Generally speaking, change is inevitable—however, most specific transformations are not. Virtually any prediction can be defied; in fact, most are. That people are pretty terrible at forecasting in most (especially sociological) domains does not inhibit many from making grandiose claims about the “inevitability” of American decadence—often relying upon ill-formed analogies with empires past. If only analysts dedicated more attention to the decline and fall of their own projections. Although the so-called “End of History” is little more than a neoconservative eschatological fantasy, the “American Empire” may well persist for some time… and that’s probably a good thing.
Contrary to the assertions of President Obama, the U.S. has long been a de facto imperial power–albeit one that has consistently refused to see itself for what it is. For this reason, the United States has often been unwilling or unable to design and implement its foreign (or domestic) policies with the vision or commitment of other historical empires—further hampered by America’s political system which often imposes government shifts in 2 to 4 year intervals, driving policymakers towards short-sighted and populist positions in the interim, even as it renders them beholden to competing constellations of lobbyists and special-interest groups in order to finance their ever-impending campaigns (increasingly resulting in total dysfunction).
And of course, America’s track record of promoting socio-economic justice, or the rights, freedoms and sovereignty of others across the globe has been inconsistent, to put it mildly—despite the incessant and lofty rhetoric of its leaders, and the U.S. public’s general lack of awareness of the scope and profundity of this dissonance. That said, critics of U.S. foreign policy have been, perhaps, too eager to celebrate the apparent decline of America’s unipolar order—in particular, they have not sufficiently reflected on what is likely to follow.
Consider, for instance, the actors which are best-positioned to fill the American void: Russia and China. U.S. policy has been undeniably hypocritical in many circumstances, and attempts at instantiating its espoused ideals (domestically or abroad) have often been compromised, inept, and ill-fated—however, is it likely that America’s probable successors will be better champions of socio-economic justice or human rights/freedoms? Their global track record up to now would certainly suggest otherwise; at the least, these sorts of concerns seem to rank low on their list of priorities. Even domestically, vestigial appeals to the utopian aspirations of Lenin and Mao resound hollowly against the neoliberal state-capitalist regimes which have emerged from the ashes of communism.
While contemporary Russia and China are less likely to impose their indigenous values or systems on client states, this non-interventionist position is rooted as much in disdain as respect. American evangelism is unquestionably condescending, but it has always entailed the conviction that others are “worthy of being redeemed,” through the saving powers of liberalism—sentiments which, while deeply misguided, are essentially beneficent. Of course, there is self-interest behind this missionary zeal (particularly in selecting the objects of American “outreach” and the timing of these crusades), but there is also sincerity: many American policymakers and a majority of the U.S. electorate have internalized these ideologies and earnestly hope to improve the lot of others.
Much of the world appreciates this, despite the frequent and often severe iatrogenic effects of U.S. foreign policy; many lament the apparent decline of American leadership. In fact, given the astonishing tactical continuity across administrations, there is even a growing phenomenon of nostalgia for the G.W. Bush presidency among those disenchanted with the Obama ‘s perceived disengagement and relative lack of vision and resolve.
Of course, reports of America’s imminent decline may be altogether ill-founded: the issue is not that the U.S. is growing weaker (strictly speaking, it isn’t), but that others are growing stronger, and at a relatively faster rate. However, there are signs of economic slowdown and domestic turmoil, perhaps trenchant, in the largest emerging powers, suggesting that even the relative erosion of U.S. influence is far from irreversible.
Moreover, insofar as America is eventually forced to reconsider how it relates to the rest of the world, ironically, these changes may serve to entrench the status quo: it is unlikely that China and Russia, individually or collectively, will truly supplant the United States anytime soon–they (and others) will merely have a stronger veto on the world stage; the primary effect of this shift will be a curtailing of dramatic action. And there are hosts of other state and non-state actors with vested interests in perpetuating the existing social and economic structures. Accordingly, in the absence of an alternative superpower, there may be no agent(s) with the clout to make any fundamental changes to the international order.
In fact, there may be a deficit of parties willing or able to take the necessary measures to preserve existing systems (such as by enforcing international rules and norms, with the costs and risks entailed thereby), creating a power vacuum which may embolden bad actors while allowing endemic problems to fester. Accordingly, the “post-American” world may be marked by increasing stagnation and dysfunction in the economic and geopolitical institutions established in the aftermath of the world wars, rendering many critical global challenges increasingly intractable.
Or, as Jack Balkin aptly put it, “The fact that no one is in charge does not mean that everyone is free.”
A few humble predictions can be relied upon: the “post-American” world will be no utopia. There will be new opportunities for many, but also costs and risks—often severe. New, perhaps worse, forms of oppression and exploitation will emerge. Any substantive positive transformations will have to be fought for, often at the expense of others. A “post-American” world will not be inherently more just, prosperous or stable; instead, the worst aspects of the current system may persist, while its strong points (hitherto reliant on American leadership or enforcement) slowly erode without any coherent alternative, resulting in increased instability, violence, and suffering—potentially culminating with calamity.
As with any tool, obtaining and maintaining an empire comes at a price—however, its value is primarily a function of how well it is utilized and towards what ends. Insofar as critics (justly) believe that some kind of fundamental restructuring of the global order is needed, they should bear in mind that the United States will likely remain the most potent, perhaps the only, vehicle for realizing such radical transformations in our lifetimes. Rather than fantasizing about the “inevitable” fall of America, they may be better-served by seeking to render U.S. policies at-home and abroad more effective, efficient, and beneficent—working to secure America’s continued relative influence, and helping ensure any eventual transition is as smooth and gradual as possible.
Towards these ends, the Obama Administration’s recent decision to scale-back involvement in the Middle East (to include dramatically cutting the rightly-maligned “democracy promotion” programs responsible for much of the chaos of the last few years) is welcome news—albeit extremely late, given the astonishing damage which has already been done by the America’s ill-conceived forays into the Arab Uprisings. Even in this, having lost “intellectual command” over the dynamics in the region, the White House has made some perplexing decisions about what, specifically, to prioritize…but it’s a step in the right direction. And while there is a sense in which the new strategy is an abdication of responsibility for the fallout of U.S. interventions, at least the Administration will stop compounding the problems it played a central role in creating. They may even (finally) make substantive progress on one or more of these narrow objectives, God willing.
As Winston Churchill never said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all other options.”
In any case, it would be a mistake to view this pivot as another symptom of American decline. Quite the contrary: the intention is to project a broader spectrum of U.S. leverage, more effectively, and with a much wider scope. As Susan Rice posits, “We can’t be consumed 24/7 by a one region, as important as it is… There’s a whole world out there. And we’ve got interests and opportunities in the whole world.”