be called liberal realism.

As I wrote in The Paradox of American Power more than a decade ago, world politics is changing under the influence of the information revolution and globalization in a way that means the United States cannot achieve many of its international goals acting alone. For example, international financial stability and combating climate change depend on cooperation with Europe, Japan, China, and others. In a world where borders are porous to everything from drugs to infectious diseases to cybercrime to terrorism, networks and institutions become an important source of power, and the United States is better placed than any other country to wield that power and to produce global public goods. The world—and our foreign policy—requires a broader vision than a fixation on terrorism and the troubled Middle East. American foreign policy will be central to the long-term global balance of power and the production of public goods—but can the next American President explain that to a public that has become entranced with the crisis du jour?

From the Symposium

The Election & the World

The global stakes are broader and more worrisome than you thought. Here's what the next President has to worry about.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. on the myth of American decline • Faysal Itani on ISIS and Syria • Ronald Klain on pandemicsSimon Johnson on global financial marketsCathleen Kelly on the security risks of climate change • Jason Healey and Klara T. Jordan on cybersecurityJulianne Smith on our overworked security apparatus


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Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor and former dean at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He is the author, most recently, of Is the American Century Over?

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