Debating Continuing American Global Leadership

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As a descant to the US-China relations melody, there is a rising debate at least among the cognoscenti over US global leadership.  A recent addition to that debate is a piece from International Security brought to you by Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth of Dartmouth and John Ikenberry of Princeton.  The piece, “Don’t Come Home America: The Case Against Retrenchment” appears in the most recent winter edition of the Journal.  The examination in the Journal is one of assessing America’s grand strategies – will it be retrenchment or the continuation of US global engagement.  The authors somewhat curiously refer to an article that examines US policy in Asia by Harvard’s Joseph Nye when he was away from Harvard and at the time the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (it is curious if only because it is approaching twenty years ago that the piece was written and refers to a largely forgotten Clintonian – Bill not Hillary – report – “United States Security Strategy for the East Asia Pacific Region”).  Events and the evolution of countries – especially China – has in my opinion significantly altered the context of the article, though its conclusions may still be valid.

In any case the authors examine US grand strategy first declaring US overlapping core strategy objectives are:

  • managing the external environment to reduce near- and long-term threats to US national security;
  • promoting a liberal economic order to expand the global economy and maximize domestic prosperity; and
  • creating, sustaining, and revising the global institutional order to secure necessary interstate cooperation in terms favorable to US interests.

For good measure though the authors recognize that “security commitments are a necessary condition of US leadership, and that leadership is necessary to pursue the strategy’s three core objectives. Without the security commitments, US leverage for leadership on both security and nonsecurity issues declines.”  There of course is the heart of the matter that US leadership/hegemony/primacy – call it what you will – remains crucial to achieving the objectives – that is US national objectives, a stable world economic and political order.  Here a reference to the 1995 Nye article is indeed helpful:

The United States is committed to lead in the Asia-Pacific region.  Our national interests demand deep engagement.  For most countries in the region, the United States is the critical variable in the East Asia security equation.  The United States is not the world’s policeman, but our forward-deployed forces in Asia ensure broad regional stability, help deter aggression against our allies, and contribute to the tremendous political and economic advances made by the nations of the region.

Now it is evident from the title of their article that three strongly favor “continuation of the globally engaged grand strategy.”  The authors in fact declare early on that such an approach is “a wholly reasonable approach to pursuing narrow US interests in security, prosperity, and the preservation of domestic liberty.”   The article then takes a long examination of the various arguments for retrenchment (I will take a look selectively at their description and evaluation of retrenchment in a follow on piece) and concludes that the cost/benefit  favors continuing US engagement – read that as global leadership. Indeed the authors suggest that critics of deep engagement overstate the costs and understate the security benefits. As the authors conclude:

Advocates of  a clean break with the United States’ sixty-year tradition of deep engagement overstate its costs, underestimate its narrow security benefits, and generally ignore its crucial wider security and nonsecurity benefits.  Many moreover, conflate the core grand strategy of deep engagement with issues such as as forceful democracy promotion and armed humanitarian intervention – important matters, but optional choices rather than defining features of the grand strategy. … In the end, the fundamental choice to retain a grand strategy of deep engagement after the Cold War is just what the preponderance of international relations scholarship would expect a rational, self interested, leading power in the United  States’ position to do.

So that ‘point finale’ of their article may indeed be right, but there are nagging concerns that accompany this favorable nod at continuing deep engagement. As pointed out earlier, the changing context in Asia – the rise of China – and the more recent assertive China posture in the region challenge US leadership.  While the bilateral security  relationships are a vital part of US deep engagement in the region, it is not an answer to how to build a competitive but still non-rivalrous relationship with this rising power.  Certainly in Beijing last month most argued for building a collaborative relationship but with a few exceptions (Stephen Walt and Nicholas Burns were exceptions as pointed out in an earlier blog post here “Looking at the ‘World’ with Two Lens“)  there are few clues as to how  do this.

More broadly there is little in deep engagement that extends beyond the primacy/hegemonic approach.  While there is a expressed desire to build the institutional structures especially of the global economy, but also the regional settings, deep engagement remains locked in primacy.  There is little that describes a more global governance, multilateral  approach. There are various nods to greater multilateralism – but ‘realistically’ for the advocates it remains an exercise about US leadership – or not.  So more collective leadership is barely a topic of discussion in deep engagement.  It is this aspect of deep engagement that is ‘broken’ – or never attended to –  and needs far more intellectual and policy examination.

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