My friend and colleague Jeffrey Lightfoot, deputy director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security for the Atlantic Council has an important new piece out about why America can no longer afford diplomatic gaffes such as the scandal of NSA codebreaking Angela Merkel’s cellphone.
The America of 2003 was indeed an unchecked superpower. It is hard to believe that at the time, the greatest risk to American hegemony appeared to come from the risk of a strong, closely integrated European Union. In that era, bashing the United States was a luxury Europeans could afford, and ignoring European sensitivities was an indulgence Washington could tolerate. Such is the reality when closest allies are also chief rivals.
Today’s reality is far different. American geopolitical primacy is in question. The United States is still the world’s superpower, but the rising power of China, Russia, Turkey, India, and others is significant. The days are over when the United States could alienate the entire world and expect to avoid the consequences of its actions.
Paying the cost of fifteen years of disastrous leadership
I’m going to take this from Lightfoot and run with it. As he points out, we have not had to worry about minor incidents, such as being caught hacking the German Chancellor’s phone, for a while. If we insulted our allies, so be it.
Back when we were on top, America changed French Fries to Freedom Fries in the Congressional cafeteria ten years ago – just to be a pain in the ass. America had so much power, it could insult friendly nations in a juvenile way, for no other reason than that they wouldn’t follow us into Iraq (which then, like now, looked smart.)
American thinking went like this: “So what? The surrender monkeys can suck it. We’ve got so much power, if we run out of allies, we’ll just get new ones! Get Poland on the phone! Or how about Moldova?”
The last fifteen years have been a disaster in terms of US leadership. America has needlessly scandalized the world with Iraqi WMDs that never materialized, with a revolting torture regime, with a catastrophic financial meltdown, and most recently, the revelation of a global surveillance regime that covers American citizens, foreign heads-of-state, and everyone else in between.
The leadership class of America acts like a spoiled rich kid who gets into trouble and never worries about the size of the check that needs to be written to make everything all better. They show no shame, demonstrate little contrition and exhibit an unwillingness to learn from their mistakes. They produce scandals, one after another, and act like there is no cost.
A newsflash: America is already paying the cost. United States institutions used to be associated with competence, justice and rule of law – even if they didn’t always live up to that reputation. America had unchecked global power, but the wise application of that power – seen in its reconstruction of Germany and Japan, among other intelligently-applied policies – made the hegemony of the United States less obnoxious than raw power sometimes can be. Increasingly, America the Brand stands for military overreach, moral hypocrisy and generalized incompetence. The reputation America gained from the moon landing and winning the Cold War is finally, after many insults, wearing off. The symbols of this nation used to be the Statue of Liberty; the liberation of Paris; rock and roll; economic freedom. After much effort on the part of our leadership, those symbols are being replaced with Abu Ghraib, subprime mortgages, and Angela Merkel’s cell phone.
Due to strategic trends beyond its control, America is moving from a monopolar, hegemonic position in the global order, to a peer relationship with several regional powers. It is not the 1990s any more. Whether talking about dollars, military force or reputation, the United States has outspent its means for too many years in a row. The true cost of incompetent, arrogant behavior will be felt more acutely as a result.
As the other nations of the world no longer depend on American leadership to the same degree, the U.S. will lose trade relations, find its interests blocked by new alliances, and may soon discover that other nations are keen to test out their own military might in their regions. America shall soon find itself like everybody else. It will have to do smart things again. If not, the greatest teacher will be pain.
I can only imagine where America and the world might have ended up if its leaders possessed wisdom, forbearance and humility. We shall never find out.