Stephen M. Walt

What I told the Navy this year

I had the privilege of delivering a keynote speech to the Naval War College’s Current Strategy Forum on Wednesday, and you can find a video of the talk here. The title of my talk was "The Twilight of the American Era," and my central point was that we are nearing the end of the unusual ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

I had the privilege of delivering a keynote speech to the Naval War College’s Current Strategy Forum on Wednesday, and you can find a video of the talk here.

The title of my talk was "The Twilight of the American Era," and my central point was that we are nearing the end of the unusual position of primacy that the United States has enjoyed since the end of World War II. In 1945, the United States produced about half of gross world product, we were a creditor nation with a trade surplus, and we had the world’s largest armed forces and sole possession of atomic weapons. The Soviet Union had a large land army but not much else, and its economy was always decidedly inferior to ours.

This position of primacy allowed the United States to create, maintain, and lead a political-economic-security order in virtually every part of the world, except for the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact itself. Not only did the United States play the leading role in institutions like the UN, IMF, World Bank, and GATT, but we also established a dominant security role in Europe through NATO and in Asia through bilateral treaties with Japan, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and others. In the Middle East, the United States helped create and support Israel and also forged security partnerships with various Arab monarchies, thereby obtaining a predominant role there as well. U.S. hegemony was already well-established in the Western hemisphere, and though the U.S. didn’t pay much attention to Africa, it did enough to preserve its modest interests there too.

Over the next forty years, this position of primacy was challenged on several occasions but never seriously threatened. The United States lost the Vietnam War but its Asian alliances held firm, and China eventually moved closer to us in the 1970s. The Shah of Iran fell, but the United States simply created the Rapid Deployment Force and maintained a balance of power in the Gulf. Israel grew ever-stronger and more secure, and Egypt eventually realigned towards us too. And then the Soviet Union collapsed, which allowed the United States to bring the Warsaw Pact into NATO and spread market-based systems throughout the former communist world.

This situation was highly unusual, to say the least. It is rare that any single power-let alone one with only 5 percent of the world’s population — is able to create and maintain a particular political and security order in almost every corner of the world. It was never going to last forever, of course, and three key trends are now combining to bring that era of dominance to an end.

The first trend is the rise of China, which discarded the communist system that had constrained its considerable potential and has now experienced three decades of explosive growth. China’s military power is growing steadily, and as I and other realists have noted, this trend will almost certainly lead to serious security competition in Asia, as China seeks to limit the U.S. role and as Washington strives to maintain it.

The second trend is the self-inflicted damage to the U.S. economy, a consequence of the Bush administration’s profligacy and the financial crisis of 2007. The United States faces a mountain of debt, the near-certainty of persistent federal deficits, and a dysfunctional political system that cannot seem to make hard choices. This situation does not mean the United States is about to fall from the ranks of the great powers, but the contrast with earlier periods — and especially the immediate aftermath of World War II — is stunning. Just look at our tepid response to the Arab spring and compare that with the Marshall Plan, and you get some idea of our diminished clout.

The third trend is the emergence of several influential regional powers, who have managed to reform their own economies, gain greater confidence and independence, and (in some cases) throw off their previous deference to Washington.  States such as Turkey, India, and Brazil are not about to become true global powers, but each has become more influential in its own neighborhood, is able to chart its own foreign policy course, and won’t be inclined to defer to Washington’s wishes. This is especially true for those states — most notably Turkey — where the U.S. image is now decidely negative.  China’s rise may eventually give many states diplomatic options, further complicating America’s ability to run a Washington-centered world order.

Make no mistake: these developments do not mean the United States is facing terminal decline, or about to drop out of the major power category.  As I told the 2009 Strategy Forum, unlike Europe or Japan, the U.S. population is still increasing and America’s long-term power potential remains high. The U.S. economy is still the world’s most diverse and technologically sophisticated, and our military power will remain formidable even if defense budget faces significant cuts (as it should). The United States is not about to decline the same way that Britain did after World War II; in fact, it is almost certain to be the world’s single most powerful state for some time to come.

What is ending, however, is the "American Era": that unusual period of primacy where the United States could orchestrate lead a political/economic/security order almost everywhere. We didn’t control the world, but we cast a long shadow virtually everywhere and we could usually make most things go our way.

What does this mean going forward? It means the United States is going to have set priorities, and write off some areas or regions where its vital interests are not engaged or where those interests are not threatened. In particular, the United States should focus on preserving a balance of power in the key industrial areas of Europe and Asia and in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, while maintaining its position as the only great power in the Western hemisphere. We will need to get our allies to do more, however, and as the Libyan intervention shows, the only way to do that is to do rather less ourselves). But we will have to forego the costly moral crusades that neoconservatives and liberal interventionists love to drag us into, and that also means staying out of the costly business of "nation-building" (which we are not very good at anyway).

In short, the United States will have to return to the strategy of "offshore balancing" that it followed for most of its history. In practice, this means drawing down our military presence in Europe (which is stable and democratic and faces no threats it can’t handle itself), getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan and moving our forces there back offshore and over-the-horizon, and shifting more of our strategic attention to Asia, where China’s rise is creating a number of new and potentially valuable partners. This is decidely not an "isolationist" strategy, insofar as the United States would remain diplomatically engaged around the globe and militarily committed in several key regions. But we would be much less inclined to intervention on other states’ internal affairs.

As you might expect, the audience at the War College seemed to like this analysis, because the Navy is central to making a strategy like this work. Offshore balance requires command of the sea, so that the United States can project power when and where it has to. Naval forces are also a useful way to signal commitment, but without creating the friction and resentment that large, on-shore deployments create. And though naval forces are not cheap, an approach that shifts more of the burden to others and doesn’t try to remake societies that we don’t understand is going to be more affordable both now and in the future.

Bottom line: Offshore balancing is the right strategy for the 21st century, and a combination of external trends and internal constraints will almost certainly lead us to adopt some variable on it. The only question is how quickly we make these adjustments, and how much more blood and treasure we squander before we do.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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