THE decline of US foreign policy is not all Barack Obama’s fault. The post-Cold War confusion and miscalculations extend back to the final fall of the Iron Curtain. Democrats and Republicans, presidents and lawmakers, deserve blame.
Whoever is at fault, it’s clear that America’s next president will inherit a foreign policy without a strategy. The United States will remain the world’s most formidable military power for decades to come. The gap between US and Chinese defence spending grows wider in America’s favour every day. Only the United States can project military strength in every region of the world, in part because it owns more than half of the world’s aircraft carriers. .
But power is a measure of one’s ability to force someone to do something he wouldn’t otherwise do, and there are a growing number of governments today with the resources and self-confidence to simply say no.
There was never a golden age of American power. Even at the height of the Cold War, US allies often defied Washington’s wishes. But the United States is now less able to convene a coalition, forge trade agreements, build support for sanctions, broker compromise on an important multinational dispute, or persuade others to follow it into conflict than at any time in the past seven decades.
Europeans are now less dependent on the United States for their security. China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, and the Arab monarchs of the Persian Gulf cannot change the global status quo on their own, but they have more than enough leverage to obstruct US plans they do not like. Aware that Washington is focused on domestic priorities and that most Americans want no part of problems that do not immediately threaten US national security, it does not take much to discourage direct US intervention in Ukraine, Syria, or the South China Sea.
Adding to the dispersion of power, it’s not just that there are now more diplomats at the world’s bargaining tables. It’s that these new players represent governments with differing political and economic values. There was never a day when the G7 group of industrialised countries ruled the world. But before the rise of China, India, Russia, Brazil, Turkey, and others over the past 15 years, the United States, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Canada still held considerable collective sway.
There was never a need during G7 summits to debate the value of democracy, freedom of speech, or free-market capitalism. Multi-national institutions created by the United States and its allies once dominated the international system. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, and Nato extended US influence into every corner of international security and the global economy.
That’s not true any more. The so-called Brics countries – China, India, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa – have established a developing-world club of their own. In 2014, the bloc announced plans to create a $100bn development bank, enabling these countries to invest strategically in more places than ever.
By itself, the Brics bank has no power to undermine US dominance of the global financial system. Add the China Development Bank, the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), and an expanding list of important regional lending institutions, and the world’s borrowers are no longer quite so dependent on Western lenders.
Here’s another measure of America’s reduced international influence: China is now the world’s lead trading nation. In 2012, the last year for which credible statistics are available, the United States had larger trade volumes than China with 76 countries, while communist China traded more than the United States with 124.
In some ways, Americans seem unconcerned with their government’s diminished international influence. A Pew Research poll conducted in December 2013 found that a majority of US respondents said the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”. Just 38 per cent disagreed. That’s a double-digit shift from the historical norm. No president can sustain an expensive, ambitious foreign policy without reliable public support.
The US government has undermined its ability to persuade allies to share international burdens. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and drone strikes inside other countries have all made it harder for foreign leaders to persuade their citizens to support US policy.
It’s harder for a US president to criticise autocrats for spying on their own people while explaining to Germany’s chancellor and Brazil’s president why American spies are reading their email and listening to their phone calls.
Ian Bremmer is the president and founder of Eurasia Group, the leading global political risk research and consulting firm. He is author of Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, published by Portfolio Penguin, price £14.99.