As America's star power dims, who will take center stage?
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
When an actor in a show, even the star, freezes and forgets his lines during a performance, it’s up to the others on the stage to break the uncomfortable silence and try to move the play forward. They might stumble or appear awkward, but the alternative — to let the action grind to a halt — is much worse. The audience waits, watching to see how and if the story will continue and at whose initiative. This is as true on the world stage as in the most remote regional theater.
This weekend I had the opportunity to sit with a group of well-known Egyptian actors and producers, the top filmmakers from a country in crisis. When they heard I was an American from Washington, they began to vent. "How could Washington have turned their back on us?" they asked. How could we have failed to see that the June revolution — 30 million people coming together to stop a man who was destroying the country — was, in the words of one actress, "a miracle." Why, she asked, had we failed to challenge the leader deposed in that revolution, Mohamed Morsy, while he was systematically undercutting the fragile democracy he was entrusted to help build? Why would we not call out the Muslim Brotherhood for its violence? For the threat it posed to the entire Middle East?
"We were your friends," the actress emoted. "We loved you. Why did you turn away?"
"You’re asking the wrong questions," I said. "I understand your frustration, but you can’t afford to be so focused on the past. You can’t afford to ask why America is doing what it is doing or not doing. If you want to recapture American support and the support of the world, you have to make a new story yourselves, create a more positive narrative that says that the June revolution was a turning point for the better."
Another guest at the dinner table, an American who is working with the Egyptian government to help it shape its message linked to these issues, jumped in and said, "You have one thing you must focus on. In a matter of weeks, no more than a few months, you will have to produce the kind of result on the constitutional referendum that sends a clear message. Fifty-one percent in favor will not do. You need 70 or 75 percent support for the new constitution to have a clear mandate, for the new government to stand up to the opponents who will try to undermine it."
Others at the table nodded. They understood this central truth. Because for those with hopes for Egyptian democracy, there should not be two things on the agenda. There can only be one: Create meaningful, lasting change that proves that reforms are in the name of Egypt’s people — which in this case means producing a national constitution that is seen to be a genuine manifestation of the will of the Egyptian people.
In a country where the only real organizations with the capacity to effectively organize nationwide action are the military and the Brotherhood, this challenge is greater still. And the political infrastructure that such a campaign requires just isn’t in place to support it. So such a campaign must be built and energized with a kind of single-mindedness that, frankly, the interim government has yet to sufficiently motivate or mobilize.
That said, however, there is something happening in Egypt today that is remarkable, and it’s sending a signal not just to the volatile region that is home to that country, but to the world. America, on the grand stage, may have forgotten its lines and gone all deer-in-the-headlights at just the wrong moment, but others are stepping up and moving the story forward in positive ways. Even though the United States failed to be tough with Morsy when it could have and should have, the constructive heavy-lifting is being done by others.
The Saudis, the Kuwaitis, and the Emiratis are working together to provide the current regime with resources. But they are not just throwing money at the problem, pumping cash into a central bank account. They are methodically selecting big visible projects that are creating jobs and helping the wounded economy in crucial areas like infrastructure investment. This sends a message to Egyptian voters that the new way may be better for them, producing a better future.
Naturally, the Gulf states are not doing this for entirely charitable reasons. They view the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat. They clearly want to stop it. They are also writing checks to cover Egyptian military arms purchases for which the United States has halted funding. But international actors act in their self-interest. And, geopolitics, like physics or a play in which the lead actor forgets his lines, abhors a vacuum.
So what is happening in Egypt, like what is happening elsewhere in the Middle East and around the world, is that once-secondary players are assuming new roles — roles that would have been hard to imagine either during the bipolar years of the Cold War or the brief unipolar moment that followed. In many places — Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind — what will fill the void left behind by the United States is likely to exacerbate the mess we helped create. But in other areas (and Egypt may be one of them), if a new constitution is actually produced, is seen as advancing the country toward democracy, and is then widely embraced, it will send the healthy message that regional solutions can work.
Of course, America has not shuffled off the stage entirely. We have simply paused at an awkward moment. The world’s sole superpower is not simply going to cease to play a role. But that role will inevitably, it seems, be somewhat smaller. We will be more circumspect in our actions, more reluctant to take risks. We have been strained by our own overreach internationally and by our mismanagement and political dysfunction at home, and we will move more slowly and take more limited actions. More often than before, we will stand by as others step up and find their own solutions. (All this, of course, as we and others continue to debate just how big the U.S. role should be, what risks we should take, and how we should lead.)
Meanwhile, we will play a guiding or catalytic role where we can in select situations worldwide, no doubt frustrating many who are used to a stronger helping hand and letting someone else (us) do the heavy lifting. But even light-touch American intervention can still be useful, as hinted at this week with Secretary of State John Kerry’s constructive brief visit to Egypt in which he noted that the interim government is making progress toward democracy. He did not make the recent U.S. error of overemphasizing the trappings of democracy — which are often used as covers as they were by Morsy for intensely anti-democratic activities. Kerry focused as he (and we) should on democratic values and on the importance of continuing progress in their service. It was helpful and timely.
As a consequence of these shifts, the world is going to have to get used to a new cast of featured players, many assuming more prominent roles than before in regional theaters of action. Indeed, recently, we have seen other examples of what this new world might look like. Whether they are homegrown trade initiatives like the Pacific Alliance in Latin America, or the German-Brazilian initiative in the U.N. to rein in surveillance abuses worldwide (though admittedly, the United States has had an inadvertently prominent role in that drama, wearing, unfortunately, a black hat), or the efforts among Asian countries to come up with a new regional architecture without much constructive involvement from the United States, or even the Russian initiative to address the chemical weapons issue in Syria, there are signs that a more subdued or hesitant America will leave open the door to new, more diverse collaborative processes for shaping the world of tomorrow.
That is not to simply accept American retreat. As the richest and most powerful nation in the world, we have a vital role to play. Nor does n
oting the shift to a more pluralistic international system minimize the importance of the U.S. role when we do put our shoulder to the wheel as we have in Israel and Palestine, belatedly in Syria on chemical weapons, or with regard to sanctions against Iran.
But even in those cases, the goal of the initiatives is — let’s be honest — to produce outcomes in which the United States can be less active, less engaged. To some extent, what we are trying to do is make the world safe not for democracy, as Woodrow Wilson would have had it, but for American withdrawal. And frankly, given some of the mistakes we have made recently, it is hard not to wonder, unfamiliar and uncomfortable as it may be for everyone to accept, whether we might not sometimes get better outcomes from responsible leadership by actors other than the United States.
That said, while the world will get along just fine if the United States sometimes takes a supporting role on the grand stage of global affairs, encouraging others to take the lead, there is a caveat. And that of course is that we don’t screw things up in the role we do play. Again, the example of Egypt comes to mind. Leave it to our regional allies, virtually all of whom — Arabs and Israelis alike — support giving the current government a chance, to take matters into their own hands. But don’t then start punishing that government in ways that we didn’t and should have in the case of Morsy.
As the great star of the global stage of the past century hesitates, pausing perhaps to reconsider its role, we cannot and should not expect the world to stop, nor can we or our friends around the world spend too much time lamenting the degree to which the present is not like the past or our own ideals of what a new new world order ought to look like. Problems need solving now. In the end, in places like Egypt, it is homegrown actors from that country and its neighbors who are going to have to continue to step into the limelight and shine and do it now, or we will have much darker outcomes to contemplate in the very near future.