Historically, all great powers have faced the problem of translating their inherent economic, political and military power into lasting influence. One requirement for doing so is coherence of policy, so that the various parts of the great power’s engagements abroad work together—or at least are not in conflict with one another.
That challenge is now facing the United States more than ever before. The US is still the most powerful nation in the world, especially in military and economic terms, but as other nations rise in importance the relative predominance of the US is naturally declining. In basic terms, it can still be said to be number one, but it is increasingly a first among equals—or, if that exaggerates others’ capabilities, still ahead of other states that are rising in power and position.
But in terms of getting others to do what one wants, there is a limit to what sheer power can get others to do. After a point, an old adage kicks in: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Other factors need to be included, and one is a combination of coherence of policy and creating structures of relationships that work for others as well as the lead nation.
Both of these qualities are now required, in greater amounts that currently exist, in all three of the major global areas—Asia, Europe and the Middle East—in which the United States is engaged and where it will, of necessity, be engaged for the foreseeable future.
This week, US President Barack Obama is in Asia trying to advance a basic concept called either the “pivot”—now recognized as an unhelpful turn of phrase—or the more accurate “rebalancing” of US engagements. The most important reason for the president’s trip to Asia is that China is a rising power—certainly economically, and to a degree militarily—while it still lags in terms of accepting the need for global norms and shared responsibilities if it is to be successfully integrated into the outside world. President Obama has to walk a fine line: reassuring traditional friends and allies who worry about the looming presence of China (and that of India in the future) without antagonizing China unnecessarily.
Part of Obama’s problem is that there is no clear coherence to US policy in Asia; nor are there sufficient and encompassing structures of relationships beyond US security commitments and organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, that can help to ameliorate the tensions that naturally arise in relations among any set of countries.
One of the problems for the US in Asia (one which colors the president’s current trip there) is that there are widespread perceptions that US policy in the other two major areas of US engagement and responsibility—Europe and the Middle East—also lack coherence and structure.
Despite the current tensions with Russia over Ukraine, the Middle East is even further behind Europe in its lack of institutions or structures necessary for local states to find the best balance between individual national interests and regional stability. Such a structure, which could take years to create, needs to include a means for Sunnis and Shi’ites to see what mutual benefits they can gain from avoiding a regional civil war, a means to reintegrate Iran into the region without disturbing other states in fundamental ways—despite continuing competition for influence—and stopping the over-militarization of almost all regional countries.
The US also needs to strive for greater coherence in its Middle East policies, which have a number of separate goals and objectives pursued simultaneously. It is pursing the so-called peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, which has virtually no hope for short-term success but requires an inordinate expenditure of US diplomatic effort. In Syria, the US has not figured out how to work with others to help end the war, both in order to stop the killing currently under way, but also to prevent a bloodbath of Alawites if and when President Bashar Al-Assad is deposed. Nor has it worked out how to keep Islamist terrorists from becoming more influential, or how to include a new Syria in the Middle East’s tangled web of inter-state relations without spreading conflict. The US also needs to find the means to reassure its friends in the region that it can develop a positive relationship with Iran—assuming current talks on its nuclear program succeed—that is not at the expense of others’ legitimate (rather than inflated) interests.
So far, the Obama administration has not crafted policies and approaches for dealing with any of these three great challenges. It lacks the ideas, the experience, and knowledgeable and strategically-adept personnel able to craft a coherent single body of policies and diplomatic structures to contain what otherwise is likely to be an accelerating decline of US influence, whatever the facts of the US’s raw military and economic power. The rest of the world is waiting for Obama to get it right.