Can America Still Find a Purpose?

| November 2017
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Whether one likes or agrees with Patrick Buchanan, he has posed a critical question about the purpose of American power that anyone interested in the question of the proper role of the United States within the international system must be able to answer: “What is America’s vision? What is America’s cause in the 21st century? What is the mission and goal that unites, inspires and drives us on?” Buchanan, of course, prefers that the United States pull back, be less engaged, pull up the drawbridges and be less interested or concerned with the affairs of others.

But for those who believe that the United States should continue and deepen its international engagement, and that its active participation is critical to the survival of the liberal world order, Buchanan’s critique needs to be answered. Can the United States, which played such a critical role in the development of the institutions that shaped the post-World War II environment, repeat that feat in this century as well?

Speaking with some colleagues recently, I observed that the U.S. track record in the first decades of the 21st century does not inspire confidence. Yes, the United States has been able to renovate or enlarge legacy institutions like NATO or transforming GATT into the World Trade Organization. However, no major new U.S. initiative to set up new global or regional architectures has  set down strong and lasting roots–such as the Community of Democracies. The ambitious effort to create two trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic free trade areas have stalled–with the Trans-Pacific Partnership now proceeding without the U.S. entirely and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in limbo. U.S. efforts to transform bilateral relationships in Asia into an enduring multilateral alliance have not borne fruit, while other efforts, such as the attempt to create a pro-Western bloc of states in Eurasia to counterbalance Russia (the Georgia-Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Moldova association) has been stillborn. Moreover, the predilection during the heyday of U.S. primacy to avoid constraining U.S. freedom of action through binding commitments–the stress on ad hoc “coalitions of the willing” have meant that initiatives like the Proliferation Security Initiative, which observers like Amitai Etzioni hoped might have served as the building blocks for a more comprehensive Global Security Authority, have instead withered. There is a growing question about whether America has a purpose, something that would redefine its leadership role in the 21st century. The 2016 election showed grave doubts among some segments of the U.S. electorate for continuing with the past model of unlimited expansion–matched by clear fatigue in the European Union as well.

In contrast, the slow but steady, bean-by-bean-the-sack-is-filled approach taken by Russia and China to be able to create alternatives and in so doing amend the Euro-Atlantic foundations of the current international system are showing results. The late Yevgeny Primakov was a believer in searching out groupings of states that would be interested in pushing for revisions to U.S. preferences for world affairs. At the time, in the early 2000s, Washington observers were almost contemptuous of the small-scale efforts, starting with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and then the Brazil-Russia-India-China (and now South Africa) forum. After all, compared to the European Union or NATO, these efforts did not create major new international institutions. But year after year, they have habituated these countries to working together and to finding ways to create new linkages (economic, political, and security) that bypass, whenever necessary, the United States and Europe. The Shanghai grouping now has as members, observers, and dialogue partners every major state in the greater Eurasian continent. The BRICS forum has created its first financial institutions–yes, with only a fraction of the lending power of the post-World War II Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), but still the first credible alternatives. And finally, China’s One Belt, One Road initiative is the 21st century’s first major global geo-economic project, and the first one not directed, controlled, or financed by a Western state.

Beijing is eager to show that China has a purpose in the international system–and countries will be looking to see what the U.S. response is. Unfortunately, as my colleagues noted, the U.S. ability to generate a vision and sustain it by creating credible international architecture requires a diplomatic corps that can prepare the foundations. Instead, not only do we have unclear signals about the purpose of U.S. leadership in the world, the State Department is seeing its budgets, ranks and missions cut.

The claim of American leadership of a global community of nations cannot be sustained if the new initiatives for creating community are being generated by other states–and if the basis for these new organizations shifts from postwar liberal values to transactional ones. Resting on past laurels is an insufficient basis for ensuring that America’s role in the world will continue.

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Category: Blog, Global Governance

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