December 20, 2006

American Weakness?

Both Mario Loyola in the National Review Blog and Sidney Blumenthal in Salon reflect upon an interesting new reality in foreign politics. Loyola argues that there is no way out of Iraq that isn't political, that increased troop levels won't make any difference and that only by negotiation and public diplomacy can the US extricate itself from Iraq. Blumenthal from a very different perspective argues a very similar case- suggesting that the Neo-Conservatives and their (in his view) puppet President are at the moment mistaking the way that American power can be projected: they think that force can acheive their own goals and they are wrong.

To me this highlights one of the main foreign policy debates of our era. It isn't so much the analysis of how we ought to proceed in foreign politics, whether ethically as Robin Cook and Bill Kristol would reccomend or realistically, the more Kissinger, Baker or Hurd view, that is the issue but our analysis of our own position in the world.

There are two issues here- the first is our position visa vis other powers and the second our position with regard to remaking or resetting the world order to benefit us. In both regards, the conventional position has been that America is a hyperpower and that the central problem of global politics concerns American power and how to use it- this for instance is Charles Krauthammer's position in a recent perceptive essay about America's position in the world over the 90s and 2000s. It was also Hubert Vedrine's position when as French Foreign Secretary he argued for a multipolar world and against American hyperpower.

But it might not be true, indeed it might be far more relevant to think not of American and Western strength as our ultimate foreign policy challenge, but Western and American weakness- Iraq and North Korea demonstrate in different ways how difficult it is for the West to cajol and influence great powers who resent our economic and cultural preeminence, like Russia, great powers like China that consider themselves our heirs, medium powers like Iran opposed to us, even allies like Israel and of course events on the ground in Iraq and events in a very weak nation like North Korea. Maybe we need to adjust our thinking to our own weakness- I wonder what abandoning the word hyperpower might do to all our visions of foreign policy.


Ian said...

Quite. But surely this is not as new a new reality as the commentators you cite seem to suggest? Hasn't it been obvious for many months now that the USA has, through its foray into Iraq, conclusively shown its inability to employ its military superiority in any meaningful way to achieve its aims?

This has occurred in conjunction with a clear contempt for other diplomatic channels. The neo-con project and Blair as pillion have found themselves up a right dead end, and for some reason few others are willing to listen attentively.

I think China is well aware of its ascendancy, in both military and economic clout; Russia may not have a credible military just now, but it knows it still has great wealth in raw materials and energy supplies. If either is resentful, I suspect it would be Russia, but only because it feels recognition is slow to come. The relative trajectories must be fairly plain to all, but should we be surprised that neither Bush nor Blair have responded well to their countries' evident relative weakness?

Gracchi said...

I have to say its an older reality than Iraq- for me the sense of American weakness goes back to at least the mid-nineties. With regard to the other great powers- we may be seeing the decline of that notion itself- Russia is stuck in Chechnya and I think China would be in Taiwan. Both of those countries have demographic problems as well.

Ian said...

Yes, I'd agree that this tendency was becoming apparent earlier than I had been suggesting in my first comment. (I recently had a similar conversation with a Vietnamese man, he dated it to roughly thirty-five years ago...)

There's much in what you say about the decline of the notion itself. As you suggested in your original posting, if we, and especially politicians, could ever be persuaded of this, the world would be a better place.

Gracchi said...

Yes I agree with you- I think there is an interesting way in which over the last thirty years I can't think of many successful occupations by the great powers- China in Vietnam, the States in Vietnam, Russia in Afghanistan, Chechnya, what's happening now. The potential for being bogged down is there all around us.