Commentary / World

Filling the gap left by America's decline

A worrying new study emerges from the Pentagon. Called “At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World,” it makes sober reading for all of America’s allies.

The document, based on extensive consultation with leading defense authorities in all branches of the U.S. military, as well as on a number of think tank inputs, gloomily asserts that American power is in major decline, that the pre-eminence of America and its allies that emerged from World War II, and its further enhancement by the collapse of the Soviet Union, is now no more and that “the rules-based global order which the United States built and sustained for seven decades is now under enormous stress,” and generally unravelling.

Civil unrest, the report adds, is likely to become prominent in Western homelands as legitimate governments are weakened everywhere.

In a sense this kind of analysis is nothing new, even if put here in unduly pessimistic terms. For at least two decades it has been obvious that power in the world is both shifting (mainly toward Asia) and generally dispersing, as restless populations become empowered by information technology and present new challenges to authority. This was always bound to constrain superpower dominance and end the era of complete U.S. primacy, if such a thing ever really existed.

But the analysis of these military experts in Washington is surely too negative. What they have discovered, looking at matters through the defense prism, is that America’s colossal military might no longer ensures that their great republic can have its own way automatically round the world. This we all knew from the outcomes in Vietnam and more recently in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and so on. The proliferation of small but lethal high-tech weaponry through every arms bazaar, plus the universality of instant mobile communications, was always going to be guarantee of that.

But what this purely military view overlooks is the unquestioned size and power of the American economy, and the unchecked momentum of American enterprise and innovation, which still leads globally. Like some other policy planners around the world, they have overlooked the rise of soft power and influence — as opposed to hard military dominance — as the means of operating in the modern digital age.

Nevertheless there are lessons for the rest of us in this glimpse of American angst and introspection.

The main one of these is that, with thinking like this permeating the corridors of power in Washington, or at least in the Pentagon, we can no longer assume automatic American-led underpinning of the security situation, or of political stability, in any part of the world. The suspicion is that the White House may be inclined to the same viewpoint, although oddly the U.S. State Department may still be sticking to a more outward world role. It is indeed instructive to see how American activity in the Middle East continues in a variety of unpredictable ways, despite President Donald Trump’s insistence that he does not want the U.S. involved any longer in “pointless” foreign adventures.

But whichever view prevails in Washington, it can only mean that the world’s other democracies and their allies are going to have to work and coordinate much more closely together to fill some of the gaps left by an American withdrawal, partial or otherwise. For a generation of statesmen and diplomats always used to the U.S. being “there” in most trouble spots and ready to pick up the pieces, this is going to require a fresh mindset.

For example, with America walking out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and with no great desire to see China take its place, could the United Kingdom, freshly disentangled from the EU network, become a link in the TPP chain? Or could we see both European powers and Asian allies line up more closely to bring President Vladimir Putin’s restless Russia into a more cooperative stance, rather than expecting Trump’s America to take the lead? Or are there intermediary and constructive roles for other powers to step back into the North Korean crisis rather than leave Washington and Beijing to glare at each other as the situation deteriorates?

Or to take a small, and half-forgotten region, the fissile West Balkans. If America, having 20 years ago taken the lead in ending the Balkan war, is now disinterested and absent, do we need a new coalition of both Western and Eastern powers to prevent another (increasingly likely) explosion? Or if America is not going to lead in Iraq or Syria or Libya, who will? Are these now even purely “Western” (i.e., American-led) issues, as was assumed over the past decades? Or do we need new global alliances to tackle them before they blow us all up, East and West alike?

The idea is already circulating that with U.S. commitment to a leadership role faltering, powerful Germany should take the lead position. But quite apart from the fact that this is the last thing Germany wants to do, it is wrong to see the new international scene in terms of top or lead nations and hierarchies of international power.

The Pentagon pessimists who grimly see no choice between American supremacy, as in the past, and the collapse of an American-backed international order, fail to understand that this is now a network world. America still has a vital part to play, but less as the boss-figure doing all the heavy lifting and more as a partner with both Western, Eastern and Southern allies forming coalitions focused on specific crisis and hot spots.

The world can evolve peacefully from Pax Americana into something much more fluid, flexible, subtle and shared. But it will need the diehards in the Pentagon to understand their new role rather than dig in and cling to the old one.

David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations.

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