Paramountcy Lost: Challenges for American Diplomacy in a Competitive World Order

The American Foreign Service Association’s Adair Memorial Lecture at the American University School of International Service

It’s a pleasure to be here among academics, aspiring policy-makers and public servants, as well – I see – as a few defunct diplomats and diplomatresses like myself.  I’m here to exchange views with you about the new era we are entering, the changing place of the United States within it, and some of the implications of this for our foreign policies.  I envy those of you who are just embarking on careers in various aspects of statecraft and diplomacy.  Both the utility of these arts and the psychic income they yield are greatest in times of adversity.  We who came before you have managed to pile up a lot of adversity for you to deal with.

We’ve all heard that, according to the Mayan calendar, December this year will mark the end of a long historical cycle, bringing with it the end of the world as we have known it.  Those of you in the audience who are worried about this know who you are.  But, I wonder.  How did the ancient Mayans so accurately forecast the budgetary apocalypse our Congresscritters have now crafted for us?

Let’s be clear about the significance of the man-made “fiscal cliff” before us.  It is a monument to a unique combination of political paralysis, fiscal dementia, and a compulsion to wage unaffordable and unwinnable wars. It symbolizes everything that the world now sees as wrong with our country.  And it marks the addition of financial incapacity to the damage to American influence abroad that military blunders have already done.

The United States remains the world’s only superpower but the diffusion of wealth and power to regions beyond the North Atlantic has greatly reduced our military’s ability to shape trends and events around the world.  China, in particular, is emerging as an immovable military object, if not yet an irresistible military force.  Our political influence, economic clout, and self-confidence  are not what they used to be.  The “sequester” and the political dysfunction that led us to it promise to weaken us still more.  Major adjustments in U.S. policies and diplomacy are overdue.

Global governance was once mainly a vector of the struggle between the two superpowers and the blocs they led.  After Moscow defaulted on the Cold War and dropped out of the contest for worldwide dominance, Americans briefly imagined that our matchless economic strength and unchallengeable military supremacy would enable us unilaterally to shape the world to our advantage.   In the first decade of this century, however, the wizards of Wall Street brought down the global economy even as they discredited the so-called “Washington consensus” and emasculated the once-robust image of American capitalism.

Meanwhile, much of the world was disappointed by the lack of U.S. leadership on other issues ranging from climate change to peace in the Middle East.  People everywhere looked hopefully to worldwide institutions, like the United Nations, the G-20, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.  None of them proved up to the job.  Responsibility for the regulation of the planetary political economy began to devolve to its regions, if only by default.

The globally coherent worldwide order that American power configured itself to enforce after the Cold War is clearly morphing into something new.  We can see the outlines of the new order even if we cannot yet make out its details and don’t know what to call it.  The “post-Cold War era” is long past.  The “American Century” ended eleven years ago, on 9/11.  We are exiting the “age of antiterrorism.”  We are uncertain against whom we should deploy our incomparable military might or to what international purposes we should bend ourselves.

Call it what you will.  This is an era of enemy deprivation syndrome.  There is no overarching contest to define our worldview.  The international system is once again governed by multiple contentions and shifting strategic geometries.  In such a world, diplomatic agility is as important as constancy of commitment – or more so.

Before the Cold War, the United States twice fought in coalition with Britain, France, Australia, Canada, and a few other countries, but we had no permanent alliances.  The Soviet threat and the need to deal with the instabilities that attended the end of European empires in Asia and Africa led Americans to reverse our traditional aversion to foreign entanglements and to embrace them with a vengeance.  The United States ultimately extended formal protection to about a fourth of the world’s countries and informal protection to nearly another fourth.  In our usage, the word “ally” lost its original sense of “accomplice” and came to mean “protectorate,” not partner.

There have been huge changes in the global security environment since the collapse of our Soviet enemy.  But, there have been no adjustments at all in our alliance and defense commitments to foreign nations – other than their enlargement.   The alliance structure we built in the Cold War has long outlived the foe it was created to counter.  Remarkably, however, the preservation of our prestige at the head of that alliance structure seems to have become the principal objective of our foreign policy.  Carrying on with approaches that address long-disappeared realities rather than adjusting to new circumstances is patently dysfunctional behavior. It  represents the triumph of complacency and inertia over reason, statesmanship, and strategy.

With a few obvious exceptions like Israel, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, the beneficiaries of our military protection do not agree that they face threats to their independence and prosperity that justify higher levels of defense spending.  Our allies have been cutting, not increasing defense budgets.  This has not, of course, stopped us from boosting our own military spending to the point that, depending on how you calculate it, it is somewhere between 7/8 and 1 1/8 as much as the rest of the world combined.

The power of the United States once spoke for itself.  Americans expected automatic deference.  But the new world order that is coming into being is multipolar, neither guided nor managed by the United States.  Militarily powerful as we are and will remain, we cannot expect foreigners to follow our directives.  We must instead help them see the need to do things in their own interest that happen also to be in ours.  As Lester Pearson once put it, “diplomacy is letting someone else have your own way.”

Since they don’t perceive much need for our protection, U.S. allies do not display much gratitude for it.  They can’t think why they should object to our spending money to relieve them of the burden of defending themselves against hypothetical or unknown threats.  But – unlike the past – they also see no need to repay U.S. largesse by lining up behind us on issues in which their own interests are not directly engaged.  Some might consider it astonishing that, for our part, we Americans haven’t asked what specific interests of ours are still served by the alliance structure we built to deal with the late, unlamented USSR.

There are a lot of things wrong with a foreign policy that is mostly on mindless military autopilot.  It deploys U.S. forces abroad to perpetuate our credibility as a superpower rather than to pursue well-defined politico-military or economic ends.  It treats military spending as a perpetual industrial subsidy and ongoing fiscal stimulus rather than as a measured response to identifiable external threats.  It drives diplomacy toward a futile effort to persuade allies to join us in disinvesting in the future by borrowing money to build military rather than civilian infrastructure and engaging in a constantly expanding list of wars of choice.

As we prepare to enter a still nameless new era, it’s time for Americans to take a fresh look at the world.  In this regard, the much-feared “sequester” could be a very good thing.  It might compel us to rethink what is really necessary and to craft an affordable approach to national security as well as a foreign policy to implement it.  Our present approach is neither affordable nor effective.

China and Other Rising Powers

In a world where the United States no longer calls most of the shots and cannot hope to dominate every region of the globe, we must learn how to deal with other great powers on a basis of equality and mutual respect.  China is the most obvious test of our ability to do so.  In recent decades, it has been making a century of progress every fifteen years.  It is now our economic competitor everywhere, if still a politico-military force only on its own East, Central, and South Asian peripheries.

Russia is again a regional, not a world power.  Its huge strategic arsenal simply demonstrates the irrelevance of nuclear weapons to anything but deterrence against the nuclear weapons of others.  The European Union has made Europe a zone of peace, but it is an economic superpower that is too disorganized to act globally.  Brazil may be primus inter pares in South America and India may reign supreme in South Asia, but both are in strategic regions disconnected from the global tensions that preoccupy Americans.  By contrast, the Second World War showed us that the Indo-Pacific region was a coherent strategic zone from which hostile forces could marshal resources to project power globally, including to North America.  (That same region was where the bloodiest proxy conflicts of the Cold War unfolded in Korea and Vietnam.)  The strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific is hardwired into the American military consciousness.

China is now resuming its millennial place at the center of the Indo-Pacific region.  Rather than exploring ways peacefully to accommodate this or bend it to our advantage, the United States seems determined to resist any diminution of our own role as the ultimate arbiter of regional security issues.  As a result, we are being drawn into supporting claimants to islands, rocks, and reefs also claimed by China.  But our capacity to dominate China’s periphery has a limited half life.  China’s defense burden remains low but its spending has been doubling every five years or so apace with its civilian budget and economy.  China is focused on defending itself in its own region, not on projecting power beyond it.  Defense is cheaper than offense, which is what we specialize in.

It is not necessary to dominate a region to deter efforts by others to do so.  We don’t need to enjoy unchallengeable military superiority in Asia in order to enable our allies and friends there to learn to live with growing Chinese wealth and power, as we ourselves must do.  Dominance of Asia is unaffordable.  Even a less ambitious and more appropriate balancing role is going to be hugely expensive.  We’re talking about balancing the power of a country that is expected within forty years to have a GDP that’s at least twice the size of ours.  If we are determined for some reason to contest China’s reassertion of influence in its own region, we better have our economic act together.

The Economic Base for Foreign Policy

Otto von Bismarck once commented that “God looks after fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”  I’ve always prayed that this was a valid religious revelation.  But a belief in a special Providence for our country cannot excuse or offset the effects of self-destructive policies.  We may not be in decline but we are clearly in denial.  America is no longer setting the pace internationally.

It is pointless to blame others for this.  Though our problems have sometimes been bound up in global supply chains, they have mostly been made in the U.S.A. by American politicians.  The depression we’re in was crafted by elected officials in Washington working with tax-pampered plutocrats on Wall Street.  There’s no denying that they did what they did with the mostly admiring endorsement of the American people.

America has shown uncommon resilience in the past.  But there is no reason to believe that the structural predicaments now afflicting us will automatically correct themselves.  We must change a wide range of policies and practices if we are to restore our traditional socioeconomic vigor and buoyancy.  We need to do this for its own sake.  But it’s also the key to assuring ourselves the role in shaping the global future which our interests demand.  Some aspects of our current condition are disheartening.

The United States was founded on a promise of equality of opportunity.  Yet we now rank 100th out of the top 140 nations in income equality.  Horatio Alger would be horrified to learn how much less social mobility there now is in America in comparison with much of Europe, not to mention China.  Many here have come to doubt that hard work will pay off in financial and social success.  But, then, it’s now notoriously hard for Americans to find work at all.

Economists define depression as “a chronic condition of subnormal activity for a considerable period without any marked tendency either towards recovery or towards collapse.”  We may not like the word “depression,” but we’re in one.  The “unemployment rate” is going down largely because people are dropping out of the job market.  Over the past five years, the labor participation rate – the percentage of our fellow citizens who are either employed or actively looking for work – has fallen to the point where there are now 100 million working-age Americans without jobs.  There will be a lot more if our Congress does not rise to the challenges before it.   Fiscal suicide will not cure the public policy problems Americans have made for ourselves.

The U.S. government is currently borrowing 25.9 percent of what it spends, an amount equivalent to 11 percent of GDP.  Despite all this spending, our transportation and other infrastructure is decaying, the results of our educational system are ever more mediocre, our investment in science and engineering is going down, and our public health system, which costs more and delivers less for the money than any other in the world, is becoming an even costlier burden on our economy.

As other nations invest in competitiveness, we are disinvesting in it in favor of wasteful spending on hyper-expensive weaponry and insolvent welfare and pension programs.  Our balance of trade and payments deficits are not being corrected.  There is no prospect our budget will be balanced anytime soon.  The only sector of our economy that is prospering is its bloated military-industrial complex.  This cannot go on forever.  So, sooner or later, it will end.

Economic, Trade, and Investment Policies

Technology has annihilated distance, linking people across the globe with unprecedented immediacy.  As the Ghanaian diplomat, Kojo Debrah put it: “Radio enables people to hear all evil, television enables them to see all evil, and the jet plane enables them to go out and do all evil.”  He might have added that the internet enables them to tweet each other as they do it.

Businesses are no longer limited to national labor and capital markets.  They locate their operations anywhere they want to maximize their profits.  They hire where labor costs are lowest in relation to productivity and they borrow where rates are most favorable to their competitive participation in worldwide supply chains.  Their executives may feel patriotism.  Their business plans treat it as an advertizing gimmick.

In this highly competitive environment, the advantage goes to those nations and regions that excel at the education of their workforces, the modernization of their infrastructure, and the crafting of intelligent industrial policies to empower entrepreneurial innovation and the exploitation of new technologies.  The decisive factors in all these elements of competitiveness are the competence of a nation’s politicians, the coherence of its policies, and the quality and timeliness of its decision-making.  Now, more than ever, the domestic policies of societies determine the success or failure of their foreign interactions as well as their domestic conditions.

To restore American dynamism, we need a great deal more results-oriented reasoning on the part of our politicians than we’ve seen so far this century.  Instead of railing at our foreign competitors, we should be learning from them.  We have a tax code stitched together by a million special interests acting over the course of a century.  This serves as our de facto industrial policy, directing investment and other business decisions in ways that subsidize vested interests and secure the status quo.  Our tax system obstructs rather than facilitates economic restructuring to make our economy more productive, prosperous, and competitive.   It’s got to go.

It’s been decades since the United States dominated global manufacturing or was the world’s greatest creditor, not debtor nation.  And it’s been a while since we drove the liberalization of trade and investment regimes at the global level.  The Doha Round failed.  There is no successor to it.

We can’t afford to continue to base our trade and investment policies on assumptions drawn from circumstances that no longer exist.  These policies badly need adjustment to promote innovation, ensure efficient infrastructure, improve the business climate, and raise the quality of the workforce.  But many of the international trade agreements we’re currently pursuing seem aimed less at leveraging foreign prosperity to our advantage, expanding our exports, attracting investment, repositioning our industry in regional markets, or increasing our competitiveness than at shoring up our ebbing standing abroad.  We need to refocus our trade and investment policies on job creation.

Western Values as a National Interest

I want to conclude by returning briefly to a vitally important aspect of the evolving world order that is far too seldom discussed.

For two centuries, North Atlantic societies set the pace of economic and technological advance and wrote the rules for the international system.  Trans-Atlantic solidarity enabled capitalism, liberal democratic values, the rule of law, and the idea of the nation-state to prevail over challenges from all the alternatives.  The ideals of Atlantic civilization found expression in the universal acceptance of a rule-bound international system and institutions of global governance based on Western norms.

Sadly, this heritage is now slipping into the past or in danger of doing so.  The North Atlantic is clearly being displaced  by the Indo-Pacific as the global economic center of gravity.  Most strikingly, Western societies no longer present compelling models that other nations and regions wish to emulate.  Our democracy is increasingly equated with political venality, shortsightedness, indecision, and lack of strategic resolve.  But the problem has been compounded by the foundering of the trans-Atlantic consensus since 9/11.  Our own divisions now cast doubt on the core values of Western civilization and their durability.

Europeans and Americans have come to disagree about an expanding array of issues bearing on the rights of the individual.  These differences are passionate and fundamental.  They include arguments about the propriety of “enhanced methods of interrogation” [otherwise known as torture], “extraordinary rendition” [meaning kidnapping and disappearance], the suspension of habeas corpus [in favor of indefinite detention without charge], the withholding of evidence from the accused, and the extrajudicial administration of capital punishment.

North Atlantic societies are still vastly more respectful of the dignity and rights of individuals than others, but the region as a whole no longer shares a coherent code of values with which to challenge the conscience of humanity.  Lacking both consensus and conviction, its member states cannot effectively defend, let alone advance, the Western notion of the rule of law against competing ideologies derived from Islam or Confucianism.  For the first time in centuries, non-Western values are coming to be seen as realistic alternatives to Western norms.

Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law

America’s recent departures from the rule of law are in many ways the greatest menace our freedoms have ever faced.  Our country faces no external existential threat comparable to that of the Cold War.  Yet we’re building a garrison state that is eating away at our liberties in the name of saving them.  Peace is the climate in which freedoms grow.  We need an end to war in order to address the many threats to our ability to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Americans believe that societies that respect the rule of law and rely upon democratic debate to make decisions are more prosperous, successful, and stable than those that do not.  Recent efforts to impose our freedoms on others by force have reminded us that they can be spread only by our setting an example that others see as worthy of emulation.  Freedom cannot be sustained if we ourselves violate its principles.  This means that we must respect the right of others to make their own choices as long as these do not harm us.   It also presupposes a contest of ideas.  Our ideas will not prosper unless we maintain solidarity with others who value and also practice them.

That is why a first priority of American diplomacy must now be to reforge the unity of the Atlantic community behind the concept of the rule of law.  This cannot be done unless we confront and correct our own lapses from the great traditions of our republic.  To re-empower our diplomacy by inspiring others to look to our leadership, we must restore our respect for our Bill of Rights as well as our deference to the dignity of the individual both at home and abroad.  Let me be specific.

We must revive the Fourth Amendment’s ban on searches and seizures of persons, houses, papers, and other personal effects without probable cause.  No more “extraordinary rendition.” No more universal electronic eavesdropping, warrantless seizure of paper and electronic records at the border, and intrusive inspection of anything and everything in the possession of passengers using public transportation.

We must reinstate the Fifth Amendment’s protections against deprivation “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  No more suspension of habeas corpus or executive branch assertions of a right to detain or even kill people, including American citizens, without charge or trial.

We must return to respect for the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right of anyone accused of a crime to be informed of the charges and confronted with the witnesses against him and to be represented by a lawyer.  No more “secret evidence.”

We must reinstate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments,” including torture.  And we must reaffirm our adherence to the several Geneva Conventions.  We Americans can have no credibility as advocates for human rights if we do not practice what we preach.

In short, the path to renewed effectiveness in American diplomacy lies not just in wise and dexterous statecraft and the professionalization of those who implement it abroad.  It rests on the rebuilding of credibility through the rediscovery of the values that made our country great.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Washington, DC

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