Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

16 Apr, 2014

Some Alternative Perspectives on the Future of US Diplomacy in a Changing World Order

Beijing, (People’s Daily Online), April 09, 2014 – According to a Pew poll last November, 52 percent of Americans believe the US “should mind its own business internationally”. Some argue that the US is making strategic adjustments to its diplomacy, as manifested in the way it has dealt with issues of Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine. In this article, experts from China and abroad offer their opinions regarding such perceived adjustments and the direction of future US foreign policy.

Part I: Strategic retreat?

Joseph Nye, political scientist at Harvard University, former US Assistance Secretary of Defense.

Douglas Paal, Vice President for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ding Gang, senior reporter of People’s Daily.

Yuan Peng, Vice President of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.

Bo Zhiyue, Senior Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore.

Leonardo Valente, Professor of Internacional Relations at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

I. Strategic retreat? What lies below the surface?

Joseph Nye: The US is not turning inward and becoming isolationist. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations, fifty-two percent of Americans believe that the US “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” About the same number said that the US is “less important and powerful” than it was a decade ago. Americans feel that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a mistake, and I think there’s a feeling that the first decade of the 21st century was wasted on these wars, and that it’s time to be more selective in our engagements, though the reason I don’t see it as isolationism is because it still involves considerable American presence overseas. But the US is more selective in the areas it chooses to engage in.

Douglas Paal: America is experiencing combat fatigue, which is not the same as retreat. American hard power is not in decline, but it is temporarily resting, as it needs to do. The American economy is in the early stages of a recovery, as seen from the stock market performance last year. US interests remain far-flung and quite defensible, but our military needs to recover from ill-conceived and ill-conducted conflicts and address the challenges of the future.

Ding Gang: The strategic adjustment of the US entails two things. First, outsourcing work it has been doing to other countries. The US is indeed putting more emphasis on cooperation, rather than going it alone today, but the purpose of that is to better achieve its own strategic interests. The US is trying to turn missions impossible to missions possible through cooperating with other countries.

Another thing is that the US is repositioning its resources. The US has withdrawn or is withdrawing its military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is gaining strength in other areas. For instance, according to its naval plan, by the year 2020, 60 percent of its military force will be deployed in the Pacific region, and the number of ships will be raised from 50 to 65. The US is also implementing its joint air-sea battle strategy in cooperation with its Asian allies, especially Japan. On a global scale, the US is the ablest nation in terms of transforming its own strategic aims into ones shared with other countries, especially among its allies.

The reason behind this strategic adjustment is that the US realizes it cannot manage affairs across the whole world on its own. Inevitably, under the framework of cooperation, the US has to share benefits with other parties involved – in other words, it has to pay a certain price to ensure sustained cooperation. It may look like a strategic retreat on the US side, but in fact the US is looking further forward by taking a step back.

Yuan Peng: The Obama administration has shown a diplomatic style of restraint in issues like Syria, Libya, and most recently Ukraine, which stands in contrast with the style of its predecessor, or even that of the Clinton administration. The Obama administration has drawn a bottom line for itself, and that is to stay out of war if possible. In that sense, the US is undergoing a period of strategic contraction. Two wars and a financial crisis have left it crippled, and although the reforms being undertaken have generated some results, the US is still miles away from full recovery; therefore, it has to make a careful calculation of the risks involved before plunging itself into anything that could spell trouble.

In addition, the US has also realized that threats and challenges come multi-faceted in this new era, and therefore it needs to reevaluate the situation. That’s why we’re seeing “strategic retreat” in the traditional sense, but also “strategic expansion” in new areas such as the Internet, space, new technology, new energy, and establishing new trade rules and alliances. In the meantime, geopolitically speaking, the US is still expanding its influence in the Asia Pacific region. “Turning inward” is only temporary. As the most powerful country in the world, it is bound to make a comeback once its wounds are healed.

On the domestic front, economic recovery and social stability remain top priorities, with the problem of unemployment still crying out for solution; on the international front, in the face of the collective rise of new powers, the US has to redraw its strategic map with new international rules and new competitive edges in mind. Besides, the Obama administration’s reluctance to be involved in the issues of Syria and Libya, although attacked by conservatives, met little opposition among the American public, which seems to suggest that an anti-war sentiment still prevails in US society.

II. Smart power strategy

Joseph Nye: In the initial period after the Cold War, the Clinton administration was adjusting to a global situation in which the US did not have a clear enemy. Then after 911, that was replaced by the focus on a terrorist adversary that led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think the period of the first ten years of this century was over-militarized. While terrorism is a real threat, the means by which we pursue the problem led to a higher cost than was necessary.

My own term (to describe the current US foreign policy) would be “selective engagement” – realizing that the United States is going to remain the largest power in the world for decades to come, and thereby cannot escape global responsibilities; but also realizing that the United States is not a hegemon and does not long to become a hegemon, and therefore it should select carefully the areas where it engages or holds back.

Yuan Peng: It is absolutely impossible for the US to fall back into isolationism. The US has national interests present all over the world that need to be safeguarded through American intervention. It is only a matter of how. At present, the US is adopting something like a “conditional, selective, and proxy intervention” strategy, meaning it will not rush into anything without weighing and considering matters beforehand. In some cases, it is pushing its proxies to the forefront while keeping itself out of the spotlight. For example, during the upheavals in West Asia and North Africa, the French were at the forefront, and the Americans to the rear; in the East and South China Sea disputes, the Japanese and the Philippines are at the forefront with the Americans at the rear. This is exactly what is meant by “smart power”, a strategy that the Obama administration values. But the problem is that the US cannot hide behind the scenes forever; it will constantly adjust its own strategies as situations evolve.

Bo Zhiyue: Historically, there was a process when American foreign policy turned from isolationism into one that safeguards American interests more actively. Prior to the Second World War, the US treated Latin America as its sphere of influence, with the Monroe Doctrine preventing European intervention from the American continent. After the Second World War, the US became more active in international affairs.

Currently, the economic prowess of the US has decreased, but militarily it is still powerful enough to intervene in global issues. The Obama administration, in contrast with the Bush Administration, places greater emphasis on domestic issues such as employment, health care and gun control, and tends to interfere less in international affairs. The US embraced unilateralism and hard power under the Bush administration, now it embraces multilateralism and soft power under the Obama administration. The Obama administration is extremely cautious with direct military intervention in international disputes because it knows that such interventions are always “easy to start but hard to end”. In the years to come, if the US economy sees significant improvement, there is the possibility that the US will step up its intervention in international affairs; otherwise, it will probably focus more on domestic employment and industrial upgrading than on foreign interventions.

Chen Gang: Over the last two decades, the world has witnessed a power shift from the west to the east. The West still occupies the dominant position on the power spectrum at the moment, but the rise of countries like China and India has changed the global power structure. After the 2008 financial crisis, people started to reflect on whether the development model of the US and the lifestyle of the Americans were really healthy, and the US model is starting to look less appealing than before. For several years to come, the US will continue to adjust its foreign policies.

Ding Gang: Unlike the case with the Bush administration, preemption is not the first choice of the Obama administration. But that does not mean the incumbent administration has flinched. It is only a change of form, or tactics, with the strategic aims being intact. It may appear that President Obama doesn’t care for “isms” as much as his predecessor did, but in fact he hoists his colors more adeptly than Bush II. The Financial Times is correct in characterizing intervention under the Obama administration as one that “meshes the moral and political impulses of American policy with the current straitened economic times.” To put it more bluntly, the US, with its purse depleted, is seeking to maximize its diplomatic influence with the least money possible by brandishing the moral banner.

III. Probability of strategic expansion in the future

Joseph Nye: As Obama said in his 2014 State of the Union address, “In a world of complex threats, our security depends on all elements of our power – including strong and principled diplomacy.” The US will be more dependent not only on its close allies, but on a broad range of other countries on many issues where it is impossible for the US to solve the problem alone. Global financial stability, global climate change, transnational terrorism, or problems of proliferation of weapons of massive destruction – these cannot be addressed by one country acting alone. They require cooperation among groups of countries. That is why alliances and other cross-national arrangements will be important as a way to deal with these new types of problems, or what I call transnational problems.

Yuan Peng: It should not be underestimated that the US economy, as demonstrated by the fact that it is taking the lead in recovering after the financial crisis, is solidly grounded, flexible, and resourceful. As the economy recovers, the US will be more assertive in enforcing its strategic foreign policies. The current Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) under negotiation are both aggressive strategic plans essentially centered on the US. Self-sufficient in energy and other resources, the US is demonstrating an increasing level of confidence over issues like Ukraine and the Middle East. But overall, it is unlikely that the US will make any moves towards strategic expansion in the near future under the Obama administration. Nevertheless, beyond 2016 it is still possible that there will be a switch from contraction to expansion.

Ding Gang: Joseph Nye once said that people’s thoughts and behaviors are affected by ‘soft power’. I believe soft power has also left its mark on the current international “rules and regulations”. In that sense, the US is not “retreating”. The US is trying to lead in formulating new global trade rules by pushing forward TPP negotiations, and it releases over 600 films a year. These two contrasting elements represent an enormous influence that is felt all over the world. Even in Myanmar, where US sanctions are imposed, cinemas are playing American films.

Over the last few years, the Obama administration has scored on a couple of issues by employing its soft power, at least in terms of cost control. Two years ago, the Gaddafi government was overthrown with American money and weapons, and with manpower from NATO, the Libyan opposition, and some of Libya’s neighbors. The cost to the US was only about 1 billion US dollars, and the death toll was zero, in contrast to the Iraq war where 1 trillion US dollars were spent.

The financial sanctions imposed by the US and the West over Crimea represent a combination of hard and soft power at work. Although the initial sanctions only target a group of high-level Russian officials, they still serve as a warning to companies and banks that have business and financial relationships with Russia, and are intended to defend the authority of the West.

Faster growth in the US economy will increase the probability of US diplomatic expansion, but a more important factor is energy. “Energy cuts across the entirety of U.S. foreign policy. It’s a matter of national security and global stability. It’s at the heart of the global economy. It’s also an issue of democracy and human rights,” said former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in the report on Energy Diplomacy in the 21st Century. “Energy independence” is one of the most important goals on the political agenda of the Obama administration.

Increasing availability of shale gas as a source of natural gas has reduced US dependency on foreign resources. As the US gradually frees itself from the shackles of energy security concerns, its foreign policies will evolve accordingly, and its relationship with major oil-producing countries will change too. For example, in the first 7 months of 2013, US imports of Latin American oil have fallen by 14.2 percent on a year-to-year basis. In 2011 Brazil earned 8.7 billion US dollars from oil exports to the US, while the figure in 2013 was only 3.4 billion. Therefore, the US is likely to change its foreign policy towards Latin America.

All in all, US foreign policy will be more expansion-oriented as the country frees itself progressively from its energy constraints, and it would be no surprise if in the future the US take a harder line on international issues such as setting the rules for global trade.

Leonardo Valente: Undoubtedly, smart-power-wise, the US remains the strongest nation in the world, and will remain so for many years to come. It still has a lot of potential in developing its smart power, and the economic recovery will give it more leeway in formulating its foreign policy.

IV: Post-hegemonic era

Joseph Nye: The preeminent power does not have to patrol every boundary and project its strength everywhere. As a leader in research and development, higher education, and entrepreneurial activity, the US, unlike ancient Rome, is not in absolute decline. We do not live in a “post-American world,” but we also no longer live in the “American era” of the late-20th century. In the decades ahead, the US will be “first” but not “sole.” That is because the power resources of many others – both states and non-state actors – are growing, and because, on an increasing number of issues, obtaining America’s preferred outcomes will require exercising power with others as much as over others. The capacity of US leaders to maintain alliances and create networks will be an important dimension of America’s hard and soft power. The problem for US power in the 21st century is not just China, but the “rise of the rest.”

Yuan Peng: If we look around the world, we will see that almost every major power is going through structural changes domestically, exploring strategic space internationally, and seeking to construct new international orders that are in the interests of its own long-term development. China is starting to deepen its reform and opening up, but we should not think we are the only one reforming. The initial stage of reform and opening up was designed to introduce and integrate China to the established international system, and has achieved great success. Now, it’s more of a matter of co-repairing and co-constructing a more reasonable international system together with other countries. China has to do more in this process.

Leonardo Valente: Emerging market countries are actively engaging in the establishment of a new world order. This is irreversible. The challenge we face today is about clearer and more accurate positioning – finding the right place for the emerging market countries, the US, Europe, and other powers.

Ding Gang: In this post-hegemonic era, building a more just and reasonable international order will require a protracted period of time. Emerging market countries taking part in the adjustment and reform of the international order does not equal destroying the existing order. A lot of work has to be built up on the original foundations. Emerging market countries will not only have a better say under this new framework, but also assume greater levels of responsibility. These countries should also learn to strengthen coordination among themselves. New to the experience of decision-making, they need to act together in order to secure their hard-won rights and status.

The article is edited and translated from《美国外交——战略收缩还是以退为进?》, source: People’s Daily.