NEW YORK, New York — Through the patriotic haze of an American political campaign year, it is tempting to believe our own hooey.
America is exceptional and not in decline, Barack Obama insisted in his most recent State of the Union address. Mitt Romney, his leading GOP rival, insists against the opinion of most economists that the US economy can achieve average annual growth of 4 percent a year and anyone who says otherwise is a defeatist.
In fact, both are dead wrong. Gravity does affect the US just like any other nation, and 4 percent average annual growth for a mature economy is a pipedream.
US power — measured in terms of its relative economic importance and its diplomatic influence — is slipping all over the planet. US influence was written off as irrelevant in Europe’s debt crisis, and is being chased out of the Middle East by popular consent and unhappy results on the Iraqi and Afghan battlefields. In Latin America, America’s “backyard,” Washington’s writ increasingly is displaced by Brazil, just as it has been checked by Russia in the post-Soviet “near abroad.”
The US is slipping in Asia, too, losing its position as the most important trading partner with Asian nations (we lost Australia, Japan, India and South Korea to China in that category since the Great Recession).
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Yet, for all this, we insist on our exceptionally delusional self-image. With minor tweaks, the US continues to approach the world with the same basic assumption under Obama that it did under his notoriously blinkered predecessor: the belief that, in the end, Washington’s rule is law, and that a world ordered to benefit the United States will, by definition, benefit humanity. It is downright anti-American to think otherwise.
The decision to thumb our nose at the world last week and propose another in a long series of Americans as president of the World Bank is just the latest example. Jim Young Kim, Dartmouth’s president, appears to be a very intelligent, decent man. But as Financial Times columnist Edward Luce rightly notes, “if the World Bank board was required to find the best qualified candidate for the job, Dr. Kim would be unlikely to find himself on a shortlist.”
Somehow, it still comes as a surprise to Americans that the post-Cold War unipolar world, never entirely accepted by the rest of the planet, is over.
American policy, or “grand strategy” as the think-tank set would term it, should stop clinging to the phantom limbs of that period — the reckless “preemptive war doctrine,” the use of NATO in out-of-theater interventions, the “gentlemen’s agreement” that gives the World Bank’s top job to a Yank and the IMF’s to a Eurocrat.
Instead, the US should stress the unique capabilities that it still retains: the mojo to convene the summits and create the multilateral systems that will enable emerging nations to avoid stumbling into regional wars even as the stabilizing effects of US power — which has maintained the status quo in much of the world since the end of the World War II — wanes.
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All this will end badly, again, if the US continues to sleepwalk into this new world the way it careened toward the financial brink in 2008. Some tough foreign-policy choices need to be made, and there’s little sign that serious thinking about this is going on in Washington — though Obama’s sotto voce whisper to President Dmitri Medvedev about serious nuclear-arms cuts in his second term suggests he may actually know this, even if he’s unable to say so publicly during an election.
So what should the next president do to right this mess?
A strategy to manage America’s transition from Mount Olympus to a world that includes many influential players will require bilateral guarantees in some parts of the world, new or reinforced multilateral organizations in others and mutual-defense treaties in others.
In some cases, old-fashioned guarantees like the one that prevents a war between North and South Korea will still makes sense. In most cases, however, the US should take the role of “architect” literally, helping regional powers design a system that will function without the US as a full member. This approach that not only makes political sense in the sovereignty sensitive world of Asia and also maintains a maximum degree of flexibility for the US to deploy its own resources as needed around the world.
A little tough love for our allies would help, too.
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Around the world, American security guarantees take many forms, some (NATO, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan) explicit and others (Israel, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Colombia) more implicit, for historical and diplomatic reasons.
While America stood like a colossus astride the planet, opaque promises had their advantages. In today’s world of WikiLeaks, conspiracy theories and diminished respect for American power, transparency should prevail.
If not, US allies may discover too late they have a paper tiger on their side. Ask the Georgians — many of whom felt the US would come to their aid in 2008 when Russia invaded to support Slavic separatists inside Georgia’s borders.
The US may find itself faced with more such dilemmas as nations that formulated their own national security policies based on blanket assurances from Washington stumble into conflicts that America can neither prevent nor afford to fight.
The US should take the lead in encouraging an end to diplomatic anachronisms, such as Japan’s constitutional prohibition on spending more than 1 percent of GDP on defense, Israel’s “no comment” nuclear arsenal, or the long-running imbalance in US-European NATO defense spending.
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In a similar vein, Washington should end the foolish economic embargo of Cuba, which at this point is about the only proof the Castro brothers can point to of their relevance to the modern world. US defense commitments should be in treaty form, and should be debated in Congress.
NATO commitments should be borne according to relative GDP of the member state, and those who failed to spend a mutually agreed percentage of GDP on defense should be suspended from membership.
Allies like South Korean and Japan should pay far more of the costs associated with the US military presence on their soil or, if they see fit, eject American troops and defend themselves.
Taiwan and Israel, perhaps the two nations whose destinies are most tied to American power, should be told that American economic, military and political support will rise and fall according to their commitment to negotiating an end to the destabilizing hostilities that persist with their neighbors.
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Simply by osmosis, the US will remain the world’s largest economy and dominant military power for at least another few decades. But failing to adjust will hasten decline. The US, by putting enormous pressure on its already strained Treasury, can impersonate a hegemon for another decade or so. If it does this, however, the risk of a real collapse — an uncontrolled unraveling of US power that sparks regional wars and tempts the world’s worst actors to take risks — will rise exponentially.
None of this is voluntary or charitable of us — the changes are happening and they are traceable in world economic statistics. Doing this carefully is America’s true interest and there’s never a better time to be realistic than the present — unless, of course, the present happens to include an American presidential election.
Michael Moran is a director and editor-in-chief of Renaissance Insights, a new division of the investment bank Renaissance Capital. Follow him on Twitter, or pre-order his book, "The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power," coming April 10 from Palgrave Macmillan.